This article was originally posted in Medium. Photo by Teemu Paananen.
The second book I’ve read this year has been Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. I’ll probably do more talks this year so I wanted to read some feedback from professional speakers.
Every time I think of doing another talk I remember the first time I moderated a round table. I was a 19-years old shy engineer student and with some friends from the IEEE student branch, we had organized a round table with top executives from Spanish companies. I was freaking nervous. I remember I had a computer to chat with Carlos, our professor, in case I needed help. A few moments after we started, the WiFi started to fail. I was on my own surrounded by top executives. Despite all this, it went reasonably well. I already had my terror story.
After doing many pitches of my startups and sharing the learnings at many events, I am not nervous anymore. Practice solves any problem. However I know I can improve to engage much more the audience and share much better tips.
This book is interesting but I was hoping for more. However there are good tips which can be applied to speakers, teachers or managers.
When someone in a plane asks the author what he does for a living:
The best answer I have is I’m a writer. I write books and essays. But saying I’m a writer is bad because people get excited I might be Dan Brown, John Grisham, or Dave Eggers, someone famous they can tell their friends they met. When they learn I’m one of the millions of writers they’ve never heard of — and not someone whose novel was turned into a blockbuster movie — they fall into a kind of disappointment never experienced by people who are employed as lawyers, plumbers, or even assistant fry cooks at McDonald’s.
It’s not related to the topic but I laughed so hard with this. The same happens with musicians, actors and all kind of celebrity professions.
Most people listening to presentations around the world right now are hoping their speakers will end soon.
When you go to a conference, how many presentations were really worth your time?
As superficial as public speaking can seem, history bears out that people with clear ideas and strong points are the ones we remember.
Tyler Durden, the quasi-hero from the film Fight Club, said to stop being perfect because obsessing about perfection stops you from growing. You stop taking chances, which means you stop learning.
On how you can control your talk
Many predators hunt in packs, and their easiest prey are those who stand alone, without a weapon, on a flat area of land where there is little cover (e.g., a stage).
There we have an ancestral reason on why we are afraid of speaking. It’s the stage!
Ian Tyson, a stand-up comedian and motivational speaker, offered this gem of advice: “The body’s reaction to fear and excitement is the same…so it becomes a mental decision: am I afraid or am I excited?” If the body can’t tell the difference, it’s up to you to use your instincts to help rather than hurt you.
The main advantage a speaker has over the audience is knowing what comes next. Comedians — the best public speakers — achieve what they do largely because you don’t see the punch lines coming.
The audience doesn’t know what’s coming left, what you should have said, your mistakes, the right example you wanted to give, etc. Don’t be afraid, you only know what’s coming next.
Can you guess what most people who are worried about their presentations refuse to do? Practice. When I’m asked to coach someone on his presentation, and he sends me his slides, do you know the first question I ask? “Did you practice?” Usually he says no, surprised this would be so important. As if other performers like rock bands and Shakespearean actors don’t need to rehearse to get their material right. The slides are not the performance: you, the speaker, are the performance.
Practice, practice and practice. Record yourself, watch it, listen just to your voice and improve your slides, your words, your presence, your tone, etc. There is so much to improve.
The ideal room for a lecture is a theater. It’s crazy, I know, but we solved most lecture-room problems about 2,000 years ago. The Greek amphitheater gets it all just about right, provided it doesn’t rain. Lecture rooms should be a semicircle, not a square. The stage should be a few feet higher than the front row.
It’s so true, theaters are much better. However, most halls are a long rectangle where attendees can’t see the speaker.
Ask the audience members if they need more exercise today, and when they all raise their hands (people who go to lectures and conferences always crave exercise), tell them you have just the thing for them to do.
This is a great tip in order to ask people to move to the first rows. The talk will go much better if people are together on the first rows. They won’t feel alone, like they are losing their time; they are there with other interested people.
Show some integrity by speaking the truth on the very thing that angers them, or even acknowledging it in a heartfelt way, and you will score points. People with the courage to speak the truth into a microphone are exceptionally rare.
Good lectures are never comprehensive because it’s the wrong format to do so. People really want insight. They want an angle. A good speaker or teacher finds it for them.
This is really important. You are there talking because you have a point to share. You don’t want to lose that time being polite or talking about generalities. People expect great insights, they expect that you make them think.
