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What They Don't Tell You About Public Speaking (zachholman.com)
255 points by philipp-spiess on June 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

"There’s one mistake I consistently see made by speakers both novice and experienced: they’re not excited about their talk."

I'm a nervous presenter. The way I used to combat this was with a poker face. No smiles, no laughing, no gestures, monotone voice... I'd do anything not to clue them in to my nervousness.

This is a flawed approach for me. People are very forgiving of humanizing nerves and foibles. People aren't so forgiving of boring, monotone talks.

What I try to do now, with some success, is to embrace (not suppress) the nervous energy. To 'feel' the same way I do before a challenging ski slope. I'm in my 30s and I don't get adrenaline spikes very often like I did in my 20s (like say, when flirting with someone new that I really like). So I'm teaching myself to seek out places to present, so I can get and enjoy that intense energy spike.

Adrenaline is the best, cheapest, healthiest, and most legal drug available to you; don't shy away from it. And give some of that energy back to your audience.

This is a bit off topic, but according to wikipedia; "Adverse reactions to adrenaline include palpitations, tachycardia, arrhythmia, anxiety, headache, tremor, hypertension, and acute pulmonary edema."

I've always thought that a true straight-edge person wouldn't deliberately trigger adrenaline releases. The fact that your body produces it given a particular stimulus doesn't seem to really be relevant to the "goodness" of the substance. If your body produced cocaine when you get in a mosh pit is that different than just taking cocaine?

Adrenaline doesn't have any long-term health risks, unlike cocaine. If cocaine was safe in the long run, and I found that I didn't get negative side-effects and it helped me do <x>, I'm not sure what the downside would be in me using cocaine.

When I used to be a singer I personally found adrenaline would only come with more important performances (bigger concerts, live radio), never with smaller concerts on recording sessions - I never experienced any downsides, and it helped me do better. If I could have found a way to get an adrenaline rush all the time, I definitely would have grabbed it with both hands.

edit: Given the topic of this actual thread, an interesting side-note is that despite never having problems with music, I'm pretty terrible at public speaking.

Great post, especially the concept 'Talks should always be reactionary rather than anticipatory'.

A public speaking ancedote for all those that are nervous at public speaking or currently aren't that good at it.

My father excels at public speaking. He has done many conferences, TV interviews, company all-hands meetings, regular presentations, etc. He is natural, comfortable, excited, etc. Most imporantly, he can really read a room and react to people and tune his presentation on the fly to what interests the crowd.

But it was not always so. When he was in his 20s, he was absolutely terrible at speaking in front of a room. At one point early in his career he was giving a presentation and his boss turned to the HR guy that had hired him and said 'is it too late to undo this one', purposely, loud enough for him to hear.

Over the course of 5 or 6 years he dramatically improved at public speaking.

Public speaking is a learned skill. You can practice it. Do not leave making the presentation to the last minute, finish it a week before hand and practice 40 times. Comfort comes from being prepared. Walk the room beforehand. Check all of your gear and have backups of everything just in case. Be prepared to use no slides so it won't be a completely new experience. Have fewer slides, it makes you feel more naked but the audience won't notice if you get things out of order a bit.

Toastmasters helps. If you are younger, join a debate or model congress club. It's like shooting a foul shot, you just need more reps.

It will be awesome if your dad had a book on what happened in those 5 to 6 years.

Of course I am in no position to provide as useful an advice, since I am still a student and the toughest audience I presented against are themselves students. However, I find the preparing by replaying the presentation to yourself a little daunting. I used to do that and there always seems to be something that goes wrong, especially that I am supposed to have memorized the presentation. I don't really trust my memory that much, so what I started doing is knowing the topic very well, have some general enough guidelines, and just talk to the audience. It's classic improvising and it worked for me up to now.

I wouldn't say you want to memorize the presentation.

In fact I think the more you write out for yourself, write on your slides, or try to memorize, the more difficult the presentation becomes.

The practice is more about stumbling a bunch of times. I hate when I repeat the same word or phrase within a few sentences of each other. If I notice that I say the same thing twice on one slide, maybe I'll stand there for a second and think of a new way. The next time I practice through I might use a 3rd way, but at least I'm not repeating.

