3 January 2010
Speaking & Events

7 Ways to Improve your Public Speaking

As a self confirmed conference junkie I speak at a dozen events each year, and attend many more. As such I've probably seen close to a thousand talks over the last five years. Because of this I've got a pretty good idea what makes for an exciting talk and how you can guarantee your session will suck.

As somebody who also organises two conferences, UX London and dConstruct I'm really keen on getting new talent into the speaking circuit while still maintaining quality. As such I've put together a quick guide to help both new and experienced speakers kick arse/ass.

Most of these tips aren't new, but you'll be surprised how few people actually follow them. However if you do, you'll be well on your way to being the next Jeff Veen, Jared Spool or Jason Santa Maria.

It's all about preparation

Winston Churchill once said that for every minute of a speech he would spend one hour preparing. By those calculations a 45 minute presentation would have taken him around six and a half working days to complete. That may be long enough for a seasoned orator like Winston, but for most people I think you need a lot longer. It usually takes me around two weeks to prepare a new talk, pulling 12 hour days. So that's easily two or even three hours per minute. If you haven't done the research or put in the hours, it'll show in the quality of your slides, the quality of your argument and the quality of your delivery. In short, the more time you put into your talk the more polished and professional it will be.

Craft a strong narrative

Just like a good movie, the best presentations have a strong narrative arc. They have stories that are broken down into logical sections or acts, with one section flowing seamlessly into the next. Concepts will build upon each other, allowing the audience to spot patterns and follow an emerging theme. Good presentations will have highs and lows that are deliberately created to elicit certain reactions from the audience. In stark contrast the worst presentations are ones that jump all over the place, moving from one concept to the next with little narrative glue to hold them together. As such, good speakers aren't just orators. They're people can who see the stories hidden inside complex sets of data and are able to expose these relationships in a logical and structured manner. Good speakers are storytellers, plain and simple.

The best way to craft a narrative is to start by doing a brain dump of all the ideas you've been having around a particular topic. You could do this by writing your key concepts down on sticky notes and posting them up on your wall, as several of my colleagues do. Or you could start writing discrete blocks of content into your favourite word processor and then move them around in a more linear fashion until they start to fit. The method you choose depends on whether you already have an idea for a narrative or whether you're hoping for a more emergent story. Either way, the goal is to create a high level overview of your subject matter in order to spot the connections and select the most compelling of several possible story arcs. Once you've developed an engaging story with a few key plot points, it's much easier to fill in the details.

Start strong and finish on a song

As a speaker the moment you get on stage you need to answer the following question going through the mind of every person in the audience, "Is there any value listening to this person or should go back answering my emails and sending messages on Twitter?" A good speaker will start strong and grab peoples attention in an instant. A bad speaker can lose an audience almost immediately and spend the next 45 minutes struggling to get them back.

Unless you're famous and people have come to explicitly hear about you, the absolute worst way to start a talk is with a condensed version of your life history. Nobody cares what college you went to, who your last seven employers were or what your current job title is. Even If they do, they can check our your speaker profile or the about section of your site for more detail.

I saw one presentation for a Microsoft NUI researcher who literally spent 20 minutes explaining her whole career history for the last 25 years. The sad thing was, once she got onto the meat of her talk it was actually pretty interesting. However by that point most of the audience had given up the will to live, let alone the will to listen. I think quite often it's a confidence thing. For some reason the speaker doesn't feel like they deserve to be on stage so spends the first 20 minutes justifying their appearance. The best approach is to get the conference organisers to give you a quick one or two line introductions and then jump straight into the talk.

Not quite as bad are the speakers who spend the first ten minutes of their talk explaining the structure of their presentations and what they are going to cover. This approach is actually recommended by some speaking coaches as it's supposed to help set expectations. However it also takes away any sense mystery and is akin to starting a live book reading with the table of contents. I saw one speaker spend so long outlining what he was going to say that he didn't have enough time to cover the conclusion. So don't bother telling us what you're going to be talking about, just talk about it.

