Speaking at conferences has changed the course of my life. Conferences are where I’ve met some of my best friends; they’ve taken me across the country and around the world; they’ve given me access to a network of people that means I’m never wanting for work or for guidance.
They’ve also given me the chance to see a whole lot of talks by other speakers. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: less-than-stellar public speakers give talks at conferences all the time. They go way over time, or way under. They mumble or whisper, or say “um” a lot. They read the text on their slides, sometimes word for word. They spend one third of their talk setting up their topic, or convince you they are worth listening to by taking five minutes to list their credentials.
And some of the best speakers, the ones who make it seem like getting up on stage in front of hundreds of people is no big deal? They’re often the ones who have been practicing and preparing relentlessly.
The fact is, if you’re thinking about speaking but worried that you might be a little rough around the edges, you’re already ahead of the game: the first step toward being a good speaker is recognizing that you can be a better speaker!
What follows are a few tidbits that I’ve come to take to heart before getting on a stage. Sometimes I’ve learned these lessons by watching others, and sometimes I’ve learned them the hard way.
Know your story
“So what are you talking about?” Someone once asked me this a couple of days ahead of a talk that I felt pretty prepared for; thirty seconds into fumbling through an answer, I wasn’t feeling so prepared. I’ve learned that my ability to give the “elevator pitch” for a talk is a great measure of my preparedness.
I also like to practice writing out the narrative of my talk in longhand. If I’m flying to a conference, I’ll spend the time on the plane when I’m not allowed to use a computer working on that instead. It’s a good mental exercise to test just how well I know my material, and it means that when (not if) there are technical glitches on stage, I have a better chance of knowing my lines.
No one cares who you are
While some audiences may care more about your credentials than others — and you do well to know where your audience falls on the spectrum — my general thinking is this: you can spend five minutes citing your qualifications to be giving your talk, or you can spend those five minutes giving your talk. Tend toward the latter and let your talk speak for itself. No list of credentials will spare you from criticism if your talk is subpar; if your talk is amazing, no one will question whether you had a right to give it. At most, mention where you work and what you do; but then move on. Do make sure to include contact information in your slides, but save it for the end.
Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to your qualifications to give a talk: if you’re preparing for your talk about ‹some tool› and thinking that ‹the tool’s author› could do a better job, think again. Most tool authors are thrilled when other people start talking about their work; if anything, they’re likely to be a great resource to you. Your audience is also likely to be grateful to hear a new viewpoint from a new person.
For better or for worse, your onstage persona can dramatically affect how people respond to your talk. If you’re soft-spoken — and, alas, this is more often the case among women than among men — practice speaking in a clear and authoritative voice. If there’s a skilled person managing the audio for the event, they might be kind enough to adjust the settings so you sound better, but that’s pretty rare.
Pay particular attention to whether you’re speaking into the microphone; if you’re wearing a lapel mic, for example, be careful that you don’t turn your head away it.
When you’re delivering your key points, deliver them clearly and with authority — I’ve seen a surprising number of speakers whose voices trail off right when they’re getting to the good part.
Make eye contact with audience members and, if you’re feeling brave, engage with them directly. For example, just saying, “Aha, I see you nodding!” to a single audience member can make the audience as a whole re-focus on your presentation.
I know you’re nervous — even experienced speakers will usually have some butterflies before they go on stage. But don’t start your talk by telling the audience how nervous you are; it makes them nervous on your behalf, even if you end up knocking it out of the park, and it makes your talk about you rather than about the content.
You might think that confessing your nervousness will put you at ease, but it can have exactly the opposite effect. You probably will have a nervous inner monologue that’s going on through your whole talk — I know I usually do — but study up on some coping strategies and do your best to press ahead with your content. More likely than not, people will come up to you afterwards and marvel at how comfortable you seemed.
Know your tools
There are lots of great tools for creating presentations. Personally, I still use Keynote, because it gives me a lot of control without a lot of fuss (and I’ve developed a “theme” that I can reuse with ease). Reveal.js is the current hotness in browser-based slideware, and includes speaker notes functionality, which I consider essential. No matter what tool you use, make sure you are comfortable with it long before you go on stage. Customize your “presenter display” so it shows you the current time, your time remaining, your next slide, and your notes (pro tip: make your notes big and your slides small).
