A friend of mine recently asked me any speaking tips I might have. I don’t have many, but I’m happy to oblige. I’m not saying I’m particularly good at it, but I have spoken at a few pretty cool events.
The audience wants you to do well, just respect them
Even if it’s true, don’t say say stuff like: “I didn’t prepare much for this.” or “I’m just super out of it today.” I got this from the book Confessions of a Public Speaker, and I like it. Now that I know this, I see speakers do it and suffer for it all the time at conferences. I think speakers think that saying it will garner them extra sympathy, but in fact it does the opposite.
You have this big opportunity to say something to a big group of people that want to hear it, you owe them some respect.
Don’t do too much
There are talks and there are workshops. Workshops are long and generally have that “deep dive” vibe. Talks are short (45 minutes is still short). If you plan to deep dive on anything, it better be super specific.
One of my favorite talks I ever did was a full hour on how ::before and ::after work in CSS. That’s a long time to spend on something so specific. I like to think of City Slickers and the “The cows could program the VCR by now!” scene. By the time you are done, the audience should absolutely understand what you were trying to say.
Have a point you’re trying to drive home and keep hitting it different ways until it’s as clear as can be.
Pick something you’re super comfortable talking about
Ideas for talks will come to you that you think would make great talks, but also that you might not be the most well suited to talk about. There may be a difference between what you are currently infatuated with and what you totally grok. What you grok probably will make a better talk.
I try and be aware of thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a long time. If I pick that as a topic, then start to create the talk, the ideas usually flow out pretty well.
As a bonus, you’ll speak more confidently about subjects you know better, and will be more prepared to field questions after.
Practice what you are actually gonna say.
All the books say to do it in front of a mirror. Or out loud in your living room. I don’t do that. I just stare at keynote and pretend I’m talking in my head. Works fine for me. I find what I said in my head matches pretty well what actually comes out of my mouth during the talk.
If your personality allows, rock some jokes.
If you ask someone what their favorite part of a conference was even a few days later, you’ll be lucky to get a few generic sound bites. People just don’t remember that much detail. They will remember that general feeling that they enjoyed themselves though.
Conference talks are largely entertainment. We’re nerds. Nerdy things are fun for us. A good conference experience might be like a Super Bowl party for a huge football nerd.
So if possible, make your talk fun. Toss out some jokes. Be self deprecating. Use some embarrassing past photos of yourself. Just don’t…
Hi. I’m not very good at being funny, so I’m going to use the most formulaic possible way to get a laugh. Maybe I’ll even throw in an IE joke too!
You’ll get better.
Like every other thing ever, you’ll get better over time. You just might suck that first time. That’s OK, the next time will be better.
Have you ever actually tried speaking it out loud in front of a mirror? The mirror part, at least at first, heightens your awareness of body language, unintentional as it may be, which can detract/enhance. (How much raising of eyebrow is funny before it becomes just plain embarrassingly stupid) or hand/arm movements (flailings) or pacing/wandering about the stage, etc. etc. Once you’ve become aware of them and understand that it’s not just about the words but the whole package, mirror has less use.
It’s true that the best of athletes find a great deal of benefit from “visualizing” (i.e. speaking in your head) their performance. Picturing themselves succeeding doing the activity over and over before the match; but, ask them which they would *rather* be doing to prepare – visual or actual – and they’d pick actual every time. Because there is absolutely NO substitute for actual muscle memory.
People having problems (known or unknown) with stuttering, stammering, cluttering or other linguistic mannerisms find that actual, physical practice perhaps actually greases the neurons or something because most all of these all but disappear when it comes time to actually giving the talk. For example, give your talk, or portion of it, into a tape recorder then play it back trying to find a word or words that you use so often that it’s obvious. Count the number or times you use it in a paragraph or sentence. In radio we called that an “air check” – something the company mandated any “on air” talent do once a month. Perhaps you do it for Shop Talk.
We all have verbal “fillers” our brain can get in the habit of using when it’s trying to come up with a word or thought: “em,” “er,” “a,” “but,” and in these days of valley girls, “like,” “ya know,” etc. The reason seasoned speakers give the advice of practicing like you mentioned from the book is because it’s the kind of thing that gets you the “extra second” off your time for the win, separates speakers and keynote speakers from the mere “talk givers.”
Perhaps you have one too, but my favorite talk of all time was given by someone with such an accent that I literally felt “beat up” after it was over because of the strain it took to understand and “forgive” the misuse of English. I loved the talk because of the topic, I respect the guy because of his knowledge and the extraordinary effort he made to give it in a foreign language, but I wouldn’t want to go through the experience again.
Like you described, the goal of a “talk” is to convey meaningful information in a way that it can be understood and remembered. The goal of a speaker, however, is not just to accomplish a talk but to do it in a way that is not only respectful but there’s no distractions, impediments or obstacles in the way of the audience — and to get invited back.
If you haven’t already, why don’t you give it a try a couple of times (ie practicing out loud in front of a mirror), I’d be interested in hearing your experience.