I only really memorize maybe the first two sentences I'm going to stay just to get the ball rolling smoothly, and maybe a final sentence so my exit is clean.

I'd go so far as to say you absolutely don't want to memorize your speech, unless you're at the level of Important Remarks for Important People like the State of the Union.

Instead, you want to memorize all the key features, jokes, and wry remarks.

You can write out your speech, if it helps. But read it. Out loud. To a wall. About ten or fifteen times. Read it, without looking at the paper (except when you forget what goes next), and without trying to duplicate it verbatim. You'll learn what phrasings come naturally to your tongue rather than your hand, and it'll flow a lot better when you give the speech itself.

To extend your point on key features: I think of it as memorizing the overall structure of your talk. You may have a dozen or so topics you want to hit in your presentation, and that is what you end of memorizing - not on purpose, but because if you're well prepared, you can't help but not memorize it.

If you know that you want to hit points A, B, C, ..., in your talk, and you know your material cold, then you don't have to memorize how you want to connect A and B, B and C, etc. That is what you re-create on the spot. The practice is important because sometimes you can't connect two points on-the-fly. Practicing your talk at least once will reveal those places, and you can either: figure out what the connecting bits are, or decide you don't want to cover that.

In addition to the jokes and wry remarks, I find that I also tend to replay the same body language in talks that I did in practice.

I've given more than a few public talks, and I ran for Lieutenant Governor of NC a few years ago, and did some campaign speeches as part of that... what I have found is that they key is to be able to improvise your entire talk if need be. That is, if you know the points you want to make, and a rough order you want to make them in, you can construct the talk as you go if need be. Then you never have to worry about "forgetting your lines" or whatever. If you can develop this ability to give a speech totally unscripted, you can then choose whether or not you want to use notes or whatever to help you stick more precisely to the plan... but in the worst case, you're never totally screwed with no ability to proceed.

FWIW, when I ran for office, I never memorized a single speech, nor did I use notes. I mentally rehearsed the key points and structure on the way to the venue, and then improvised. Take the fact that I didn't get elected however you want, vis-a-vis the effectiveness of my approach. :-)

Yup. The key in public speaking is indeed "confidence", but that single word just doesn't sufficiently explain anything.

It's confidence in your ability to convey your point. It's confidence that your knowledge of the topic is solid. It's confidence that your audience is capable of understanding you. It's confidence that you've put the time and effort into making sure that all the previous stuff is true.

> Public speaking is a learned skill.

Yes, absolutely. I used to be an utterly wretched public speaker. In the past several years, after a number of public speaking opportunities, I've improved to the point of being not terribly bad at it. My long-term goal is to become quite good at it.

It's tougher to be a solid public speaker than it looks. I've given talks to big rooms, gyms and moderately sized conference rooms. I rarely get nervous but occasionally it hits us all. I do have some notes on watching great speakers in person and learning from my own mistakes.

1. Do NOT ask for a 'show of hands' from the audience. Even some practiced speakers do this. They think that it engages the audience, but it is a crutch, an attempt to turn the focus away from the speaker onto the audience. It's always clumsy and delays the audience from hearing the content. Some speakers claim that they want to know more about the audience before they proceed. We all know that's not true. Are you really going to completely modify your speech, dropping that five minutes of solid material just because not enough hands were raised when you asked about it? Of course not.

2. Note cards are not 'bad'. I had to learn this one the hard way. If you are professional orator, you will eventually get to the point where you can pontificate the same speech verbatim without a single note. But for the rest of us, a note card of bullet-point topics can keep us on track. Just don't have a ream of pages and stare down at them, reading monotonously without looking up.

3. Everyone hits that middle 'death valley' at some point. It's the point of a talk where you are very aware of your own voice, and you aren't getting any perceived feedback from the audience. This is the hard slog where you have to know that while time has slowed to a crawl for you, it hasn't changed for the audience. Remember how you feel when the situation is reversed - how often have you ever seen a speaker so bad that you actually noticed it and remembered it? Not often, if ever. Boring speakers are forgotten - bad speakers are ignored - great speakers MIGHT be remembered. So just keep going, and the worst that could happen is that you are boring, which no one will remember anyway.

