I’ve been asked recently about my abilities related to public speaking. I feel very comfortable in front of a crowd and can tell stories and relate information in an engaging way. I don’t want to sound too conceited, but I am pretty good at it. The questions, however, relate to whether it is something you are born with or something you learn. Probably it’s both, but it got me thinking about the subject. What are the key elements that make my style of speaking work?
I almost always use PowerPoint, however I hardly ever use bullets and text. Usually, it’s a single high res photo and one or two words. Some people say, “What if they wanted a take-home version?” My answer is simple: Then make something else to take home. It is not effective to give a presentation using materials meant to be taken home.
The tools in PowerPoint are very powerful. You can use animations, transitions, fonts and images to create stunning, interesting looks. They are there to support your speaking and help the audience to visualize your ideas. They are not meant to help the speaker by writing down every idea the speaker wants to cover.
There is no substitute. It makes no sense to tell people facts. You have to tell them stories. People resonate with a good story. They keep it in a special place in their brain. Let’s say you wanted to convey that people should be honest and ethical. Tell a story about someone who was/wasn’t and the consequences. Information is not memorable, stories are. See “Made to Stick” for details.
I do an additional thing, which could be termed “tangents” or “side-stories”. Let’s say you are talking about some subject like the cooling technology in a laptop. In the middle of your talk, stop and tell a quick story about how Enrico Fermi used giant buckets of water to potentially put out a nuclear fire when he was experimenting under the stadium at the University of Chicago. Semi-related stories are great, especially if they are funny.
Relax, they don’t know you are nervous
I get very nervous before every single speaking engagement. My stomach is rumbling and I think all kinds of terrible thoughts like, “Will I choke?” or “What if they hate me?” or “Did I think this through?” I know from experience that this nervousness is usually not visible to the audience. The important thing is to focus on what you are saying and not your inner dialog. Never talk to yourself in your head. Focus on the moment and let your brain work in a relaxed mode. Sometimes people get nervous and then start saying (in their head) to stop talking to themselves and RELAX. Obviously, this can result in a death spiral. I use a technique of listening to my breathing. I clear my mind and listen to my breath. It calms me down.
If you don’t care about what you are talking about, people won’t care about your presentation. If you have to present on something you are bored with, you have to still put passion into it. Find something that excites you. Find an angle. It may be very hard, but if you seriously can’t get excited about any single thing in your talk, you should cancel it.
Passion allows people to better empathize with your point of view. When you seem engaged and excited about the topic, then people will feel the same way. A speaker is an emotional beacon. The audience draws the energy (or lackthereof) of the speaker. Bottom line: Be passionate and you will reap the rewards.
Make eye contact, but not too much
Generally, I try not to make too much eye contact. It freaks me out. I will notice them staring at me and it will distract me. I like to look at the crowd like it’s a sea of fish. I don’t pick anyone out, but rather look at the “crowd” as a single organism. However, once in a while, I will linger on a single person and see if they are nodding or falling asleep or showing some form of emotion. These are spot checks to see if things are going well. You should know your own comfort level for this aspect. I have heard some people claim that it calms them down to look at one person.
I don’t know the secret sauce that makes me good at this. I don’t know when I started to be good, although I feel like I have improved over the years. It’s like asking how someone became funny or how someone became a leader? It’s a multitude of factors that are hard to pin down.
What other tips have you heard? This is really just a partial list.