Nobody’s ever accused me of being a brilliant public speaker, but people generally seem to like and remember my presentations and generally rate me as a confident, welcoming, and effective speaker. Most important, I get invited back to speak again. What’s a bit surprising is that (like many writers and editors) I’m something of an introvert—though possibly the most extroverted introvert you’ll ever meet. But by following a few strategies, I’ve turned myself away from being extremely uncomfortable in front of an audience towards being a comfortable and enthusiastic speaker.
Many books provide advice on the mechanics of successful public speaking, so I won’t repeat those points here; most recently, I read and can recommend Persuasive Communication for Science and Technology Leaders by Stephen Wilbers, who provides a good overview of how public speaking is like—and different from—writing. In both cases, we need to carefully choose, refine, and organize our words. And both forms of communications are dialogues. But when we speak in public, we need to perform those words in a way that gives the audience confidence they’re in good hands and encourages them to keep listening and maybe even to participate, thereby changing an implicit dialogue into an explicit dialogue.
That being said, here are some things I do to make myself comfortable and change my presentations into more of a conversation and less of a dictation.
Reminding myself that I’m welcome
The first thing I do is remind myself of the context: everyone’s there because they’re interested in the same things I am, and specifically in what I’m going to say. That is, they want to hear my take on the subject. (They wouldn’t be giving up their precious free time if they didn’t. I’m also assuming that I’m not speaking to a captive audience who are present against their will.) This context transforms the mood of the presentation from defending a contentious point against a hostile jury to more of a discussion with friends and future friends who I’m meeting for the first time.
In presentations for an audience of our colleagues, it’s rare that we find ourselves facing a hostile audience. That relieves a lot of pressure right from the start. However, if I’m speaking in a context where my topic is at all controversial, I do my best to learn what objections people might raise and have an answer ready. That eliminates most of my fear of being caught without an answer to an embarrassing question. It helps that I don’t accept speaking invitations on subjects I don’t know thoroughly. Instead, I recommend a colleague who can do the job better. It took me a while to learn my own limits and learn to work within them, but it was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
Welcoming the audience
While I’m waiting for everyone to arrive, I welcome anyone who has come early and chat with them while I’m setting up my computer and getting a feel for the space I’ll be presenting in. Of course, I’ll always say hello to old friends, but I find that speaking with strangers establishes more of a connection with more of the audience, which will generally be dominated by people I’ve never met. I use these small conversations to begin establishing my relationship with the audience, to loosen my chest and help me start breathing more freely, and to use up some of the excess nervous energy that I always accumulate before I begin speaking. That turns the energy into a source of strength rather than a source of the jitters.
Establishing a connection with the audience
Right after I introduce myself and why I’m giving the talk, I tell my audience that I encourage questions as we go, but with the footnote that longer questions will need to wait for the end of the presentation so that I don’t run over my allotted time. To ensure that I won’t go overly long and intrude on the next speaker’s time, I practice the presentation until I’m comfortable with the content, and can estimate the time it takes. I then add a fudge factor to account for questions and the fact that when I’m enthusiastic about my subject and the audience shares that enthusiasm, I tend to add details and digressions that I hadn’t included in my practice; thus, I always aim for a talk that’s shorter than the allotted time, so that when it inevitably expands, it doesn’t overflow the time I’ve been given. If I finish early? Not a problem: that leaves more time to talk with people and gives them more time to visit the bathroom, grab a coffee, or walk to the next presentation. Or chat with me until the next speaker arrives.
One of the most common bits of advice for speakers is to meet the eyes of everyone in the audience at least once during the presentation. To do so, I start with the people I talked with before the rest of the audience arrived; I already have the start of a relationship with them. Once I get going and the smooth flow of the presentation begins, I rely on them to keep me in touch with the audience and give me confidence to start meeting the gaze of others. As I grow more comfortable, I start noticing who needs more of this kind of engagement and who is already motivated to pay attention to what I’m saying.
