A Developers Guide to Better Presentations — Part 1, Stage Craft
I am not the best public speaker or presenter, but I give lots and enjoy giving them. I also attend many meetups and conferences and so have built a good repertoire of what works and what doesn’t. I have been planning this post for a while, but after a particularly poor presentation last week from a major technical project disappointed me, I felt motivated to get off my backside and write it. Part 1 (of an undecided number) covers stagecraft and vocal techniques.
I get it, standing in a front of a room full of strangers is nerve racking, some are better at it than others, and you can gain confidence over time, but in the meantime here are three tips to help you at least make it appear like you know what you are doing, thus giving a better presentation, getting a better reaction, and boosting your confidence. I will cover this subject in more detail in later parts of this series, for now, I will cover general tips for stagecraft.
Unless someone forced you to speak, then you want to be doing this. Enjoy yourself, and the audience will also enjoy the presentation. If you know your subject then no matter how nervous you are this will come through, especially with technical presentations, people are more interested in what you have to say than how you say it.
I am guilty of not practising enough and ‘winging it’, this is noticeable in presentations when content surprises you or the flow doesn’t quite work. If you have the chance, rehearse a handful of times, and preferably in front of a constructive and trustworthy audience.
You are the 5%
OK, I made that number up, but my point is, that no matter how nervous you feel, or how bad you think you are, you are one of a small group of people with the guts to stand up and speak. Yes, there will be people who criticise your efforts, but unless they also have the guts to get up on stage and do better, ignore them.
Vocal and Microphone Technique
For people involved in technology, but show a broad lack of knowledge about how to use a microphone properly. I repeatably watch speakers where I am on the edge of my seat gesturing to them for how to adjust their microphone so the audience can hear them. A microphone is an old fashioned piece of technology, taking an analogue signal (i.e. not something generated by a microchip) and processing it, for events, typically amplifying it.
There is an old phrase that I am a big fan of that applies in many situations, but especially with microphones.
You can’t polish a turd.
To translate from colloquial British. A turd is a poo. So yes, you can’t polish it, but what it means, is that your efforts to improve something of poor quality will be in vein and it’s better to start with something of better quality in the first place. With regards to microphone technique, this means that if you speak timidly, quietly and unclearly, then a microphone will accentuate this. Improving your confidence will take time, but as an ex-musician, I can share a couple of simple tips to make yourself more clearly understood.
You are always speaking faster than you think on stage, so slow down, take pauses and breaths. It’s likely that you or some of your audience are not speaking or listening in their native language, so slowing down has other benefits.
Speak from your Diaphragm
This is a skill you might need to learn, and I highly recommend singing lessons if you want to take this seriously (which are also great for muscle tone), but you can start by consciously pushing your voice and breathing down your body. This is easier than it sounds, try it. Breathing this way also means you take less breaths and this can decrease your nervousness.
This is the art of speaking more clearly and comes naturally to some more than others and may be another skill you need to learn. My tip to get you started is over pronounce and articulate every word. This feeds into speaking more slowly and again will also help those who are speaking/listening in their non-native language.
Now you know how to speak better and clearly, you can focus on letting the microphone amplify this. First I would ask if you even need a microphone. There is a tendency to rely too much on technology (Really? Surely not!) and always use a microphone even if it’s a small room with a crowd to match. If you feel you don’t need a microphone and everyone can hear you, then politely refuse one.
There are three types of microphone you are likely to encounter, I’ll summarise advice for all of them.
This is the most common you are likely to encounter and will vary in quality depending on the event and its budget. These are typically called ‘cardioid’ microphones, and their pick-up pattern is sort of a squashed heart (kind of looks like the AirBnB logo 😁) around the bulbous end of the microphone.
The pattern is not large, so ideally hold the microphone directly in front of your mouth, no more than 10cm away and try to keep it in a consistent place. Look at photos of professional singers to see how they use a microphone and emulate them (though do note that singing is a lot louder than speaking). I like to get close to a microphone so it will pick up all the subtleties of my speech, but this is personal. Professional performers often have their own microphones to prevent germs from other users, this may be overkill for the occasional meetup presentation, but if you speak regularly (and you’re reading this post for some reason) then you might consider buying your own.
When testing sound levels, don’t bang the microphone, this is bad for the microphone, the amplifier, and your audience. Start speaking and someone will let you know if there are any issues.
You will encounter these in events hosted in universities, conference centres and other venues. They are typically a small microphone mounted on a bendable arm on the top of a lectern. Similar principles apply for these as to hand microphones. Position it in front of your mouth, but you can be further back as they are more sensitive. It’s worth noting that if your laptop is on the lectern, the microphone may pick up the sound of you typing and clicking. If possible ask someone to adjust the volume and get closer to the microphone to pick up the important sounds.
Again, there’s no need to bang it for a test, start speaking normally.
As microphones get cheaper I have seen these increasingly used, and I love them as it means you can move around. They are small microphones that you wear over your ear and to the side of your mouth. They are typically connected to a battery pack and then wirelessly connected to an amplifier. As these microphones are sensitive and are typically managed by a sound engineer, you have to worry about a lot less with these aside from the speaking tips mentioned earlier. If the battery starts running out you will have sound problems, but again, there will be a sound engineer to help.
Speak to Me
That’s part 1 finished, in the next part I will cover the content of a presentation. If you have any tips you would like to share with readers then please add them below.