Public Speaking Tips | July 6, 2006

I got an email from a friend a couple of days ago asking for advice about public speaking. Now I’m no Jeremy Keith expert, but I have spoken at a few conferences recently, and have a couple more lined up in the next few months. Rather than reply by email, I thought it may be useful to post my thought online, just incase any of you have to give a speak or presentation.

I guess my top tip is be prepared. I know many speakers who prepare their notes the night before they talk, or even just before they speak, and this seems to work for them. However if I took this approach I’d be a mess.

I start thinking about my talk several months in advance and start jotting down notes a good 4-6 weeks before the event. I write everything out in as much details as possible, almost like a transcript, and then read the notes out-loud several times.

Once I’m happy with the basic structure I’ll move everything into Keynote. I used to use S5, and for technical talks where you need to flip between code examples I still think this is the best option. However I like the layout control Keynote gives you, and it’s just a lot easier than messing around with HTML/CSS.

The first couple of times I spoke, I literally wrote everything I was going to say in bullet-point form on my slides. However while these provide you with an excellent prompt, they are pretty dull for the attendees. As such, I’ve started to pair my slides down so they just show the bare minimum, and dump everything else in the notes section of Keynote.

Speaking notes in Keynote

The next thing I do is to run though the slides and time myself to check the amount of material. It’s fine having too much material as you can always skip over bits. However there is nothing worse than running out of material and having to tread water for 30 minutes. When you get on stage you’ll most likely be a little nervous and talk faster than normal. As such, you’ll need to be conservative with your timing. If it takes you 45 minutes to go through your slides when relaxed, it’ll probably only take 30 minutes on the day. Usually I’ll slightly underestimate the amount of material I have, so will usually go back and expand my notes or add a couple of extra slides.

I’ll then read through the slides again out-loud again, and again, and again. I like to run through my presentation at least three times so I’m confident I know the material. Practice makes perfect, so the more times you can test the presentation the better. Try doing the presentation in front of a small group of friends and colleagues first. This will get you used to presenting the material to a group of people, and should hopefully elicit some feedback and suggestions.

People tend to have fairly short attention spans, especially if it’s just after lunch or nearing the end of the day. This is why I try to add visual interest to my slides. Good quality, and preferably funny pictures help people keep interest. Pictures of people are always good as we’re naturally programmed to respond to happy, smiling faces. If the pictures you use can back up the theme or concept in some way, even better.

Slide from my @media 2006 presentation

Slide from my SXSW 2006 presentation

Once the slides are done, I tend to leave them alone and blank them out. Some people like to continuously tweak their slides up to the last minute, but I find this makes me a little agitated. The more you think about having to speak the more anxious you get. As such, I stick my head in the sand and completely ignore the fact that I have to speak in front of a room full of people. I can usually blank this out until about half an hour before going on, by which time it’s too late to worry. You just get up, do your things and hope all the planning has worked out for the best.

I subscribe to Jeff Veen’s notion of being slightly smarter dressed than your audience. So if everybody is in shorts, you wear jeans, if everybody is in jeans, you wear some smart trousers. This helps set up an expectation of authority with your audience, as well as making you feel a bit more confident about yourself. I also find a good haircut a couple of days before helps.

I also agree with Jeff that stories are a very powerful tool. The human race are natural born story tellers and we like noting better than a good yarn. Rather than simply explaining why something is a certain way, put it into context with a story. When people leave the conference, they probably won’t remember all your bullet points, but a good story will stay with them for years.

Getting up in front of a room full of people isn’t the most comfortable or relaxing thing you can do, so the natural tendency is to try and get it over with as quickly as possible. As such, your talking pace will quicken and you’ll start to um and er a lot. II know because I’m guilty of doing this as well. You don’t know you’re doing it at the time, but it really stands out on the podcasts afterwards. This sounds like obvious advice, but the way to combat this is to slow down and make plenty of strategic pauses. For a speaker, silence can be intimidating. However pausing for a few seconds after each important point helps the information sink in and improves the flow of the presentation. I also find it helps making eye contact with people in the audience. Doing this helps you engage the audience and can also reduce your nerves as you feel like your talking to individuals rather than a mass of people.

