Virtually any conversation about speaking in public will include a nod to the axiom that people fear it more than death (case in point). While recent research has shown this claim to be only partially accurate, for most the abject unpleasantness of participating in live communication forums is a foregone conclusion.
I am in the position of talking at people in formal settings far more frequently than I ever expected, as a teacher, facilitator, panelist, and/or speaker. One thing I have come to know is that just as one can cultivate a healthier relationship to the certainty that life ends, so can one develop an easier co-existence with the complex (and not altogether unpleasant) sensations of being in front of an audience of one or one thousand.
I won’t downplay the anxiety that attends public address, nor its incredible array of physical and psychological symptoms: hyperventilation, nausea, panic, compulsive movements, speech fillers, rapid heartbeat, mania, and dissociation (or all of the above, for the very unlucky). I have experienced each in my turn, often in diabolically unpredictable combinations. I have also discovered (adage alert) that their severity decreases as experience increases.
Unfortunately, alleviation does not often lead to eradication. Managing the manifestations of fear is crucial to becoming a decent public speaker, but it is only one aspect of a much larger enterprise: communication skill and information design are just as important. You have to work at all of these things, as well psychologically reorient youself to being the subject of an audience’s attention.
I’ve benefited hugely from the suggestions of others (solicited and unsolicited, anonymous and identified). I tend to ask people to write down takeaways or suggestions after my talks, and I once received a scrap of paper that said simply “bigger is better, less is more.” This cut directly to my two most persistent challenges in presentations: far too much content, and migraine-inducing font sizes. Since reading the note I’ve used it as a mantra… belated gratitude to this unknown benefactor of priceless advice.
In this tradition, I offer you exactly 38 accumulated observations that may ease discomfort and augment effectiveness in public speaking scenarios. Disclaimer: Not all apply in every context, and some readers may disagree based on contrary experience… which is all well and good, as this is a very personal process. Please add your own adviceorisms as comments if I’ve left anything out, or if your experience dictates otherwise.
1. Believe (in) yourself. First and foremost, accept that you have something worthwhile to say. This phrase in its entirety is an acknowledged cliche, but remove the (in) and consider whether you have any faith in your ability to contribute to the forum at hand. Next, think about how you tend to judge the words coming out of your mouth during presentations: complete bullshit, half-baked conjecture, or fascinating genius? A notch below fascinating genius is a good target.
2. Have faith in your (hard-earned) knowledge. This follows directly from #1. Yes, you actually do know what you’re talking about. Because you prepared, right? Your mind will tell you repeatedly that you don’t/didn’t, but reject this thought out of hand as universally experienced and ridiculous, and justify its rejection by knowing your content well.
3. What you are saying has been said before, but not quite this way. Very few things are new under the sun, but each of us has the ability to foster a unique angle, message, story, interpretation, dedication. The latter will guide you much better than the former.
4. Overpreparation is sabotage. As important as preparation can be, sleep is actually a presenter’s best friend. So are meditation and exercise. Practicing too many times can lead to confusion about what you have and haven’t said during the actual event, and writing out every syllable can make you sound robotic or lead to panic when you think you’ve forgotten something (which always happens, but you’re the only one who notices. How could someone anticipate what you haven’t said?)
5. Create structure. Outlining is an excellent habit when giving presentations, as it helps with time management, narrative flow, argumentative purpose, and succinctness. Sharing this structure with your audience will help ground them in the content to come. However, try to resist the impulse to share your outline in a bulleted list – there are more compelling ways to convey this information.
6. Have a point. Try to be able to sum up the purpose of a presentation in a sentence or two. If you can’t, it’s likely too complicated. Telling your audience the point is a great strategy up front, in the middle, and again at the end.
7. Participants will absorb your (prevailing) energy. If you’re nervous, an audience will feel nervous. If you’re stoked, an audience will feel stoked. If you are both nervous and stoked, rest assured that no one prefers to feel unpleasant sensations so an audience is far likelier to experience the positives you are giving off. Of course, participants will have unique emotional experiences at the same time, but there is a certain amount of conscious or unconscious empathy at work.
