Public speaking made easy

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event organised by Laura North aimed at helping people become better public speakers. I do a lot of presentations. I recently added them up and realised to my surprise that I have done 60 planned presentations over the last five years, not to mention all the unplanned ones! But I still feel that my technique could use some improvement so I was really glad that Laura put this event on. She is now planning a series of speaker training events, which I look forward to.

Meantime, here are my notes from the evening. You can watch the videos and see the slide decks on Speaking Out.

Host: Laura North
Dave Bell, Merrill Lynch
Katie Streten, Imagination
Christian Heilmann, Yahoo!

Dave Bell, Merrill Lynch
When he met Laura, who did the intro, they were discussing her dread of public speaking, and he gave her some insight into his experience, and later was accosted and asked to address a meeting like this because it’s a common fear. We all have to do it, whether we present to colleagues or clients. But the main thing is that everything comes with practice. Don’t worry if you feel nervous – you’re not on your own.

Most of Dave’s roles have included some sort of presentation aspect. Some events would be very large, and there’d be a hall of 400 people, but each time you do it you learn a little bit more about your content, your slides, what worked, what didn’t work. [Tip from me: Don’t spend quite so much time talking about yourself up front, just give the audience to establish context.]

Style and delivery varies according to the type of meeting and your role within it.

– Small meetings: Most extreme form of presenting is to present to one person, need to think about how that individual is thinking and feeling, how can you change what you are doing to suit what they need. Try to work out when they are following you, and when you are losing them or things have got too complicated. Learn to read the person on the other time of the table. Work out what you can do to meet them half way.

– Chairing meetings & large meetings: Let everyone in the meeting have a fair say and to contribute. Work out who are the key influencers, the people who need to participate. Who are the core constituents? Who needs to understand your message? Not the same level of communication as a one-on-one, but trying to build a consensus and that can be a challenge.

– Making presentations in meetings: When you have people who are not engaged, it’s an excuse for them to switch off, so try to make a connection with them. Look them in the eye. When we are presenting we are trying to communicate and make that connection to them. Address yourself physically to the whole room.

– Pitching ideas: When you’re introducing a new concept to people, especially if it’s new, it make take some time to build things up, don’t rush. How would you approach this if you hadn’t heard it before. If people don’t know who you are and what you’re on about. particularly if you’re external and you don’t have that rapport straight away, take your time and don’t rush to get to your message. Why should they be interested? Why should they come with you? Think about their position, not just about your content.

– Asking questions at conferences: Very nerve-wracking, but important in building reputation. Great if you can come up with some ways to get over the nerves and address a question to a conference. It’s ok if you have a question but don’t get to ask it exactly as you want to – don’t beat yourself up about it.

– Presenting at conferences: Biggest arena that you will face. It’s not as much about connecting with that audience [not sure this is what he really meant], but about having the confidence to speak from the stand.

Preparation is the key for being relaxed.

Audience: Who are they? Why are they there? Who are the key influencers in this meeting? What message do you want to leave them with? Who do you need to get on side in order to make your concept/idea get some legs? You can only leave people with a couple of ideas.

Cliche but true: Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.

Materials: Detailed slides can help, but can be a distraction. Presenting is at its best when it’s the big picture. Give people enough to give them energy. Don’t need the fine detail, give them something to take away. Strip back your material to the core ideas.

Objectives: Important point – a presentation is about a transition through a relationship. Often, you are trying to build a relationship. How is the presentation going to help you get from A to B, and how are you going to take your audience with you?

Don’t over-think! But put enough work in.

Style. Once you know what you’re talking about and you’ve thought about the audience, think about your style. Often it will reflect your personality. There are no real rules, but a few things to bear in mind:

Who’s the audience? Tone should be right for the audience. Think about how to connect with people. Think about the subject. Be consistent.


– connect with your audience
– preparation is the key to being relaxed
– be selective with your material – think big picture
– your style will develop and it will come with time
– presentations are performances, some times they go better than others. When it goes well, give yourself a pat on the back.
– …and everyone gets nervous! You are not the only one! Your audience is willing you on, they want you to be successful, so they are on your side!

