I do a fair bit of public speaking. In 2006 I spoke to approximately 7,000 people over the course of the year and this year I am on track for something like 15,000.
And while I get pretty good feedback, make no mistake about it … I hate public speaking.
This generally comes as a surprise to those who have seen me make a presentation.
I have come a long way. Believe it or not I used to be unable to speak to more than three people at a time. Back in my SRD days, when my staff grew to three employees, I stopped having staff meetings. Then one day in the early 90’s I attempted to present a time and attendance system to the CIO of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino and his staff (6-8 people in total) … I was dysfunctional to say the least. I stared at a grease board, my back to the room, shaking, sweating and senseless mumbling.
Be afraid ... be very afraid!
After this horrifying incident, I realized that an inability to effectively communicate my ideas was going to severely blunt my lifetime potential. So, I asked my friend Doug Pool how he became such an accomplished presenter. His answer: Toastmasters. This amazing organization took me step-by-step from no ability to more ability … one super-scary step at a time. And guess what? It worked. Mind you, public speaking is still nerve-wracking … the difference now being … I know how to do it.
And now that I am doing a half-decent job at this whole speaking thing, here are a few tips (should anyone care):
PowerPoint is a Sedative
The more you presentation deck resembles everyone else’s deck, you lose. Most likely your audience has already been punished with grueling PowerPoint charts. You know what I am talking about … those information-overloaded charts with a mish-mash of tiny fonts, over animated, busy architecture and plumbing diagrams and loads of words which often state the obvious. The only thing worse is when the presenter then reads the words off the chart. No one is interested in this. So … if you are going to use PowerPoint, I recommend you spend some time developing a style and deck that is all you. By way of example, when I spoke at O’Reilly’s Third Annual Web 2.0 Summit, I buzzed through 41 charts in less than 10 minutes. It was almost all pictures (hand drawn by me in the PowerPoint scribble mode). I dreamt up this style about a year ago and think it is akin to a slow-motion movie synched up with a speed reader! [The story line here.] [The actual PowerPoint deck here.]
Crank Up the Signal!
When presenting … you had better say something every few minutes that strikes most of the audience as either "huh?" or "wow!" Otherwise, your audience may only be hearing "blah blah blah." In my attempt to do this, I might say something like, "The faster you collect data, the dumber you are likely to be." Without constant and meaningful signals, they will wish they were somewhere else, and then in self-defense direct all their attention to their BlackBerries. Creating signal can also involve doing something that will make it hard for them to ever forget you – for example, smash your guitar. Oh wait, that is a heavy metal band tip.
Don’t Punish Them On Your Watch
Never take advantage of the fact your audience is captive. Don’t waste their time by telling them anything obvious or widely known. And, if you discover you are boring them – the remedy is to jump to material that has a better chance of resonating with them. When in smaller settings, I preempt any fear by starting some presentations by saying, "If I start talking about something that you already know – stop me immediately" and "if this material is not interesting to you in the first five minutes, I’ll leave and give you some time back on your calendar." You would not believe the relief this creates. Furthermore, never ever overspeak your time. It is not fair to your audience or for that matter the next speaker. One exception, throwing the ball to the next speaker 20 minutes ahead of schedule (catching them off-guard), is not nice either … I did this once and felt real bad.
Make it Easily Digestible
If you find you are frequently losing people when you present, spend more time making your material more consumable. For starters, don’t use any words or acronyms your audience may not know. Don’t use any words or acronyms that may mean very different things to different people (e.g., data mining is such an overloaded term I often avoid using it). When I break this rule, e.g., when I use the word Context, I make a huge effort to explain what I mean. Another approach is to create your own terms and then explain them well (e.g., my use of terms like perpetual analytics, sequence neutrality, etc.). As a general principle, the deeper the think, the more simplistic and crisp the concepts must be presented. Don’t be afraid of bloating your presentation with pictures: pictures trump text 1000:1. Duh. (Word of caution: not all graphs qualify as helpful pictures!)
1. The bigger the venue, the more important it is to rehearse both lighting and sound. Have them demonstrate show time lighting because: (a) it is nice to know before hand if you are going to be blind up there and (b) it is wise to know how clearly your materials will project (if you have any). Do a full sound check during rehearsal to see if you are going to be in an echo chamber (something I discovered by accident twice this year in both cases at show time with great horror – the echoes were so distracting I could hardly think).
2. When you hear little voices in your head like "Run" or "Am I stuck in a thoughtless loop yet? How about now? Now?" … don’t debate these evil demons. Just move on.
3. Never call out (by name or otherwise) a competitive product or company. Never stoop that low.
4. The number one way to calibrate how effective you present is inversely proportional to the number people with glazed eyes, nodding off, and/or escapees.
I have a long way to go. For example, I still <quasi-expletive> at delivering a succinct and meaningful closing, I talk too fast, and I often wander off on a lot of unnecessary tangents. Gotta have goals! On this front I have this friend named Dick Hardt of Sxip Identity. He presents hundreds of charts in 10 minutes. His style is so unique and world-class that his video has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.
Check out this inspiring video: Identity 2.0 Keynote by Dick Hardt
Anyway, while I may never come to actually enjoy public speaking, without a doubt Toastmasters has made an enormous difference in my ability to express myself.