A few weeks ago I did something that, a few years ago, I never thought I’d do – be paid to speak to a live audience.
Not only did I manage to escape without having any heavy objects pelted at me, but apparently, the audience rather enjoyed it. Even stranger, so did I! So much so, that I’ve thrown my hat in the ring to do more live talks.
The reason it went well is down to the preparation I put in beforehand. In case anybody is contemplating taking the same leap, I thought I’d share some of the secrets that I discovered which helped me to overcome the rather terrifying thought of sharing your ideas with a live audience.
Key points discussed in this article:
- Go wide with your reading
- Notes are not for wimps
- Good slides add value
- Practice regularly
- Don’t max out your time
- Get there early
- Speak to the audience beforehand
- Breathe. Observe. Clench. Smile.
- Don’t expect silence or stillness
- Enjoy the moment, but don’t be complacent
1. Go wide with your reading
I listen to a lot of audiobooks anyway, but I diverted my attention to devouring as many good books as I could find on public speaking in the 2 months prior to the event.
Going wide with my reading allowed me to cherry-pick the ideas that resonated with me, rather than relying on one framework which might have felt constrictive.
The best of those tips are summarised in the additional words of advice listed below.
2. Notes are not for wimps
I’ve always been dubious about using notes for presentations. I’ve felt like there is this expectation to be perceived as some kind of orating savant.
While it does add some gravitas, when you are speaking for 50 minutes in a fixed time slot, the most important point is staying on track and ensuring your talk delivers the value it promises.
I used a series of A7 note cards with handwritten bullet points and fastened them together with a ring clip. Each one guided me through a particular section or subsection of my presentation, leading to a natural transition or pause before the next.
It allowed me to steal the odd occasional subtle glance to remind myself of key points to include, but for the most part, they just gave me the confidence to deliver my talk naturally.
The audience did not seem to mind one bit.
3. Good slides add value
A lot of the public speaking books I read were very anti-slides. I completely understand this. There isn’t much worse than being in a presentation where someone is reading off a slide that looks more like a page of clinical notes than information that can be easily digested by a novice.
However, I believe the right visuals can add great value to a presentation. After all, visuals are more easily remembered than words. And they certainly don’t have to be super polished, they just have to be simple and relevant. If you want a great example, then check out Tim Urban’s Ted talk.
My talk was discussing personalised video marketing, so it would have been pretty strange not to include some visuals to help improve the audience understanding.
I also used short statements and some simple charts to illustrate key points and make my arguments more powerful.
The other upside is that it gave the audience opportunities to take photos of key information. This not only helps them to understand the key takeaways I want them to remember but made for interesting marketing/social posting opportunities during and after the event too. That’s especially important if you are hoping to use speaking events to raise awareness of your brand.
4. Practice regularly
There is no substitute for good practice and I ran through my presentation several times in advance.
Having a good video setup came in very useful here because I recorded myself each time and tried to imagine delivering the talk to a live audience. I even found video footage of an audience on YouTube to display in front of me to replicate the feeling of looking around lots of eyes in varying states of engagement.
Each time, I re-ran the recording and made a critical assessment on what I was doing so I could try and do it better next time.
For example, I found that the first time I used my note cards, I was talking down at them too often. So, next time, I concentrated hard on reading the slide, assimilating the information and then looking up at the audience before speaking. I still did this inadvertently a couple of times during my presentation but it was the exception rather than the rule.
All this practice was a lifesaver. It helped me feel prepared and confident in my material ahead of the day and helped me to iron out problems in my arguments so that my points became even stronger.
5. Don’t max out your time
Being part of a conference means that everything hinges on punctuality.
As I didn’t have the benefit of experience behind me, I was initially anxious about the idea of overrunning my slot. However, I knew that checking the clock regularly was unlikely to do my nerves or focus much good. I was also worried that being fixated on time would ruin any spontaneity.
A great piece of advice that came up several times was to ensure your presentation doesn’t fill your entire slot. The rest of the time could be left for Q&A, or you could let people go early so they could have a drink, wee and a general stretch of the legs.
Any audience would rather be delivered great value in 50% of the time allotted than have it pumped with filler content just to plug minutes in the schedule.
My practice runs were timed at just under 40 minutes each. My slot was 50 minutes, which meant that I never felt worried about running over.