8. Don’t apologize for your content, your slides, your self-perceived ignorance, your anything. Ever. You have far less to apologize for than you think you do – this is your impostor talking, yet again. Unless, that is, you inadvertently offer insult or say something generally effed up. Graciously acknowledging when you’ve offended someone without escalating a confrontation is a priceless skill, but unnecessary self-deprecation makes you look like you lack confidence. It also makes the audience uncomfortable, which kicks their negative energy osmosis into overdrive.
9. Mind your tics. Become familiar with your verbal and physical delivery symptoms – we all have them, and they wax and wane given the day and venue. For example, the DLF keynote I gave recently involved a bizarre amount of compulsive computer and microphone touching, which I was dimly aware of but didn’t control as well as I would have liked. Not my typical habit, but there you go – back to the drawing board. Suppress powerful impulses to fidget and ‘um’ by developing tricks like clutching the podium, holding a pen, keeping your hands behind your back, and slowing down and pausing your speech to avoid excessive fillers.
10. A congregation is preferable to a firing squad. I come from a long line of preachers and no matter your belief system I highly recommend cultivating of a sense of stage as pulpit or soapbox rather than as gallows. These are not your last words, nor is the audience silently administering last rites.
11. Find your friendlies. Locate two to three people in the audience who are paying active attention (there will almost always be at least one) and have pleasant resting facial expressions. Focus on them. Make periodic eye contact with these people and watch more broadly for nods of agreement and/or fatigue – both are important cues. Equally important to this point is to not let unfriendlies throw you, as unlikely as they are to actually exist – if someone is nonverbally disrespectful or rolling their eyes around, get their attention to make sure they know you’re aware of their attitude and not afraid of them. If someone is verbally disrespectful, use patience, seek allies to help manage the situation, don’t be intimidated, and try not to escalate an argument from a podium.
12. Limit screen staring. As in, your device screen AND the projection screen. This is almost impossible to stop yourself from doing completely, but is oddly distracting to the audience. Glancing, gesturing, and inclining your head are perfectly serviceable substitutes.
13. Engage through interaction. Ask questions and wait for real answers. Build in back and forth communication during the presentation and/or at the end if at all possible, whether between participants or between you and the audience. It livens things up, but you should also be prepared to handle unexpected responses.
14. Curb reflexive criticism. People mask perceived self-ignorance with arrogance and position themselves ahead by pointing out weakness. Confidence and creative/intelligent critique are very different things.
15. Conversation is cubed. Think of it like this: you are simply having a conversation on a bigger scale and talking to every person in the audience as singular individuals writ large. This can lessen the sensation of an unknown and unknowable horde.
16. Reverse roles. Unless they’re evil, people generally want speakers to succeed. Imagine you are watching yourself as though you were watching your BFF. Encourage your inner BFF.
17. If you stumble, recover with humor. This usually works like a charm be your stumble verbal, technological, and/or physical. People like to forget unpleasant gaffes (remember the empathy thing), and humor is the best way to help them forget and dissipate their (and your) tension.
18. Try not to assume prior knowledge in the audience, but don’t patronize people by rehashing common knowledge. There is a fine line between the two, but one that can be tread wisely, particularly if you know your audience and their general level of likely understanding. Above all else, define unfamiliar terms and acronyms and give examples of further reading, etc. that people can follow up with as you go.
19. Take pains with design. People universally love nice graphics and interesting fonts. If this isn’t a strength of yours, teach yourself about universal design principles and download some free fonts from the thousands that are available. Break out of suggested presentation hegemonies (i.e., templates) that have become overly predictable and start from a blankish slate. Clean and clear are great rules to follow, while loud, whirling, and/or busy are wonderful things to avoid. Last word on this: color palettes are immensely helpful.
20. Customize to context. Respect your audience and the venue by connecting your content and messages with their purpose and meaning. People will appreciate your understanding of why they are there in the first place.