Here are a few more resources to get you started. If you have some of your own suggestions, please feel free to chip in.

Posted at July 6, 2006 7:27 PM


Francis Storr said on July 6, 2006 8:29 PM

Ooh, you won’t believe how well timed this post is :)

Sameer Vasta said on July 6, 2006 9:41 PM

Just coming off a series of speaking engagements myself (for recreation workers, so not fully related to what you’re talking about) but the only thing I wanted to add to your already wonderful tips is that it helps to actually like what you’re talking about.

If you feel engaged and interested in the material you’re presenting, it will definitely rub off on your audience and they’ll be more engaged and interested as well.

Jeremy Keith said on July 6, 2006 11:37 PM

Your attribution to Jeff Veen about dressing smart is incorrect. That remark was made by Bryan Mason in a comment on Jeff’s post.

Malarkey said on July 6, 2006 11:39 PM

Well, another great post there partner.

Reading through those links I spotted,

“Speak at the start of an event. If you have the choice, get in the beginning part of the agenda. The audience is fresher then. They’re more apt to listen to you, laugh at your jokes, and follow along with your stories. On the third day of a three-day conference, the audience is tired, and all they’re thinking about is going home.”

You know, particularly at @media I love to do the end slot. Maybe it’s because others prefer to be on earlier that Patrick lets me do it? :)

I have to say that reading Jeff’s notes (not seen those before) reminds me just how wonderful a presenter his is; he’s the master of slick. But it also made me think that one of the best things about the current ‘crop’ of presenters is that (I think) no one has had any training and it’s the naturalness and honesty of Molly, Jeremy, you and others that makes it so entertaining without ever being contrived.

T said on July 7, 2006 1:28 PM

Best way to improve public speaking: join Toastmasters!

The good TM groups meet once a week, and usually there are 4 or 5 seven-minute speeches. There are also evaluations, and “table topics” (improvisitional speaking). Oh, and there is a person called the “Ah Counter” who tells everyone how many times they said “um”, “ah”, and “y’know?” during that meeting :)

The best way to improve public speaking is to practice.

Francis Storr said on July 7, 2006 3:07 PM

@T: thanks for that excellent tip. As luck would have it, there’s a Toastmasters club based 10 minutes walk from where I live and they’re meeting next week. Saying “um” is something I really need to stop doing, so hopefully this will, er, help :)

Sascha said on July 7, 2006 7:20 PM

Never heared the word “Toastmasters” befor, but sounds good :)

T said on July 8, 2006 12:05 PM


The Toastmasters organization has been around since 1920’s, hence the somewhat antiquated name. The word “toast” in this context usually brings to mind someone in a suit giving a quick speech at a dinner table with a glass of wine in their hand). At the group I go to, we arent this pretentious :)

I’m sure any group would be happy to have you sit in as a guest. Members are always encouraged to bring others in.

Peter Cooper said on July 9, 2006 11:26 AM

Must admit I was surprised to see a rather speakable script on one of those images. You do use them as notes rather than read verbatim, right? :)

I tend to just make a basic outline and improvise, but it’s different strokes for different folks (and situations! Such a technique would probably not work in a court of law ;-)).

Faruk said on July 17, 2006 9:46 PM

Add some jokes at the start of your presentation, just one or two, three if you’re really funny. Hearing the audience laugh at your jokes builds a lot of confidence for the rest of the presentation. You can observe stand-up comedy for the importance of this: when a comedian fails to get a lot of laughs at the start of his talk, he’ll just get worse and worse as time passes and become more nervous. Conversely, if they get a few good laughs straight away, they will become more and more energetic and the audience picks up on this, laughing more while the comedian’s confidence gets stronger with each passing second.

Your opening shouldn’t be a joke, but it can contain one along the way or near the end. The first part of the opener should be strong and not distract from the content (such as a joke would).