> Do NOT ask for a 'show of hands' from the audience.

I completely disagree. If you ask people to raise their hands 10 times on inane questions, then of course it's useless. But correctly used, it:

1) Wakes people up and gets everyone in the room focused

2) Gets people aware of the rest of the audience, and "on the same page"

3) Ideally provides a natural segue into how the point of the lecture directly connects to you

I taught English for years, which was basically public speaking every single day, and getting my students to tie an aspect of the theme/question of the day into their lives, and respond, in the first couple minutes was always key in terms of getting them all on the same page and relating to the material in the rest of the class. It would only occasionally be a show of hands, there are hundreds of other techniques as well (shouting words, asking the nearest person a question, writing a word on a piece of paper, etc.), but these are all fantastic public-speaking techniques. Of course, you need to have the personality to pull them all off, so the audience trusts you and wants to go along, but you can develop that.

Indeed, I think it's a real shame most public speakers don't interact more with the audience through these kinds of things. They boost attention levels and retention levels so much more.

While I defended the practice below, I consider teaching to be a special case of public speaking. I have "presentation mode" and "lecture mode." There is a lot of overlap, but they're not exactly the same. In presentation mode, I will not stop everything and wait for someone to answer a question. When I'm presenting, I don't expect people to understand everything that I'm saying to the point that they can apply this new knowledge. I would like that, sure, but I think it's presumptuous to assume they would like it as well. Presentations are also often made to peers, and I don't like quizzing my peers in such a way.

In lecture mode, that's the entire purpose of my presentation, so I do it. I have no problem quizzing students in such a way - because if they can't answer the question, then I should change the focus of the lecture to make sure that everyone can before I move on.

Note that I am differentiating between quizzing and polling. I'll poll in both lecture and presentation mode.

I accept that you disagree, but this is the exact case I'm talking about. It does not create interaction with the audience. That is a myth. I breezed through college lectures because I knew how to fool the professor into thinking I was engaged. One of those ways is to ask questions or respond to 'the hand-raise maneuver'. It works because the speaker wants to turn attention over to someone else and I'd happily bail them out.

+1 on the 'death valley.'

I think it's when you realize that this is the piece of the talk that is more interesting to the audience than myself. However, in my head, the doubting self-talk of "I'm boring everyone!" comes up.

The beginning is fun - that's the point you're trying to hook the audience. The end is fun - that's the point you're trying to give the audience a final take away. That middle point? That's what they've come for, even though it's the most boring part of the speech.

To that end, try to build in little peaks to your presentations. If you give yourself little "endings" and "beginnings" to work toward, it breaks things up into more managable chunks for your audience, helping their attention, but it also helps you avoid the self-talk and worry and "I hate the sound of my voice"-ness.

Even better, keep in mind that ideally, your presentation has a story arc that ties things together. It should flow naturally. If you have a death valley, ask yourself if you really have a coherent and interesting story.

#1: Yes, yes I am going to modify my speech. Or use the reply to weave in an anecdote, or do something with that info. Otherwise, you would be right, and it would be an exercise in futility.

#2: Absolutely. It's better if you can do without, but it's also a matter of how much time you have to prepare, and how dense the material is. If I'm giving a hard-core technical talk for 45 minutes, I'll sure as heck have a few notes handy. I prefer to go without, but that requires a lot of rehearsals. (45 minutes without notes is probably ~8-10 days of solid work. With notes, 4-5 days)

#3 That just means you've got to get better at reading your audience :) Seriously, if you feel a disconnect, shake things up. Do something unexpected. Have a joke ready. You do not want to lose your audience, ever. It's very hard to get them back.

Okay, what if you were speaking to an audience on a live national broadcast? Would you ask for a show of hands? What if you were talking to an arena of 20,000 people? Would you ask for a show of hands?

Neither you nor the original article refer to any audience to even close of that size. I also wouldn't ask for a show of hands if I gave the President a national security briefing, or if I made first contact with aliens.