Q: Should you do a dry run?
It helps you master the material, and the more comfortable you are with your core messages, the happier you’ll be doing the ad libbing. If it helps you relax, it’s a good idea. Use colleagues as a sounding board. You might think you’ve mastered the material, but when you get started you find you don’t know it as well as you could.

Q: What do you do if you think you’re starting to lose the audience?
Think about just slowing down and regrouping. The biggest thing is realising that you might be losing them is the important thing. Softly reposition what you are saying, perhaps say it again in a different way. Acknowledge to yourself they aren’t quite with you rather than charging through. But keep calm and try to address it.

Also, people sometimes close their eyes or stare at the corner, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t listening. Some people learn aurally.

Q: Camden Speakers’ Club. Found that getting over the phobia, speaking to the club, 15 people, was the same as speaking to 1000. It’s the same. You said there were differences, what do you think they are?
If you have 15 people sat round a boardroom table, within that room you’ve got a dynamic, some people who are more influential who might lead a consensus, so gauging how they are going is important. That’s different to when you are on a platform, you can’t connect on more than a fleeting basis, you can’t tailor what you are saying for everyone. In a small group, if you lose the key influencer, you lose everyone.

Q: What about presenting over the phone?
Keep calm, don’t try to get out everything you are trying to say straight away. Almost like when you’re losing someone in the audience: adapt what you are saying, take your time, be confident. Have an elevator pitch. What is your one little hook? You need that on the phone as they don’t know anything about you. Why are they going to be interested?

Q: When you need to convince people of your credibility, how do you win them over? Particularly if you are young and talking to much older people?
Demonstrate your experience and knowledge. Until you’re tried and tested it is very difficult. Know your material really well. Be clear when answering questions. Who else in your organisation can you reach out to? Who could do the meeting with you? Who of your colleagues has more experience who can give you back-up?

Katie Streten, Imagination
Goes to a lot of conferences where the speaker programme is packed with men, yet competent women don’t get asked, and don’t push themselves forward as much as they should. Has done two courses on how to present, and they make you very fired up, then you go away and don’t do any of the things you are taught! Have a LAMDA Spoken English qualification, and they do really great programmes where you learn to read aloud, ad lib, etc. Still gets nervous ahead of time and hates asking questions.

Reasons not to like public speaking and suggestions for dealing with them. Asked others why they hate public speaking.

Reason 1: “No one will be interested in what I’ve got to say”.

Well, they are there. They are there for a reason, and that reason is you. In meetings at work, they feel you have something valuable to offer, so remember that when you feel your opinion is irrelevant. Think about them and what you can give them. This isn’t about you, it’s about why they have asked you the question. They want something from you and they think you can give it to them.

Reason 2: “I will start speaking and go completely blank.”

Prepare. If you’re giving a really important talk or if you’re not confident, write your script out longhand. It’s a pain in the arse, but it’s the best way to get it out. Read it aloud to yourself, read it to friends, and just keep going to it. You will realise some of your jokes were bad, it was too long, and gradually you’ll get familiar with your subject matter. Then write out card notes, which should be as simple as possible and just give you your key points. Just glance down when you get lots. Highlight key moments on your slides. Don’t practice too much, because your brain will start to expect a certain rhythm and if you falter, your brain will freeze. Now what you are saying, use the cards to help you maintain your flow but don’t try to have it off pat.

Reason 3: “Everyone out there will find out that I’m a fraud.”

You have been asked to speak, you are there for a reason. People think you have something to say so you are not a fraud. Everyone thinks that. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Armando Ianucci, who has talked about “the fear of being found out for being a bit rubbish”

Reason 4: “I will look out over the crowd and see their faces and go blank.”

If you can make a connection with the audience, that’s great. But if you’re nervous, don’t look at the crowd. Before hand, pick 3 spots in the room, or place your mate at the back to smile at you. Start talking to the first point say something and move on to the next point and talk to that, then the third. If eye contact makes you uncomfortable, then it will throw you, so fake it. Remember that people are more interested in the talk than in you. They are not interested in the colour of your shirt, or your accent, or your hair. They want to hear what you have to tell them.