I think the most effective way to begin a presentation is to start with a story. The story could be an anecdote that helps people empathise with a situation, a moral conundrum that gets people thinking about what they would do in that situation or a complex analogy that primes your audience for the issues you're going to cover. Some of the best presentations I've seen start with a historical story that resonates with a current issue we're facing. Not only do you learn something new about a topic outside your area of expertise, but you also learn a new way of framing or explaining a problem.

As humans we're hard-wired to enjoy stories and it's actually one of the fundamental ways we store information and communicate ideas to each other. So a strong story will engage the emotional part of our brains and make for a much more memorable experience. Stories are also much easier for the speaker to remember. As such, the opening part of your talk will feel more natural, relaxed and practised if you take this approach.

You can do a similar thing with the end of your talk, finishing on a high note and perfectly book-ending your presentation. In fact, if you perfect the beginning and the end, the rest will usually take care of itself.

Practice makes perfect

I start to practice my talks even before I've finished writing them; reading blocks of content out loud to see if one concept flows logically into the next. This helps me familiarise myself with the material and internalise the content one piece at a time. Remember, this isn't about memorising whole sections word for word. Instead it's about understanding the underlying concepts so you can improvise on them later if needs be.

Once the talk is written, it's time to do a couple of dry runs. I usually do this on my own, somewhere I know I won't be disturbed. The first couple of times you run through the talk it'll be fairly uneven. Your timing will be off, there will be holes in your content and your narrative will be patchy in places. Don't worry as this is perfectly natural. Just re-jig your presentation and try again. I've been known to completely re-order and even rewrite large chunks of a presentation at this stage.

Once you've gone through the talk a few times and are sure that the narrative flow is right, it's time to start practising the delivery. To do this I sometimes set up a webcam to record my presentation so I can play it back to myself later. I'll run through two or three times, practising my pacing, intonation and how I propose moving around the stage. At this stage you'll get a good sense of how long the presentation is going to be, so you may need to cut some slides, add some new content or simply expand on some concepts you previously skipped over. Nothing annoys attendees more than getting the timing wrong and having to skip the last 20 slides. Similarly, conference organisers hate it if you go over your allotted time as it impacts on the other speakers.

When you're happy with the delivery it's time to try it out on a live audience. At Clearleft, when one of us is preparing a talk we'll often gather everybody in the conference room and do a dry run in front of the whole team. If you don't work for a company where this is possible, try practising in front of a few friends and loved ones.

The act of presenting to a live audience really does change the nature and tempo of your talk. With real people in the room you'll take it a lot more seriously and put more effort into the performance side of the presentation. You'll probably find that you rush through it a lot faster than you thought, often by as much as 20%. It's the affect of nerves and is perfectly natural. The more you present in front of a live audience, the more comfortable and relaxed you'll feel, both with your self and the material. Ask for feedback from your friends and take what they say on board. This is probably the only time where you'll get genuine face-to-face feedback on your talk so it's important the make the most of the opportunity.

Before speaking at a big conference, I like to try my talk out at smaller events. This gives me the opportunity to really internalise the material and practice the delivery to a smaller, more forgiving audience. So look for opportunities to talk at local BarCamps, SkillSwaps and other community events. To give you an example, prior to a recent talk for 600 people I practised at a local community event in front of 40 people and then at a smaller conference for 200 people. By the time I spoke at the big event I knew which elements of the talk worked really well and which elements should be dropped. I had a good idea of the pacing and structure of the talk, as well as allowing myself the time to really polish the delivery. The talk was a huge success, but this was as much to do with the amount of practice I'd done as any innate ability. In short, the more you practice, the better your final delivery will be, so don't skimp on this crucial factor.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

As a culture we often value freshness and originality over quality and precision. Once information has been released we feel that it's somehow tainted and no longer holds any value. This is perhaps one reason why novice speakers often prefer to give new talks each time, rather than taking an existing talk and polishing it to perfection.

