I talk a lot. Whether it’s public or private, workshop or panel, paid or pro bono, standing up in front of a room full of people and waving my hands around is a regular part of my job; and it probably should be part of your job, too. Public speaking is an effective way to quickly position yourself as an expert and attract potential customers on the spot.
A colleague prepping for his first speaking gig recently asked me if I could offer any advice for his maiden voyage. I was surprised by how much fun I had responding to his request, so I figured I’d share my answers here. Here are four tips that I think are the most useful and universal.
There is a difference between knowing what you’re talking about and knowing what you want to say. Clarify for yourself exactly what message you’re trying to communicate. Boil your point down to a sentence or two, as if you were trying to help writers in the audience come up with a headline for an article about your session.
One trick I use to help to define my point is to repeatedly ask myself the question, “What am I trying to say?” This usually leads me to a concise articulation of my core message, and I then organize my talk to support this point.
Another trick that helps me crystalize my central thought is to imagine someone in my family asking what I’m going to be talking about. Typically, my answers to this sort of question would be things like:
Obviously, these examples are specific to my niche but hopefully they’re general enough so that you can apply the concept to your topic. Note that it’s important to take your audience into consideration: speaking to CEOs is different than speaking to CIOs, speaking to designers is different than speaking to developers, etc...
Once you know what you’re trying to communicate, it’s time to rehearse. And rehearse. And then rehearse some more. I’m not saying you should memorize lines like a monologue - you should almost never try to memorize a talk - but you should do a dry run of your talk at least a dozen times.
When you do sit down to rehearse, be sure to present the whole talk all the way through from beginning to end, every time. Start with “Hi! my name is...” and don’t stop until you get to “Thank you so much for coming! Any questions?” Use a timer, and keep going no matter how awful it gets, or how far over time you go. When you’re on stage there’s no “do over” - learning how to recover from a screw up or wrap a talk in the middle are skills that you’ll be glad you practiced.
If you can, use a video camera to record your practice sessions. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised A) how badly you mumble, B) how often you say “ummmm”, C) that you have distracting physical ticks, D) that you tend to go off on boring tangents. After an hour or two of reviewing videos of yourself, you’ll be a much better speaker.
Another good trick is to practice presenting a 5 minute version of the talk. Doing so will help you internalize the skeleton of your content which will give you confidence and flexibility when you are up on stage.
People are busy. At any given moment, there are hundreds of things competing for someones attention. Folks sitting in your room are there because your message resonates with them - after all, they could be in the talk across the hall instead, right? They want you to be great and they’ll help you to be great - if you let them.
One trick I find useful in this regard is to show up early and introduce myself to folks as they filter into the session room. I thank them for coming and ask what they do and what they are hoping to get out of my talk. Doing this gives you friends in the audience, boosts your confidence that what you are presenting is on target, and helps with eye contact and audience engagement during the talk.
When appropriate, I’ll tailor my talk on the fly around questions raised by these early conversations, or invite folks to share their stories with the group to add resonance to my point. If you think of your presentation as a conversation rather than a monologue, you’ll be in a better position to respond to the inevitable surprises inherent in the medium.
Someone is probably going to stump you with a question. This if fine. In fact, it’s good - even you get to learn something from your talk. That said, you don’t want to get flustered, so you should have a strategy for responding to questions that you don’t have an the answer to.
When this happens to me, I admit that I don’t know the answer but that I’ll do some research and post about it on my blog once I find the answer. In addition to getting everyone over a potentially awkward situation, admitting that you don’t know something lends credence to everything else you’ve asserted - i.e. attendees will think: “this guy isn’t afraid to admit when he isn’t sure about something, so all this other stuff he said is probably super reliable.”
Another tactic is to figure out the answer as a group. For example, someone once asked me how the z-index worked with CSS3 transforms. I didn’t know, so I said, “Hey, that’s a great question. I’ve never thought about it. Let’s test it now...” and whipped up a quick test to answer the question. This was cool because A) admitting that I don’t know everything takes the pressure off, B) demonstrating how I use my tools to test a hypothesis is educational in its own right, C) giving attendees the opportunity to be active participants instead of passive receivers increases engagement, satisfaction, and retention.
Hopefully you’ve found these tips useful. Feel free to email if you have any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
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