5: “I will lose my place and just stall.”

This is common, that you’ll kick off, then lose your place and it’ll all go up in smoke. So: Cards. Practice. And remember, the audience is on your side. Everyone is desperate for you not to make a fool of yourself for their own sake. They want you to succeed. It’s ok if you stall. And if you do, ‘fess up. Say “I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my place”, look at your cards and carry on. No one will judge you for that.

6; “I will ask something that everyone else understands, and I will look like an idiot.”

Everyone in this situation is thinking the same thing as you. And others may have the question too, but by asking it you have saved them the trouble. But if you are in a situation where you have paid to be at a seminar or conference, you have a right to ask. The speaker has a duty to you, to explain anything that is unclear. It is their problem, not your. And if you wait long enough, there is usually someone in the audience who makes a statement instead of asking a question, so by asking a question you are doing the right thing and saving the audience from statements. Asking questions is a good thing!

7: “It feels artificial. It should feel like a conversation, I hate the awkward feeling.”

The audience often hate it too, they don’t want formality except in serious contexts. The audience wants to make a connection, to feel relaxed. They want to enjoy it. Say ‘Hello!” at the beginning. That makes it more informal, makes people feel relaxed. Also, your arms. Don’t hold them by your sides but don’t gesticulate too much either. If you move your hands at about waist height, that’s what you naturally do in conversation, and it just makes it less formal and breaks up the space. Don’t have a rigid script, but notes that let you ebb and flow with the audience’s attention.


Two key things:

* Bullet points. This is not the place to write your script. (Don’t use a script, use cards!). Don’t put too much on your powerpoint, just do it in short bursts.
* Pictures: The things that stick in your head are images. Make the pictures appropriate to what you are trying to say. Makes it less formal too.

* People genuinely want to hear what you have to say. If they have invited you, they think you are capable, and you are capable.
* Think about your audience – what can you give them? Why have you been asked to do what you are doing? What can you bring to them?

If all else fails, try to remember the details of one speech you have heard in your life. You don’t. Some speeches really stick in your mind, as in you remember them, but you don’t remember the detail. So if you feel really bad about it, just remember that no one will remember anyway.

Q: What about humour?
Pictures can be very useful because a picture can be humorous without you having to be funny. If you feel you have to be funny, that can be massive pressure. You can get humour in via pictures. Obviously depends on context, so it’s not always appropriate.

Q: Struggle with going too fast. How do I calm down and articulate? What are your tips? And also, women should make more statements like men [instead of asking questions at a conference]?
Well, statements don’t hold people to account, so if you disagree with something don’t just refute it, ask them to back it up. You have to make yourself do it, you have to grab the opportunity to do so. Regarding speaking slowly, if you’re very nervous, put your reminders to speak slowly, raise your head, use your arms, on your first card. In terms of tone, the more relaxed you get the more conversational you get, and the more your tone will rise and fall. Think about the words you normally emphasise and do that.

Q: Jokes, sometimes they work once but not again? What’s your view?
Good pictures, quotes that other people have said. Because it’s not yours, then if it falls flat then it’s not your fault.

Q: Biting off, repeating oneself and then realising and ending the sentence abruptly.
Be aware of yourself when you’re speaking. It’s a bit weird, half of you is speaking, and half of you is trying to be aware of what is going on. As soon as you are aware, do something. Also, what that boils down to, is a desire to get your point across, and a feeling that either you’re not getting across well or that they are not listening to you. So be confident of yourself. Ask if someone has understood it, try to get to a point where you’ve said it and then ask, does that make sense?

Q: What do you do when people are behind you?
Depends on your room set-up and what’s your point. Either move out to the side, or turn round. it is worth doing that. Depends on how long your’e speaking for. If it’s short, it doesn’t matter. If a room is set up for training, people should face each other and you walk around. If it’s a presentation, then don’t have people behind you, even sit on a windowsill. Explain that you don’t want anyone behind you. If need be, rearrange the room so that you have no one behind.

