Public speaking is an act, not in the sense that the speakers are acting, but more in the sense that they are performing. A common belief is that when people book a speaker, that speaker’s job is to speak about what they know and deliver good content. Speakers are expected to do more than delivering content. The are expected to perform. A speaker is tasked, whether explicitly or otherwise, not only with delivering the content, but also to entertain and elicit emotions. There are 2 main parts to work on to become a good speaker:
- The stuff that must happen before the talk. The prep.
- The stuff that must happen during the talk. The delivery.
Before the talk
Here is almost all about preparation. We need to understand exactly what we have been called to speak about, and why. This is likely the point where most speakers fail. They eagerly accept the speaking engagement and, caught up in the moment, they either forget or feel embarrassed to double check and clarify what the purpose of the talk is, and why they called, out of gazillions others, them.
Some organisations are better than others at being proactively providing this information. I recently spoke at Google HQ, at arguably their most important agency event in the EMEA region, and they were very good at providing a comprehensive clear brief. The brief did not only include what they wanted from my talk, but also the overall message of the conference and the key message of every individual speaker. They painted a fantastic picture for me to understand what the event was going to look like, before it happened.
Even with such clarity, it was important that I understood exactly what they were hoping for me to deliver and why they’ve chosen me. So, we’ve exchanged a couple of emails and had three calls to ensure we were aligned. One at the very beginning of the conversation, one after the first draft and one at the end, once the talk was ready.
This is a luxury and one should not count on it happening often. Many organisations are not like that. You’ll find yourself in situations where even the organisers aren’t clear about some of the details. So it’ll be your job to proactively find out what they want to see from you, you might have to help them understand that.
I was called to speak at an internal event for a very large pharma company. They had managers coming over to London from various European offices for their general marketing summit. It took a handful of emails and three phone calls to nail down exactly what they wanted me to deliver. And, based on the outcome of our conversations, I pretty much turned my talk on its head, not in its content but in its shape. I ended up delivering a radically different format than usual. The outcome was outstanding and it got me other bookings with international departments who wanted the same for their local teams. It’s worth putting in the time at the beginning.
There are things you can do to help events organisers know what you and your talk are about even before they make contact. A few things that help with achieving this are:
The first step is to have a very clear message on your website or the speaking page of your website. If you can, include footage of previous talks. Have information about your style of presenting and what you speak about. The more ‘you’, you illustrate on that page, the better. When people book you after seeing your page, they’d know what to expect. If they book you through other means, you can direct them to that page during your negotiations
The same goes for your social media professional profiles.
The second is to ask them very specific questions. These may vary depending on you, the type of speaker you are, the type of industry that you for etc. But generally they are:
What would you like the audience to leave with, after my keynote or speech?
Often the organisers won’t know this. Make sure that you help them understand that through deeper questioning. Things like: If there was a feeling, if there was a specific piece of knowledge, if there was an action that you want them to take, what would that be?
Once, I was booked to speak at an event and I asked the person, “What would you like me to leave the audience with?” And after a couple of deeper questioning, the organiser said, “I would like to leave the people with the information they need to be able to influence and elicit behavioural change in their consumers.”
At which point I said, “Why me? Are you sure I’m the right guy?” I’ve been working in marketing all my life, and, whilst I have a very keen interest in psychology and behavioural change, they’re only interests, especially the latter; I’m not a behavioural scientist and I don’t want you to be disappointed. And the answer to that was, “No, no, no. This is not what I want. I don’t want behavioural scientists sharing their studies. I want somebody that has been doing marketing and leading a team and therefore able to elicit change in behaviour through practice.”
You may get things like, “Oh, because I saw you at event X and Y and your energy was fantastic.” Or, “Because I saw you at event X and Y, and you talked about artificial intelligence and what it can do and what the dangers are and blah, blah, blah.”
And then you know, you should absolutely include that story, that topic or whatever they said the reason for calling you was, in your talk as it was their drive to book you.
How big is the audience? How big is the venue? Will it be recorded? Will it be streamed?
All this information will help you plan. If there’s no recording and you want it, maybe then you can bring your own recording team. If the audience is very small, you might need to tailor your presentation and make it more interactive, more personal. If it’s very large, you might include something that works better with larger groups.You can also tailor your preparation and research examples of good things to do with that size audience.
Who is the audience?
If your audience is made of technical people, good at executing, you might include technical details. But if you’re talking to managers instead, then you should probably avoid being too technical or you will lose them quickly. In short, talk about something the audience understand and in a way that is understood by them.
Once you know this and you’ve agreed the fees and everything else, you have the information to prepare a kick-ass talk.
How do you go about preparing a kick-ass talk?
Let’s start from the slides. I don’t know how experienced and knowledgeable you are in the area of public speaking, and I don’t want to get too bogged down talking about slides. There are many courses about slide design.
But a couple of very important things to keep in mind if you are using slides are:
Words: Unless you’re quoting someone on a slide, try whenever you can, and try hard, to include not more than three, maximum four, words on each slide. If you have to include words at all.
