Public speaking for beginners or people who don’t speak often can be uncomfortable. I enjoy it so much, I couldn’t image a career where I didn’t get up in front of groups of strangers and talked.
I thought it might be constructive to share some of my experience presenting. I see a lot of “customers” (not always mine, just customers in ‘the industry’) presenting. Clearly, they either don’t present often, or aren’t trained in the skill of speaking. It can be really charming to be a little less polished, to be a little more authentic. However, weak presentation technique prevents your message from coming across clearly. Even people who don’t speak very often can have a few tricks to help make their presentations more powerful. Let me share a few of mine.
Structure. I learned this from my first boss (at NeXT) before I even really knew what a pre-sales engineer was. When you speak, follow this simple structure:
- (Introduction) Tell them what you’ll tell them, then
- (Main Body of the Presentation) Tell them, then
- (Closing) Tell them what you told them.
Having a structure lets people know what to expect, and sets their minds for receptivity. It also helps them to follow along, even if they’ve lost their concentration at some point.
Competence. Remember that you’re more intimate with the material than your audience. Tell them what’s important in what you’re saying. You can do this in three ways:
- Structure your message around a story. Intuitively humans know how to interpret story-structure.
- Use your cadence and the tone of your voice to animate your story. If you speak in a monotone it’s hard to tell what’s important and what’s connective tissue.
- Tell them! I often say something like, “if you remember three things from my talk today, this is #2”. This works well in combination with the structure I’ve mentioned above. Your key points would be highlighted when you do your introduction and closing.
Personally, I like to pick the (at most) three key points of what I’m saying, and really let people know through my story, my tone, and my telling them that they are the three most important things to remember. And, repetition is good. I know personally, I can hear something 10 times, then all of a sudden on the 11th be like “oooooohhh, that’s cool.”
Setting. In a big room, sometimes the microphone/speakers blur your voice. If you’re being streamed (digitally) out of the room you’re in, there may be some latency. If you’re speaking to an audience where English is their second language, it may be hard for people to put a thought together without hearing more of a sentence than a native speaker. Speak slowly. (Way) More slowly than you might imagine you need to. This one is really hard for me, but I’ll tell you, I’ve never had someone say “you spoke too slowly”. Watch me present at one of the biggest presentations of my life, and see if I’m talking slowly. When I gave the presentation, I felt like I was speaking so slowly even someone who didn’t speak English could understand1.
Similarly, pause after “paragraphs”. Let people digest what you’ve said before running into the next thought. Remember, you’re the expert, the audience is trying to translate what you’re saying into how it matters to them. Give them time.
Smile while you’re speaking. It matters, trust me.
Practice. And, do advanced practice — visualize the experience to prepare. Visualization will make sure that your body and mannerisms, and not just your content delivery appears polished. I even try to find out the color scheme of the room before speaking so I can visualize authentically. People think I’m weird (they think I’m trying to match my outfit), but it works.
- This is a joke that travelers would understand. It seems most Americans believe that if they speak slowly enough, anyone will understand them. [↩]