05 Mar 2014

What I Learned From 10+ Years Of Public Speaking & How You Can Rock The [Trade] Show

I get a huge rush from giving a speech, something like what other people experience from downing 3 red bulls and lb of candy. You can too. Even if the prospect of it currently makes you sweaty and uncomfortable, public speaking can be learned.

I’ve studied some of the best businessmen performing this art – and some of the best entertainers, too. Here are some lessons I’ve learned. Hopefully the next time you’re giving a talk at SMX, you’ll have them begging for more. And if you’re producing video content based on a talk, taking this advice will make your video far more engaging.

I’m going to assume you have phenomenal content and write only about form. How you present is equally important – and sometimes more – than what you present.


1. Practice, practice, practice.

There’s no such thing as too much practice. Memorizing increases your comfort, and this will in turn be reflected in relaxed and confident body language when you speak.

Actors rehearse their lines repeatedly - and it's a key aspect to giving a good performance. The same is true with business presentations.

Actors rehearse their lines repeatedly – and it’s a key aspect to giving a good performance. The same is true with business presentations. Image via: John Schuelze

Memorizing also prevents one of the biggest flaws in speechmaking – “uhm”ing and “aww”ing. I’ve been there, done that … audiences notice. Speak fluidly by knowing your points off by heart.

Note that memorizing doesn’t mean word-for-word, though that is ideal. Memorizing usually just means knowing your points and approximately the words you’ll use. If they’re 95% the same, you don’t need to worry about the extra 5% – you’ll be fine.

Another benefit of practicing is that you’ll see how long your presentation takes. This is very important since most speeches have a time limit.

A further benefit is that if the tech breaks down – the computer dies, your USB dies, the projector dies, electricity fails – you can talk without your slides.

Yet another benefit is that practice helps you figure out what’s important and what’s secondary. This leads to my next tip:


2. Get to the point, immediately.

Do as stated in the book Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln (kudos Guy Kawasaki for the reference).

Don’t start by thanking the association, or asking forgiveness for whatever matter you overlooked. Start with the lead, with the most important point. Don’t bury the lead.


3. Use transition slides.

I learned this from Rand Fishkin, who usually introduces a new topic with a transition slide. Think of this as the equivalent to a subheader in an article. This helps with clarity and enables the audience to understand how each part of your presentation is related, rather than perceiving it as a big jumble.

If you’re ready to go from your introduction to “body topic #1,” insert a slide before “body topic #1″ that says “body topic #1.”

Here’s one I did for my recent presentation on crowdsourcing your online marketing. (Here’s the part 2 blog post.)

Indicate that you're moving to the next topic with a transition slide. You'll help audience members follow along.   If you like this post, please share it on Twitter or link from your blog.

Indicate that you’re moving to the next topic with a transition slide. You’ll help audience members follow along.
If you like this post, please share it on Twitter or link from your blog.

Note that I’m not talking about transition effects. The best transition effect is no effect.


4. Ideally have just one message per slide. 

I’m talking about the amount of content each slide should represent. It should represent just one message.

Imagine a one-slide presentation about WW2 with 100 bullets on it. Obviously that’s not going to be effective because it crams too much information into too little space.

That’s an extreme example, but you often see this with technical presentations that want to tell you all the neat uses for a tool, or all the {x} about {y}.

It’s fine to share all the {x} about {y}… but do so over several slides.

How long should each slide’s message take to say, then? I’d venture a guess between 10 seconds and 90 seconds (without any dramatic emphasis, repetition, drawing out or stunts – just normal speaking pace).

As with copywriting, communicate your message with the least amount of words possible – but no fewer. I learned this from Seth Godin’s presentations, and you can see he sticks to this rule on his blog, too.

Note that Seth sometimes has virtually no content on his slides, which is too little. I know because I tried this style and got feedback from a textual learner that it was hard for him to follow my presentation.

(FYI: It’s ok to have one supporting bullet point in addition to your main message bullet. If you have three or more bullet points, ask yourself how they can be subdivided into logical groups.)


5. Minimize text on slides.

Bullets should be 2-3 words at most, 95% of the time. There are exceptions (e.g. for quotations and for your slide headline), but do your best to keep this minimal.

