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Public speaking for normal people (humbledmba.com)
173 points by waratuman on Jan 22, 2012 | hide | favorite | 39 comments

> Embrace Your Ums

I strongly disagree. One of the things that you learn in Toastmasters is to control your tics (whether they be verbal - umms, ahhs, you knows, yeahs, huhs, uhhs or non-verbal - swinging arms, hands clenched in pockets, crossed arms, crossed legs, hands behind back, rocking back and forth, pacing without purpose). Each Toastmasters meeting actually has an 'Ah counter' that will tally your respective tics. After a few speeches, you learn to replace your ahhs/umms/you knows with simple pauses. Pauses are so much more effective than ahhing/umming. Silence is powerful. Umms/ahhs detract from your presentation because they cause people to focus more on your umms/ahhs than your message. PG and other important speakers can get away with them because people respect what they have to say, very highly. Toastmasters teaches you to move with purpose - which means standing fairly still - moving to emphasize a point. And to speak with purpose - not too rapid, not too slow - but with conviction and passion.

I highly recommend Toastmasters for learning public speaking. Clubs vary in variety, though - try before you join - by going as a guest several times. However, if you decide to do Toastmasters, do not join your corporate club - join a club where you have no co-workers present (having co-workers present will limit you because you will be in the standard work context - afraid to fail, afraid to mess up - and yes, afraid to umm and ahh your way through the first critical speeches you deliver)

Every year, Toastmasters has a speech competition. It starts from your local club to district to regional to national to the highest level, International. If you have a few minutes, take a look at some of the competing entries - they are, without exception, polished and powerful.


Definitely don't be the "Um" guy. To wit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=FLmguqPI1EssJ48_VdAtl9nA&#....

Just recognize the reason why you are saying "Um" all the time, since there is properly a good reason for it. "Um"s are awkward, replacing them with a few seconds of silence isn't - oftentimes, it actually helps keep the audience focused.

Depending on the severity of your "ums", this is a facet "normal people" may need not perfect (or even need to work on).

This article is the minimum strategy, the 80% of a good presentation. Ums are a detractor but not as much a one as poor product knowledge or mechanical storytelling.

I understand where he is coming from. His emphasis seems to be about not controlling the speech, which works well for me. If I have something practiced or have a grading scheme that I am conscious of while speaking, the outcome is great or terrible. If I mess up a few times, I fall apart instead of picking up the pieces.

Advice like his has drastically reduced 'umms' as a by-product, as it is a byproduct of my nervousness. If one is giving enough talks that the umms are not a tick but a habit/crutch, then it is definitely something to be targeted.

tldr; I think his advice on umms is due to the 'normal people' aspect vs. public speaker.

The occasional tic is OK.

When they're utterly distracting ... no.

I've heard professional speakers utterly hampered by "ums", nonsensical random streams of thought, etc., to the point I've had to leave, switch stations/channels, or stop listening. Rare, but memorable.

The exception might be made for someone whose material or story is so utterly compelling that you're willing to overlook such idiosyncrasies. However, most of us are not such special snowflakes.

I don't think the Toastmasters style is for everyone and everything. Its good for subjective stories in front of large audiences. However, I've seen people come across like self important asses talking like this about something reasonably technical in a small personable room full of equals.

Best advice I can give: slow down.

Especially if you're nervous, a short time on stage can feel like an eternity so your immediate impulse is to talk quickly and fill every pause with speech. That's what's wrong with "uhhs," you tend to say "uhh" more than you normally would in conversation.

I had a professor who was a fantastic presenter and would pause frequently and for about 5-10 seconds to allow what he just said to "sink in." Then he'd smile and continue. Don't be afraid to do that. It's natural to pause and think about what you are going to say, even if you are giving a prepared speech.

