20 Tips that Make Public Speaking Fun

I’m no Steve Jobs, but I’ve spoken at quite a few conferences and events, so I thought I’d share a few tips that help me avoid making a fool of myself. Here are 20 things I’ve learned about the art of public speaking.

  1. Organize your research. Gather ideas, quotes and other research in one place. I use Evernote, which lets you clip things from the Web as you find them, then tag and arrange. You can merge your notes so you’ve just got one file with everything if you like, or keep separate notes for different facets of the talk.
  2. Start with an outline. I write my talks first in a word processor, outlining the main points I want to hit, then filing in the content. After I read through my notes and organize them – determining the sequence I like best, I start thinking about the actual deck.
  3. Use the tools you’re comfortable with. I use Apple’s Keynote. It’s simpler, cleaner and far less confusing than PowerPoint and it has a mask (cropping) tool that lets you crop in the actual slide window, and the alpha (background elimination) tool works pretty well too. Sometimes. If you love PowerPoint, stick with it — the important thing is that you’re comfortable with your presentation program.
  4. Keep slides clean. A slide full of words is daunting and your listeners’ eyes will quickly glaze over. Especially if you stand in front of them and read the slides. Put one key sentence, or sentence fragment on a slide, no more; just enough to be a jumping off point and signal transition to a new idea.
  5. Use crisp, clean images and white type on a black background. I once used a light blue/white gradient background which washed out completely when projected. White on black will always look crisp.
  6. Choose a clean sans-serif font, or if you know what you’re doing, a cool accent font. Silicon Valley author, speaker, investor and business advisor Guy Kawasaki advocates the “10/20/30 Rule.” No more than 10 slides in 20 minutes, set in at least a 30-point font. I use a variation of that rule: no font smaller than 48 points; headlines in 72-point text. If you can’t get your text on a slide at 48 points, you’re probably using too many words.
  7. Try to keep a consistent color scheme with your graphics. Vector graphics have clean, crisp edges and are infinitely resizable and resolution-independent, so use them when you can. Vector graphics also eliminate the ugly white box issue. It’s jarring to see a graphic over a black background with the telltale white box. Either hire a graphic designer to drop out the background, or use Keynote’s Alpha feature to eliminate it. If you have an image with a background can’t be removed, use it full screen, which means it must be at least 1024 x 768 pixels.
  8. Get there early. You never know what may be missing from the room. When I arrived for my more recent speaking engagement, I realized there was no place to plug in my laptop. Thankfully, the hotel staff acted fast to get me an extension cord, but that could have been a disaster. We also had a little trouble to getting connected to the projector. By the time the audience began to filter into the room, I had resolved the problem and was ready to greet and engage with them.
  9. Introduce yourself. I like to introduce myself to the early arrivers and chat with them a bit. Striking up a conversation — about anything — and learning their names will make it much more difficult for them to throw rotten tomatoes, and makes them feel as if they know you just a little.
  10. Use a remote. The last thing you want to be tied to your computer hitting the arrow keys to advance to the next slide. Or have to interrupt your flow by instructing an assistant when to advance. With a remote, you can walk around the room as you like and keep your mind focused on what you’re saying, not the logistics.
  11. Know your material. Know it well enough that you can speak conversationally. You shouldn’t have to consult notes, or worse than anything, read your talk. If you’re asked to speak about a topic, you most likely eat, sleep and breathe it — so just let yourself speak as you would to a client or a friend.
  12. Encourage interruptions. If it works with your talk, ask your audience to jump in with comments, questions, or even disagreement. This will keep it lively and may take things in an interesting direction. You’ll have to understand your subject matter well enough to take questions extemporaneously, but I’m guessing you do anyway.
  13. Try a group exercise. Get the group together to brainstorm a concept you’re explaining. For example, when I talk about creating marketing personas, I always ask the group to come up with personas on the spot. It gets everyone talking to one another and often creates an example you can use later in the talk, which makes the listener feel included.
  14. Giveaways. One of the best responses I ever had was when I used an illustration about M & Ms and gave out the tiny, delicious candies to everyone in the room. People don’t forget someone who gives them candy, or other goodies that relate to the content. I’m guessing at least some of my attendees thought about the talk the next time they ate M & Ms.
  15. Use your mistakes as an example. Everyone feels better when they hear that others aren’t perfect either, and people remember a story much better than simply being told not to do something. Being open about your own errors also makes you more accessible to the audience and more real and believable.
  16. Share appropriate contact information — Twitter, LinkedIn, your website — at the beginning and at the ending slide. Those who may be interested in tweeting throughout your talk will use your Twitter handle and @ reply you if you make it easy for them. Those who aren’t sure at the beginning may change their minds by the end of the session. Invite everyone to connect with you via whatever network you choose. I still take business cards with me, and give out a surprising number of them.
  17. Post your slides to Slideshare. I do this before the session, so that I can tweet immediately afterwards, when it’s fresh on their minds. This way they’ll take notes, but won’t be consumed with copying down each slide. And sometimes others attendees will retweet the link, which is a bonus.
  18. Be natural. You’ll be more relaxed if you don’t have to concentrate on trying to maintain a false persona. Dress comfortably; there’s nothing worse than figuring out that a new outfit or a new pair of shoes aren’t working while you’re in front of a room speaking to people. Wear something you’ve worn before and feel confident and comfortable in. As it’s likely that your picture will be taken, black or another dark color is generally more flattering than lighter shades.
  19. Disclaimer: This one is a little paranoid. Have multiple copies of your presentation saved, including duplicates exported as PDFs from Keynote (I’m sure PowerPoint has this capability as well). I like to have one on my desktop, one in Dropbox and one on a USB stick drive. If your computer suddenly dies, you can present a PDF from any other computer. If you’re lucky enough to have a fellow Mac-using presenter or organizer with Keynote installed, you’re golden, but if not, a PDF will work on any platform.
  20. Relax and have fun. You’ve been asked to speak because someone thinks you know something. They are probably right, so enjoy it.

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