Q: What’s the best way to say I don’t know?
Comes back to ‘fessing up if you make a mistake. Best thing to do is to say something along the lines of, “That’s a really good point, I don’t know but if you give me your email address I will find out and get back to you”. People can be a bit mean and want to put you on the spot, but if you don’t know be clear that you don’t, and follow it up. Or ask the audience, “Has anyone here had that situation? Can someone help?” Bring audience into the talk. Worst thing you can do is fake it, because they will know.

Christian Heilmann, Yahoo!
How to inspire as a speaker. Interesting to have this kind of event. Always a bit concerned about how everyone says that there aren’t enough women, as hasn’t had that problem when organising his own conferences.

Focused on how to teach people without them realising. Inspire people to learn more about the topic. Inspire them to find out and do something.

Was voted ‘most inspiring speaker’ in the SlideShare Zeitgeist. Upload the audio to his Slideshare.

Presentation is the flashcards – just one sentence. Records talks so he can remember what he said. You can do it too if you just trust yourself.

Why was he voted the most inspiring? He has very distinctive hair. Has its own tag on Flickr. Clearly it’s his hair…

He tries to look at the topic from a different point of view. What is different? Why would people care? Get out of the spot you are in, and look at it from a different angle.

Shows a photo that is missing a person in the middle. People laugh at the woman who didn’t jump, but people don’t notice the missing woman in the middle.

Toblerone. People don’t realise that if they look at the logo, there’s a bear in the logo. What is the story of the bear? Find the story that makes the difference. Even if it’s just anecdotes, make it lively, make it human.

Speaks in many different countries, different cultures.

People look at speakers first, then the information, then the audience. Although the audience is one of the most important things, people are seeking information. What do people take out of that info? How is that info useful to everyone else?

Know what your audience needs is the most important part of any presentation. What do people want? What is their problem? How can you solve it? This can be hard. Sometimes when you are invited at the last moment, or if you face a hostile audience. What do people waste their time on? How does your info make their time better spent? We should go into every conference asking what the audience asks themselves, what is in it for them? No matter how enjoyable a speaker is if they don’t give the audience what they need, they aren’t good. What would I want off me if I was sitting there?

Having the right mindset as a presenter is also very important. People came to see you speak. They had a choice and they chose to see you. So you’ve got nothing to lose. Even if you’re terrible, even if your slides are terrible, you can still say “I did it”, and dare yourself to get better. You can only get better if you keep going. We all suck, we just get better at faking it or don’t care anymore.

Look ahead at what might be interesting. Don’t just take the obvious topics. Just make something better. Tell a story. Find a story. Your presentation should be a story with a start, a climax and an end, with the repetition to drive it home.

How do you get to that stage? Relax, know your stuff. Not the presentation, but the stuff that you are talking about. People will ask you a question. If you just rehearse the presentation but can’t answer questions you lose everything you built up in the presentation. It’s not about dazzling people, but about learning something. Take the time to prepare your topic. It’s dangerous to just go out there and dazzle.

Own your talk. This is your talk. If someone sends you a slide deck, change it to something you feel comfortable with. Have seen people trying to tell other people’s jokes. It’s your talk, it’s what you define.

Practice. Any chance you get to give a public talk, do it. Go to unconferences. Talk to your friends.

Practice some more. The more you do it the better you get. When you get good, you can start to slip stuff in that people aren’t expecting. Grab people’s attention, and follow it up with lots of good information.

How can you practice? Loud reading in different voices is great training. If you have a kid, or can borrow a kid, read books to them with the different voices. Room on the Broom, great way to entertain the kids and you can train yourself to be a speaker.

Listen to audiobooks. Very good training. Stephen Fry is an excellent reader. Learn how to make breaks in the right spot. Accents. Hear the voice.

Listen to yourself. This is excellent training. When we speak our head vibrates, so our voice sounds deeper than we do to other people. Listen to your own talks, e.g. at the gym. Become your own critic. Find out mannerisms that you didn’t realise you had. Discover your own tics and weaknesses. Force yourself to listen to yourself.

