Matt Gemmell

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Public Speaking

speaking 5 min read

Last week I gave the opening keynote at the amazing Update 2011 conference in Brighton, and had a fantastic time. An incredible mix of talented and engaging speakers and attendees, and a focus on user experience throughout, made it a wonderful event that I’m still buzzing from.

I speak at conferences fairly regularly, and at almost every one I’m approached by someone who’s considering doing some public speaking themselves, or has already agreed to do so, looking for tips. I decided to write up a few of my thoughts on the subject here.

This is my own tried and tested checklist for speaking in front of people, whether it’s forty, four hundred or four thousand.

  1. Rehearse fully. Don’t just rehearse sections of your presentation; you have to start a timer, then give the entire presentation at normal speed, complete with all your jokes, anecdotes, examples and so forth. If you screw something up, just keep going. If you take no other advice, just rehearse.

    If you find the presentation is running long or short, cut something out or add new material, and rehearse again (and remember that you’ll do it faster on the actual day, so don’t cut too much). Repeat the process until it’s the right length. Now you have your actual, final presentation - rehearse that fully at least 3 times. You’ll deal with 95% of all presentation problems by following that tip.

  2. Make eye contact with your audience. Don’t just read; you should have rehearsed enough that you don’t need to read anything except the occasional cue. Try never to read from the screen behind you, unless you’re making a point by physically turning to it and pointing.

  3. Don’t do demos unless you really have to and are extremely sure it’ll work. Don’t demo anything that isn’t under your complete control. Don’t do demos that need a fast/reliable network connection. Don’t do demos that require the audience to also be on a reliable network connection.

    If you must demo, you need to rehearse in the actual venue. If your demo involves networking, try to get a private connection that isn’t shared by the audience. Otherwise, may the gods of technology smile upon you (and be ready to fill in if it just doesn’t work at all).

    Of course, if you’re a pro then you can certainly make live demos work (I’ve certainly seen any number of them), but you should only try if you’re really sure it’ll go well.

  4. Don’t write code during a presentation. You can show some code if really necessary, but it’s better to distill the essentials into a slide, suitably syntax-coloured and annotated. Don’t ever debug during a presentation. Stick to ideas, slides and charisma wherever feasible.

    Again, you can do it if you know you can make it work (Seb certainly did at Update, for example), but unless you’re doing a tutorial/workshop/how-to sort of session, consider whether it might be better to focus on the message.

  5. Don’t just serve up slides loaded with bullet points; add some variety. If you really need to deliver a slide with 6 bullet points, use 3 instead and just say the other 3. Your audience wants to be engaged. Your slides are just an aid to your presentation - they’re not the presentation itself.

  6. Make yourself comfortable. There’s no rule that says you need to hug the lectern for the whole hour. Ask for a radio mic and a clicker and really use the stage. Wander around, speak to different parts of the audience, use your entire body.

    Be dynamic. Point and mime and act and wave; put some energy into what you’re doing, and your audience will reflect it back onto you. I resist lectern-bound presentations whenever possible.

  7. Remember that in almost all presentations, you’re making points rather than conveying data or teaching specific APIs. Make sure your argument is clear and convincing; they can look up the details afterwards. Your audience will forgive everything but an unclear message.

  8. As with everything in life, care about what you’re doing. Any topic that people will attend a presentation on is a topic worth caring about! Do your research, figure out your position, and put it forward with enthusiasm. Even put forward both/multiple sides, but make sure it’s with every bit as much enthusiasm.

  9. No matter how dry the subject, try to inject some humour, whether it’s a joke or a funny photo from the internet. Personal anecdotes work well, particularly if they’re self-effacing. They don’t have to be true, as long as they’re funny!

    During lengthy and/or technical presentations, it’s OK to take a break in the middle for a digression - it can be as tenuous as you like, and it’ll keep people’s interest up. It’s also usually alright to be cheeky (but check for precedent, and/or ask the conference organisers, before using too much profanity).

  10. Watch yourself speak (or at least listen). Most conferences are recorded, and you should watch the video when you get it afterwards. Consider recording a rehearsal at home first. Be aware of your tone of voice, any ticks/mannerisms, and your body language.

    We all have odd habits when we’re speaking, and the audience will forgive almost anything, but try to minimise any very noticeable eccentricities. If you do nothing else, at least try not to clear your throat too often.

  11. Relax beforehand, and consider your physical needs. Get some sleep the night before. Don’t rehearse after 8pm. Have a drink if you need to, or take a bath; do whatever you do to relax. Pack your suitcase early if you’re travelling. If you aren’t asleep after an hour, get up and do something else for a little while then try again - don’t just lie there.

    On the day of the event, make sure you eat (sugar is good), but don’t stuff yourself. Don’t rehearse again, except your opening if you feel you need to. Drink plenty, and use the bathroom before you’re going on stage. Have some water handy during your presentation; nobody will mind if you pause to take a drink, and it’ll keep your voice working properly.

  12. When you walk on stage, break the tension. Say good morning loudly, and insist on a response! Make a (positive) remark about the venue, or ask if anyone is hungover from the night before. Tell a joke. Ask for a show of hands about something.

    Whatever trick you use, just do something to make yourself comfortable on stage, and make the audience comfortable with you. They’re eager to like you and they want to hear what you have to say. Remember that!

Then there’s the usual stuff: try to stay calm, but remember that nervousness is normal and healthy. Try to enjoy the experience. If you’re very nervous, remember it’s only a small period of time on one day, and it’ll be over before you know it.

You wouldn’t have been asked if someone didn’t think you could pull it off, and you really can. And remember: when you’re on stage, you usually can’t see more than the first few rows of people anyway - it’s really true.

Get your message straight, rehearse it until you could do it during a power cut, get up there and get it done. You’ll feel amazing afterwards.

And next time you’re asked, say yes to that event too. There’s nothing like practice.