How I Approach Public Speaking
There are people in the world who rank their fear of public speaking higher than death. That means that at a funeral, they would rather be the one in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy... 🤔
I can’t say I’ve experienced anything that extreme, but I can definitely relate to feeling nervous before talking in front of a crowd. Although I’m not the most seasoned speaker, this year I have managed a few talks and panels without tripping over or accidentally tucking my skirt into my undies.
When I am preparing for a talk I usually approach it in the following ways:
It is such a (daunting) privilege to have the attention of a room so I don’t like to waste the opportunity on nothing. I try to ask myself “what am I trying to say with this talk?” and figure out what value I can bring to even just a few people in the audience.
Plan the structure
I always make sure sure I have a solid beginning, middle and end before getting too bogged down in the details. It sounds obvious but there’s nothing worse than getting lost in your own presentation half way through. Starting with dot points also helps me figure out if I have enough content and also where it should sit.
I like to have a reoccurring thought or common thread that weaves through and helps contribute to the structure of my talks. Sometimes this is extremely random and acts as an analogy rather than a design-specific example. In the past I’ve incorporated things like sausage dogs to Mean Girl references to getting rejected from Berghain. Frank Chimero does this really well (linked below) and it’s something I do a lot.
I avoid this as much as possible because I have sat through my share of people flicking through a slideshow of work I’ve already seen on the internet. When I show my work in talks I like to share the behind-the-scenes and reveal the process behind it. At the very least, I use projects to convey another point I am trying to make and use them as real examples where I have applied my own advice.
Personal stories always go down a treat. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? This is usually way more interesting than a traditional speech because it’s a more relatable and accessible format.
This isn’t stand-up
Design is not comedy so my main aim isn’t to make the crowd laugh with punch lines and jokes. I absolutely want to entertain, but I try to do that in ways that feel natural to me and not too far out of my comfort zone. I feel like people always laugh at things I’m not expecting and it’s nice to feed off the spontaneity of that energy.
Learn from others
I’m a professional designer, not a professional speaker, so whenever I prepare a talk I look to the people who are far better than me and I try to learn from them. Some helpful links/tips from other people that I come back to every time include:
Suggestions for Speakers by Frank Chimero
This was written 7 years ago but I still love it. Frank is a fantastic speaker so any advice I can soak up from him, well, consider it sponged.
Public Speaking is Terrifying by Liv Siddall
A more recent article on 99U that offers six ways to deliver like a pro.
Take a Cue From One of President Obama’s Quirks by Inc
The ultimate inspiration is Barack Obama, and there are so many articles on why his speeches are so impactful. I am in awe of how he can pause so calm and timely—I swear he never once says “umm”.
Own your voice
While I’ve taken cues from others, it was super important to find my own voice and not completely copy someone else’s style of presenting. One size does not fit all and it’s immediately clear to a crowd if you don’t speak from your usual tone. It’s hard not to compare yourself to other speakers but if you have been asked to give a talk, chances are you’ve been handed the mic because of what makes you, YOU. I really try to embrace what makes me, ME, as much as possible!
Practice out loud
I can read over my notes 100 times and I will still fuck up when I go to say it out loud. I don’t know why, but it’s not the same! I hate doing it but I always do a full run-through of my talks out loud at least four times before the big day or night. I also try to do it in front of people and ask for feedback—but I only recommend doing this with people you trust to be constructive.
Practicing ensures you know your content and you don’t have to rely on notes. I find it also means I say “umm” and other filler words a lot less and I can time where to pause and breathe so it feels natural and not like I have gone blank.
I am so disappointed when talks end with “well, I guess that’s the end” because it tells me it’s taken the speaker by surprise as much as me. I want people to walk away feeling informed, inspired or a mixture of both. A strong ending for me is really driving my main point home and tying up any loose ends.
I prepare for EVERYTHING to go wrong—it is the only way things don’t. I ask about the set up of where I will present, what type of mic I will have, if there is a clicker, etc. I always bring my own laptop plus a copy of my slides and fonts on a USB. I also set up Keynote on my phone so I can use it as a back-up clicker just in case. I genuinely cannot sleep if I don’t prepare for the worst.
Hopefully these tips and links will come in handy for your next presso! Remember that these are just notes on what works for me, so take them as suggestions and not bible.