Learned a great trick from my old boss who gave a lot of powerpoint-based presentations. He would frequently add a "black" slide (as in nothing on the slide, completely blank, just one big block colored in as darkly as possible - a good alternative is to hit the "b" key on your keyboard) when he wanted to people to stop looking at the deck and focus on him.

It was amazing how everyone's eyes would go straight to him when that slide came up - they had nothing else to look at, and he could make a strong point, knowing everyone was paying attention for the next 15-30 seconds.

I made a conscious effort to do that more on a recent talk that I gave, and I felt so much better with the results.

It's surprising just how difficult it is to force yourself to pause for even a few seconds, but the payoff in terms of your audience having an opportunity to understand what you've said is completely worth it.

Yes! Speaking too quickly has probably been my largest problem. Even in normal conversation, I tend to speak faster than normal; when giving a presentation, it becomes even worse.

For me, slowing down not only makes the speech or presentation better, but also calms me down. When I concentrate on speaking slowly and clearly, I have less time to worry about other things.

Speaking as someone who did a lot of competitive public speaking back in the day, the frisson of "panic" just before you start is your friend. I'm worried if I don't feel it.

As for the rest of the advice, it's probably good advice on how not to royally suck, but not on how to actually be great. That said, your competition will probably not be that good. (The fact that Steve Jobs's keynotes are/were held in such high regard is due in some part to how lousy the competition is).

What works for me (and I have no idea if it will work for you) is to write out the entire speech, practice it a couple of times (making corrections as required), then reduce it to points, and speak from the points. That way you are, in a sense, winging it, but you aren't tempted to read the entire thing and you have -- somewhere in the back of your brain -- a strong articulation of the points you want to make.

I don't think any great speech you can think of ("I have a dream", "ask not what you can do for your country", "we shall fight them on the beaches") was "winged" and Steve Jobs famously rehearsed like crazy (as did his hero, Edwin Land).

The fact Jobs's performances came off as pretty natural was no accident. It's one thing to "embrace your ums" if you're a tiny startup, and another if any tiny thing you say will be analyzed by pundits for the next ten years. (Consider how few misstatements Steve Jobs made in all his enormously publicized "keynotes" -- and interviews for that matter.)

"Speaking as someone who did a lot of competitive public speaking back in the day, the frisson of "panic" just before you start is your friend. I'm worried if I don't feel it."

My background is singing professionally (in the past) rather than speaking, but it's fairly similar for the sake of this point.

I agree with the adrenaline being your friend, but disagree that not feeling it is a bad sign. I always found that the amount of adrenaline/panic correlated mostly with the importance of the performance, and a little to do with what the performance was. When it came it was a friend to embrace not ignore, when it didn't it just meant (for me) that it was an easier gig, and I could do as good a job without any emotions boiling up.

Rehearsing probably helps for speeches, but I think other sorts of public speaking don't need it as much. Particularly, I am not very likely to deliver a speech; I am much more likely to give a talk or presentation on some subject. Given that I know the subject well, I find improvising the exact wording--not the content or structure--is best for me.

That said, giving a talk about something you know well to a group of people naturally interested in that subject is probably much easier than giving a speech (as long as you know what you're talking about, of course!).

Here are some tricks that help to settle the nerves:

1. Before the event begins, survey the place where you are going to speak. Stand at the lectern and familiarize yourself.

2. Before the speech when the nerves are rising, remind yourself it is about the message, not about yourself. Whether people will like or not like your speech depends on how relevant your points are.

3. Start talking slowly. If you are nervous, the words will tend to come out far faster anyway. This compensates for it.

4. Start with a question, not a general one, like "is everyone having a good time?" but one that leads into the topic "How many of you experienced a server-crash during the peak season?". It gives the audience some time to think, and for you to calm down. In the meantime, while they think, lick your lips. Yes, lick your lips. Just try it now. It works really well because you trick your brain into thinking that you are in control of the situation.

