Public Speaking 102

Stefan Ivanov / Thursday, May 05, 2016

Gearing up even better to deliver a talk that lasts even longer

Last month I set out on a quest to share my observations on what makes a conference talk stick in the memories of the audience. I outlined the importance of a confident beginning and end, striving to make your points easier to comprehend and tailoring your talk to the expected audience. I also shared my personal favorite, especially when talking about design: showing actual objects. That was a good, but far from exhaustive, beginning and therefore, I want to add to that list a few more ideas. Putting everything in action is neither pleasant nor easy but I can assure you that the reward in the end is worth the effort. Let’s go on with the list.

Speak calmly. Don’t run through your presentation, speaking at a rate that people find hard to comprehend. If you have too many slides or too much content to share, then you probably didn’t do your job selecting and preparing the topic well enough. Giving a talk is like telling a story, so when you practice pay attention to the pace of your storytelling. When a new section of your topic is about to begin leave a few silent seconds, take a few steps, breathe in deeply and start the next section. People need some time to comprehend what you just spoke about and to prepare for what is coming. However, don’t be too phlegmatic or you risk having your audience silently fall asleep.

Plant your feet but move your body. Taking a few steps when switching between topic sections is fine but if you intend to elaborate on a section, keep your feet planted on the ground. Once you stop walking at the beginning of a new section, the audience will automatically refocus and you should remain in the same area until the section is over. This does not mean to freeze and only move your lips, of course. Use body language and gestures to stress particular concepts – just try not to wander around too much.

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UXify Bulgaria 2015 opening session. Image attributed to: Infragistics Inc.

When things go wrong tell a joke. Prepare a few beforehand and if you lose your train of thought or there is a moment of awkward silence, take advantage of it, rather than make excuses. My observations show that when you make excuses, you usually lose attention and credibility for the rest of your talk. If you mess things up, soldier on. If you treat it as insignificant, so will the audience. By the end of your talk, they will probably have forgotten all about it.

Respect your audience. You might be “the expert” on stage but that does not make you superior to your audience. You connect with them by minimizing the perceived gap between you and them. Taking care to do this well will allow your ideas to really “get under their skin”. Treat questions with respect and give your best answer. Be extra careful during the Q&A session because you may be asked questions that are only marginally related to your presentation topic. They might be trying to be polite, since no one else is asking questions, or may have missed (or misunderstood) something. Even when the answer is obvious, try to understand why the question is being asked and politely give the best answer you have. If this seems impossible at the time, invite the person to discuss his question once the Q&A is over. Remember that being disrespectful to someone, especially to someone who is trying to be polite, is unprofessional and never appropriate.

Prepare well. I usually start rehearsing a week before the talk and do so for an hour every day. I tell the story until it becomes a habit in order to be able to observe myself in the process. This not only builds up my self-confidence, but it also allows me to reflect on my pace, focus on the right gestures and work on simplifying the way I express my ideas.

Becoming a good speaker requires dedication, commitment and the right set of habits - habits that the tips in these two blogs aim to help you establish (check out Public Speaking 101 if you haven’t already). However, as with habits (that are not permanent and require practice to maintain), a person may deliver one talk that is excellent and lasting only to follow it up with a mediocre one. It is crucial to understand that the key to successful public speaking is not only building the right set of qualities but in maintaining them over time. Follow the rules that work best for you diligently, do it for every talk that you give, and let me know which worked best for you. Brace yourself - conferences are coming!