Can we agree that those situations are uncommon for most people on HN and focus on the kinds of talks we usually give around here?

I have asked for a "show of hands" before, and given the context, I would do it again. I really had no idea going into the talk who my audience was - I didn't know if I was going to be talking to programmers or theoreticians, engineers or researchers, or even technical people versus management. And I did modify what I said based on the feedback.

Re: #2. Note cards are fine; the issue isn't "does the speaker have notes?" which no one minds but "is the speaker just reading his notes?"

A lot of great speakers will casually glance down at their notes and go, "Uhh.... oh yeah!" It's perfectly okay, because the point of a speech is not to look perfect, but to say something worth hearing.

My breakthrough in being comfortable with public speaking came from a quote:

"...though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least _definitively_ inaccurate." - Douglas Adams

If I am to make a mistake while presenting, then by gum I'm going to make that mistake with the most confidence and gusto I can muster. I will own up to being wrong, I will turn that into a "teaching moment" for the audience, I will plow forward confident in the spirit of Kipling's "If" knowing that while I may have screwed up I did so in a good-faith effort at taking the lead and making things happen for an audience that chose to follow. If I am wrong, then I shall be definitively wrong!

That's pretty good for an awkward introvert.

Not only can you get away with mistakes by moving past them with gusto, but your entire speech can be a mistake if you pull it off with confidence.

The Dr. Fox effect:

> Forty years ago, a singularly interesting lecture was held at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. The subject was "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education." The speaker was Dr. Myron L. Fox from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a pupil of von Neumann and an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior.

> The attendees were psychiatrists and psychologists (MDs and PhDs) who were gathered for a training conference. They listened to the lecturer with great interest, asked many questions and were satisfied with speaker's replies.

> They gave him flying grades in the satisfaction questionnaire. Nobody suspected anything wrong. In reality the speaker was an actor and knew nothing on the subject of his lecture.

http://www.significancemagazine.org/details/webexclusive/123... http://www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/r30034/PSY4180/Pages/Naftulin.ht...

I had a friend who went to baseball umpire school. He said that the main thing they told students was, "Call it quick, call it loud, and then turn and walk away."

That was the secret of Ronald Reagan's political success.

Explains 90% of what is taught in college nowadays.

Three thousand cheers to you. Of all the good things about my generation (early thirties) nothing bothers me more than the trend of never standing up tall in the wind and planting your flag. Always always it seems that people are infinitely hedging everything they say under the implied assumption that gusto and principal are hopelessly old fashioned. It is so refreshing when people are willing to risk being knocked over and smile while they're at it.

I like this a lot. I'll add a few of my own points too (though I think Zach's are great):

1. Practice, practice, practice. Now, I'm a hypocrite for saying this because I do tons of speaking engagements with little or no practice (which is a combination of hubris and the fact that I'm often pegged to do stuff at the last minute). Still, if you aren't comfortable speaking off the cuff or in front of a crowd, practice makes perfect.

Something I've often done is to do screen recordings like Zach says -- but instead of doing them of the talk live, I do them before the presentation. The advantage here is that I can practice what I want to say, listen back to my cadence and then adjust and readjust if necessary. By the third or fourth time, I'm usually golden and I have a great master copy that I can try to mimic live on stage.

2. The better you get. -- This is true of almost anything, but it's especially true of speaking in public. You'll become more comfortable and natural on stage (or on camera) and have a much better sense of how to steer a talk, how to keep your energy up and how to come across as assured.

3. Record yourself in advance. For beginning public speakers, it's important that you record what you sound like so that you can adjust your speed (slow down or speed up) and cadence. It can be odd to hear yourself speak at first, but once you get used to it, you can adjust what you look and sound like. This is especially important if you are doing any media appearances.

4. Watch Yourself After -- If your speech or conference is being recorded (or if you are recording yourself) -- watch it back after. Again, it can be disconcerting but it's a great time to learn how you can improve next time. It's also a great way to see how you progress over time. If I look at my first CNN appearance in April of 2011 and my most recent appearance, it's like night and day. That helps me when I get up to present at an event, keynote a conference or do another media appearance.