On how to create a draft of your talk
With a title and list in hand, you now have a strawman: a rough sketch of what your talk might cover and the points it might make. Show it to coworkers, friends, or even potential audience members, and ask them how to make the list better. If you have no friends and all your coworkers hate you, do some web searches. Flesh out your list; add more questions and ideas. Don’t worry about how to support the points, answer the questions, or even whether you entirely agree with them. Just make a big, long, and most important of all, interesting list. A dozen is good, 15 is brilliant, and 20 makes you a rock star. In all cases, put the list aside, pat yourself on the back, and go have a beer. That’s right, walk away and do something completely unrelated to your talk or your list.
Eventually, reorder the list from top to bottom in terms of how strongly you feel about each point. You might find that two cancel each other out or one is really a subpoint of another. Perhaps you’ll realize there is a better title than the one you started with. Fine, change it. You should know much more about your topic now than when you started, so reflect that in the position your title takes.
This is a good tip. Once you have created the sketch of your talk, share it with friends and coworkers and ask for honest feedback. This is the best moment to change it. The draft should be done in paper, forget Powerpoint at this point.
But there must be an outline of points supporting whatever you put into your talk for this reason: all presentations are narratives, and all narratives are a sequence of points.
I’ve been helping startups to improve their pitches for several years and I’m still amazed on how poorly people connect their points. They focus first on the slides, they add everything they want to share but they don’t have a story. So my first objective with them is to deconstruct their pitch and create a narrative with the interesting pieces. The pitch sounds so much different when they share a continuous story.
Put another way, when 100 people are listening to you for an hour, that’s 100 hours of people’s time devoted to what you have to say. If you can’t spend 5 or 10 hours preparing for them, thinking about them, and refining your points to best suit their needs, what does that say about your respect for your audience’s time? It says that your 5 hours are more important than 100 of theirs, which requires an ego larger than the entire solar system. And there is no doubt this disrespect will be obvious once you are on the stage.
On how to structure your talk
John Medina, molecular biologist and director of the Brain Center at Seattle Pacific University, believes 10 minutes is the maximum amount of time most people can pay attention to most things.
He never spends more than 10 minutes on a single point, and he makes sure to structure the entire lecture around a sequence of points he knows the audience is interested in hearing. With enough study about the audience’s interests, and a 10-minute time limit, boredom can be kept at bay for an hour.
“I have 30 minutes to talk to you, and five points to make. I will spend five minutes on each point and save the remaining time for any questions.” That takes about 10 seconds to say, but for that small price I continue to own the attention of the room because they know the plan. They know the pace.
This is a good learning. Break your talk in 5 to 10 minutes stories. That’s a good length in order to keep everyone engaged. TED talks are 8 to 15 minutes long for a reason!
Don’t waste time giving your resume or telling the back story (“I first read about blah blah at blah blah”). They don’t care. They almost never need to know how you got where you are. If they chose to be in the audience after just reading the talk title, description, and your bio, they think you are plenty credible. Start with a beat. Think of your opening minute as a movie preview: fill it with drama, excitement, and highlights for why people should keep listening.
The best way to direct attention is to talk about situations (another word for a story) that the audience cares about. Then they have two reasons to be interested: the situation and who it’s happening to.
Be bigger than you are. Speak louder, take stronger positions, and behave more aggressively than you would in an ordinary conversation. These are the rules of performing.
This is one of the first learnings when you want to be an actor, you need to be more passionate on the stage. That way you will compensate your fear of the stage and the distance to your audience.
The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is the one I mentioned before: problem and solution. If your talk consists of several problems important to the audience, and you promise to release the tension created by those problems by solving each one, you’ll score big. The audience will follow you through each sequence of tension and release. If you do a great job with the first problem you identify, and offer a practical or inspiring way to handle it, they’ll stay with you throughout your entire talk.
At the moment you open your mouth, you control how much energy you will give to your audience. Everything else can go wrong, but I always choose to be enthusiastic so no one can ever say I wasn’t trying hard. The more I seem to care, the more likely people in the audience will care as well.
About speaking and teachers
Most schoolteachers don’t even have the chance to burn out: 50% of schoolteachers in the United States do not last more than five years.
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Focusing on facts and knowledge makes it easy for the teacher to stay in control and at the center of the experience.
Finding and simplifying insights requires humility, something rarely attributed to experts and public speakers. Keep your hard-earned knowledge in mind, but simultaneously remember how it felt to be a complete novice. It’s rare to achieve this balance, but it’s what makes a teacher great.
Teaching is a compassionate act. It transforms the confusing into the clear, the bad into the good. When it’s done well, and the insights are experienced not just by the teacher but by the students as well, everyone should feel good about what’s happened. It’s amazing how rare it is in many systems for the experience of learning to be a pleasurable thing.