21. Know your privilege. You don’t speak for everyone, you speak for yourself. Know yourself and how who you are affects your interaction with the world and its interaction with you. This helps you avoid classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and all sorts of un/intentional expressions of oppression. And, as a personal favor to me any everyone else on the planet, never tell someone they are being ‘too sensitive’ if you get called out on any of the above.
22. Tell stories. About yourself. About other people (with their consent). About real life and lived experience. Successes and failures, or preferably both. This is humanizing and cuts down on the boredom factor by changing the flow and focus of your talk and gives practical application insight into your content.
23. Be real(istic). You have a personality, and things have happened to you in your life – see #22. To suppress this completely makes you come off as an automoton. It’s far easier to relate and listen to another person than a machine. That said, TMI is not good.
24. Talk about things you have actually worked on and contributed to. As in, do good things in your life/career and talk about them from experience. It’s great to showcase the contributions of others and acknowledge them soundly, but don’t inadvertently take credit or show yourself as a non-doer by focusing on all the things others have done.
25. Give shout outs. This goes back to #24, reinforces good working and personal relationships, makes people feel proud of themselves, and grounds you in a reality well beyond your presentation. Also, let them know you’re planning to do so.
26. Use evidence. Multiple layers of proof or justification are good things.
27. Have (visible) conviction. This goes back to believing you have something to say and knowing what you are talking about (1 and 2). Why the hell are you giving a presentation? Because you want to, and because you care about what you’re saying. This makes other people care too.
28. Don’t assume accessibility. Some people have limited sight and/or hearing, among other disabilities that could affect how they encounter your content. Make sure you are serving these people as well as those without disabilities. Do this by creating strong visual cues as well as giving a clear narrative. Subtitle and translate presentations when you share them afterwards if you can. Interpreters are great – see if the venue can provide one.
29. Control your own technology. If at all possible, negotiate to use a personal computer, tablet, etc. so that you know how to predict it. Not to mention that those amazing free fonts you just downloaded almost certainly aren’t installed on the provided computer, and you really don’t want to see what your presentation will look like without them. If you’re a Mac user, BRING A DONGLE.
30. Back everything up three ways. Online, PDF and presentation platform. Always.
31. Recycle intelligently. Use your own templates and images, etc. judiciously to save time and effort, but don’t give canned talks over and over again. People will notice and will not be amused.
32. Share your slides, prezi, whatever. Beforehand, preferably. Participants will appreciate being able to follow along, particularly if lighting is bad and screens are too small (which there is an excellent chance of). Same goes with hashtags: at the beginning is the useful moment.
33. Test slide and screen visibility. Do so well beforehand, from the absolute back of the space if possible or using the online presentation platform. If your text and graphics are challenging, make tweaks to improve legibility.
34. Please, please, please list your photo credits at the end. Full image URLs on slides are simply bad design, and unnecessary – I promise you that no one in the audience is rushing directly to the source and slight delay is not tantamount to stealing. Share photo acknowledgements in a final credits slide you will clean things up immensely.
35. Don’t drink kombucha immediately before or during. For obvious gastrointestinal reasons. Same goes for fizzy water, soda, beer, mead, tej, framboise, and so forth.
36. Dress the part. Look good in whatever way suits you, and you will feel better. That said, don’t wear overly tight clothes (sweat factor), crazy/unfamiliar shoes (trip factor) or things that will ride up/fall strangely when you move (failure to suppress your physical tics factor).
37. If it’s flat, barrel through. Sometimes it’s simply destined not to go well, and all you can do in this scenario is grit your teeth with a light heart and get on with it.
38. Don’t nitpick your performance in hindsight. Try with all of your might not to dwell on or regret things you (think) you didn’t do well – that presentation is over and done, so move on to better things in the present and future. Seek feedback and focus on improving what you can. Also, learn to distinguish between positive feedback and platitudes. Same goes for constructive criticism and calculated gouging… internally and externally.
In sum: You are definitely going to die, but it’s highly unlikely that you will die giving your next presentation. Onward and upward.