Suggestions for Speakers

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I dread speaking, especially in light of how many talks I’ve given in the past three or four years. Public speaking is like exercise: it hurts—and it doesn’t really stop hurting—but you learn to love the pain and depend on the resistence. It makes your reasoning stronger and hones your ability to sort through your thoughts. Plus, sometimes you get to go to fun places and you’ll meet interesting people. (That’s the best part.)

Some web friends have taken the time to jot down their tips and methods for public speaking. I particularly like Ethan’s tips and Mark’s advice. Since I’m taking a hiatus from public speaking, I thought it’d be a good time to offer up some of the things I’ve figured out in the past few years. A lot of the basics are covered elsewhere, so I’ll give a few tactical tricks in crafting the talks that work well for me. (Your mileage may vary.)

  • Import ideas. Search for examples that are outside the purview of everyone in the audience. Novelty wins, so start somewhere unexpected and figure out a way to navigate toward your topic. For example, last week I gave a talk at Build about screens, but started with the composition of aspirin pills. In your search, look for common verbs with different nouns. In the case of technology and aspirin, both are getting smaller, yet have limits to their minimum size because of what we can grasp. Of course, novel examples require hunting. Lucky us that process is fun.
  • Write, then jump to Keynote as quickly as possible. Keep in mind lectures are visual, too. My process is usually writing, then into keynote, back into writing, and then another pass at Keynote. Also, consider using blank slides for your most critical points. The absense of visuals will force your audience to look at you, giving the point extra importance.
  • A nice typeface on a dark background is good enough. Spend your time on the ideas and practicing the talk.
  • The audience is on your side. Listen: they want you to do well. Remind yourself this to ease your nerves. They will meet you halfway. And if the audience isn’t on your side, we call that a “bad crowd.” I’ve only had one bad crowd in years of giving talks.
  • Know if your life is interesting or not. People will be thrilled to hear you talk about your life if it is different than most of theirs. Climbing mountains is cool. Meeting famous musicians sounds awesome. But my life is boring, because it’s a lot like everyone else’s. I work and I sleep and I like eating good food and watching foreign movies on the sofa and drinking with loved ones. So I try my best not to talk about myself. I limit the talks to one personal story, and it’s usually about something I got wrong. Fallibility keeps things real, and presents your ideas as coming from experience.
  • Go in loops. It’s nice to come back to a thread that you dropped. Use recurring themes in your examples. Develop a thought to a question, say “I’m going to leave that question hanging for a bit,” then start somewhere else, and eventually link the new place to the the hanging question’s answer. I’m sure you can think of a bunch of other ways to do this. Leaving loops open creates anticipation. Resolving them creates closure. Both are necessary for a good talk.
  • Have padding. Listening is hard work, especially if you’re at a conference and listening for 5 or 6 hours in a row. Help your audience along by keeping in a little bit of fluffiness, and changing beats every 10 minutes or so. For instance, last talk, I wanted to show that screens had no problem showing a lot of different kinds of imagery. Rather than saying that one simple sentence, I stretched it out for a couple minutes by showing a bunch of different images of horses. Now, this is definitely ridiculous, but it had a purpose—the example lets your brain rest for a minute and allows the previous points to sink in. It’s negative space. I like to think of this fluffiness as if they were establishing shots or B-reel in television. Every once in a while, your brain needs a break.
  • Video is your friend. This goes against a lot of traditional wisdom, which says to minimize outside dependencies and not rely on audio. But! I almost always have videos in my talks, and it has never been a problem. (Just make sure to ask if you have audio in the venue, and if you can test your presentation on your laptop well before you get on stage.) Videos are great, because they do all the work. They provide some of that necessary padding I mentioned earlier, and more importantly, they give you a chance to step back, sort your thoughts, take a drink, and put yourself back together in preparation for the rest of your talk. Of course, you shouldn’t rely on videos too much, but 4 or 5 minutes away from the lectern in a 40 minute talk can be a godsend.

Hope this is helpful, and good luck out there.