I think that the "death to Powerpoint" point is too absolutist, because it may guide one towards talks that value entertainment over content. In particular, I tend to give highly technical presentations; it is essential that my slides themselves contain sufficient content to convey the core of my meaning. (It should also be said that I am an infamously fast talker -- having slides behind me can be a kind of solace to those who may be feeling as if under aerial bombardment.) The emphatic point to make, though, is this: don't read your slides to your audience -- ever. Instead, your spoken narrative should be just that: a narrative that, over the course of a minute or two, winds its way through the bullet points on the slide. Especially if your content is highly technical, this narrative is an opportunity for the less formal (and arguably, more engaging) story that surrounds your work. Reveal your humanity: don't be afraid to disclose pain, agony, excitement, euphoria or disappointment -- if the audience empathizes with you, they will naturally engage with your content. In short, use your narrative to put flesh and blood on the skeleton of your slide, and you will have a presentation that is compelling yet still rich in technical content.

I agree, PowerPoint gets a bad rap. Take all those bad PowerPoint presentations out there, tell their authors to go use Keynote, and they'll come back with bad presentations. Blame on the tool here is way overdone.

In this context PowerPoint is used as a description for a style of presentations (e.g. lots of bullet points) I think most people realise it would be the same if that style was done using Keynote or transparencies.

But yeah, it's a shame PowerPoint has become the descriptor.

Yeah, agreed. I've personally taken to ensuring that no bullet points make it into any presentations I provide. When I made the "switch", I found my presentations were much better. The clarity of a single term vs. bullet points cannot be underestimated.

Having done a fair amount of public speaking myself, I've found that the trick that works for me is to memorize and over practice the first minute of what I'm saying. That's when I'm most nervous and still getting a feel for the audience. Having the first minute memorized lets me relax and get comfortable without having to think about every word I'm saying. I'll typically memorize my ending as well to make sure it's strong, and then wing everything in between. That's what works for me.

Wow, I'm surprised that 10hrs after posting nobody has mentioned this book:

"The Art of Public Speaking" by Dale Carnegie is considered the Bible of public speaking.


It's a timeless manual that describes in detail how to humanize both the content and delivery of your speech and how to connect with 1000 people the same we are able to connect with one.

It's applicable to any type of communication, so even if you don't plan on public speaking, I highly recommend reading it.

> And if you do that five times before your big public speaking engagement, you will be far better prepared than if you had spoken to the mirror a hundred times.

That's funny, I have this technique that I ALWAYS use before a date, and sometimes before going out when I want to be on fire. But especially before a date, as I'm usually really nervous, it works like crazy!

So basically, I just have to do 5 approaches. Random people, guy or girl, single or group. What do I say? I just ask for the direction, if I have a date in a coffee, well I just ask the person where is the coffee. It's easy, it makes you speak to someone you don't know, it warms you up.

Also as I'm reaching the 5th approach I try to be more and more talkative about my questions. Trying to ask other question, engage in some other discussion...

My 2 cents!

This is awesome and I rely on this all the time.

When you are not naturally gregarious, this kind of social warmup is key to getting into the flow and the zone.

I wish your insightful comment was not buried.

The best thing that has worked for me is to exhale before I begin speaking. Before I realized this I had always started out with a lungful of air and it was just bad. I'd try to say as much as I could in that one breath and then gasp for another lungful and repeat. Once I started deliberately starting a speech with an exhale, it felt so natural and easy.

The other thing is with the ums. After finishing a sentence, I just pause to gather my thoughts and resume talking. One trick I've read in many places is to have a cup of water with you so you can take a sip if you need a couple of seconds to pause.

Good advice - especially like the talking to 2 people. Some other things that work for me (you'll have to take my experience as given);

- Make sure you know what you're talking about. Perhaps an obvious point but the confidence you have in the subject will carry you through more than anything. If it's your field of expertise, hopefully no problem but if you're in a position of giving a talk about something you're not an expert in, it's worth investing time and researching the topic well beforehand, preparing for questions you might be asked. At the same time, if you don't know the answer to a question, be honest "I don't know but I'll get back to you when I do."

