Spoony talking to the crowd

Become a Walking TED Talk

As part of my job as the Director of R&D at Spoon and my previous job at Shadow, I give quite a few talks. Despite being more of an introvert, this is an experience that I theoretically enjoy! Let me explain that.

Giving a talk in front of a crowd is still a nerve-wracking experience — at least for me. I get pretty worried a few days before. I experience the classic “tunnel vision” syndrome during. I am utterly drained after.

So why on earth do I enjoy going through this painful process? First of all, I’m passionate about my job, about the techs I help shape and the products I help develop.

  • Talking things through and simplifying the concepts enough to be able to explain them in a short time, feels right.
  • Preparing a talk is an amazing way to delve into a subject to its core.
  • Interacting with the public after the talk is always an interesting way to get new ideas.
  • Finally, I always find that getting out of my comfort zone is one of the most effective ways to better myself.

In the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few hours of public speaking coaching paid for by my work. A friend — a public speaking coach herself, the one who got me into doubling a famous actor — gave me a local contact for an English speaking coach. That’s how I met Clarence.

I must admit I was slightly worried about taking this kind of lessons. As I said I’m an introvert. During my studies, I had to go through one acting class which was a horrible experience… But Clarence worked miracles and definitely put me at ease!

Here are some of the things that I learned. Aside from the fact that giving a great talk is a job in itself. We focused on two main axes: Story, and Body.

I’m using a talk I gave in Vancouver as the backbone of the story. It was about presenting the Simulation Sandbox I crafted for Shadow Robot and how to use it to do some applied deep learning.

Story

Probably the most innocent but insightful question Clarence asked me was:

Why are you giving a talk?

I thought it was pretty basic: obviously, I know why I’m giving this talk. I want to explain the latest advances we’ve made at Shadow. But Clarence kept on asking: “ok, but why do you want to deliver this as a talk?”. That was eye-opening.

  • If I want to explain something for people to really understand it, then writing it is probably better. I can work on my text to really get the message across, link to references, etc.
  • If the subject I’m addressing is more dynamic then I can also record a video. By preparing it carefully and editing it I can deliver a more carefully crafted message which can be disseminated further than just a talk.

By nature, a talk is imperfect — except if your job is to deliver talks, in which case you can fully prepare and deliver something close to an edited video. When giving a talk I will probably make mistakes, I will definitely feel the pressure.

So the main reason for wanting to give a talk is to get a reaction from the audience by telling them a story. In my current example the reaction I want is to get people to give my latest experiment a try and to contribute back. This is the Story Spine. There is a very interesting MOOC by Pixar on the KhanAcademy on storytelling which I highly recommend you go through as well.

The second most important thing to remember is that an interesting story has a rhythm.

This rhythm is built on what’s referred as Story Beats in Pixar’s course. Building this rhythm in your story is what your slides are for. Think of the different media that you’ll be presenting: videos, pictures, diagrams, … make sure they are evenly spaced during the talk.

Remember that you’re telling a story — This beautiful drawing can be found here

If you can create repetitions in your slides, do it. They will create the rhythm. They will drive your point home. They will make the audience remember that all important point.

We will come back to using and driving that rhythm with your body as well below.

Body

This is the part of the training I dreaded the most.Making crazy sounds or doing weird exercises is not something I’m very comfortable with. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought! There are two main things to focus on when preparing my body for a talk. Flexibility and voice.

Surprisingly, appearing confident, and radiating that “stage presence”, mostly boils down to one thing: flexibility. This appearance of confidence will help the audience trust — and remember — your story. Having your face and upper body appear relaxed is key.

But when you’re giving a talk, what usually happens, is that due to the stress, your face and upper body tighten up. Even though you’re well aware that you should smile and you force yourself to, the expression that comes up often can’t pass as a genuine smile. Due to that tightness, your mouth isn’t opening enough to truly articulate. And the same happens to your upper body.

To fight that, the best thing — on top of getting your stress more under control — is to be much more flexible.

A screen capture of my face during a talk — saying sorry to myself for that... My jaw is clenched and my smile appears forced. Source: vimeo

If you’re committed to public speaking, try to add those stretches to your daily routine, it’ll only take a minute or two of your precious time:

  • massage your cheeks: use both hands, apply enough pressure to really work the deep tissue in your cheeks while making circular motions. Then move on to the rest of your face: your eyebrows, the side of your eyes, your forehead, …
  • do some upper body stretching, focusing especially on your neck and shoulders.

Clarence also gave me a few tips to have a clearer voice, even though we didn’t have the time to delve into that subject. The first thing is that the tightness reflected in your face also happens in your larynx, where your voice is shaped. Fortunately, you can also stretch your larynx with the following exercise:

Disturbing drawing of the larynx stretch exercise — hopefully helps with understanding the exercise
  • tuck your chin in
  • open your mouth as wide as you can
  • keeping that mouth wide open, look up as far as you can
  • feel the stretch in your throat?
If you’re using a microphone to give your talk, eat an apple 15 minutes before talking.

This sounds like voodoo, but apples contain an element that coats the throat and remove those unappetizing noises in the mic when you open your mouth. Water is also crucial. Make sure you drink enough before your talk, and then regularly during your talk. A good rule of thumb is one mouthful every 10 minutes. This will also work nicely with the rhythm we talked about earlier. Use this to pause at the right time, letting this all-important point sink in while you stay hydrated.

One of the most commonly used expression when giving advice on public speaking is “occupy the space”. This always seemed quite obscure to me. I do understand the idea but always find it hard to apply it during the talk. But you can plan those moves beforehand! These few tips are great to get started:

  • Each time you start on a new point, move to a new spot. It’ll give the audience some time to digest your first point. It’ll also clearly show that you’re moving on to something different.
  • If you show something on the screen, go as close as possible to the screen. People shouldn’t have to divide their attention between you and the screen. Not splitting your audience’s attention is crucial by the way. So if you show a video, do not talk while it plays. Drink your water and wait for it to be stopped before you talk. This feels scary. I know. But it’ll make both the video and your speech much more impactful.
  • If you have a slide which is split into 2 or 3 columns, you can stand in the middle. Use your right arm to do the gestures during the first part. Then keep both arms in front of you during the point in the middle. Finally, use your left arm for the last part of the slide.
Be deliberate about mimes, you’re giving a show! — Photo by Fatih Kılıç on Unsplash

Finally — and I understand this might not apply to everyone — when I talk about robots I always end up miming actions. If you use mime, be very deliberate about it — practice your gestures in advance. You can use an object that you’ve brought with you on stage for this purpose. If you can, roll up your sleeve before going into “mime mode”. This can be used as a good Story beat as well. Remember, you’re on stage, you’re giving a show!

Final words

I truly hope that those few tips will be as useful to you as they were to me. Giving a talk in front of a crowd can be a nerve-wracking experience. Obviously, the more you prepare that talk the more confident you will be. The more confident you are the more convincing you will be. And the more you’ll enjoy giving that talk.

A final tip Clarence gave me is to use small cards. One card per slide. One word on each card. When you practice your talk don’t use your slides. Simply go through those cards. Change position between each card. Do one standing. Do one sitting. Do one lying down. If you’re able to give your talk that way nothing can stop you on the Day!

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