You don’t want people trying to read your presentation, nor should you read it. You should present it by verbally filling in the detail (who, where, when, why) and usually limit the bullet to stating “what,” or “how.”

When you have lots of text on a slide, you create “fear of missing out,” or FOMO for short. So people race to read everything, and don’t pay attention to you. To make things worse, these eager beavers are usually the ones who really care to learn and are sitting in the first rows … so you’re losing your best audience.


6. Adapt your slides for online readers by adding text.

Usually, you want minimal text on your slides. That’s great for people who attend the presentation.

When you repurpose the slides as online content though, you’re usually not present. And there’s typically no recording (audio/video) for people to follow along. Accordingly your 1-3 word bullets will often be incomprehensible to online readers, and require filling in.

You can alternately include a link to the URL that has the presentation’s audio/video recording in your first slide, and accompany the multimedia with a transscription for SEO purposes.

Savvy public speakers will know that this is an application of “know your audience.”


7. Give each slide a representative photo as a background.

Some people learn best visually, while others learn best from hearing and yet others from reading. Give people an image to associate your message with, and they’ll retain it better.

If you need an image for an idea/concept, you’ll usually get better results if you search for an instance where that idea is expressed, rather than some abstract photo. If you want to show the idea “problem,” think of a common problem like a punctured tire and use that.

Slides should use (as backgrounds) images that represent your point.

Slides should use (as backgrounds) images that represent your point. Exceptionally, the notion of “patterns” – being that it’s a visual notion – had a good, free CC licensed image I can use. If I hadn’t found it though, I’d have looked for something like “children playing” and used several images tiled together to represent the concept of patterns.


8. Don’t use generic (usually stock) images.

People who rely on stock photography (true for both sites and presentations) usually end up with generic images that have been shown on a million other uncreative websites or slides. Ironically, the concept of being unique is where stock image creators show how generic they can be. Here’s shutterstock’s selection for the keyword “unique.”

Don't rely on stock photos, because they tend to offer generic images that have appeared in loads of other places.

Don’t rely on stock photos, because they tend to offer generic images that have appeared in loads of other places.

Not very unique, are they?


9. Do use amateur photos.

For instance, search Flickr for creative commons licensed pictures that allow commercial use.


10. Don’t read your preso.

I said it earlier but it bears repeating. Reading your presentation is equal to taking the express bus to Boredom City.


11. Modulate your tone of voice.

Even without reading, if you state everything in a monotone, you’re going to lose people.

The human ear is attuned to auditory indicators of importance. Just like you have headlines, subheadlines, bullets, bold and italics in your webpages, some things you say will have greater importance while others are not important at all. Indicate which is which.


12. Don’t talk over others; be quiet and then they will shut up.

If your audience is chatty and not being respectful, the worst thing you can do is ignore them and try to just talk louder.

When you talk louder, the chatters subconsciously realize that there’s more background noise so they raise their voices. And it just gets worse for the people genuinely trying to hear you, because now you’re shouting and the jerks next to them are talking loudly, too.

This is a lose-lose game. Don’t play.

Instead, if people are talking while you’re talking, shut up. I’ve seen it done so many times and used it myself in so many situations – from coaching youth soccer to speeches and other situations. This works.


13. Use silence for emphasis.

Silence is a cue for people to listen. That’s one of the reasons it helps get chatters to be quiet. It can also be used to dramatize and emphasize a point.

Instead of saying, “if you get one takeaway from today’s presentation, it should be…” instead clam up and count to 10 in your head. Then state the takeaway. This is what James Humes refers to as the “power pause” in his book Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln. (Can you tell I love the book?)


14. Use repetition for emphasis. Use repetition for emphasis.
Tell people that you’re emphasizing a point.

Another way to emphasize is simply to tell people  that you’re emphasizing. “Write this down,” as Michael Gerber says. That particular phrasing – especially if used more than once in a speech – can come across as arrogant or patronizing, so be very careful with your tone and delivery.

Michael Gerber, author of the E-Myth revisited

Michael Gerber, author of entrepreneurship bestseller, The E-Myth Revisited, often says “write this down” to emphasize key points. He can get away with multiple uses of the phrase because his stature as a business guru is legendary … the average Joe should make only sparing use of that line.

Have someone else listen and tell you if your jokes are funny.