When I started speaking I know that I always felt an internal pressure to create something brand new and never before seen. Of course, this in itself is a conceit as there is very little in our industry that hasn't made it onto the web and into the community consciousness in one form or another. In truth a good presentation is as much about the performance as it is about the content, and the only way you can polish the performance is though practice.

To gain mastery over your material and delivery I recommend giving the same talk as many times as you can. Each time you perform you'll do slightly better. Some speakers will create a new talk every 18 months, retiring their previous one, while others will have a stable of talks with which to draw upon to avoid repetition. Some professional speakers will limit their talks to geographic regions, giving it once in a particular city, country or area while others will let a single talk run and run until the demand subsides. The approach you take is up to you, but very few professional speakers will only do a talk once. The length of time it takes to prepare a good talk just doesn't justify the expense. Especially when you consider the low or even non-existant fees many conference organisers pay.

Now this is not to say that the talk shouldn't change over time. The more times you deliver the talk the more ways you think to tweak it. You'll come across new examples and retire old ones. You'll switch metaphors and think of better ways to make a particular point or explain a particular concept. So it's entirely possible that a talk you started presenting a year and a half ago is so different now as to be almost indistinguishable from the original.

Be relaxed and confident

Public speaking can be a nerve racking experience, so you'll be a lot more relaxed if you know your environment and equipment before hand. As such, it's always worth getting to the venue before the attendees arrive to have a look around. Plug in your laptop to make sure your screen sharing preferences are set correctly. People always assume it'll be OK on the day, but I've seen far too many talks end in disaster because the speaker didn't do a proper tech check. There's nothing that looks less professional or puts you off your stride more than spending 10 minutes aimlessly fiddling with your display settings at the start of your talk.

Plug in your Bluetooth clicker and walk around the stage checking the range. This is as much to do with checking the technology as it is getting comfortable with the space you'll be using. Introduce yourself to the folks doing the audio and make sure they know if you've got any music in your presentations. Make sure you get mic'ed up in advance of your session and that you're comfortable with how the AV set-up works. Lastly, talk to the person introducing you and make sure they know enough about you to do a proper introduction.

A lot of public speaking is about confidence, so you can increase your confidence in a number of different ways. Some people feel more relaxed if they've been to the gym the day of their talk. Personally I'm happy just to get a good nights sleep and feel refreshed in the morning. Jeff Veen recommends dressing slightly smarter than your audience as it's a good subconscious indicator of status. Looking and feeling sharp is also a great confidence builder, so a smart outfit and a new haircut can do wonders for your self-assurance.

No matter how great a speaker you are, you'll always get a little nervous before getting on stage. This shot of adrenalin is actually a good things as it works as a performance enhancer. However 15 minutes before going on you probably won't think this. Some people like to be by themselves before a talk for quiet contemplations. Others like to listen top music to psych themselves up. I like to find a few friendly faces in the audience to help take my mind of the impending performance. Whatever your method, you want to step out on stage feeling relaxed and confident.

Give a confident, articulate and passionate presentation

Talking to some people you'd think that public speaking was the most painful experience possible (and to be fair, for some people it is). However if you've put in a good amount of effort planning your talk, had plenty of time to practice and have a good understanding of your source material it can also be a lot of fun.

The best talks are given by people who are really passionate about their topics and can communicate that passion to a room full of people. So pick something you love talking about and let that love shine through. A passionate speaker can make even the most dull subjects come to life, whereas a boring speaker can drown the most engaging subject matter.

Good speakers talk directly to the audience, making eye contact with people in the front few rows to cement that bond. Good speakers also come away from the perceived safety of the lectern and move around the stage, using the physical space to denote transitions in their story arc. One simple but effective technique is to move towards the front of the stage if you want to draw your audience in and make an important point. Good speakers also vary the speed and intonation of their voice, creating a rich aural landscape with which to captivate their listeners. Combine this with open, impassioned hand gestures and you've got a powerful arsenal of persuasive tools to draw upon.

Ultimately the best presentations are as much about the performance as the content therein. So if you give yourself permission to enjoy the performance, your audience will undoubtedly reciprocate in kind.