On Public Speaking
Saturday, October 26, 2019
Public speaking is one of the most uncomfortable things I do. Though I’ve spoken occasionally over time, despite knowing the subject and having done the work to earn the stripes to speak, I’ve always dreaded the experience. My usual speaking recipe used to be as follows — prepare some slides just days before the talk, think through some talking points, and show up behind the podium with no other form of preparation. The ideas that I originally had often ended up becoming too complicated or too flimsy to articulate well in the allocated time. Add my introversion and my imposter syndrome to the list.
I know I’m not alone. A lot of us struggle with public speaking. Most don’t even try for fear of failing. Public speaking can be intimidating and stressful. Though I don’t claim to be an expert public speaker, I want to share the single most important lesson I learned this year.
I began to take some steps last year. Initially, I watched several videos of other speakers and TED/TEDx talks. I also worked with a speaking coach for a few months. The coach made me realize some common mistakes of body language, tonality, breathing, the pace of delivery, etc. We also recorded some mock talks. Watching those was a terrible experience. The most important benefit of working with a coach, though, was to receive instantaneous feedback.
Yet, it took ten more talks and about a year to find a working formula. Here is the most important lesson I learned.
Build and own your plot first. Until this year, I used to prepare slides first. Nowadays, I take a more contemplative approach that does not start with slide-making.
- Build a storyboard on a few sheets of paper or a text file. Each entry on the board includes an idea and a few talking points. Starting on a few sheets of paper or a text file helps focus on the plot instead of colors and fonts in PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Keynote.
- Shuffle the order of the entries in the board into a plot with a beginning and an ending. Keep refining the order and talking points until the flow is linear and cohesive. Through this process, simplify the plot so people can follow you. A few twists and turns are okay but avoid disjoint ideas as they will make you struggle through transitions, and will confuse the audience. Moreover, the order should be natural for you to tell.
- Only then translate the storyboard into slides. Use pictures and diagrams, with as few words as you can. If you’re using text, prefer large fonts. This approach will help the audience focus on you and not the screen.
- Save the slides into images, and insert those images into a document. Then type your talking points after each slide. See one of my latest talks for an example.
Try to spend the most amount of time on the last step. This step is your playground to refine your plot. The beginning of your script should invite the audience into your plot. I wouldn’t worry about narrating your life story or how great the company you work for is unless those facts are part of your plot. Give some hints about your plot in the beginning. Also, take the time to summarize your key takeaways at the end.
This essential step helps you form muscle memory. Muscle memory helps you avoid looking at your slides or speaker notes when speaking. It frees you up to move on the stage and be yourself, and not remain glued to the podium. The act of writing down the script also forces you to think and clarify your points. It allows you to try various options to narrate your plot in your own words. Don’t skip this step unless you’ve given the same talk before.
I learned a few other lessons as well.
First, don’t get intimidated by those who speak well. There are so many articulate, confident, and persuasive speakers. But remember that they did not become as such overnight and may have gone through similar difficulties. Observe how they speak, but don’t feel threatened by their skills. Instead, stay humble and focus on your journey to improve.
Second, be open to feedback. Invite others to give you feedback. Let others tell you about your filler words, body language, slides, your pace, how you move or not move on the stage, etc.
Third, remember that you’re the expert with a few things to share. The audience wants to learn from you, but not to punish you for being a poor speaker. Breath, calm down and be yourself.