Excellent public speaking advice

The inestimable Duncan Davidson, photographer laureate of the O'Reilly tech conferences, has distilled his experiences watching thousands of speakers on thousands of stages into a pithy, useful article about how to be a better speaker. I know I need help with the last one (try not to look bored on panels -- basically, my "I'm thinking hard about this" face is pretty close to my "I'm not paying attention" face).
If you find yourself walking _backwards_, you are probably pacing very vigourously. Stop. Breathe. There were a couple of speakers that were pacing so hard they didn’t even bother to turn around. They just reversed direction and backpedaled. That’s a sure sign you just are feeling like you have to move too much. This can also be dangerous. Stages have edges. You don’t want to go off the edge of one.

If you don't make eye contact with your audience, you make it that much harder for the to connect to your message. You want your audience to connect with what you are saying, right? Then make them feel like you are addressing them. Obviously, there are many people in the audience and you can’t look at all of them at once. The good news is that you don’t have to. If you pick a few people in various places of the audience and lock eye contact with them, everyone else around them will feel that. It works. If it helps, you can lock eyes with friendly people that you know in the audience. Don’t have any friends out there? You can make some talking to a few people before you go up on stage. Then, when you make eye contact with them, you are making eye contact with the audience and connecting with them.

Dear Speakers


  1. The only thing you need to be an effective public speaker is something to say and a burning desire to say it.

  2. Ha! If only that were true. If you ever find yourself in London on a Sunday, head to Speakers’ Corner and watch how poorly “burning desire” and “a message” perform when not coupled with eloquence, timing, and basic public speaking skills.

  3. All excellent advice!

    I’d add another that it took me some time to learn: CEILING CAT IS NOT WATCHING YOU GIVE THIS TALK. A lot of people – me included – have a tendency to talk a bit above the audience, especially when trying to make a somewhat general point. To build on what this article says, you can make a general point whilst looking at a particular audience member; just the fact that you are talking towards someone makes everyone else feel more comfortable.

  4. @1, Cory’s beaten me to it.

    Public speaking is a process of two-way communication. Forget that, and you risk convincing your audience of your burning passion but leaving them clueless as to what it is your are actually passionate about.

  5. True, true :))

    You can move around the stage, but it has to appear to have purpose.

    Dynamic presentations are complex. Merely having a passion doesn’t cut it – I’ve seen too many people undermine their own presentations by being unfocused, confusing in their speech and having a series of VERY annoying habits.

    You have to connect with the audience – most of it if you can, all is great – though there is almost always going to be someone who is NOT going to like you or what you say.

    Another thing to avoid is finding the person who seems to not like what you’re saying and spending waaaaaaaaaaay to much time trying to convince them to like you or agree with you. Seeing those people (or those who appear to you to be like that) can be unnerving and it means you really ought to spend more time looking for those that are agreeing with you, so you don’t become anxious to the point that it adversely affects your presentation.

  6. What it is – although this might make it that much scarier for some – is acting. Not having a message and wanting to deliver it, but having a message and the technique to convey to the audience that you really do have “a burning desire” to get it across.

    I recently had to give a speech that consisted, almost in its entirety, of a list of a donors to a worthy cause (and it was a long list). I found myself trying out every cheap acting trick in the book to keep the audience engaged, and I have to say it mostly worked.

    Once you’ve got the basics Davidson lays out (and the eye contact thing is really key), then you can play with volume, pacing (verbal, not physical, that is), facial expressions, gesture, and all the other tools at the stage actor’s disposal. If you have the opportunity to do it often enough (especially if you have to give a version of the same speech several times), you can find yourself having great fun with it all.

    Oh – and PowerPoint must die. Now.

  7. I don’t do any public speaking, but I have fallen of a stage more than once. I do some training of small groups and this is excellent advice for that too.

    #6 (Muscato)
    When you say “Oh – and PowerPoint must die. Now” do you mean:

    That MS PP may not be the best choice for multimedia presentations?

    Or that multimedia presentations themselves must cease to be? I feel that like public speaking itself the multimedia component is often badly done with little thought paid to Mr. Davidson’s guidelines. But in the right hands it can be made to work.

    Finally: Mr Jobs has garnered a reputation for excellence in public speaking. Any thoughts on what he might be able to learn from Mr. Davidson?

