Speaking in Public
Recently I was invited to mentor people on twitter, so I asked people to DM me for mentoring about a few things, including public speaking. Also I got invited to speak at next RustFest, so I thought it apropos to blog about public speaking for a bit. I’ve been on stage a lot since my youth, so I know a thing or two. Looking on the web, it surprises me how much bad advice is out there. So let me first disperse with a few useless suggestions while offering better alternatives:
Imagine your audience naked
This is often given as advice against stage fright. How do you even come up with that? Think about that, speaking in front of a buck naked crowd – wouldn’t that creep you out? Why are all those naked people here? The nicest reading I can find is there may be some really hot folks there, but do you really want to think about how they look naked while giving a talk? Also they’ll see you looking weirdly at them. Worse, what if there are really ugly people?
Instead imagine yourself sitting in a comfy chair, talking to a good friend about that topic that they’re quite interested in, which you just so happen to know a bit about. Some people imagine speaking in front of an empty room. Just think about a situation where you’d be comfortable speaking.
Ah, another one that sounds profound but may be really bad in practice. Pros will be OK anyway, but novices may be really stressed out. With their heart racing, their breathing accelerated, trying to breathe deeply will only give them tingly fingers before they pass out. Not a good way to start your talk.
Instead, exhale fully three times before starting your talk. Your body will take care of the rest.
Hold on to your speaker notes
This advice is often given for the “I don’t know what to do with my hands” crowd.
While this may help you avoid standing awkwardly with your hands flopping around, it robs you of the possibiltiy to use your gesturing, which can really help engaging the audience. It may take a bit of practice, but if you can pull it off, it’s a big win.
Using your hands effectively is something that can be trained. Watch a few talks from professional speakers and take note how they move their hands. Don’t fret if you feel lost, everyone is finding their own style in due time.
Can we also have something positive?
Ok, this was quite snarky, so let’s finish it with a bit of advice on what to do to give a great talk:
- Talk slowly, deliberately. If you are nervous, you’re likely to race through your talk, so slow it down to give yourself more time to think and your audience more time to follow you
- While you’re at it, try to vocalize the best you can. Training with some tongue twisters can improve your vocalization
- train yourself to use pauses. Pause deliberately between sentences and especially between loosely connected parts of your talk. Avoid ‘err’s and ‘emm’s, just brave the silence for a bit. You’ll come off as more confident.
- Take a sip of water every few minutes. This will give you a small break to catch up with your speaker notes and avoid dry throat from talking
- During your talk, stand (or sit) upright and pull your shoulders back a bit. This will make you look confident and give your lungs a bit more space, thus improving air flow, giving you more energy and reducing stress on your heart
- If you use slides, avoid reading from them. Your slides should complement your talk, not replace it (though there will usually be some overlap). Text should be optimized for legibility. There are fonts that work well for distance reading, also maximize contrast. Black on white or vice versa works well
- Declutter both your talk and your slides. Try for “terse, but amicable”