Powerpoint karaoke. Friday afternoon. Beer. Download random Powerpoints off the internet. Then everyone has to give a five minute presentation to a random powerpoint deck. Everything from caring for crocodiles, to environmental physics. Good bonding experience too!

Lightning talks. 5 x 5 x 5. Good way to share information, to learn how to speak. 5 minute presentations of a problem encountered, 5 minute talking about how it was resolved, 5 minute discussion about whether the solution is good enough. Whatever you do at work, you can do this. Everyone in the team has to do one sooner or later. Very good to find new speakers too.

Get inspired by great examples. Sometimes, the quirky ones aren’t actually the best. TED is a great site for videos. Good introduction. Always pick people who are interesting.

Josh Blue, was at Last Comic Standing, and he’s got a Cerebral Palsy, and is very, very funny. US guy. Very in your face. Makes people realise that those with disabilities have something to offer too. Not just being funny, but also saying that we are out there, we are interesting. Anyone can do that too – show people that you are there.

Avoid at all costs:

* Imitation. If you imitate someone else’s style, that makes you a karaoke singer. Find your own style.
* Read your slides. It’s appalling if you read your slides. Slides are a guideline, outline of your story, reminds you where you’re going. Information for people who can’t be bothered to listen.
* Forget your story. It’s not just information. Make it personal if necessary. Use anecdote.
* Blinging it up. Don’t use the fancy transitions. You should never end up having to wait for your slides to build.

Overcoming the fear.
Some people say you should ‘dress a bit better than the audience’, but that’s not the point. Your presentation will talk for you. If you have to abide by company speaker guidelines, smile and nod and think of something happy. Be honest, accept your flaws. The audience is as afraid of you as you are of them. Some audiences are happy and supportive, others are very hostile because they think they are better. If you don’t talk to the audience and get them involved, you’re talking to yourself. The audience wants your information, give your slides to them online, let people relax and focus on your talk.

Instead of seeing a crowed or a sea of faces, pick a new person to talk to with every part of your story. If you’re experienced, try to figure out what they are trying to get out of them. Talking to people one after the other, people who look interested, makes you subconsciously talk to them more.

Has a presentation ebook online for free. How to write slides, how to get invited to speak, how to deliver the talk.

Q: Format and structure of presentation. What the background should be? Bullets or no bullets? If you have a 10 mins presentation, how many slides?
There’s another game, Pecha Kucha – 20 slides in 20 seconds. Very fast. Good way to pace yourself and find out. Normally take a minute a slide. Always be faster than you think you are, don’t be scared of 45 minute talk. Don’t like bullet points because they distract the audience. If you structure the points, and show them one after the other and talk them through the process, then it’s ok. Summary slides, that’ where they are good. Other than that, one piece of information. Background – black background with big (36px upwards) white text works everywhere on every technology. Other than that, it’s up to you what your style is. Don’t go after someone else’s style. Think about what might break, and one thing to remember is that everything will break. You will never have a set up that works.

Q: How do you combat nerves of just getting up there?
Be in the mindset. You’re already there, people have already booked, you can’t let them down by not going on. There’s nothing much you can do that would make them hate you. Everybody is afraid at the last moment. You cannot change it just before you go on. You just have to do it. Find a way to calm yourself when you’re stressed. You’ve made the commitment, you’ve prepared, so you’re ready.

Q: How do you deal with people who take over the meeting, and make sure everyone has a chance to talk?
Wish we had more female managers; male managers get into vocal fist fights, talk in circles because they want consensus. Have an agenda, because if you don’t it’s a waste of time. Say at the beginning, this is the agenda, say you are going to stick to it and stick to the time, and be firm but polite with people. When people go round in circles, say, “We’re not going to fix this now, so let’s deal with it after the meeting.”

Q: How do you deal with a microphone?
See it as sceptre. I just earnt this because I have something important to say. It’s my turn. Spotlight situation: you want that question answers. You’ve made the commitment to ask it. A lot of others have the same question, and they’ll love you for asking it.

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