Tuesday 10 November 2015

How to develop into a great speaker

Your first conference talk will give you exposure to writing an abstract, marketing your ideas, creating engaging slides, structuring a talk, speaking clearly, keeping to time, and so on. The more talks you do, the more experience you gain in those same activities.

But developing as a speaker is not just about opportunity for repetition. I see a change in speakers when they stop thinking so much about what they're going to say during their talk and start concentrating on how they're going to say it.

By that I mean, when a great speaker is on the stage their content is almost on autopilot. They're not worried about the points they need to cover on the next slide. Rather they're more aware of their delivery. They're operating at a meta-level.

So, what sort of things are these great speakers thinking about?

The audience

A new speaker is learning to feel comfortable making eye contact with the audience. A great speaker is learning to anticipate mood, read body language, understand the response of the audience, and adapt their presentation to react to that environment.

Look at the schedule for the event. How long ago did people have food? How many concurrent sessions have the participants sat through? Whereabouts in the day are you? Whereabouts in the conference? Think about these factors as you watch the audience arrive in the room. Is there energy or will you have to create it?

How do people sit down? Do you see many people with their arms folded or their legs crossed? How many people have an open posture and are tilted forwards in their seats? Are people receptive to your ideas or will you have to establish your credibility and use persuasive language?

When you change the slide in your presentation, how many eyes travel to the slide and then back to you as the speaker? Who isn't making eye contact with you at all, looking downwards, or out the window? Are people engaged or do you have to ask for their participation to draw them in?

Are there people who are still reading a slide when you switch to the next one? Are people zoning out between slide transitions? Look for signs of frustration, like people sighing or pulling out their phones. These may be indicators that you need to change your pace.

The audience won't change the key messages of a presentation, but a great presenter will allow them to massively influence its delivery.

The commentary

A new speaker will often include remarks in their own presentations that are about their delivery rather than about their content. It's analogous to playing the director's commentary across a movie, however in a conference presentation these remarks are often apologetic or self-deprecating.

Do you start your talk by undermining your own credibility or wondering aloud whether you're really an authority on your topic? Do you question the choices of the organisers who granted you a spot on the stage, or the choices of the audience for selecting your session to attend over other alternatives? Do you tell people how inexperienced you are at speaking or how nervous you feel about this presentation? Do you apologise for fumbling content or narrate your disappointment in failed technology?

I believe that eliminating this sort of commentary from your presentation creates a perception that you're a very confident speaker, regardless of how confident you actually feel.

I have a heuristic to mute this doubt track within my own presentations. When thinking about whether or not to vocalise something I like to first consider who I'm saying it for. Often the commentary is stuff I say to make myself more comfortable, or to settle myself in to the beginning of my presentation. It's not for the audience. And if it's not for the audience, I shouldn't say it.

The language

Related to audience, the same presentation may differ wildly in delivery through choice of language. Can you interact informally, use colloquialisms, and make jokes? Or should you take a more professional tone?

Choice of words is influenced by environment. Are you speaking at a MeetUp event or a formal conference? It's also influenced by culture. Your references and examples may change between a talk in New Zealand versus a talk in India.

You might also consider whether jargon appropriate for your audience. What terms will they be familiar with and which should you explain beyond an acronym?

Adjusting to these factors can make a big difference in how accessible and relatable your presentation is. A great speaker can deliver the same slides twice, in two different contexts, with what may feel like an entirely different speech. The key messages don't change, yet the words are altered for the greatest impact.

If you're feeling ready to tackle the next challenge in public speaking, start practicing these meta skills. Think about your audience, your commentary and your language in your next presentation.

What would you add?


  1. I'd add: A presentation is a performance. You are acting in a role, and your audience has come to be entertained. When you treat it like you are an actor in a performance, you can apply certain lessons from stage acting, for example:

    Overact: Remember you are small on stage. Your voice, your actions are small from the back of the room. You need to make them big. Big voice; big actions. Acting is over-acting. Project your voice, and exaggerate your body language, and mood.

    Energy: You are the focal point of all the energy in the room. You can either soak it all up, reflect the energy that's there, or create energy. Try to be an energy reservoir, just pouring energy into the room. Think about a presentation you recently attended that you just wished would end. Chances are, the presenter was sucking all the energy out of the room, and everyone was just sleepy and tired. It might have been useful content, but you were probably bored. People will remember if they were entertained.

  2. A thought on the commentary, a story of a counterexample. A keynote speaker got started expressing self-doubt, lowering expectations and making me think she included this usual mistake of downplaying her own contributions. She proceeded to deliver a personal, vulnerable, heartfelt story about failures and learning. Towards the end of the presentation, the apologetic beginning had become a part of the connection audience could feel with her.

    I find that apologizing and downplaying your right to be there is a tactic that you should carefully consider, and loved your heuristic: for the audience. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great post! I agree with Aaron that a) presenting IS a performance of some type and b) you need to come with energy otherwise you will lose people very quickly.

    When i give a presentation, i have practiced the story (mostly visualised in my head) and then try and *feel the vibe* of the room as i go. More often then not, i have found enthusiasm (or energy) to be a force multiplier. T hats not to say all my presentations were *successful* but they were fun to do (as opposed to being *business* like - context depending of course)!