The actual talk ran almost exactly to that time which left me with plenty of time to answer audience questions (of which there were some great ones!).
I’d advise anybody else to stick to a similar 80% limit, especially if it’s your first gig.
6. Get there early
I hate being late, and every time I feel I’m running behind my stress levels go through the roof. To ensure that didn’t throw me off track, I got to the venue just over an hour before my speaking slot.
It gave me plenty of time to get familiar with the room and the equipment. This was important because it turned out my presentation had the right title but was accompanied by somebody else’s slides (which would have been rather fun).
It also allowed me to sit in some of the audience seats to understand what view they would have. This also helped me to get my energy levels into the right gear.
I also encountered an issue with the microphone. I was expecting a wireless lapel mic, but it turned out the venue only had a handheld mic in the room I was presenting in.
I needed one hand for my notes and the other to control the clicker, so without the benefit of a third hand, I knew the handheld mic wouldn’t be an option.
I was offered a lectern to put my notes on but decided against it. A lectern creates a barrier between the audience and the speaker that I really didn’t want to start on the back foot. I also hadn’t practised delivering my speech with, so it would have definitely thrown me off-kilter.
The room wasn’t huge (there was an audience of 60 people) so I decided to forego the mic and speak up. I did some tests with the AV team to ensure people at the back would still be able to hear me. We agreed they would as long as I projected well enough
Getting to the venue in good time gave me the space to deal with all of that without any serious impact on my stress levels.
7. Speak to the audience beforehand
Several books mentioned the benefit of speaking to the audience before you start your talk. To me, this seemed counterintuitive because it seemed like a great way to lose focus when you should be cramming in some last-minute revision.
However, this piece of advice cropped up in several books, so I thought there must be some logic behind it.
I’m very glad I did. It helped me to establish a bit of rapport with a few people in advance and meant that when it came to my talk I wasn’t just speaking to a sea of strangers. I was speaking to real people whose names I knew, some of whom live just around the corner!
This was a simple but highly effective step, and definitely something I’ll aim to do at all future events.
8. Breathe. Observe. Clench. Smile.
One of the simplest, strangest, yet most effective pieces of advice I read came from Robin Kermode in his great book ‘Speak so Your Audience will listen’ – clench the buttocks.
It sounds odd, but the simple act of tightening your posterior muscles forces your body into an entirely different posture and gets you ready for action.
This was coupled with a few additional preparatory steps, namely: 3-4 deep breaths to the belly to slow breathing; a quick mindful exercise which consisted of looking around the room and noticing 5-6 seemingly trivial details (chair colour, the font on a sign, pattern of carpet etc…) to ground myself in the moment; and putting on a big genuine smile to encourage the audience to do the same.
All of those steps meant that I started my presentation with positive energy and helped me to hit my stride early on.
9. Don’t expect silence or stillness
While it is romantic to think of everyone hanging on your word as if they were watching a Puccini opera, the reality of audiences is very different.
It is important to remember that most people are engaged with their own thoughts. Even during the most engaging talks, films and presentations, your mind will wander off to what you’re making for tea later, or whether the next washing load you need to put on is whites or colours.
Reminding myself of that in advance made it a lot easier to deal with the inevitable phone checking, trips to the loo, and vacant stares that accompany any 50-minute talk.
10. Enjoy the moment, but don’t get cocky
After all the energy I put into the presentation, I was relieved to get a healthy round of applause and some lovely feedback from people who were kind enough to come up and speak with me after the event.
I had a well-earned celebratory meal with my wife in the evening. However, I didn’t take anything that came back too literally. That’s because it’s notoriously hard to get accurate feedback for events like these as few people will be brutally honest to your face!
There wasn’t a videographer at the event, but I recorded the presentation on my mobile phone using a gooseneck clamp. This meant I could rewatch it and have an objective view of my performance.
You can view that below.
For the most part, I was happy, but there are definitely some things I will be working on for the next time I step out on stage, and hopefully, it will help to make the audience experience even better.
I hope these bits of advice help anyway who might be thinking of taking their first public speaking gig.
If you’re still having doubts about whether public speaking is for you, my advice would is – just do it! However, do it with the willingness to put the effort required to deliver value for your audience – they deserve the best version of you at that moment.
Thanks to all the authors mentioned above for your words of wisdom.
And if you’re looking for a marketing and sales speaker for your next event, then please do get in touch – I’m ready for action!