Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How to be a confident speaker

Zach Holman posted an excellent article on tips and tricks for public speaking, which got me thinking about my own experience. I have given a few speeches now, and I'd say the most important thing is to be confident. I know, that's like saying you need to breathe in order to stay alive. So here are some practical tips.

Practice until you are comfortable, but not more

I have heard many contradicting advice on practicing: practice until you memorize your speech, don't memorize your slides because the presentation will be stiff, record your speech to find things to improve, etc etc. Truth is, everyone is different, so the rule of thumb is practice to the point you feel comfortable.

Personally I never write down what I plan to say, for I fear that I will miss a sentence when I'm on stage. Instead I use my slides as guidelines and talk over them. This gives spontaneity to my talks, makes them lively. I also don't do speaker notes, but some people swear by them. Again, do what's comfortable for you.

Have a mock session

Now, how do you make sure you don't over-practice until you beat the life out of your speech? Schedule a practice session! With a solid deadline you will have to stop practicing and actually give your speech.

When you give your mock session, do it for real: hook up your laptop to a projector, and speak to a live audience. This serves many purposes:

  • Time your speech. How many minutes do you take to go over a slide?
  • AV issues. How do you change the resolution of your laptop? If you are playing video, where does the sound go? How is the contrast on the images? Font size OK?
  • Learn to look at your audience. Connect with them, speak to them, clarify if they look confused. Chances are, you will feel encouraged by their approving nods, and forgot that you were nervous.
  • Stumble onto random problems, and recover from them. There is never a perfect speech, but knowing that you can get yourself out of a situation is very reassuring.

Most importantly, the practice session proves one thing: you can talk!

The audience assumes you know more than them

You've done your practice session, now you're ready for prime time. It's natural to be nervous, but remember, once you stepped on that stage, you are the expert. People come to listen to you because they want to learn from you. They could go to another talk, chat in the hallway, or stay home to watch TV. But no, they chose to come to your talk, because they believe you can teach them something.

The scale is tipped in your favor because you are on stage. Everybody wants you to shine, so whenever you have self-doubt, remember that.

It is okay to say I don't know

You gave your speech, and now comes the terrifying time: questions! I used to feel like if I don't know the answer I would disgrace myself in front of a crowd. But guess what, it's not a test! You are there to share what you know, not to be a walking encyclopedia. If you don't have a ready answer, just say so. Turn the question to the audience and ask if anyone knows. Usually an interesting discussion will unfold. If not, have them contact you afterwards, and promise to follow up.

Just do it

You cannot learn to ride the bicycle by reading a book. Start small, give a short talk at a local meetup. Be yourself, and go with the flow. You will be alright.


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  1. Good points. Another tip is to mingle with the crowd before the start of the session. That way, you can ease up a little and can also take this chance to informally poll your audience and know what they are expecting from your talk.

    Wei-Meng Lee

  2. Great tip, Wei-Meng!

    I tend to chat idly with the crowd when I hook up my computer to the screen, but never purposefully ask them what they expect from the talk. I will try this it next time.