Four Tips For Public Speaking

My heart thumped as I walked to the front of a lecture hall at Google. I was there to give a talk about the Angular JavaScript framework. “I want to thank Google for giving us all pizza tonight,” I said. “Apparently, when you eat pizza at Google, you’re supposed to map the pie into four sections and reduce each section to the most relevant slice.”

The nerdy joke drew one or two chuckles from the crowd, and suddenly I was off on the roller coaster ride that is public speaking: locked in a tense yet exhilarating dialogue with the crowd. I felt proud when the folks at Google responded well to my talk. During the past few years, I’ve practiced to become a more effective and less nervous presenter.

My first speech in college required me to use a visual aid. Observing smiles in the audience, I assumed my classmates were enjoying it. Actually, they were just chiding me for holding a poster upside-down. Each time I stumbled to the dais in that course, I felt like public speakers were born, not made. Most people would rather die than address a huge crowd; a select few were born with nerves of steel.

While I’m still not an expert, I’ve learned to love public speaking through deliberate practice, giving informal talks and speaking at two tech-related conferences. I attribute the change in attitude to four realizations.

1. Use five words or fewer.

People can't read and listen effectively at the same time. To avoid splitting their attention, I try to limit the text on each slide to five words or fewer. Authentic relevant pictures are usually better than words. If you challenge yourself to visualize technical stuff - data tables, functions, etc., you might find creative solutions. I went to one lecture where the speaker explained abstract processes in machine learning by drawing cartoons on a sketch pad.

2. Lower your expectations.

I learned to lower my expectations of public speaking as a medium. A speech isn’t a newspaper article with points that can be slowly analyzed and re-read over sips of coffee. Audiences will remember only a few high-level points if the speaker is lucky. Instead of cramming details into each slide, I set about 3-5 conceptual goals based on what the audience should learn, feel or believe.

3. Forget notes.

I used to write things down to prepare for speeches, but practicing on paper meant neglecting intonation and timing. (My theory is that the crowd likes a speaker 25 percent less for each minute he or she runs overtime.) Instead of taking notes, I rehearse aloud between 5 and 20 times, depending on the length and complexity of the speech. By burning a roadmap of the talk into my mind, I can present without notes and even deviate from the script to do some improv.

4. Contrast speaking with writing.

Many speeches that sound spontaneous actually follow structures similar to essays. Bill Clinton, for instance, begins with a concrete example, describes a problem and concludes with a call to action. At the same time, some speaking habits make for bad writing habits and vice versa. Though it’s bad to repeat yourself in writing, repeating phrases on stage helps the audience focus. Moving from Topic A to Topic B, Clinton might say, “Now that I’ve told you about A…”

Final thoughts

I used to feel sick to my stomach at the thought of giving a talk, but I boosted my confidence through deliberate practice. These four tips aren't panaceas, but hopefully they'll embolden other speakers.