Recording yourself is extremely important. Although it may be awkward to look at yourself stumble through a speech, you will get good understanding of how you are presenting yourself. I'd even go as far as trying different clothing and see how each changes the image your reflecting. As I use to co-host a radio show, I found that listening to yourself live is the best way to ensure a high quality show. It makes sure you don't speak too slow,fast, if there's an echo etc.

Legendary senior partner at a law-firm sandwich seminar: "The most important thing about public speaking is to say it with confidence!"

Young associate (me), raising hand: "But what if you really aren't confident?"

Senior partner, fiercely: "FAKE it!"

Totally off-topic but: I wish you'd comment more often here.

I'm flattered! (Ditto to Thomas.)

I do lurk here a lot.

I'm with 'gruseom on that!

"Talks should always be reactionary rather than anticipatory: they’re going to come off as more natural, more interesting, and above all, more valuable."

I agree with the sentiment here. My presentations are all about science and bioinformatics, and I find they go best when I have a story to tell. The audience loves to hear stories, especially when they can experience the aha! moment themselves before I get to the end of the story. It's a much better story if the project is almost complete rather than mostly unfinished.

As a minor aside, being a grumpy old guy, I would suggest that rather than "reactionary" (which means something altogether different than what I understood Zach to be saying), the proper term might be "retrospective" and paired with "prospective". I misused "reactionary" myself in younger days and still cringe when I think about it. Strange word indeed.

For those that do much public speaking there's an interesting article on rhetoric here http://www.european-rhetoric.com/rhetoric-101/modes-persuasi...

In a nutshell For communicating a message Pathos(emotive "Be Excited") is more important then logos(the words). Ethos(Ethics, character) is more important then Pathos.

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. -Aristotle 1356a 2,3

"Talks should always be reactionary rather than anticipatory: they’re going to come off as more natural, more interesting, and above all, more valuable."

I think that's not true at all. There is room for both. I would say do not mix them. Talks can either share what's been done or share what can be from a visionary perspective.

Admittedly I slipped an "always" in there when I shouldn't have; I agree that anticipatory talks can be great, too.

Let's put it this way, though: for a beginning or first-time speaker, I'll maintain that talks should be reactionary. There are more than enough other things to worry about going into your first talk that it's really comforting to talk about your past experiences than try to prepare a new project or a "what-if" for an arbitrary conference date. That's more the target market I meant with that (admittedly broad) statement.

I would recommend you seriously consider re-wording the "reactionary rather than anticipatory" sentence on your blog. (The number of confused/questioning comments here on HN about the use of those terms suggests I'm not the only one. :) )

The sentence in your post above explains your intention much more clearly:

"There are more than enough other things to worry about going into your first talk that it's really comforting to talk about your past experiences than try to prepare a new project or a 'what-if' for an arbitrary conference date."

As I understand it, what you're wanting to convey is that it's better to choose a topic where you can talk about "what I've done" rather than "what I hope to do". The "reactionary"/"anticipatory" terms don't clearly convey that intention and seem to me to be incorrect terms to use.

(I don't have a specific suggestion for replacement terms--"retrospective" is one option but has a slightly negative connotation.)

Aside from that, thanks for sharing your experiences. :)

Great post. I used to often speak publicly. Last week I gave my first talk in years, to a large crowd. I was nervous because of how long has passed since I've last done it, but then I remembered my old habit. Before my talks I used to spend time with the conference goers in the hall, just chatting with them about whatever comes up. This seems to play a trick on the mind, making me feel like I'm speaking to friends rather than a faceless crowd. It worked last week as well. I highly recommend trying it out.

I love it, I have no problems presenting to people I know - however vaguely - but a room full of strangers fills me with cold dread.

This is absolutely brilliant.

I would give serious consideration to taking an Improv Comedy class. If you can't, I'd like to share the concept of "Yes, and--"

Invariably something will go wrong during one of your presentations.

A slide will look funny. There will be a weird noise from outside. An audience member will say something strange.

The idea behind "Yes,and-ing" in improv is basically you treat every single thing as if it were planned and part of what you were doing, rather than negating it or ignoring it, which is dishonest and creates a disconnect.