- Talk to yourself beforehand. Run through the talk a couple of times in private, preferably standing not sitting but mumbling is good enough - no need for full volume. Helps to get a clear idea of what you're going to say and what the main points are. It also helps avoid those moments where you suddenly run out of words - your arguments are always on the tip of your tongue.

- Less is more. Few people can concentrate on listening to someone for more than 45 minutes and the more complex the topic, the harder it will be to follow. Boil it down to the main things you're going to say and focus on those. Also time it roughly while you're talking to yourself - this is the best way to identify the places where you're rambling or spending too much time on something that isn't really important to your focus.

While there is some great advice here, I don't think it's necessarily for people who haven't done a ton of public speaking before.

What I agree with: Find your power animal (the pose or gesture that feels natural/empowering to you), pick two people in the room to speak to (I prefer to pick four, only two of whom I can usually see due to stage lighting), and practice as much as possible in front of an audience.

What I disagree with: Don't "um" (it's distracting and unless you have the gravitas to pull it off, you sound like a Valley Girl), and memorization may be exactly what you need to be comfortable speaking publicly. Like another commenter, I've memorized my pitch almost verbatim, but use conversational language based on bullet points. The "script" gives me something to fall back on if I get distracted.

For context, I was a competitive CX debater in high school and recently had to relearn public speaking 20+ years later as a startup founder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClznRU8-Xfw

One other trick that someone gave me once when I was wandering all over the stage was to put on the ground something (maybe a dry erase marker) that I could put a foot on. For some reason, that really helps to keep you in one place and you don't even really notice the object while you are presenting.

It's OK to walk, it releases nervous energy. Use a short walk to introduce a pause in your talk. Only speak when you are looking at someone and you will speak conversationally.

This is a great post: specific, original advice rooted in practical experience.

A useful and concise book on the topic is Scott Berkun's confessions of a public speaker.

> For some background, I’ve done a tremendous amount of public speaking.

This is why he doesn't need practice. Normal people will.

The way I got over my public speaking jitters was by being a TA for highly unstructured discussion sections for ~6 semesters. I was given absolutely nothing to do with the kids, so I turned each session into an extended review/Q&A. Explaining basic concepts in my field 4 hours a week for 6 semesters to undergrads who barely cared enough to show up was excellent practice for talking in front of people and thinking on my feet. Not to mention I'm much less nervous, and I know what nervous reactions to expect.

tl;dr Practice practice practice.

I've done enough speaking now to realise the pre-talk jitters can be harnessed by a dribble two bounces as well. If I'm standing, I usually set 2 markers to make sure I stand in 1 spot, then do a quick scan of my cheat sheet, look at the number of people then set my timer and start. Interesting point about rubbing hands and clasping. This is a classic sign of discomfort and signals to the audience the speaker is nervous.

One thing I find that helps is to focus your mind on your overall message and its meaning. Remember that it's not about you, it's about the message. Feel the determination of conveying the message.

This helps to not let your mind wander to thoughts of worrying how good or how bad you will do (which causes nervousness) because instead of thinking about that your mind is focused on the importance of the message.

my 0,02 will be - do not overdose caffein before public speaking. one can of coke is enough before 30 mins speech.

if you have more you will rush your speech to much, you will sweat and fill strange because of heart rate

I agree with you. I usually try to avoid coffee (or at least limit myself to decaf) which seems to help a lot. Unfortunatley, the downside is I usually get a headache which probably says a lot about my addition to caffeine.

Probably a bit late for most readers here, but I highly recommend taking advantage of whatever opportunities for public speaking and performance your high school offers -- whether that's just walking on stage as an extra in a school theater production, or joining the debate club. Even a little can go a long way in relieving anxiety for the rest of your life.