Pictures: If you use pictures, try whatever you can, and again, try really hard, to include real pictures. If you really have to include a picture of a puzzle for example, then sit down in the living room with your kid, get a puzzle out and have your partner take a picture of the hands moving the pieces. It’s much more genuine. It has a much bigger impact. It makes it more personal. It makes it more real. If you tell a story, try to use a picture of that story. I have gotten into the habit of taking pictures whenever something cool happens which I think I might include in my talks. In short, try to not use stock images.
Talk, don’t read: This overlaps with the next part of the preparation, but it’s important so repetitions is due. Don’t read the slides. There is nothing more depressing than watching a speaker giving a talk reading the slides. It’s really sad. If you’re a professional speaker, speak don’t read.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse: You need to rehearse in front of people if you can. Family, friends, colleagues. Get their feedback. The more you rehearse and the better the talk will be.
The second time you give the same talk, it will be a lot better than the first, even if you rehearsed for the first one. There is massive value in rehearsing the talk in front of real people. Put yourself in a position as similar as possible to the real thing.
Time: If you get given 20 minutes to speak, finish your talk in 15 minutes. There’ll never be an organiser that will get upset because you finished a few minutes earlier. You might allow them to make up some time that they might’ve lost during the day. You might allow some time for Q&A. And if you realise that you’re too early, you can always stretch it out at the end. Take your time. The reason why you were booked to speak is because they like you. It’s very unlikely, extremely unlikely, that you are speaking about something that only you can speak about. Most of the time, what you can speak about can also be shared by other speakers.
If they’ve chosen you, there is a good chance that a large part of the reason why they chose you is you. So allow more time for you, less time for content and more time for you, more time to be the you they have booked. If they gave you 30 minutes, aim to finish in 20-22. And when you rehearse, take that into account.
You have built your deck, you prepared your talk and you rehearsed it in front of friends, family, colleagues. You might even have taken a video and watched it back. You’re ready to give the talk. There are a few things you want to do before you jump on stage.
Clothes: The first thing that you must do is choose the clothes that you’re going to wear onstage, way before the event. That takes away the stress of realising that… “oh shit, I don’t have any clothing that I like or am comfortable with for the talk!”.
You planned, in your head, to wear this wonderful blue skirt or your favourite black jeans and black shirt or whatever it is that you like to wear, but you’ve not washed it. Or they’re not dry. So bloody frustrating. Make sure that you plan. It might be a good idea for you to have ‘speaking clothes’, clothes that you wear when you speak. You may also wish to have clothing that define you as a speaker. I have shoes. I wear outrageous shoes and they define me as a speaker. I’ve got a good friend who wears three-piece suits, very flashy, all the time, and it’s part of his brand.
The deck: Make sure that you have the deck in the format that you like. Make sure that you’re comfortable with the format that will be used, whether that’s PDF, PowerPoint, or whatever else. Formatting can get messed up when opening a document with different programs. A little prep takes the risk out.
Water: Have a bottle of water with you. Before and during the talk. You may find that nerves can make your throat and your lips dry. Be sure to you keep water with you.
Breathing: The day of the talk, make sure that you do some breathing exercises. I meditate and therefore I rely on my daily meditation to set me up for the talk. If you are not into meditation, or if you are and want something more, try breath work. There’s a lot of literature on breath work.
One technique I like is this:
- take 30 deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth
fully in but out only 80% or so out, therefore retaining more oxygen
- on the 30th breath, exhale fully and hold your breath until you can
when the urge is strong, breathe in and hold that for 10 seconds
- repeat the process three times
I find it gives me clarity or space, mental and physical. It allows me to be more aware of my surroundings, more in the moment and brings clarity of mind.
Read up on breath work and choose the technique that works for you.
Breathe whilst you talk: It’s very easily done, when you’re a bit nervous, to talk without breathing. Super important that you remember to pause and breathe. Take your time, pause and breathe.
Your first line: The one thing that I used to do until recently, something that 90% of speakers do, but nobody should, is to get on the stage and ask, “How are you? How are you doing? How was lunch? How was breakfast? How was the break?” Don’t do that. That’s what a trainer might do. That’s what a professor might do. You’re a speaker. You’re delivering a keynote or a talk. Don’t ask these questions. Most people won’t answer. If you’re lucky, some might and you will get half of the room say, “Yeah, good.” And if you’re very, very lucky they will say it in a way that doesn’t sound like they’re dying. You might even find yourself having to pump the audience up at the beginning because of the lack of enthusiasm in answering such basic questions. A hard start.
What I learned to do is to jump on stage and you don’t say anything for a few seconds. Just stare. And then start or ask them a question. Sometimes I ask: “On a scale of one to 10, where 10 is [fill in the blank] and one is [fill in the black], where are you right now?” Then I go around the room and people shout out numbers and the highest one gets an applause.Other times I start with a story or a controversial statement. Whatever you do, I beg you, don’t open with, “How are you? How are you doing?” I used to do it and when I think back I want to cringe.
