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A Beginner's Guide to Public Speaking
First, many thanks for all the comments and responses on last week’s post about the possibility of a Tory wipeout. Lots of requests for a follow-up on post-election scenarios for the Conservatives – which I will do over the summer.
But today’s post is something a bit different. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks at various conferences getting increasingly frustrated at how many smart people with interesting ideas struggle to communicate to an audience. It feels like such a waste. I don’t have any data to prove this is a growing problem. But it does seem that the advent of texts, WhatsApp, and social media has led to an increased focus on written language and images but left people uncomfortable speaking to people they don’t know well. To this extent I agree with Keir Starmer that we need to emphasise speaking skills more in the curriculum (though they are fiendishly hard to assess well).
I’m hesitant to advise others on this, especially as there are many subscribers who are better speakers than me. It is, however, something I’ve worked at over the course of my career and I think that I’ve improved as a result. At the start I was useless, and made every mistake that I warn against in the rest of the post, but I now earn a decent portion of my income from speaking, and tend to get invited back, which is usually a good sign.
The core problem with public speaking is the same as skiing: it’s a lot easier than it looks but it looks – to most of us – terrifying. Unfortunately the intuitive response to this fear is, in both cases, the worst possible thing to do. An adult beginner skier will instinctively want to lean backwards, this feels like the right reaction to hurtling down a mountain. If you do you will immediately fall over. You have to lean forwards, which feels like a crazy thing to do. I still find it a struggle. It’s frustrating watching small children shooting past you on the slopes, simply because they have no fear.
With public speaking the fear response is to write everything down and then read it out. This, again, is intuitive, as, for most people, their major concern is drying up and forgetting what they wanted to say. But it is much harder to make a talk compelling if you’re reading it. Only the very best, like Barack Obama, can do it, and that’s with an autocue rather than looking down at paper. When you’re reading out loud your tone flattens out and the audience will lose attention. It also gives you no room to adapt if you realise the audience is not quite the one you were expecting – perhaps smaller and more intimate – or not as interested in some of your themes.
Most speakers realise this quite quickly and so move to using notes, although extensive use of notes can be just as bad. It can even be worse than reading out if the speaker keeps pausing to work out which bit of their notes they want to move to next. It’s just much simpler to give a good talk when you don’t have any paper in front of you to distract you from talking directly to the audience. It also makes it easier to notice and respond to non-verbal feedback – are the audience bored and looking at their phones? Do they smile at the right points? Do they seem more interested in certain themes?
A “no notes” approach does not require learning by heart everything you want to say. As long as you have the basic outline in your head you can fill in the rest as you would while having a conversation. It does require having the confidence that comes from knowing what you’re talking about (if you don’t then don’t agree to do the talk! Audiences can soon detect excessive improvisation and bullshitting).
Let’s turn to the two standard types of presentation: the short introductory remarks when you’re on a panel; and the longer 45 minutes keynote, and how to do them without needing notes.
First a plea to organisers of panels: stop making them so big! Panels with five people on in a 45 minute or hour long slot almost never work. You don’t have time to get into any proper discussion or have more than a couple of questions and so it’s boring, however good the individual speakers are. Unless there is a very good reason two or three panellists should be the norm. And while I’m at it most conferences have too many sessions and not enough time for Q+A or side conversations.
When speaking on panel, introductory remarks ought to be relatively easy compared to a keynote yet they’re still hard to do well. Five minutes is not much time in which to say anything meaningful and often you’re only given two or three. The most common mistake I see is people trying to cram a keynote-worth of content into five or ten minutes by talking really fast, scanning through pages of notes, and desperately trying to figure out what to drop as they run out of time.
My basic technique is to tell one story – with three points to make on the way. So, for instance, if I was on a panel asking how to secure more spending for schools I would tell a story about persuading the Treasury to sign off on a new commitment and three arguments that worked with them. Or if it was about how to get more people into politics I’d use a story about a conservation with a prospective MP and the three things they were worried about.
Then at the end you can draw a single overarching lesson from the three points. For my two examples they could be: “Getting money for your priority requires that the government think they’ll get a political benefit from doing so” and “We need to treat Westminster more like any other workplace”.
This is a very simple approach that gives you a structure, makes it easy to recall what you want to say, and will leave the audience with a clear conclusion that will help them remember your contribution and construct a question. If you’re nervous about speaking without notes you can write down your main point and three sub-points in a notebook so it’s there if you need it; also writing them down can help you remember them. The first few times you try it practice it a few times to get comfortable with the process and timing. After a while you won’t need to.
