Don’t let presenting get in the way of presenting

Speaking — publicly — to people!

Everyone in professional life has to give a public talk of some kind at some point. It is exactly the biggest thing people dread, more than death according to an infamous survey. But it can instead be something totally empowering, it can be your thing if you approach it the right way.

The real joy of public speaking happens when you present as yourself with humility and from the heart.

Before the presentation: Prep work

Circle of familiarity — speak inside it

Speak about what you know. Speak from where you are in your journey as a student of life and of the subject. Don’t pretend to speak with any authority on something you don’t know because you will find yourself on a narrow tightrope of rote memorization and rehearsal, unconfident and easily unbalanced.

If you need to read the caption to remember what you want to say when you and the listeners see the slide, then you need morer, simplerer slides and less (or no) speaker notes.

No Speaker Notes

We are assuming here that you are using a slide deck that both you and your listeners can see.

How to trip yourself up: put secret speaker’s notes under your slides — they are never in the order you need them to be when you speak. They are written to be read, not spoken. You have to read them to yourself, then translate and articulate — you’ll end up just reading them aloud to the audience. And audiences know when a speaker is just reading. Instead…

Slides are a Cue

If you make the slide the cue to remind you what to talk about, then both you and the audience are looking at the same material thinking along the same lines, interacting together.

Keep one sentence [fragment] per slide, and one image. If you need more, put it in the next slide. This paces the imagery, the key idea, and your thoughts around it in a very natural and well paced way. When you run out of stuff to say, you can trust the next slide to pick up the slack.

Practice is the Canary

Practice is the Canary in the coal mine — problems here are bigger problems when you are presenting IRL.

Practice your talk, out loud, quietly, fast, slow. You will get the presenter’s version of muscle memory, the goal is to feel semi-automatic in your presentation and flow of thoughts.

The goal is not to be perfectly consistent. If you are, then you will be inflexible and de-railed easily.

Stay fluid and switch it up. If you find a place where you struggle or forget the flow or the pacing feels weird, fix the presentation, not the speaker. Fix it right then and there. A clever segue to save the day is a long shot.

During the presentation: it’s happening!

Be you.

Be you be you be you be you.

Don’t be someone else — it never works because it is not true. Your style is your own and the only style that does you and your listeners justice is sincerity and humility. Unless you are a professional actor, the best character you can portray is yourself.

The mic is like a shaman’s staff, maybe. It has some weird social powers, not to mention acoustic quirks.

Pick a few people to speak with

An audience is a big intimidating animal with hundreds of eyes, many flailing tentacles, judging your merits and savvy and social worth based on a few minutes of scrutiny on a stage.

So don’t have an audience monster. Have a few trusted listeners.

However you do it, you will naturally pick a few people to make eye contact with. Usually one near the front and one near the back of the room. Alternate speaking to those few good listeners. Forget everyone else — they can listen in to your interesting and private conversation if they wish. A conversation is more human more familiar territory, why abandon it when times are adrenaline-y?

Stay audible

Public speaking is not public speaking if no one can hear you.

You have to speak up.

To do that you have to take deep breaths, to pause and to articulate. It’s a great combination.

Almost no one uses a podium every day, or a mic. So they hold the mic too far away, or they turn away from the highly directional podium mic to look at the slides behind them, and their voice disappears for a word or two. These things disconnect you from the listener, because, hey, they can’t listen anymore.

So ask if people can hear you and use this moment to check amplification, then hold the mic in your hand and present so that it is always close. Or have a lav mike clipped to you, but not near your beard or hair or collar. If you have to use a podium mic, be conscious of the fact it won’t move with you.

Pausing is speaking

Fortunately it is pretty hard to have an awkward silence while presenting. People tend to give pauses a lot of credit. It lets ideas sink in. It underlines the point. It gives mental breathing room. It lets the speaker do things like breath and think.

If your presentation leaves no negative space, no room for settling and processing and fun moments, then it is too long, too inflexible. It is like vacation luggage that so full it almost bursts, and you can’t take any souvenirs back home with you and can’t be flexible.

Emphasis needs emphasis

You might find, just like speaking up a bit more than normal, that you’ll want to add more intonation than normal. This is not easy when you are nervous, this is not quite normal, but it helps. Maybe it is because people are not close enough to visually pick up on your subtle cues of expression and gesture — the tonality compensates.

I think this is the most risky part of this article — it might not work for everyone, but I feel that making sure you have dynamic tone and emphasizing words compensates for nervousness and lack of visual cues. Just try listening to the voice actors in the Simpsons — compare the guest voices like Elon Musk, to the professional voice actors to see how dynamic tone is the colour on top of the black and white facts.

Jokes

Not unless you are completely ready for them to fall flat.

If there is humour it should have roots in your sincerity. If a manufactured, engineered joke/pun/digression falls flat, well, that kind of cashes in your credibility as a speaker with valuable things to speak about. The real info that you are sharing won’t appreciate it.

Spiralling death loop of introspection

Oh did I just say that? What was next? Am I pausing too long? This isn’t going well. Ok I have to stop thinking about it not going well or it….

Public speaking is not the best moment to think about what just happened, what you just said. You will be mentally leaning backwards just when you are most needed to be eyes forward, leaning into the presentation.

Preparation helps a lot to avoid this, and knowing your stuff and speaking within your circle of competence helps even more. If you find yourself doing it, take a deep breath, maybe even go back or forward a slide to unstick your brain, and be honest with yourself and the moment. It will pass and you will meet up with yourself again in a few seconds and keep going.

Pithy endings

Sad to say, but the end of your presentation is here already, and you know the pithiest mic drop ending ever?

Say, “That about covers it. Thank you!”

After the presentation

The audience doesn’t know what you left out

My best piece of advice is from my folks, who taught public speaking as volunteers to help people build self confidence and learn about themselves:

“The audience will never know what you forgot to say.”

That is the most liberating idea. Most public speaking you will do is not about getting across 100% of what you know, it is a sneak preview of a subject — a personal perspective, one that you will tell a different way each time you rehearse it, give it, and remember it.

That’s just the way humans are.

Interactive developer for science and data outreach, github.com/jufa