Over the past few years, I’ve been invited to come speak at various events. No big surprise there, as I’ve probably met a bunch of you at them. Since there’s a chance that some are publicly speaking for the first time in Austin this year, I figured I’d share a few things I’ve tried along the way.
These tips will probably be more relevant if you’re a nervous talker and you suspect you won’t fill in enough time. (If you’re a rambler, there are other people who can offer you far better advice than I.) It’s timely in a way, because I think I’ve finally crossed a threshold in my own speaking. I started off early 2004 in a bit of a fluster, went into overdrive preparation mode during most of 2005, and now in 2006, I think I’m easing into speaking naturally and comfortably. Finally.
When I first started, I wasn’t sure how to plan for time constraints. Speaking for an hour seemed like a long time to keep going, and there was always a good chance I’d miss important points along the way and end really early.
So I approached my preparation as if I were writing an article, which would take approximately an hour to read out loud. I’d hole up in a cafe and breeze through a logical progression of thoughts that ended up being 10 pages or more of printed text, and try to separate that out into smaller bite-sized points for easier scanning when presenting. Then I’d build slides based on that. It was a lot of work.
Not only was I concerned about the time constraints though, I also got spooked out of allowing myself to ramble at all. I’ve talked through three slides past the one that’s currently on screen, only to madly catch up later. I’ve realized halfway through that I didn’t make a bunch of important points earlier to help support the current slide, so it in turn makes no sense without that context. I’ve even gotten completely stuck from time to time, I think the most notable was on stage at WE04. “Uh, I completely forgot where I was going with that…” So to help myself avoid any repeats, I’ve been meticulous in my preparation and made sure to have the entire presentation outlined, with a paper backup on hand, to ensure I could talk my way out of any glitches.
But that spiraled out of control, since every time I presented I tried to deliver new material, adapted to the theme of the conference. And thus, new supporting material. Not such a hot idea, I found out, as it’s probably more important to be familiar with your material and comfortable when delivering it, than to be fresh all the time. Not to mention the extra time and effort creating a new set of slides every single time.
So recently, I’ve realized a few things that I think are making me a better speaker. I’ve stopped spending ages coming up with finely-detailed outlines of each presentation, and instead I’m leaving more to real-time interaction. I’m still no Veen or Molly, and likely will never be, but at least I’m comfortable in my own methods now, and I think that’s the real key to presenting well.
- Know your material. But plan to make mistakes anyway. If you talk through a bunch of slides, oh well. Make them available later, and it’s no big deal. If you have to back up and provide extra context that you missed earlier, go right ahead. You can even tell people that’s what you’re doing, although you probably don’t need to. Also, if you’re more of a bullet-point presenter, you can even use your slides as notes to keep you focused throughout. That’s hardly a bad system, though we all know why PowerPoint is evil…
- Nervousness goes away. Five minutes into it, you’ll stop being nervous and start having a bit more fun. And after doing a few presentations, you’ll stop getting those butterflies in your stomach before hand, and feel a lot more at home on a stage.
- Pause. Get used to taking small pauses here and there, to take a sip of water, to collect your thoughts, to slow yourself down, or whatever else. It’s okay to have a few seconds of silence.
- Have a water bottle with you on stage. You’ll need it for the dry mouth. Some lip balm might not be a bad idea either, if you’re talking more than once.
- If you get stuck on-stage, it’s not a bad thing. You simply move on to the next topic. The audience might notice, or they might not. A lot of the things you’re thinking internally during that moment will never get picked up by anyone else, so if what you’re saying still makes some form of sense, chances are no one will catch it. (And if it doesn’t make sense, often that’s just glossed over! Not everyone is 100% coherent all the time when speaking, and it rarely matters.)
- Be prepared to allow for spontaneity. You can’t really plan for the asides and diversions that you might make while on stage, but allow them to happen when they do. Often you’ll explore a related idea that ties in with your main points nicely, and it’ll work its way into future presentations. Try to keep yourself always coming back to the topic at hand, or at the very least, make sure to highlight why your diversion is relevant to the discussion. Don’t spend too long on them, however.
- Have a lot of slides. If you’re worried about time, just make sure you’ve got more material than you need. Chances are you won’t get through it all, but that’s not a terrible problem to have. I’d say 40 to 50 slides is probably enough to fill up an entire hour, as that’s just over a minute each. As you get more comfortable, you can start bringing that number down.
- Be prepared, but it’s not worth killing yourself. Don’t go for broke on the slides, go for broke on familiarizing yourself with your topic and your slides. Do three dry runs before you get up on stage. Time yourself, and don’t try to back up and re-try anything during the dry runs. Learn how to talk your way out of a factual error you just caught, speaking flub, or even just simple mispronunciation. Pretend there’s an audience right in front of you and you only have that hour. This will quickly highlight the problem points, and often it’ll cause you to re-arrange your slides.
- If you don’t fill the entire hour, no big deal. (If you’re only hitting the 30 minute mark, you might need to have more material next time.) Q&A can usually fill up the rest of your time slot, and ever since I’ve started speaking I’ve had more fun answering questions than talking during the actual presentation. Try to make your talk amenable to follow-up questions, and if you’ve got a small enough room (anything over 50 people is pushing it) you can even encourage questions throughout.
- Make sure you’ve got a strong start, and the rest will fall into place. The first few minutes are the most important. The audience doesn’t know what you’re like, you don’t know what they’re like, so you need to get people interested. Plus, the sea of quiet faces is a bit overwhelming, so if you need to script any part of your presentation, this is the best part to script. After you’ve gone through the introduction and started getting into the meat of it, people are likely to be more receptive and you won’t feel so on the spot.
- Re-use material. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. If you’re giving repeat presentations, feel free to dip into past talks and pull out points. I lean towards illustrated slides instead of bullet points these days, so I’ve even built up an illustration library which I’ll happily re-use for new talks, even if the subject matter changes.
Of course SXSW is more oriented toward 15 or 20 minutes of talking, so the time frame is a bit different. But chances are sooner or later you’ll need to talk for an hour or so. Hopefully you’ll be a natural, but if not, maybe these tips will help.