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Practical tips for becoming a great speaker

These tips are for both preparing your talk, and being a good presenter of the content. These tips are just a start. I plan to gather more resources, examples of great talks, and will expand and change this post as I get feedback.

##Have a clear reason for giving the talk

Technical talks range from pure opinion to strictly instructional. Whatever the flavour, identify for yourself why you are motivated to give this talk, and use that motivation to guide you. As you prepare, occasionally assess whether your talk is still focused on its goal.

Your talk should also motivate your audience about the topic. If the only thing they take away from your talk is a drive to explore more on the topic themselves, you have succeeded.

##State your thesis

A talk is not a mystery novel: be clear and state the point you want people to understand. State it at the beginning and also at the end. It might even be the title of your talk as well.

##Know your ideas, not the exact words

You must practice your talk in order to be confident on stage. You also want to be able to talk to your audience, not read from notes.

The way to avoid reading from your notes, and to sound casual, is to remember a series of core ideas you want to express, instead of exact words. When you are rehearsing (and timing) your talk, if you must refer to your notes, refer only to your list of ideas.

##Structure: have it

In storytelling, there are different kinds of narratives, but the most engaging and satisfying* ones have:

  1. a beginning that introduces the motive (motivation, purpose, thesis)
  2. a middle where the motive is advanced (explained, justified, challenged)
  3. a clear ending (summary, conclusion, outcome)

If the middle of your talk has a series of distinct sections, let your audience know what they are in advance, and remind your audience where you are in your “agenda” as you go. You can do this verbally (e.g. “I explained A and B, and now I will explain C”) or just visually with your slides, or both.

* Yes there are stories that break this structure, but they are rare, and while the goods ones are exceptional, the bad ones are dismal.

For a variation on this theme, check the TEDx talk “the secret structure of great talks” by Nancy Duarte.

##Introduce yourself

The point of your personal introduction is not to give your life story (snore), but to give you credibility. If your talk is mostly opinion, then justify why your opinion is valuable. For example, “As a beginner, my experience illustrates the kinds of frustration other beginners have” or “In my 5 years experience, I’ve seen this pattern again and again.” Such statements add credibility and can thus engage your audience.

##Pacing

Give time for people to think. I used to be afraid that I had to rush through everything I was saying, or else I might appear confused or lost. When you are giving a talk, you notice those silences, but your audience, meanwhile, is still digesting what you just said. Presenting is not radio. You won’t look stupid or forgetful if you pause to refer your notes between ideas. Take a breath, or, if you need an excuse to pause, take a sip of water.

##Is your talk beginner, intermediate or advanced?

If you are giving an instructional talk, then state what level of instruction you will give and what the listener can expect to know at the end. For example “In this introductory talk, you will get a taste for when this library is useful, and learn when you shouldn’t use it” or “I’ll give detailed instructions for two different ways to accomplish this result.”

##Tell your audience only what they don’t know

Identify what you assume the audience knows and doesn’t know. This is what people mean when they say “know your audience.” In your talk, state your assumptions. Here is a template you can use: “You have done X before, and you know Y, but I think you did not know Z”.

I lifted this template almost word for word from Lea Verou’s CSS3 Secrets: 10 things you might not know about CSS3 talk. At the beginning, but also throughout, she tells her audience what she expects of them, and what she will tell them.

This technique gives context, shows you know the audience is knowledgeable, and makes it clear what your goals are. Win, win, win.

##Stay on topic

If you spend too much time talking about a side topic, your audience may stop paying attention, or get confused.

If you find yourself with more than one slide about a side topic, then guess what? You just found another topic you could give a talk about. Cut all but the essentials of the side topic from your talk. You may even only be left with a remark, not even a slide. Set those notes and slides aside, and work on that talk another time.

If understanding the side topic is a prerequisite and you assume your audience does not know it, then explain the absolute minimum required to understand your talk only.

##Learn from others

As you watch anyone give a talk, pay attention to what you liked, and didn’t like. When working and re-working your own talk, go back to those thoughts: Can you use any of the effective techniques in your talk? Are you making any of the same mistakes?

Or learn from this person, Caroline Drucker (@bougie), from her five minute talk about how to give a great talk:

##More advice

Other people have shared their advice from their personal experience too. Be inspired!

Further Reading