  8. breathe – yes
    don’t pace / stare off into space / drool- yes

    one more – if you have notes you must use (and sometimes you will), never, EVER, look down at them and read them aloud.

    look down at the page, pick up what you need to say and then lift your eyes up and make eye contact before you speak. keep your finger on the line if that helps you to not get lost on the page.

    nothing kills public speaking like public reading.

  9. #7 (David Carroll):

    On MSP PP/multi-media – probably a combination of the two. In my field PP, reigns supreme and is enormously abused, to the point that in the last two years I’ve not seen one presentation that wasn’t a walk-through how-to that wouldn’t have been better off without it. I really have to be convinced when putting something together that the backup slides, or at least the text ones, aren’t just variations on the PP reduction of The Gettysburg Address.

    But I’m old-fashioned; I also don’t think most speakers in halls holding less than 300 need a microphone. Grandma taught me to project!

  10. If you or your organization get a chance, hire Randall Munson for some training on speaking.

    Mr. Munson gave a short one-hour presentation at SHARE an organization of IBM customers (he was, coincidentally, an IBM executive years ago) that began with a very very funny example of what NOT to do. He not only knows his stuff, but his training as a clown and amateur(?) magician really made this talk a great time.

    No, I’m not shilling for the guy, despite appearances. I was just really impressed.

  11. With respect to looking at the audience, sometimes there are two audiences to be considered. The first is the one you’re actually addressing, and making a connection with them is vital, and the advice to try to connect directly with them is good, especially with eye contact. It’s good to get positive feedback from individual audience members, from a nod, a smile, whatever.
    But if you’re being recorded, how do you acknowledge and connect the future audience? With occasional looks at the camera? How do you connect with it, and not appear to be ignoring the present audience? If you focus on just the present audience, the recorded presentation looks like a video of someone talking to others, not the viewer.
    Any ideas?

  12. Powerpoint must die? Good thing I use Keynote.

    Seriously though. I never really understand what people mean by that. Does this mean “No slides.”, or “Don’t put paragraphs of text on slides, causing you to shrink the font by 12 points in order to fit them all on the slide, and then stand there and read them.”? If it’s the latter, well then, someone needs to learn how to give a talk.

    While it may be true that not every talk needs slides (State of the Union for one), slides do help certain types of talks.

  13. Nothing is wrong with Powerpoint except the users. I happen to have a scientific job where a few presentations a year are required. I also happen to have a boss who is very good at making and instructing others to make good presentations.

    The article (above) has very good general suggestions, but for a good Powerpoint presentation, you must 1) stay away from using lots of text, 2) have a simple message that follows a logical progression (the pros often speak of making a “story”), 3) have well crafted slides, and 4) have rock solid transitions that support your logical progression.

    These rules sound simple, but are extremely difficult for most people to do *well*.

    @ #6 who says “PP must die” – I don’t think you have justified throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Ever since humans began ‘talking with their hands’ speech has been helped a bit by visual aids. That aid can be PP, or transparencies, chalk on a blackboard, or whatever appeals to your sensibilities, as long as the presentation is well done the medium will not be to blame…just the presenter. However, one crucial mistake that a lot of presenters make is NOT considering their medium. For example, they write a paper instead of making a visual aid to their speech (see item 1) or they give a theory lecture instead of accenting their points using a blackboard.

  14. Scientific presentations are helped enormously by having charts, graphs and diagrams to point the viewer to. That can be A4 sheets handed out before the talk begins or a series of PP slides as you present. Either way, charts are much quicker to understand in terms of charts compared to reading results to a crowd.

    Personally my typical presentation is currently a legal one, so submission really, and I cannot fathom the idea of using Powerpoint to cross examine someone. That’s not how it works. The more common toss up is should I bring paper notes with me or not rather than to use a projector.

    If your presentation needs powerpoint- cool. Just don’t go overboard, don’t make your audience read something off the screen that you should have said to them and don’t make them squint at miniscule figures.

    The other issue is does your presentation actually need figures at all? Can your audience do anything with them while they’re sat there? The last presentation I attended was an AGM and the accounts were read out and put up on the screens so people could look at them and size them up before we voted for it. That’s a formality rather than an audit, however. If you can get away without reading long lists of numbers to a crowd then try to do so.

  15. 1. Keep your hands still. An unnecessary gesture is a distracting gesture. It does not add emphasis. TV presenters and reporters; did they not teach you this basic at school? Did you get the job without going to school?

    2. Get someone to tell you what repetitive words and phrases you use and [i]give them up[/i]. Completely. People end up sit there watching for them and ignoring what you are saying.