If you’re going to use a remote, make sure you’ve practiced with it before. The Remote app for iDevices is actually pretty terrible, especially on a conference network, so think twice before you use it and be prepared to bail. Lots of computers support infrared remotes, but some newer Macs do not, so beware — you might need to invest in a Bluetooth remote instead.
Of course, you can go remote-less, but that will either tether you to your computer, or else have you running back to the podium every time you need to move to the next slide. Using a remote is a good way to have the freedom to move around, but don’t go overboard with your movement — it’s good to get out from behind the podium (if there is one), but you don’t want to be pacing all over the stage.
Try it and see
You must see yourself speak in order to get better at speaking. If you’re nervous about a talk, one of the most terrifying and yet most valuable things you can do is to force yourself to give the talk ahead of time. This can be especially difficult when you don’t want to pause the writing of the talk in order to practice the delivery of the talk, but no amount of moving slides around and adding funny cat pictures will tell you what a rehearsal will tell you. Start in the shower, or on the drive to work, and just feel what it feels like to say the words you’re planning to say. I have discovered many times that as soon as I hear myself say what I’m planning to say, what I was planning to say is all wrong.
If you’ve never spoken in front of an audience before and you’re planning to speak in front of a big one, find a smaller, friendlier audience to practice on; maybe a lunch and learn at work or a local meetup. Do your best to collect anonymous feedback from them, too — maybe by providing a link to an etherpad or asking audience members to fill out a Google form.
Make a video recording if at all possible. Even just rehearsing in front of a video camera at home can do wonders. Make sure you’re standing up if you’ll be standing up for your “real” presentation. Use a projector or a second monitor, if you have one, to get the sense of what that feels like.
After your practice run, watch the video. Yes, it’s brutal to listen to yourself talk and yes, you probably said “um” way too much. But you can also spot places where things went particularly well, or make note of things that you want to remember to do again when you’re on stage for real.
Respect the audience
Audiences will tend to be extremely polite and forgiving; don’t make them regret it! Use a timer and do not go over time. It is one of the most disrespectful things you can do to the audience, to the conference organizers, and to the next speaker.
Remember that your audience can probably read just fine — you don’t need to recite your bullet points to them; indeed, you might want to consider whether bulleted lists of things are appropriate at all.
If your presentation includes code and you intend your audience to be able to read it, do not include more than a few lines on a given slide. Make sure you are using high-contrast syntax highlighting.
If you’re planning to live code during your presentation, you are brave and potentially crazy. I’ve seen it go well, and I’ve seen it go so terribly that everyone in the audience was squirming in their seats. Technical difficulties during live coding are a surefire way to go over time. If you choose to give it a try, it is impossible to rehearse too much. Keep your demos small and finite, and have an escape plan for when (again, not if) things go wrong.
Above all else, remember that your audience could be doing anything else, but instead they are most likely sitting in an uncomfortable chair, awaiting or recovering from a mediocre lunch, wishing there was an outlet nearby so they could plug in their dying devices — and they may have paid a few hundred dollars and a couple of vacation days for the privilege. Your talk has the potential to be the best thing that happens to them all day. Do all you can to prepare yourself to live up to that.
There are some people who are natural public speakers, but most get better the old-fashioned way: through practice and preparation. Watching other speakers and paying attention to what you like and don’t like is one way to get better; watching your own talks and soliciting honest feedback is, of course, another. I’ve also learned an enormous amount from a few books that I think anyone interested in speaking should take the time to read:
Confessions of a Public Speaker, a book by a professional public speaker that shares some of his ups and downs, and how he prepares and delivers compelling presentations.
Presentation Zen, a book that greatly informed how I think about designing and preparing a talk.
Thank You for Arguing, a layman’s introduction to the art of rhetoric and persuasion.
Good luck, and happy speaking!