Tips for public speaking

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Published on 24 March 2022 by Andrew Owen (6 minutes)

In my day job as a developer advocate, and in my volunteer role as community manager for the Chloe 280SE project, I’m sometimes called upon to speak in public. But regardless of your job, you may find yourself called to address an audience. On occasion, I’m asked for my advice on the subject, and so here it is, with a few digressions.

I’m currently reading Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone involved in running any kind of community, so long as you ignore his advice on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. If you need guidance on writing for a modern audience, the Associated Press Stylebook should be your starting point. I’ll come back to the subject of creating a house style guide in a future article. Also, if you’re using an online style assistant, I prefer LanguageTool to Grammarly, which I suspect was created by fans of Strunk and White. But I generally ignore LanguageTool’s advice on passive voice.

Jono has kindly made The Art of Community available freely under a Creative Commons license. It’s not called The Art of Presentation, but he does have some useful tips, and they’re short, so I’ll quote them verbatim:

Tell a story

Bad presentations feel like a rattled-off collection of random thoughts and good

presentations take you on a journey and tell a story. Before you write your presentation,

think about how you can weave your points together into a logical story. Remember, all

stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end; think about how this can apply to the

things you want to talk about.

Build tension

The greatest stories in the world have tension in them; you build up the tension in your

audience and then relieve it. You should do the same in your presentations. In many of

my presentations I tell a story about how I got somewhere, and often the tension is created when I share how I made some bad decisions and how I got back on the right path. Think about where your tension occurs and make sure you build up to it.

Plan first, design second

Many people start creating a presentation by getting right into slide design. Don’t do this; you will obsess over the design before you know the structure of your presentation, and this is a huge time sink. Instead, grab a pen and a pad (or a text editor on your computer) and start noting the key points your want to cover and how they map to slides. When you have a few words describing each slide and they’re in the order you would present the slides, you can use this as a guide for creating your slide deck.

Keep slide content to a minimum

When you give a presentation your audience should focus primarily on what you are

saying, not what you are showing in the deck. Slides full of content, detail, bullet points,

and other fluff will merely distract your audience from what you are saying. As such, keep the content on the slides to a minimum.

Know your comedic limitations

This is a tough pill to swallow for some, but know your comic limitations. A not-

particularly funny person trying to be funny is nothing short of embarrassing. I am not

saying jokes are off-limits, but do what feels natural to your personality.

Practice, practice, practice

No matter how many presentations you have given, practice is always the key to a well-

executed and delivered presentation. Always run through your presentation a few times,

time it to make sure it is the right length, and get it down pat. A great tip here is to video yourself delivering your presentation; you can then observe your body language and delivery better.

Prepare the presentation essentials

Before you deliver the presentation, always ensure that you have available a glass of water and a sheet of paper with a list of your slides. One of these days you will have a dry mouth and a brain fart; make sure you are prepared for both.

Since I originally published this article, I’ve learned that while hydration is important, hot liquids are better for speaking than cold liquids (has to do with expansion and contraction of the vocal cords). So if you go for water, it shouldn’t be chilled. If you go for a hot drink, avoid getting over caffeinated. Personally, I like a lemon and ginger infusion. There now follows a list of my own advice:

  • Audience: Remember that the audience starts on your side; they are there to hear you. But don’t alienate them. If you feel you’re losing your audience, a little self-deprecation can help to get them back on side. Ideally, you should know who your audience will be in advance. Engage with them. Listen and respond.
  • Speaking: Don’t slouch. Annunciate your words. Speak clearly, but not loudly. If the audience is talking over you, lowering your voice is more effective than raising it. Speak from the diaphragm, and you may not even need a microphone.
  • Story: If you want tips on telling a story, all you really need is Aristotle’s Poetics”. If you want an expanded discussion of that work, there’s Robert McKee’s “Story”. As an aside, if you write fiction, you should also read the second and third books in the series, “Dialogue” and “Character”.
  • Slides: Just as good documentation stands on its own without screenshots, a good presentation should stand on its own without slides. Keep slides to a minimum and never use more than three bullet points. Slides should have a striking image that illustrates the point you’re making. A good quote can also be useful; I’m still trying to figure out how to work this one into a presentation: “It ain’t braggin’ if you really done it."—Dizzy Dean.
  • Time: No-one remembers anything after the first two hours. Make a note plan. Structure it like an “inverted pyramid” with the most important information first. If you start to run over, you can simply stop where you’re. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. Leave time for questions.

Some additional thoughts. There’s always room for improvement, and you can learn from your mistakes. At the last presentation I gave, I was rather sleep-deprived, (arrive early, get a good night’s rest). My position on the stage was too close to the light from the projector (ask to see the monitor beforehand while someone else stands on stage). And I could’ve done a better job of being seen to address the whole room, rather than just those in the front row (try to vary your eye contact).

Image: Original by Marion Brown.