Public speaking tips

posted: October 26, 2019

tl;dr: What has worked for me when I give a talk in front of an audience...

Few people relish public speaking. I don’t either, but I am comfortable doing it. I’m also at the point in my career where I like to help and encourage others to experience the spotlight. I know that I can give a talk, so I like to help others give talks. Public speaking is one way for people to grow in their careers. In that spirit, here are my tips on public speaking:

Know your topic

This is by far the most important tip. Make sure that you really know the topic you will be speaking about. If you do, your confidence level going into the talk will be high, and you will be unlikely to be surprised by anything that happens or any question that is asked. You will also have a wealth of material to draw upon for the planned content of your talk, as well as the unplanned tangents that you may go down in response to audience questions or feedback. Your biggest problem will be trimming the material down to fit into the allotted time.

Start with small speaking engagements and build up over time

Professional athletes do not start out playing their sport in front of tens of thousands of fans and a television audience of millions of people. They progress from the low amateur ranks, playing in front of small audiences of mostly friends and family, all the way through high school, college, and/or the minor leagues, with the audience sizes growing at each level. A similar progression helps in public speaking. Start small, perhaps with a talk in front of some coworkers. Then give a talk at a meetup, and gradually work up to larger venues and audiences. If you are tapped to give a talk in front of an audience that you aren’t comfortable with, put your talk together and try it out in front of some smaller, friendlier audiences first.

Practice your talk (a little)

I’ll be honest: I rarely practice my talks by running through them aloud and in private beforehand, but I have done so on occasion. I’ve also done practice runs in front of small audiences of peers and coworkers, who can provide some constructive feedback, but I’ve found these to be fairly artificial and not terribly similar to the actual event itself. Although I rarely practice aloud by myself or with a small audience, I do walk through all the parts of my talk beforehand in my head, with the material I am using. I train my mind on the key points to convey as well as the stories I will be telling and a few of the key phrases I will be stating. I stop well short of figuring out every word I will be saying, however.

Focus on a very few key points

You are going to know and remember far more about your talk than the audience members. You’ll be lucky if your audience remembers three of the points you are trying to make. So, focus on just a few key points, and hammer those points home with supportive stories, data, anecdotes, and material. Choose your stories well: people love a good story. It’s great that you know so much about your topic, thanks to tip number one, but for a talk, try to keep tying your material back to just a few key points, illustrated by stories.

Tip: you don't need a teleprompter

Don’t read from a script

Some people think that the way to handle a major high-pressure speaking engagement is to script every word that you are going to say, create detailed speaker’s notes, and then memorize the notes or read from them. That’s what most politicians and newscasters are doing with teleprompters. That may work for them, but I never do this. It can lead to a very robotic, monotonic talk, without any of the banter or off-the-cuff humor that engages the audience (see below). Instead, for each section of your talk, make a very short outline of the points you want to make. If these points appear on your slides, then you don’t need any additional notes at all.

Don’t fear live coding or live demos

For technical talks, I’m a big fan of live coding or live demos, as opposed to presenting all the material on slides. Audiences like live coding better than slides, because they actually get to see how the system works, as opposed to looking at static snapshots of a perfect working system. Have all my live coding talks gone perfectly? No, but I’ve found audiences to be very understanding when things go awry. Everyone knows that there is risk involved, and I’ve even had people tell me they learned more when they watched the recovery from (or explanation of) an error than they would have by watching glossy slides fly by. Audience attention is definitely higher for live coding talks.

Remember that audiences are supportive

Audiences, as a general rule, want you, the speaker, to succeed. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone booed off a stage, which is the great fear of many novice speakers. People in the audience are much more likely to offer encouragement if you stumble a bit. There may be a few bad apples in the audience, but you can’t please all the people all the time.

Engage with the audience

If the format of the talk and the venue permit, do your best to engage with the audience. Walk around, if possible, which is why I prefer using a wireless microphone. Try to solicit feedback during the talk and banter with people. Self-deprecating humor, especially based on events happening during your talk, puts the audience in a fun, friendly mood. It will help if you know some of the audience members and can engage with them in some way, even if it is just a wink, a hand gesture, or an inside joke. Don’t hesitate to plant a friend or two in the audience if there would otherwise be none.

Take questions throughout

Again, if the format of the talk and the venue permit, take a few questions during your talk, and allocate some time to do so. This has several benefits. It prevents you from robotically following your planned talk for the entire time period. It creates audience engagement, which heightens everyone’s attention. It allows you to demonstrate your knowledge in an unscripted manner (see tip number one). And it also allows you to fine tune the rest of your talk, to perhaps go in a slightly different direction than you had planned, or to re-emphasize some of the points you are trying to make.

If you can’t see the audience, forget the audience

Sometimes you are giving a talk on a stage in a darkened auditorium with bright lights shining upon you, and you can’t even see the audience. This makes it hard or impossible to engage with the audience, although you may be able to generate some laughter or clapping. I find that the best thing to do in this sort of venue is to forget that there even is an audience.

Sleep well the night before

This is a must do in my book. You’ll feel less nervous and more in command if you are well-rested on the day of your talk. Go to bed early the night before.

Avoid stimulants the day of the talk

Skip the morning coffee and other stimulants. You’re probably going to have at least some adrenaline when you give your talk, which is all the stimulant you need.

Have a don’t care “zen” attitude

Of course we all care how we do in our talks. But try not to. Forget about the venue, the pressure, and the importance of the talk (see related post An early lesson in performance under pressure). You’ll see some especially calm-under-pressure professional sports athletes doing this during high pressure moments. Often professional golf matches come down to a single short putt, with a trophy and millions of dollars on the line. The best golfers will forget entirely about the importance of the putt, and just approach it as another short putt of the type that they’ve sunk thousands of times before. Perfecting this attitude takes practice, but try to find what works for you. It might help to remember that, regardless of how your talk goes, life will go on and the Earth will keep spinning on its axis and revolving around the Sun in our remote corner of the galaxy.