Memory aids for me and the audience
I have a weak memory, and the problem hasn’t improved since I turned 60. So I need memory aids. One that I design into my presentation is the structure of my slides: I present them as builds, with one point at a time added to the screen. As I look at my laptop and hit the PageDown button or arrow key, the new text cues me to what I’m going to say next, while giving the audience time to absorb my previous point and finish writing any notes about things that spoke to them personally. Displaying the point also provides context for what I’m about to say, which is a useful trick for helping them remember what I’m about to say.
Please note that I don’t just read the lines of text on my slides, although I do repeat their content to take advantage of the fact that presenting a message in two sensory modes (visual for the slide and auditory for my voice) can reinforce comprehension and remembering. But I do also use the slides deliberately to remind myself what comes next and as a cueing device for the audience to provide structure for what I’m saying. That can be a lifesaver if an interesting question arises and I need to remember where I was when I return to the presentation.
Unlike in a written article, audience members can’t pause to look back or forward to review what they’ve just heard or see what’s coming. If it’s not on the screen, it’s gone. To solve that problem, I also provide printouts of my presentation in advance. Some authorities claim that this is a bad choice because they feel the audience will ignore the speaker and focus on the handout. In practice, that belief doesn’t match my experience; if I’m skillfully presenting an interesting topic, people are paying attention to me, not to the handout.
Providing the handout in advance offers a powerful additional advantage: nobody has to copy down the headings. All they need to do is add any details they consider particularly important. This minimizes the amount of time they spend writing notes or typing and maximizes the time they spend listening to me. And if I notice that many people are jotting notes, I pause a moment to let them finish.
Speaking of handouts, I always print a copy of my slides for myself just in case technology happens. At my first-ever presentation, at a Society for Technical Communication conference, there was no projector, so my carefully prepared PowerPoint presentation was useless. Instead, the first several times I finished explaining a point, I raised the printout and said “click” loudly to tell them I was moving to the next “slide”. Everyone smiled, and the point having been made, I stopped using that trick and just focused on the rest of presentation.
Turning monologue into dialogue
To make the presentation a dialogue, I occasionally ask a question and take answers from several people. This builds a connection even if the question’s something simple like “hold up your hand if this has ever happened to you”, although it works better with something more complex that could become a longer conversation after the presentation. One of the most effective ways I use to avoid being derailed by longer responses is to summarize the respondent’s question (to ensure I understood it) or the points they made, provide a concise answer, and offer to discuss the issue in more detail after the presentation. (I then reiterate the point I was making before the response to bring the audience back into the flow of the presentation.)
Most presenters have nightmares about demonstrating their ignorance before an audience. I embrace my ignorance and freely admit when I don’t know the answer to a question. I’m quite happy to mock myself—gently!—when necessary and appropriate. Particularly when I know that someone in the audience is an expert on the question, I offer the audience a chance to answer on my behalf, further reinforcing the sense of a conversation. I may even call on a friend who I know is an expert to provide an answer, so long as I’m confident they won’t feel like they’re being put on the spot. After a few answers, I summarize. If I’m not satisfied that I fully answered the question, I offer to look up a more detailed answer and get back to the questioner once I’m safely back home.
To build on that last point, I always conclude my presentation with an offer to continue the dialogue after the presentation (if I don’t have other commitments), during the coffee break or a breakout session, or by e-mail, online meeting, or phone call after the conference. The last page of my handouts contains all the ways people can contact me (other than my phone number, which I only provide on request).
Enjoying the act of sharing knowledge
Because of the pandemic, it’s been a while since my last presentation, and when I start going to conferences again, I’ll need to remind myself of the points I’ve raised in this essay before each presentation. But remembering these points keeps me nicely focused on what I’m there for: to discuss a topic that fascinates me and to share my enthusiasm with people who are just as interested in the topic as I am. One of the best payoffs of this approach is that several “conference friends” have become long-term friends “in real life”. I’m looking forward to adding more such friends in the future.
Geoff (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing and Write Faster With Your Word Processor. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 61 stories thus far. Visit him online at http://www.geoff-hart.com