Public Speaking Tips

Last year a couple of people asked me for some tips on public speaking, since my job requires that I do it often. The advice below is based on my personal experience and what I find works for me. I encourage you to consider the points, but ultimately you know what works best for you and it may not be the same as for me!
  • Think about what you want to achieve. Consider your topic from the audience’s perspective — are you promoting discussion, arguing for a certain position or presenting facts? Exactly the same as with planning an essay, it will help if you brainstorm what you’re trying to achieve before you begin.
  • Rehearse. Make sure you practice your presentation. How much you can do will depend on your time frame, but even silently saying what you’re going to present in your head will improve your final delivery.
  • If you have time, do at least one full rehearsal, ideally standing in the space you will actually be delivering in. I find that two rehearsals gives the best results and personally have never found much benefit from doing more. You almost want to be at the point of knowing your presentation so well you’re bored of delivering it again!
  • The reason you rehearse is to ‘iron out the creases’ in your presentation — you’ll immediately notice parts which don’t flow quite as you want when you practice delivering it. You should make a quick note or change them on the fly, then continue on with the presentation, then make major changes when you’ve finished. Your ‘second draft’ after even one rehearsal will be a massive improvement.
  • The best thing of all to do is get a friend to listen to you and give you constructive feedback afterwards.
  • Know your space. This goes for IT, the room, the seating plan, Wi-Fi, the lot. So many presentations fail because the speakerdoesn’t spend 5 minutes checking their computer, media or any number of other things before they present. Take the time before your presentation (i.e. arrive early) to test everything and click through your slides on the projector or whatever you’ll be using — by doing so, you’ll pre-empt a lot of things that could go wrong and able to fix (or at least mitigate) them
  • Understand you own body language. Everyone has different tics and movements they do when presenting. The key is not to do anything which distracts your audience. The best way to learn is to ask a friend or colleague to watch you and take notes on your body language; if they notice you’re doing something distracting they can let you know so you can get out of the habit.

    Remaining self-aware while presenting is the real key here — you want to use your paralinguistics consciously to enhance what you’re saying rather than leave them on ‘automatic’. Use your hands, move around the space you’re presenting if you feel like it — while you’re presenting, you own the space, so make it work for you.

  • Sit where the audience will be. Advice we were given in training was to position the commander’s chair and visual aids etc. (if you can) then sit where he is going to be to make sure he can see everything clearly. The same principle applies in any presentation — if your font is unreadable to half the room or the audience can’t read your diagram or table from the back, it’s wasted effort. This should be part of your rehearsal. Even small things like turning lights on or off, moving the lectern or rearranging the seats can make your presentation much more effective.
  • Nerves. Everybody gets nervous, even professional public speakers. It’s normal human behaviour and something you learn to manage with practice. Get to know what you’re like when you’re nervous and figure out how to overcome the problems. For instance, I always like to have a glass of water when I present but during the first minute or so my hands always shake a little bit when I’m settling into giving my talk. I know that I naturally settle after a minute or two so I don’t go for the water till I’m not going to spill it all over myself!
  • Another thing I do is think: “these people are hear to listen to me — they want to hear what I have to say”. I find that to be quite a powerful mantra and quite good at helping me dismiss my nerves, no matter who I’m talking to. Often you are the expert on the subject you are presenting (which is why you’re the one up there) which is also good to remember.
  • Take your time. Don’t rush to answer questions, elaborate if requested or recover if you lose track of where you are — take a couple of seconds in each case to think or recompose yourself before jumping back in.
  • … but not too much time! When you practice, make sure you hit your allocated time within 10%. Bad time management can sink an otherwise brilliant presentation, particularly if it runs over time. I find that shorter is generally better than longer. If you rehearse, this should take care of itself naturally as you will learn whether you need to speed up, slow down or add/remove detail in certain areas.
  • Expect interruptions. Someone will be late, some asshole’s phone will ring, someone might leave noisily in the middle of the best part… don’t worry about it. Expect it to happen and remain unflappable. Your audience will be impressed that you’re unperturbed and it will make the delivery more effective.
  • Questions. Before you present, draft a rough list of likely questions you might get asked by the audience. Come up with short, bullet-pointed answers for each. That way, when you’re put on the spot, you’ve already done a lot of the cognitive work required for a good answer and you can reply quickly and credibly. You can’t anticipate everything but you’d be amazed how useful this can be even if you only spend 5 minute doing it.
  • Prompts. If you’re presenting something to be discussed, have a few discussion topics or questions ready on a slide after your final ‘Questions?’ slide. If you feel the mood is right or if you want to generate/guide more debate, you can bring up that slide and use it. Bonus points for controversial questions or topics which people have strong opinions on (if appropriate!). If you don’t need it, you can just finish on a questions slide.
  • Slide transitions. Appear/disappear or quick fade in/out only. Things spinning and jumping around look unprofessional.

  • The medium is the message. If your presentation looks great and has no content, it will fall flat. If the content is great but it looks terrible, the same thing will happen! You need to communicate a well thought out presentation effectively to really succeed.
Finally – this link has some good food for thought.

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