For longer talks, unless you have a very good memory, you’re probably going to need some help while avoiding a written speech or extensive paper notes in front of you.
The most common tool, and the one I use, is a slide deck, but that comes fraught with its own risks. Do not, under any circumstances, write out everything you want to say on to slides, and then read it out. This is even worse than reading out a piece of paper because the audience will scan it faster than you can say it and then drift off. You might as well just give them a handout and let the next speaker take over.
As a general rule try and keep the amount of text on your slides to an absolute minimum – you do not want your audience reading while you’re talking even if you’re saying something different. If you do want them to read something then stop and give them a minute to do so. I will occasionally use short bullet point lists when I want to make sure I cover everything (for instance all the policy implications of a new piece of legislation). It’s still a bit lazy on my part.
Most of my presentations are just visuals with no accompanying text. If you’ve seen many presentations from professional keynote speakers they all tend to do this. I use a lot of graphs because I’m usually talking about policy and it allows me to pace the talk and stick to a structure. When I put a new graph up I explain it, so the audience aren’t trying to figure it out while I talk about something else, then discuss the implications before moving on to the next one. The aim all the time should be to build up a larger narrative. It’s a good idea to remind the audience of that narrative every few slides.
Apart from making it more interesting for the audience, they’re also more likely to retain information if they have both a verbal and visual representation (called “dual coding” in the pedagogy literature).
Some other basics: if at all possible make sure you can see the slides in front of you so you don’t have to keep turning round to the screen to see what is showing. If you’re speaking semi-regularly invest in a clicker. Most venues have them but, if they don’t, it is really annoying trying to speak without one, especially, if, like me, you like to wander around. I hate lecterns because I’m naturally fidgety and very small. Also always use a microphone if available because it allows you to speak in a normal conversational style. Unless you’re a trained actor or singer raising your voice to reach the back of a room will sound quite shouty and also flatten tone. Don’t go over your time limit, it’s rude to other speakers, and it irritates audiences.
I tend to be talking about serious issues so I will have lots of periods in a talk where I’m not trying to make anyone laugh. But some jokes at strategic points will build a relationship with an audience quicker than anything else you can do. I always try to start with a few just to relax everyone and indicate that I’m going to try and avoid boring them to tears. The best ones are something contextual relevant to that day, or venue, or event – so it doesn’t feel scripted. It’s rarely a good idea to script a joke and an even worse idea to follow it with “but seriously folks” or something, in case nobody laughs. And never laugh at your own jokes!
But it’s not just about being a bit more entertaining. Jokes also allow you to switch emotional register which helps add emphasis to the really serious points you want to drum home. For instance, last year when the Truss government was imploding, I did a series of talks where I started with a load of jokes about the absurdity of the political situation (one of my pictures was Michelle Donelan’s Department for Education portrait marking her 24 hours as Secretary of State) and then did an abrupt switch into the cost of this mess for schools and families with accompanying graphs. That is much more effective than going straight into the depressing stuff.
In my experience of attending events, the very best speakers are the ones who are most effective at deftly managing these emotional shifts which maximise engagement as they bring people up and down. To be fair this is easier to do in a talk about your inspirational life story than one explaining the implications of the Electronic Trade Documents Bill, or the latest accountancy standards, but do your best.
The most useless advice is to tell someone to relax. For nearly everyone public speaking is nerve-wracking. For some it feels like something to avoid at all costs. But the more tense you are the more difficult it is to give a talk. First because it’s harder to think clearly when you’re in a state close to panic but also because it makes the audience tense and uncomfortable. (A little adrenaline is fine, and indeed quite useful in getting you focused).
Unless you are blessed with the sort of extraversion that offers confidence from a young age the only way to achieve this is relentless practice. Once you’ve spoken in public dozens of times you will get more confident and that will make you a better a speaker. So the most important piece of advice I can give is to lean forward – to take every possible opportunity you can to speak in public - whether it’s team meetings or internal presentations, a panel your boss can’t do, or talks to students. Anything. The more nervous you are the more important it is to do this. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a more senior role where you’re expected to speak publicly regularly without having had the practice.
That’s it from me. I’m hoping that some of the many experienced public speakers who subscribe will add further tips and ideas in the comments.
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