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10 Tips to Becoming a Better Public Speaker

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I have been doing a lot of public speaking over the last few years. I enjoy talking to people and both teaching and being taught. I have done small user group talks and very large conference talks and I enjoy them all. Once in a while I have a fellow geek come up to me and ask how he or she can also be a public speaker and if I have any tips for them. I am always happy to share and improve the overall pool of speakers and the quality of them. So if my tips are helpful, all the better. I decided to finally write down the 10 best ones and most asked, so at least everybody can benefit and share.

1. Practice Your Talk

There are as many ways to prepare for a talk as there are speakers, but prepare and practice you must. I can’t memorize a whole talk word for word and I don’t want to either. Instead I know the flow of the talk and I know the subject matter and then just talk as if I was doing it for the first time. I also go through my slides and demos in my head and I make a run sheet from this exercise. I make three lists that gets me through the talk.

  1. Preparation sheet. This contains all the stuff I need to remember and need to organise when I enter the room, but before the talk starts. This could be to close Skype, start up ZoomIt, set the timer for the talk and so on. They are practical things that makes you start on the right foot.
  2. Timing sheet. For each major section of the talk I note the time into the talk that I should be at. For example:
    0:00 Introduction
    2:00 Android fragmentation
    5:00 iOS platform
    6:00 Windows 10
    10:00 Introduce myself
    12:00 Section 2 Adaptive Interfaces
    14:00 .NET Native
    18:00 Scaling Algorithm
    20:00 Effective Pixels
    22:00 Section 3 – Tooling
    24:00 Relative Panel
    28:00 Visual States
    38:00 XAML View
    43:00 ConclusionThis makes sure that I keep to the time and don’t end too early, or have to skip things at the end. Both are equally bad.
  3. Demo run sheet. Make sure you know exactly what to do when running code demos and these I do practice step by step. The 20-30 seconds of some nuget package restoring or some dll reference missing can kill the flow of a presentation. Have each step written down.

2. You Are the Person With the Microphone

As daunting as it may seem, you actually have almost all the power. You have the microphone (or at least the stage). That means people are there to listen to what you have to say, and they are keen for you to succeed and inform them. In my opinion the purpose of public speaking is to make the world a little better every time I get on stage. I educate, entertain and encourage people to think about what I am telling them. If there happens to be a heckler/troll/idiot up the back, then either ignore them or ask them to be quiet. Often the audience will side with you and shut them up for you.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Say You Don’t Know

You can’t know everything. No one knows everything, however much you think they do. And if you don’t know, then say so. As soon as you try and fake it or guess, it erodes away the credibility you have just created by doing your presentation. By saying you don’t know an answer to a question you becomes more human and your audience can relate to you much better.

4. Make Sure Your Talk Has a Story

A good talk can inspire, educate and motivate. But if your audience can’t follow the red thread in your talk, then you’ll achieve none of these. It is critical to have a story in your talk that takes the audience on a journey, creates context for your topic and lets people easily transition between areas of the talk.

When you write the talk, consider how you can relate each segment to the next and previous, as well as to the overall topic. If you can’t clearly see the story of the talk, then your audience certainly isn’t going to either.

5. Time Yourself and Practice

Make sure you aren’t too long or short. Both are equally bad. If you go over time, not only will your audience likely start leaving your talk prematurely, but you will also annoy the organisers of the event you are at. If you finish too early, people will feel like you didn’t deliver full value and you could also have provided more knowledge and enriched your audience further.

And by timing I don’t meant sit in front of your screen and go through your slides. I mean actually do the talk. Practice in front of a mirror, in front of the cat, or whatever works for you. The important thing is that you are standing up and talking out loud. This not only gets your timing tuned in, but you also have a much better feel for the talk and you will iron out any parts that either don’t feel right or don’t fit.

6. Be funny AND provide great value.

A talk that is monotonous throughout will make your audience fall asleep or lose attention. Similarly a talk that is one laugh after the other might be really entertaining, but you are most likely not providing value on the topic you are explaining. I have the best results by far when you combine the two.

If you aren’t a humorous speaker then one other thing to do is to used personal anecdotes. Tell a story about an experience you have had and how it made you change your approach, see things from a different light or in some other way improve what your were doing. I guess what I am suggesting is that you shouldn’t be all one style of presenting. Mix it up and keep your audience on their toes. Make them want to know what comes next.

7. Be Prepared For the Demo Gods

It is likely that something is not going to work as you thought it would, or as it did when you practiced your talk. A demo might fail, Internet connection could drop out, your machine might blue screen and many other things could go wrong. It is rare that I do a presentation where something doesn’t go to plan. It is the demo gods at play. The important thing is not that something screw up, the important thing is how you handle it. Often your audience won’t even know something didn’t work, if you know how to recover from it.

It is easy to get flustered and lose your cool on stage, but that is when the audience loses faith in you. A good rule of thumb is that every second you are not talking or trying to fix something, feels like a minute to the audience. 10-15 seconds of trying to sort out why something isn’t building seems like an eternity. The best advice I have is to just move on, with possibly a short explanation of what the purpose would have been of the demo.

If you can think of something that might go wrong, such as writing code, make sure you have a backup plan. For example, have you got the complete example somewhere accessible that you can just open?

8. Know your audience.

To gauge the skill level, interests, experience of your audience you can start your talk with a quick show of hands. It is important to understand where your audience is at so you can adjust your talk to their level, but also by involving the audience you give them a vested interest in your talk. If the audience feels you are there to talk to them instead of at them, they will engage a lot more.

9. Know your stage

Every time you present you will be in a different location. You might be in a tiny cramped room with barely enough space for you to stand, or you might be in a massive movie theatre where you have a large stage. In either case, show up early and be comfortable with where you are. If you can use the stage to your advantage it has a great positive impact on how your audience perceive the talk.

10. Enjoy it!

As daunting as public speaking can be, it is meant to be fun. The first few times will be scary as hell and you probably want to run away. But remember that people have come to see you and hear what you have to say. They want you to succeed and they want to learn from you.

To me there is little else that beats sharing your passion with others.

11. What is Your Tip?

Let me know in the comments any tips you have to becoming a better public speaker.

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