One of my many weird qualities is that I actually enjoy public speaking. It’s taken me a while to get here. I remember the very first time I presented professionally in front of an audience. It was at a conference in New Orleans early in my grad school career. I had lost a contact on Bourbon Street a few nights before and was stuck wearing my glasses over a red and watering eye. I was presenting on the last day of the conference, and had given myself a lot of negative self-talk about what this implied for the quality of my presentation. The situation was not ideal. Even though there were only a handful of people in the audience, I was incredibly nervous. My hands visibly shook throughout my talk, and my voice wavered like it’s never done before or since.
It was awful.
However, I’m the type of person who is fueled by failure, so I decided I would become a better public speaker. Over the last decade plus, I’ve made an effort to speak in public as often as I can, and to improve with each go-around. Here are three of my favorite tips for becoming a more compelling and engaging speaker, and having more fun at the podium.
1. Find YOUR audience members and connect with them.
In every audience, there are at least a few people who are awesome listeners. These are the people who will make eye contact with you, nod their head as you speak, and offer obvious non-verbal responses to whatever you say. They laugh at your jokes and look thoughtful when you’ve said something compelling.
No one knows where these people come from, but if you want to be a better public speaker, you can use them to your advantage.
First, locate your awesome listeners. This is easy; they are using eye contact like a homing beacon. I like to find at least one awesome listener on each side of the podium, preferably right on the lines where you’d divide the audience in thirds.
Now, alternate eye contact between your two (or more) awesome listeners as you talk. Don’t do this rapidly. Look at each one for maybe 30 seconds, a minute, at a time. Pretend you are talking directly to this person. Your awesome listener will probably give you enough non-verbal feedback that you can truly imagine you’re in a 1:1 conversation.
Because you will have chosen awesome listeners seated centrally in the audience, the other people in the audience will feel like you’re connecting with them, too, even though your specific focus is on other people. This will make the audience perceive you as a more interactive speaker.
Some people in the audience will be looking at their phones or devices while you talk. Don’t worry about this. They are probably just tweeting all the awesome things you’re saying with the conference hashtag for you to favorite later.
2. Learn an outline, not a script.
If you’re nervous about speaking, it may make sense to try to memorize what you’ll be saying. However, in my experience, memorizing your talk just amplifies jitters.
Why? When you memorize something, your desired performance is perfect recitation of what you’ve planned or practiced. This means that if you slip up and use the wrong word or make a point out of order, it’s a much bigger issue than if you hadn’t memorized your talk. Feeling like you’ve made a “mistake” will then make you more nervous which can lead to more mistakes.
Memorized talks also sound memorized; they don’t leave speakers with room to respond to audience reactions or calibrate the talk based on non-verbal feedback. And memorized talks are not compatible with real-time questioning, which happens in many presentation situations.
My strategy is to learn an outline rather than a script. I want to know my main bullet points by heart. And I want to know the material that fills in each slot on the outline incredibly well. But I don’t worry about learning the exact words I will say, because chances are, I’ll forget them or misspeak them and then I will be flustered mid-talk.
If you are carrying notes (which I generally recommend against because of their awkwardness), you can put your outline in them in large print that’s easy to see from a distance. Your slides can also serve as your outline, giving you the prompt to begin each new point in your talk. When you practice your talk, focus on transitioning between sections of the outline so you can remember the order topics go in and how to navigate between each section.
3. Look at the pretty pictures, not the wordy words.
I remember back to the slides I used to present at conferences at grad school and I feel sad for my former self. Those slides basically took portions of academic papers and pasted them into PowerPoint. It wasn’t atypical for a single slide to have hundreds of words and maybe ten bullet points. My poor audience.
The advice to focus your slides on visuals rather than text is not new–see, for example, here, here, and here. And you’ll notice that beautifully designed slides often lean toward more visuals and less text. The reasons why include:
- Lots of text is boring
- Lots of text is a big ol’ spoiler alert for the things you’re going to say, which people will notice because . . .
- People will read anything you put up on a slide, at the expense of listening to your words
Including visuals in your slides instead helps make sure that people are paying attention to what you’re actually saying, instead of the words you chose to put on a slide. You can still use your slides as cue cards for the outline of your talk, only by using visuals (with perhaps a very few and focused words) to remind you of what to say next instead of words.
More importantly, visual slides will help your audience remember you, the speaker, instead of your slides. They help your personality rather than your reading skills drive the presentation, and they differentiate you from the many other speakers who will lean on wordy slides as a crutch.
Another self-interested reason I like visual slides over wordy ones is that they make it more difficult for other people to deliver your content. Your ideas are your brand. Don’t make them easy for other people to borrow.
I know it’s not always an option to make your slides completely visual. Some text may be needed to communicate a complex idea, such as results from a data analysis. That’s ok; your objective should be to clearly communicate your information, and if text is necessary to do that, then use it. But many ideas do not require written accompaniment. You should try to recognize these and let them stand alone.
I still have growth in my journey as a public speaker, but I can confidently tell you that I’ve come a long way from that first frightened talk in New Orleans. These days I rarely have serious jitters before a talk, beyond normal concerns about presenting my material clearly and engaging the audience. My hands don’t shake and my voice doesn’t waver. My eyes seek out and connect with the most riveted people in the crowd, and I am able to keep the outline I’ve prepared for my talk in mind. Using slides that have as few words as possible, I get through the talk. And I get excited to do it again, even better next time.