My Top Ten Tips for Speaking Effectively in Public

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This is a vintage image of an unidentified corporate presenter. He certainly looks like someone who’s wearing comfortable shoes.

On Facebook recently, the folks who manage the TED Talks page posted an ostensible list of tips they give their speakers. In the ensuing conversation, I mentioned my own experience as a speaker and the mental list of tips I’ve complied over the years. My comment drew responses that were so encouraging I decided to share a slightly expanded version of that list here. While there are no universally applicable approaches, I can tell you that the techniques you’ll find in this list are the most effective ones I learned (mostly the hard way) over a nine year career delivering corporate presentations:

1. Have a reliable opening, one you can deliver expertly and with confidence. Early on, I “appropriated” (from someone who’s name I’ve sadly long since forgotten) a short opening quip that broke the ice with the audience and almost always got a chuckle. It scaled well and worked reliably with all sorts of different audiences. Having this opening in my toolkit de-stressed the beginning of my presentations significantly. I knew that even if no other single line in my talk connected, this one would. The little bit of connection and the confidence it produced in thirty seconds was all it ever took for me to get off to a great start.

2. Use pauses and silences strategically to grab your audience’s attention. Most speakers’ natural inclination when they want to capture their audience’s attention is to turn the volume up to eleven. In fact, it’s often much more effective to pause and let a silence hang over the room, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. From there, you can deliver a bombshell or a punchline to an audience that’s perched on the edge of their seats to hear what you’re going to say next.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. This is advice that most people only learn through painful experience because no one thinks to warn you beforehand. Trust me on this. (And while you’re at it, make sure that your soles are non-slip.)

4. Design your visual aids with a thoroughly minimalist sensibility. Whatever people are there to learn, it’s better for them to hear it directly from you rather than read it off your slides. The best way to use slides is with a single visual on each one. The next best way is to use words as sparingly as possible; use them not as a script but as a scaffold on which to hang the real presentation, the one that you’ve giving right in front of them,

5. Tell stories. If you can find a short story to illustrate each of your important points, you’ll vault yourself into the top tier of presenters at your conference or event. Audiences relate to stories and, more important, they remember stories.

6. Study video of your presentations. You often don’t look like what you think you look like. I still come across blog posts that advise speakers to practice in front of a mirror. Simply put, this doesn’t work. You can’t see the things you need to see in a mirror. Not that they’re not there; you literally can’t see them because your minds edits and selectively interprets the signals it gets from your eyes. You’re just too involved with the image you see in the mirror to evaluative it usefully. Video gives you something relatively more objective to observe.

7. If logistics don’t confine you to a stage, walk around the room. Your judicious incorporation of movement into your presentation will keep your audience on its metaphoric toes. It’s a subtle but significant way to hold their attention and keep them engaged.

8. Find ways to get your audience to participate. There are lots of ways to get an audience involved. Ask a question and solicit answers. Take a poll that requires  show of hands. Get volunteers from the audience to role play. (NB: There’s a significant “degree of difficulty” factor on that one.) Like other items on this list, audience participation increases engagement.

9. Don’t read from your slides. Closely related to item number four above, this is one of the cardinal sins that unpracticed presenters commit. If this was the only item on this list that you totally mastered, you’d be better than at least half of the presenters that members of your audience have ever heard.

10. Practice, practice, practice. It’s almost impossible to do an outstanding job with a presentation you’ve never given before. There are always places that fall unexpectedly flat and transitions that don’t quite flow as smoothly as they did in your head. If it’s at all possible, find an opportunity to try your big presentation out on an “off Broadway” audience before you step out on stage in front of your actual target audience. Every time you give a particular presentation it will get more and more polished. (And here’s a corollary: In general, it’s easier to find a new audience than it is to craft a new presentation.)

2 thoughts on “My Top Ten Tips for Speaking Effectively in Public”

  1. And, just a side-note on your brilliantly condensed list of time-tested tips: crafting the message of your presentation through multiple WRITTEN scripts is also essential. Not only is that method a memory-inducing exercise, it also gives you a time-tested method for editing and revising. Another skill that has taken me decades to get under control is time management. Crafting (and adapting!) a presentation to fit a time slot is essential. As an advertiser, I also cannot say enough about how important it is to know your audience. I know all those things have been covered by you many times in your other writings but thought it bore some mention here.

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