Speaker Notes

After coming back from RailsConf, I have some tips about speaking at conferences. Which isn’t really a comment on the speakers I saw — I think, overall, the quality of the speakers has improved noticeably over the years — but more along the the lines of tips for people getting started.

None of this is a hard-and-fast rule, the most important thing is to speak about something that you find important and interesting, and do so in a way that makes your excitement apparent to the audience.

With that in mind, here are some practical, small, things that work for me, that I like to see in others, and they might work for you.

As you put your talk together, focus on the audience, what story you are telling them, and what you want them to take away at the end. What should they know or be able to do that wasn’t true at the beginning of the talk? You should be able to summarize the takeaways at the end, even if you don’t explicitly put up a slide called “takeaways”.

The classic structure “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them” doesn’t work for every talk, but it’s a classic for a reason. Consider putting some signposts at the beginning of your talk to let people know what to expect.

There’s a good chance you are speaking too fast. Trust me. Slow down. If you are even the slightest bit nervous or excited, this will often manifest by speeding up your speech. Slow down. People will understand you better, and you’ll seem more relaxed and in control.

A lot of what makes an effective speaker is being able to project being in control. Resist the temptation to undercut yourself at the beginning (“sorry, I didn’t get a chance to finish my slides”, or something like that). If you are me, it’s tempting to apologize up front, but it generally doesn’t help.

People pay attention when things change. A monotone will often cause people to tune out. But there are a lot of things that you can change in your voice besides pitch that will keep people paying attention. A change in volume — not just getting louder, but also getting quieter. Changing your speed. There’s nothing quite like a well-timed pause to get people’s attention.

If at all possible, don’t hide behind the podium. There are several reasons to come out from behind the podium.

  • It cuts you off, the audience can’t really see anything but your face, so there’s less of you to notice, and you have less body language to apply, all of which means you have less ways to engage the audience.
  • It encourages you to hunch down and look at your screen, which looks defensive, and keeps you from looking at the audience.
  • It encourages you to read from the screen, which is not usually effective.

A downside to coming out from behind the podium is that it’s very rare for a speaker set up to allow you to see your speaker notes other than on your own laptop. I work around this by not using speaker notes, but that’s not a good solution for everybody. Another option is to stand next to the podium, with the laptop angled so you can see it in the side of your vision.

A good USB radio remote is usually better than using one of the remote apps on your phone. The phone apps use WiFi (or at least they used to), which can be laggy or stop working at the worst possible time.

In general — and some of this is idiosyncratic — you don’t want to be either reading word for word or reciting a memorized talk word for word. Most people who are not trained actors (including myself) have a very hard time reciting rote text without sounding stiff or unnatural. (Granted: some people feel much more comfortable writing down a talk word for word. If that works for you, you should keep at it, but being flexible in your wording will usually make your talk sound more natural).

If you are more comfortable with a fully-scripted or nearly fully-scripted talk, here’s something I heard Ira Glass, host of This American Life, say. Glass’ narration for This American Life tends to be very heavily scripted. It’s not uncommon for him to take many hours or days to get just a few minutes of narration right. Glass says that when he hears himself sounding unnatural, he focuses on lowering the pitch of his voice, at least partially on the grounds that it counteracts the normal tendency for tension to make your voice higher. I suspect it also gives him something to focus on other than the words.

Make eye contact. Around the room. I tend to sweep across the room pretty mechanically to make sure that I look in all directions. If you can, find people who seem to be nodding along with you and focus on them.

I tend to keep my slides relatively plain, and without many words on a slide. I probably err on the side of too few graphics. This is because I don’t think I’m a very good visual designer, and therefore don’t think I will improve the look of the slides by spending a lot of effort on them, and also because I am self-involved enough to want people looking at me and not at the screen.

In general — and this is, again, me — I tend not to have memes or inside jokes on my slides. Again, this is a little bit of self-involvement on my part — I want people to be laughing at jokes I wrote. But also, inside jokes, by their nature exclude some people. (Also, I’m never quite sure I’m doing the meme right…)

Doing something to explictly engage the audience’s attention is a good idea. There’s a reason why entertainers praise the audience — it gets applause, and also gets people in the habit of paying attention and applauding. That said, specifically asking for a show of hands often doesn’t work. Many people just won’t do it, and it has the opposite effect, it makes the room seem less engaged.

Whether or not you introduce yourself at the beginning of the talk is a choice, but you should have your last slide have your name, contact info, any project links you are promoting. If there’s a question-and-answer part, then that slide will be on screen for a few minutes, and it may as well help you out.

With that in mind, I’m Noel Rappin, you can follow me on twitter @noelrap and my company, Table XI, @tablexi. You can learn more about me at noelrappin.com, and criticize a bunch of my talks online.

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