Agreed. I participated quite casually all throughout high school, but it really taught me enough to be able to tackle any speaking opportunity with enthusiasm. And it wasn't even specific tactics that were important, rather it was all the experience.

One of the advice I had been given (from a person who was a good speaker) was that it is important to control our breathing while speaking. One gets into habit of uttering Ums etc, when one is out of breath. So pausing where appropriate, speaking slowly and not getting into the practice of long winding sentences would help.

I think part of the issue with talking like we do in our living room, or with our friends, is that articles like this focus purely on the execution of the presentation, and not enough on prepping the content and setting up a theme. The basic purpose of a presentation is to convey something to an audience. How many of us actually sit and think about the audience, and why they need to give you a few minutes of their time, before churning out slides? I believe that many presentations fail at a fundamental level because the content and sequence of presentation is not thought out well enough.

I think back to all the terrible presentations I did when I was in college, or when I presented at several academics conferences. People typically jump in front of PowerPoint/Keynote when it comes time to preparing for the presentation. By now you are already doomed, because you have given absolutely no thought to a theme, a story or a takeaway. After you set up a sequence of slides that's likely to be incoherent on first try, techniques like stopping your 'Ums' or practicing in front of a mirror can only get you so far. These are minituae that may help make you a good speaker, but won't fix the underlying issue that you haven't given enough thought about the content, theme or storyline. You have barely given a thought to your audience and why they care about your talk.

I recently became a Product Manger at a startup (was a developer for 5 years prior to that). Presenting, communicating and convincing is a big part of my job now and I've been iterating every week on getting better. Here is my take and what I've found to work for me. There are two parts to this:

- Content, Theme or Story: Please don't go to slides or bullets when you start preparations. In fact, stay away from slides till you have completely visualized what an ideal version of your talk should sound like. In other words, if you were to explain your startup, a weekend project or a cooking recipe to a handful of people in your living room, how would you go about doing it? What sequence of explanation makes most sense? What do you want the audience to take away. Think about this hard. Replay it over and over in your head. Talk to your peers and A/B test it over lunch/coffee. You'll figure out the basic structure of the talk soon enough. Getting to a slide set becomes a piece of cake after this. And you'll notice that when you go up in front of people that slides truly end up becoming an auxiliary to your presentation, instead of the primary focus point. I've seen a major difference in the quality of my presentation purely by the amount of work I put in refining the theme of the presentation. It gives you focus on what to talk about, and gives clarity to your audience as they listen to you.

- Delivery: This can be solved and made better with practice. This could get involve figuring out a routine, stopping your 'Ums' or practicing 150 times in front of the mirror. I have a much better and effective solution that will get teach you how to control nervousness, stop your 'Ums', and just generally train you into being confident while going up on stage (wow that last sentence sounds like a scam :)). No seriously though, take an Improv Class. They typically cost $200 for 8 sessions and is no where as intimidating as it sounds (take this from someone who used to be a very shy person). I guarantee that a few improv sessions teach you the fundamentals of conveying a non realistic scene to your audience will blow 150 practice sessions in front of the mirror.

I recommend Winston's "How to Speak" video: (http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=9F536001A3C605FC) FWIW, he's an AI prof who wrote a book on Lisp.

Also, I do like to say my speech out loud multiple times, when I'm alone. It engages verbal forms of thinking, and helps me get at the root of an idea. I sometimes have a "breakthrough" moment where I seize upon an idea that wasn't at the center of the subject, and reconceive everything so it is.

But that's not quite "memorizing"; depending on what I sense in the room, I'll reduce the time on some parts, or expand on others.

Also, it's important for me to feel it's my job to present the audience with something interesting to them. To somehow transfer representations in my mind to theirs. I wish to do a good job for them, and that outweighs other considerations.

That said, as an audience member, it's important not to get too impressed by delivery; maybe good hygiene to think more highly of a plain talk, and less of a charismatic one.

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