10 Things I Learnt About: Public Speaking
I am currently concentrating on my art practice and trying to further a research career by undertaking a Human Geography based PhD at Durham University. My past career has involved heading cultural programmes and networks, strategic development projects and lecturing. Presenting ideas is an integral part of all these roles. The audiences I have presented to have varied in size from 2 people in a meeting, to 10 people in a training workshop, to 80 students in a lecture, to 200 people in an auditorium. The audiences have ranged from students to cultural, education, public sector and business communities. I have presented on a range of topics including: art in education, design as a business tool, brand development, design theory, art theory, strategic thinking processes, 3D printing techniques, fashion trends... I have done this a lot. The tips I will share below can apply to most presenting situations.
So here goes...
1. Present Your Authentic Self
No matter the situation, present the idea or information in the same way that you would if you were having a conversation with one other person and sharing it with them. You should be you. If you are being your authentic self, then it is easier for you to recover from making a mistake or forgetting something.
I used to think I had a 'ropey' presenting style because I was just being me. I thought I needed to look more polished. I have witnessed a variety of presenting styles over the years and met the speakers on and off stage. I have seen people be an inauthentic, projected, theatrical or authoritarian version of themselves. This led me to realise that if you project a 'persona' that isn't you, it is harder to recover from stumbling on words or making a mistake. The mistakes become more apparent and it is difficult to go off script. If I make a mistake and forget something, I am apt to say something like 'Shit, I meant to say this earlier but forgot' and then relay whatever it was... but that is me and how I speak normally.
2. Own What You Are Saying
Know the content well enough that if the technology fails or you lose your notes you could still do the presentation. I usually have a few key words written in marker pen in a notebook, these are cues to move onto the next phase/theme/idea. They are a safety blanket I probably don't need, but I always have them.
And on owning it... don't wing it. As an audience member we know when someone hasn't prepared and it changes our perception of the quality of the content of what they are saying.
3. Last Minute/ Other People's Presentations
Last minute and other people's presentations are the most stressful to do. Either way it means that you don't know the content well, or the content doesn't follow the logic you would use to present the idea/information. A useful mindset to adopt is that you can only do what you can do. Go through the content as much as time allows and work out and 'own' the core messages you need to impart so some of it feels comfortable.
Whether you tell the audience that this is a last minute thing for you (probably isn't for them) or that you are standing in for someone else, depends on the circumstance. By standing in for someone else you can't answer nuanced questions about the content and don't even try (see point 6). I probably wouldn't labour the point that it was last minute for me... but I would mention if I was standing in for someone else.
4. Structure is Key
Structuring the presentation effectively is as key as being yourself. Why are you doing this presentation? What part of your expertise will this audience find useful? What are the core things you need to share? In a time frame of 15 minutes what can you share? A useful way to think of it is to ask yourself, in 15 minutes time what will this audience find out from me that is useful for them to know and me to share? They don't need to know everything about a topic and you can't give it. With an introduction and a summary you are left with 10 minutes. I speak at about 140 words per minute. Three minutes on three key ideas (420 words per idea) doesn't allow much depth, that is ok, know it and don't attempt depth. Five minutes on two key ideas gives a bit more scope (700 words) and 10 minutes on one idea can be more nuanced (1400 words). At the end of the presentation make it clear what the purpose of the presentation was and recap what you were attempting to communicate. This is essential as people tend to zone in and out especially if they have been watching multiple presentations (particularly in conferences) or fiddling with their mobiles.
5. Who Are You Talking To?
Who are the audience? Why are they tapping into your expertise? Stating the obvious, the usual purpose of being invited to do a presentation is to enable an audience to gain more information about a specific topic because you have been identified as knowing stuff about it. The bit that isn't obvious (to some) is that you have to adjust and tone how you present information inline with this particular audience. This is not about adjusting what you are sharing, but how you are sharing it. You can present ideas by talking at people, talking with people, getting people to talk to each other, doing things at people, doing things for people and doing things with people. Not all audiences respond to information gathering in the same way. I try to have different textures of sharing information in presentations: telling, sharing, showing. Aside from 'talking at' etc, strategies I have used to make a point include: sharing objects, sounds and smells... but that is me (refer to point 1).
6. You Don't Know Everything - So Don't Pretend To
Even if you and others feel that you know everything about a subject/topic/discipline, you don't. Your field is always changing, so you can't. This is connected to point 1, being your authentic self. I have been in situations where someone hasn't known the answer to a question and has given a fudgy face-palm inducing answer instead of having the humility to say 'I don't know'. At best they made themselves look silly and inauthentic, at worst they have impacted on the integrity of their department/organisation and in turn their colleagues.
7. Keep to Time
You have been given a time slot - be considerate and stick to it. You may be asked to speak at a conference and there may be someone before or after you. Every moment you go over time has a consequence, either for someone after you and/or the audience. Every moment you go over time cuts down the time for questions or at worst the time allotted to a speaker further along the programme. If you are running a workshop or training session the attendees have accounted for being with you for a particular amount of time and probably have other commitments afterwards. If you have planned the session properly (points 4 & 5) you should present exactly in your allotted time frame.
8. Encourage and Support Your Fellow Speakers
Some people are very nervous about presenting and need to feel encouraged. If you know this, be nice and sit in their eye line, smile and nod. If they are nervous and they spot you doing this, they will start to present to you. This is a responsibility, you need to keep it up to help them.
To be honest no matter how seasoned you are, some audience encouragement is always welcome. I do the 'eye contact - smiling' thing and encourage other people to do it too, because of an experience I had. In the midst of giving a talk at a prestigious event I noticed my new boss not only looking bored but looking out in the middle distance. I found this off putting and stumbled. The key note speaker sat next to me nudged me, smiled and nodded - this was enough to make it feel ok. I subsequently learnt that some people have 'resting bored face'. I then decided to 1. try and not be put off if people do potentially off-putting things during my presentations (like sleeping or putting on make-up), 2. be like the key note speaker and actively encourage people.
9. You Can Never Totally Crack It
You should never get to the point in presenting that you think you have cracked it. You should be alive to what you are doing. Each time you present you should aware of what worked and what could be changed next time.
It is easy to get into an 'auto pilot' zone especially if as I did you present the same thing over and over again. I did one presentation on brand strategy 172 times in three years and started to go on auto-pilot when I did it. What I had to remind myself was, that however old it felt to me it was new to the audience. I had to actively make myself pay attention and be in the moment so I didn't slip into sleep walking it.
10. Say Yes
A few years ago when I was at Design Wales, we did a campaign we called 'Casual Sexism in the Creative Industries'. One of the more disappointing things I learnt during that project, was that conference and event organisers find it difficult to get women to speak as presenters and on panels. I had assumed that the visible lack of women at the events I was attending was due to women not being asked to speak. Around the same time the BBC approached the university research department where I was working offering free media training to the women. There were markedly less women in our department than men and all the women had their own distinct area of expertise and something to share, and yet not one woman would do it.
So whoever you are if someone asks you to speak, or you see a call out for speakers you are a good fit for... just do it. If you are a woman do it so your point of view is represented and visible to others. If you are a male ditherer, also just do it because you know you have colleagues with less expertise than you do who would jump at the chance.
Ok... in summary
- Be yourself
- Know what you are talking about
- Don't panic, do what you can
- Plan it well
- Consider the audience
- Be real
- Stick to time
- Be supportive
- Keep learning
- Say yes, just do it
The more you present the easier and more comfortable it becomes. I haven't done much presenting for the past few years and nothing for almost a year, so some of this is a good reminder to myself.
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