Next, make it about them: And again, this is something I got wrong plenty of times. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I was here. I was there. I’ve built this. I’ve built that.” And you’ll need some of that. But make it mostly about them. I recently told a story of an experience that I had at Silverstone, racing track in the UK. One of those driving experiences people gift to people.
I opened with “How many times do you manage to give your customers a remarkable experience? A truly memorable one?” Then I went on to tell the story about my experience at Silverstone. But it was about them. Now and again I’d link it back to them, even if the story was about me.
Your body language: I like to move on stage. I like to go from one place to the other. Get off the stage, get in the audience. What do you like doing? What’s your style? Make sure that you are aware of your style and embrace it, make it purposeful because, remember, they booked you because they like you, so give them more of you.
Hands: A good rule of thumb is to keep your hands between your waist and your chin. That’s what I call the ‘safe zone’. When you gesticulate above your head, it could come across as aggressive. If you have a T-shirt, the T-shirt might come up and show your belly. It happened to me. It could be that you’re knocking the microphone off. Low ceilings might mean you knock something down. You might be out of shot of the camera too. It’s okay if you want to show people a raise of hands, but even then I’ll keep at head-height.
Hands below the waist is an even bigger risk. Be very careful with movements below the belt. Very awkward things can happen when you start gesticulating there.
Safe zone is between the belt and the chin. Very little can go wrong there.
Eye contact: As you progress through your talk, make eye contact with every part of the room. You can’t often make eye contact with everyone in the room because it might be too many people. Make eye contact with the right side of the room, the centre of the room, the left side of the room. If you have balconies, make sure that you make eye contact with there too.
Body position: There are some advanced strategies to do with the position of your body. If you are telling a story for example, and maybe that story is in the past, you might want to be moving, you might want to be walking away from the centre to indicate physically that you’re moving now in space as well in time in your story. And then maybe when the story is finished, you go back to the centre.
Or maybe you’re telling a story about travels, about when you went to Tokyo and then to Spain to finish up in Canada. You could walk to different spot of the stage to indicate Tokyo, another for Spain and another for Canada. This works with anything, whether it’s a geographical movement or a progression through time. You went from doing one million in revenue to two. Move to two spots to indicate the two levels. This allows people to really get into the story.
Stories: Stories are important and I tell at least three each talk I give. Often more. When you tell a story, make sure you tell a story. Don’t tell this story without the emotion. Don’t tell the story the same way that a 6-year-old might read it from a book. Tell this story as if you’re telling this story to a 6-year-old. Put emotion in it. Allow the audience to feel what happened in this story.
Be funny: And if you think you can’t be funny, think again. Sometimes being funny only means putting up a funny slide.
During a recent talk, after convincing a member of the audience to come out on stage (which they never want to do), as she was making her way to the stage I changed the slides to this below and said: “oh, I forgot to mention that in my spare time I am a stage hypnotist”. They all laugh out loud.
Another time I was describing how Aladdin’s lamp work and said: “You take the lamp, you rub it and this big blue man (sexists!) comes out and grants you wishes”. The addition of the word ‘sexist’ makes people laugh every time, and it’s such a tiny thing. I hope this gives you the sense of what I am talking about.
Hard for me to be too prescriptive here, simply do all you can to include slides and stories that make the audience laugh regularly during your talk.
Here the structure that I normally follow: I go onto the stage, I either do something that surprises the audience, or I ask them a question, or tell them a story. That’s number one.
So say I’m talking about growth, I’d say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is you’ve arrived, you’ve achieved your true potential in business, and 1 is where you’re only just getting started, where are you on that scale?” And people raise their hands. And you get twos, threes, maybe some sixes or sevens. At that point I say: “It’s pretty obvious then that there is some growth to be done.” But how are we going to get there?”. Then I start with the first story. Once that either frames the rest of the talk or inspires and make them curious – so I have their attention.
Then you go on and you deliver the content. This is the body of your talk, the more technical, the more practical part of the session. Stats, case-studies, proofs, results etc. Even here, make sure you include stories. They might be more anecdotal and more about the practical aspects you are describing, but they are still stories.
At the end, I either close with a story that wraps the whole thing up or I close with a question, something like: “So we talked about growth, and we looked at the way in which we can really be prepared for growth so that growth doesn’t surprise us and freezes us. We looked at the tools, we looked at the resources, we looked for examples and case studies. Now we know that growth is also made of change, lots of change. And the question that I have for you all, the question that once you answer, might just solve the most important puzzle of your business, and the one question I’ll leave you with is: If there is one change that is likely to move the needle the most in your growth, what would it be and when are you going to make it? Thank you very much.”
Public speaking is a massive subject. There is plenty more. Maybe I’ll do another article in the future. But for now, this is what I refer to as the 80/20, is that 20% of the work that gets you 80% of the results.
I hope you enjoy it and I hope you become a great speaker. Good luck.