Public Speaking: How To Be Interesting

I was never shy with a crowd. Those who know me will tell you I’m not shy with my opinions either, especially when no one wants to hear them, but that’s a story for another time. What you might not know is how much preparation goes into this level of confidence. If I didn’t practice my personal and professional skills regularly, they would atrophy. If I don’t see the results first hand, I have no hope of convincing anyone else. So, I take every opportunity to practice all the skills one needs to speak to a crowd and be heard. That last part is important.

Sure, it takes a minimum level of bravery to stand in front of a crowd and speak. Many people lack the confidence to do even that. Moreover, it takes a bit more effort to reach the audience in a way that engages them and inspires them to take an active role in learning. I can’t just stand at a podium and read bullet points verbatim off my slides. If I have any hope of compelling the audience to pay attention, I need to rise above the monotony. I need to be entertaining.

So, how do you do that? Well, it’s not as simple as a recipe, but there are some highlights. Most importantly, context is key. Your slides must be complementary to you and should only draw attention away from what you’re saying to bolster the point with comedy. In those cases, sometimes you want to just shut up for 3-5sec and let the image settle into everyone’s mind. I strongly recommend slides that evoke things that support your main thesis. As the first impressions from your visuals begin to sink in, you want your audience’s subconscious to wander into your point. These parallel connections will strengthen the emotional bond your audience has with your premise. This is called a rapport-building technique, as it inspires your audience to trust you. Of course, you don’t want to beat them over the head with it either.

A key slide in my talk at IGNITE Tampa in Jan 2012 was an ominous picture of a bus stop. My point for this slide was that buses are reasonably safe, but only after you’re on the bus. While you wait, you’re exposed to the elements (and the locals). The goal of the scary picture was to inspire fear in the audience to bolster the point that you should be afraid because our current transportation system doesn’t meet your needs completely. Without the scary picture, the audience’s imagination can wander. You can use imagery to narrow that focus. You might call this emotional manipulation.

Another key aspect of a successful presentation is rehearsal, getting back to the practice discussion from above. It’s important to be mindful of the timing of your imagery with what you say. Sometimes, you want to seed the conversation with what you say, pause to build anticipation, advance the slide and continue. Other times, you want to lag behind the slide, giving the audience time to process the image before you support the image with spoken word. While practicing your delivery with a test audience, pay special attention to their facial expressions and body language. If they drift away or seem distracted or lost, they aren’t engaging, which means you aren’t interesting enough.

One of the best demonstrations I saw in college was a physics professor illustrating electromagnetism at an early morning class. About halfway through the class, he powered on a coil and stuck something heavy to it. He looked around, saw several people dozing off, and cut the power to the coil. The heavy object dropped loudly onto the table below it, and several students woke up suddenly. It was a funny moment, and it strongly tied my memory of the event at large to the underlying science, helping me gain a richer appreciation for physics. Now, I often chuckle any time I think of electromagnets.

That brings us to the last key topic – know your audience. If you’re presenting innovative code to a bunch of programmers, show code examples. That’s why they’re there – to learn things they probably won’t learn at work. Conversely, if you’re giving a commencement speech at a high school graduation, people want to hear uplifting examples of the wonders and endless possibilities of youth, not your quarterly payroll report. Take some time to try and relate to your audience. Try to understand why they have chosen to listen to you. Sometimes, it’s even a good idea to include a slide telling them exactly why they should listen to you. Having a slide like that forces you to see your talk from their perspective, which can be invaluable in feeling confident to address them. This is especially true if you’re presenting to an unfamiliar industry. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you don’t have home court advantage. In those situations, the audience is likely interested in a multidisciplinary perspective, a variety of opinion, which makes yours that much more valuable to them.

Above all, be thankful that those people are there to see you speak. They want you to do well because if you do well, they might be entertained or inspired to expand their view of the world, even if just a little. When you succeed, their investment in their time is validated and they walk away feeling positive about the experience. That seeds the field for future discovery through social graphs, as they tell their friends what a great speaker you are.


Endnote: if you’d like to hear more on this topic, listen to the 3-part series from my podcast, titled The Dark Side of API Dependency, especially part 3.