Speaking in public is a terrifying experience for many people. The anxiety is understandable. Everyone is staring right at you, awaiting your words of wisdom. You feel exposed and vulnerable. Did you prepare enough? Did you practice enough? Will they like what you have to say?
Just in case you’re nervous about giving presentations, here I share some of Karl’s Tips for Confident Public Speaking, adapted from my book Successful Business Analysis Consulting.
Presentation Tip #1: No one knows what you’re going to say next.
Don’t worry if the words that come out of your mouth don’t exactly match the way you planned, scripted, or practiced them. Just keep going. A presentation is very different from, say, a piano recital of a well-known musical composition, where someone in the audience is sure to notice a B that should have been a C. If you forget to make some point, try to work it in smoothly later on. No one will know.
Presentation Tip #2: You are in control.
You’re the one with the podium, the microphone, the projector, the laser pointer. You’re the one who can ask the audience if they have any questions. You can terminate the discussion and move on whenever you like. You control the pacing. It’s your show — enjoy it.
Presentation Tip #3: You probably know more about your topic than anyone else in the room.
Otherwise, one of them would be speaking and you’d be listening. Even if you’re not the world’s expert on the subject, you’re likely to be the local expert for that hour or day.
It can be disconcerting to stand before a conference audience and recognize a well-known authority on your topic in the crowd. Most such authorities will keep a low profile and not ask embarrassing questions or try to take over the presentation. Rarely, I’ve seen a famous person take an inappropriately intrusive role in someone else’s presentation. I find that irritating; the speaker probably does as well. So if you’re the famous person at someone else’s talk, please remember that it’s the speaker’s show, not yours.
Presentation Tip #4: You rarely face a hostile audience.
Attendees want to hear what you have to say. This isn’t necessarily true if you’re dealing with a controversial issue or if you’re speaking at a political or government meeting of some kind. But if you’re delivering a factual presentation to a group of people who are attending of their own volition, they usually start out with an open and receptive attitude. After that, it’s up to you to hold their interest and persuade them of the merits of your message.
Presentation Tip #5: Avoid saying “on the next slide . . .”
I learned this trick from my PhD thesis advisor in graduate school. Maybe you don’t remember just what’s on the next slide, or perhaps you changed the sequence from the last time you gave the presentation. When we used actual 35mm slides back in the Stone Age, they might not have been loaded in the slide carousel exactly as planned. If you say “on the next slide” but you’re surprised by what then pops up, you might have to backtrack a bit — awkward. Instead, just display the next slide in the sequence and talk about whatever is on it. Roll with reality even when it doesn’t match the plan.
Presentation Tip #6: Don’t state how many points you want to make about something.
In some of my talks I will reveal a particular bullet and then say, “There are three things I want to say about this.” That can be dangerous, especially for those of us with brains that are, shall we say, slightly older than average. On several occasions, I’ve conveyed the first two points just fine but forgotten precisely what I intended to say in the third point. So then I either have to mumble some new “third point” on the fly, hope I think of my original third point before I move on to the next slide, or hope no one remembered how many points I had promised. It’s safer to say, “I want to make several points about this.” Then I can offer as many — or as few — as come to mind at the time.
Presentation Tip #7: Don’t read the slides to the audience.
They can all read just fine. Don’t cram masses of text on your slides. Show concise bullets and images that will help the listener remember what you told him when he reviews the presentation in the future. Reveal elements of the slide one at a time, instead of showing an entire complex slide and then walking the audience through it.
I have delivered many webinars, in which I’m speaking on the phone from the comfort of my home office, displaying slides over the internet. Because no one can see me during those presentations, I can make the process easy for myself. I write rich notes for each of my slides in a conversational style, based on how I’ve given the talk live in the past. That way I can just read from the script, with appropriate vocal inflections and additional relevant commentary.
Presentation Tip #8: It’s okay to say “I don’t know” in response to a question.
If you aren’t sure how best to respond, it’s better to say “I don’t know” than to stand there silently because you can’t think of the right answer. It’s also better than making up an answer on the fly that might be wildly erroneous. Even better than “I don’t know” is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” or “Let me think about your question and get back to you.” Then be sure to follow up later on.
Because you’re controlling the presentation, you may choose to defer questions to the end. You might suggest that you follow up off-line with someone who’s asking a complex question or one that’s of limited interest to the rest of the audience. But do show respect for serious questioners, even if you can’t give them all a perfect answer in real time.
Presentation Tip #9: Watch the clock.
Speakers who run past their allotted time get dinged on their evaluations. This goes double if you’re speaking just before a break, prior to lunch, or at the end of the day. Try not to run more than one minute past your scheduled finish time.
If you see that you might run out of time before you cover everything, that’s your problem, not the audience’s problem. It’s better to skip some material than to hold captive a fidgeting audience. With practice, you’ll get better at selectively condensing your planned material while underway to bring the talk to a smooth close. Nobody enjoys seeing a speaker whir through 20 slides in the last five minutes.
I plan on spending an average of three minutes discussing each slide. I know one speaker who says he averages just one minute per (information-dense) slide. Particularly toward the end of his overstuffed presentations, he goes so comically fast that I’ve given up trying to follow him. Flashing up a slide for only a few seconds is pointless if the audience gets nothing out of it.
Presentation Tip #10: Talk about what you said you were going to talk about.
I firmly believe in truth in advertising, so I write abstracts for my presentations that are both inviting and accurate. The audience has a right to know what to expect, and the speaker has a responsibility to deliver. This tip might seem obvious, but I’ve attended more than one presentation in which the content didn’t fulfill the promise from the title and abstract.
Let’s say the title is “Conjugating Verbs in Swahili,” but the material presented misses the mark. At the end of the talk the speaker invites questions. One attendee asks, “Were you going to say anything about conjugating verbs in Swahili?” The speaker doesn’t know how to respond. He thinks that’s what he just spent an hour discussing, but he really didn’t. That’s an embarrassing position for any speaker to be in. I’ve seen it happen, though fortunately not to me.
Presentation Tip #11: Don’t be nervous if a lot of people attend your webinar.
My webinars typically draw 800 to 1,200 registrants, although only about 40 percent of them attend. However, from the speaker’s perspective, the experience of delivering a webinar is identical whether there are two attendees or two million. I’m just talking into the phone to whoever happens to be listening. While it can be intimidating to think of your message going out to a lot of people at once, when you’re giving a presentation over the web it really doesn’t feel like there’s a large audience out there.
Presentation Tip #12: Remember that you’re wearing a microphone.
I always request that the client provide a wireless lavalier microphone when I teach a full-day class or when I deliver a presentation in a large room. These microphones use a transmitter that clips to my belt. It’s important to switch that transmitter off at breaks and at other times when I don’t wish the entire audience to hear what I’m saying — or doing.
You might also want to be aware of where you’re standing when you switch on the microphone’s transmitter. At the beginning of a class once, I just happened to turn on the mike as I was walking in front of a high-mounted speaker for the PA system. The feedback just about blew my head off. Being a public speaker presents no end of unexpected learning experiences.
I find these tips help keep me confident, comfortable, and poised when I’m speaking in public. I’ll bet they’ll help you too.