I've given three presentations in my life (all this year) and each time something went wrong I ran with it and the audience responded very positively. My slide about "Internal Leaks" was missing the first two letters. Second time public speaking. Crap.

Instead of negating ("Oh this was supposed to say Internal"), I Yes-And'ed.

"Up next, a very important problem, Ternal Leaks." And I then verbally chopped off the first two letters of the next slides (verbally), my name, my company name, and closed with "Anks, I hope you enjoyed it."

(Yes, it's a little corny, but it breaks the wall between audience and speaker. I find, in life, if you make someone really laugh, even if it's just once, everything else works out.)

Be excited about what you're presenting is key. You have to engage people through your excitement and by cuing off what they react to.

Many times I find myself including the audience feedback into the presentation in terms of spending time on certain points that get the most reaction.

The author is dead on about the questions, though they don't have to be after the presentation is over.

I had a laptop hard lock in the middle of a talk once. That was fun. For the record, I handled it by immediately swapping out my laptop for the session runner's (can't risk it happening 2x during the talk), my slides were online and I just re-downloaded them and tried to go forward losing as little time as possible.

An obvious thing that took me a little too many talks to figure out, is to say "Thanks" when you're done. The audience wants to applaude, but the speaker has to initiate it. It always gets weird if the speaker goes to Q&A without it. Do we clap now? Later?

This blog has a ton underlying something I think of each time I go into a large presentation - be a rock star!

I realize that's oversimplifying it a bit, but if you think about presenting there are many items that do coincide: know your material in and out, think about your audience, bring the enthusiasm...etc. I realize not every presentation is going to be rock star material, but if nothing else it makes me strive to elevate what I am discussing and has given me something more to strive for whenever delivering material to a larger audience.

... and if you feel you're losing people's attention, biting the head off a live bat is a way to get it right back! Try that next time people are nodding off while you drone on about cloud architecture.

A presentation is a performance. When you are on stage, you are on stage.

"Most conferences are a crap shoot when it comes to video. Half the time they won’t record your talk, and the other half of the time it may take months before your talk is published.

Something I’ve been doing recently is making a screen recording of my talks using QuickTime on my Mac."

This is really true, and really good advice. Organizers have a lot on their hands leading up to a conference, and, after, getting recordings posted languishes until they manage to recover enough of their personal lives to start ramping up for the next.

I've had several instances where I've given a talk, been very happy with the response, and then realized that I had no way to share it with a wider audience except trundling off to the next conference. Next time, I'm making my peace with a screen recording app.

I've always been bad at speaking (all my experiences were in school, so far... Not really "public"). But my one really good presentation happened in college. I'd stayed up pretty late the night before finishing the thing along with a handout we were required to give to the class (also my notes), which I was going to print off in the library before class.

Went to bed and next thing I knew my alarm was buzzing and class had just started. I had time to throw on pants, jog to class and immediately start talking about the French horn; no notes or props. I didn't have time to be nervous or worry, and was just genuinely engaged in the topic and it went great.

I find that engaging the audience into a back-and-forth has been very successful for me, and I get more positive feedback on the talks afterwards, too.

Exceptional advance. Thanks.

I would add that one should not try to get excited about a topic that does not excite you. Authenticity is important. Rather, give talks about topics that you are excited about.

The title is a little misleading: they do tell you all these things and more if you don't rely on blog posts that will unavoidably focus on a couple of things and go for a good book.

Yesterday's episode of "Back to Work" went over public speaking and confidence as well -- it's definitely worth a listen:


It may have been worth a listen for you, but I think YMMV applies very strongly to podcasts.

in general, I'd agree, but if you're interested in the subject matter of the article here, the podcast does cover some good tid bits about public speaking.

I guess I should have mentioned that the real meat of this show doesn't usually kick in until about 30% of the way through (which I could understand might annoy some people)...

best public speaking advice that has made me a 10x better presenter: "a presentation is about the audience, not about you."

Steven Wright's stage presence should be a github repo.

mm Nothing at all about the art of rhetoric and how to do public speaking well though you could try watching


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