You can communicate your points well and impress the audience without jokes. You can do even better with jokes. But humour is a double-edged sword, because if you don’t kill the audience – you kill yourself. I know, I’ve bombed very publicly. It was awkwaaaaaaaaard hehe. 

It’s not enough to practice any jokes you want to make on your own at home. Be sure to have others hear the jokes before the presentation and give you honest feedback.


15. Look your audience in the eye.

You’re not presenting to a room full of robots, but to human beings. We like to be communicated with in a way that shows the speaker cares about us, in particular. If you only look out at the audience in general, you’re wasting a chance to connect emotionally.


16. Walk around, ideally amongst the audience.

It’s so easy and so much more interesting than being an immobile load of human at the podium.

Furthermore, if you walk around, you can look more people in the eye than if you just stay close to the front row.

If you walk around, you can ask a question directly of someone and followup, while keeping things personal as opposed to talking across a 50 meter gap like you’re the authority figure and the audience member is some poor slob. Share your personal space.


17. Involve the audience: meaningfully.

Some presenters think this means asking for a show of hands. That’s ok, but it’s very, very basic. And usually presenters make it worse by having no more reason for asking than to check the “involve the audience” box – the question usually has no followup impact to the presentation.

If you’re teaching people something, there’s usually an exercise you can do during your presentation, a practice example that you can give. Ask the audience to do the exercise. Look at the smiles, the immediate roar of sound, the engagement when I did this on a keyword panel for SMX Advanced (West?). Kudos to the presenter at a prior SMX (Lloyd something?) who I got the idea from.

Another way to do this is to ask a question and throw prizes at audience members who offer good answers. (Most answers are good. Don’t be that Debbie Downer who only wants to hear his answer and shoots down other people. You’ll reduce participation and come across as a jerk, and a narrow-minded one, too.)

Bonus points for throwing creative stuff that will surprise the audience. I’ve earned happy tweets from throwing [new-in-package] insoles at conference attendees. People find it surprising because you’re throwing a prize and because it’s something unusual, and perhaps also because when you’re spending three days walking around a massive conference center, your soles hurt so a free pair of insoles is surprisingly useful. I don’t know why shwag companies haven’t caught on.


18. Repeat questions so all can hear them.

There isn’t always a mic for the gal in row 15 with a question. Repeat all questions to ensure the whole audience (and any mics recording the preso) hear the question.


19. Agree with questioners who interrupt to try to debate you.

What do you do when the world's got you down? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. - Dory

What do you do when the world’s got you down? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. – Dory

In the world of improv comedy, this is known as the “Yes, and…” rule. In short, to keep everyone’s energy up, you again want to avoid being a Debbie Downer. So in improv you never disagree, but rather always accept the offer (i.e. what someone just made up) and build on it.

In business, even if you disagree with someone’s comment (e.g. he called you a monumental idiot in front of everyone), begin your response with, “Yes, and …” Then restate your point  more clearly and/or differentiate the case they’re talking about from yours.

Get back on topic asap. If someone’s going to interrupt you, listen, then get the train moving again.


20. Don’t hold back energy.

Anyone who’s seen Marty Weintraub’s famous presentations, knows exactly what I mean – the man is electric!

In the few, but extremely valuable  improv lessons I took, they taught us to never make a limp motion but to do so with full energy and excitement. If you’re gonna open the door – OPEN THE DOOR!  If you have the gracious goat, exclaim, “I HAVE THE GRACIOUS GOAT!” (It’s an improv game meant to get you comfortable with being silly and with giving full energy to your actions.)

Look alive, man! And link to this blog!

Look alive, man! And link to this blog!

It’s extremely rare that you’ll embarass yourself giving a speech, so don’t be afraid and don’t worry about ridicule. Embarassment during speeches is rare, but mediocrity is abundant.


21. Ask for feedback on how to improve.

Realize it will be rare (~1/100 audience members, if that). I’ve given multiple options (Twitter, email) and been pretty widely ignored. The best I ever experienced was from speaking to a massive room at SMX where the audience had booklets they could write notes on and tear a sheet out to give me. Thankyou to those kind souls who took the time!

None of us are perfect, and asking for feedback makes improving easier. You’re a marketer – don’t forget to measure your results.

Let me know if you find this useful in the comments – or better yet, tweet the link to this page and link to it on your blog!