    3. Talk sense, not jargon.

    4. Projection. Absolutely agree on the useless microphone thing. Talk to the people in the back seats.

    Right that’s about it. Now I’ll sit back and wait for the book offers to come in. Short book, though!

  16. yeah, that’s a good one, Buddy. Ethanol correctly applied can work wonders for a performance. Public speaking isn’t always a performance though, if there is serious Q&A and you are concerned about being right and correct and not just “winning”, then you need ALL your wits about you. A canned speech, sure, I’ll bet most are delivered half drunk.

  17. some can do both:
    “Macdonald was well known for his wit and also for his alcoholism. He is known to have been drunk for many of his debates in parliament. One famous story is that during an election debate Macdonald was so drunk he began vomiting violently on stage while his opponent was speaking. Picking himself up Macdonald told the crowd, “see how my opponent’s ideas disgust me.”

  18. Always worked for me. Maybe not on the air, although Rush Limbaugher handled being hammered on opiates for years while bloviating. I also recall that Winston Churchill was pretty good at the old give-and-take while carrying a snoot full of joy juice. Apparently some people can give themselves an edge by taking off the edge.

    TV comic and program host Gary Moore was once asked by another comic, George Gobel, to join him for a drink before they went on the air. Moore declined, saying he never drank before a show.

    Gobel was incredulous. “You mean you go out there all alone?” he asked.

  19. My advice? First try and avoid speaking at all if possible, but if that fails:

    Take it from a shy person that anyone can pretend to be someone they’re not for a 15 minute speech if they practise, practise, practise until they can set a timer by the performance and know it completely by heart. Faked confidence looks just as good on stage as the real thing and it’s only for 15 minutes… Neither do you need to find friendly faces to look at in order to avoid the nervous ceiling cat obsessed or floor-gazing looks. Once you are up in front of a group you can just glance around fixing your gaze on random eyebrows as you scan the room, it has just the same effect as meeting eyes once you are about 3m away from the audience.

  20. On that “eye contact” thing:

    I went to see Marc Maron’s show, “Scorched Earth,” a couple of weeks ago (it’s bloody brilliant, by the way). I was in the front row of the UCB Theatre and Maron must look for receptive faces and lock on to them. Well, he was locked on mine from about the half-way point onwards. It was both intimate and very disconcerting. It was like he was telling me his stories over a drink in a bar.

    I don’t know if this is a common thing for stand-up–I don’t go to a lot of stand-up, and even less in such a small space. It definitely worked for me–I felt like a dormouse faced down by a cobra– but I wondered how it felt for those not included in his gaze.

    (And it wasn’t a pick-up move: I’m so not his declared type…not young, not hot, not a shiksa.)

  21. The few times I had to give a presentation, I made a point to never write it down aside from a very few keywords. I can’t memorize an entire text to save my life anyway, but in public speaking, I found it actually helps.

    It prevents me from reciting a memorized text (which always sounds extremely boring). It also gives me more confidence knowing that I don’t depend on written notes and only on knowledge of the topic.

  22. All good advice. There’s a lot more that can be learned, like eliminating verbal pauses, through regular practice. I joined a toastmaster’s group at one point, and it really helped my public speaking skills. At the very least, it made me much more at ease in front of a group.

    One thing I will add- the nervous speaker tends to experience time differently and invariably rushes the delivery. A verbal pause (uhhh, ummm, ahhh) comes naturally, because the inexperienced speaker experiences any silence in a presentation as interminably long. The audience however, may welcome the silent space between thoughts or sections of a presentation. I always remind myself to slow down, don’t be afraid to pause. Breathe.

  23. I was watching the video (here) of Tony Robbins at the TED conference before last. Watching him was making me anxious. I realized that his side-to-side pacing almost perfectly replicates the movements of the tigers at the zoo. Note to self: Try not to give your audience the impression that you want to kill and eat them.

  24. I mostly just speak in front of classmates at Uni. Have worked as a teacher and instructor in the past though (as well as a salesman, both face to face and over the phone).

    I would say to find your style is a huge thing. Some people want exact, written notes. Others like a few pointers and wing the rest of it. Some practice their speech to a tee, others just go through the source material. That said, if you have hard time limits you better go through what you’ll say a few times to see where you stand for time, even if you are the freeforming type. I can pretty much nail the time after a few run throughs.
    Then I just relax and have fun, but then again I enjoy spreading information, trying to infect others with my love of the subject matter. I do use all techniques that I can to do that ;)

    Here are some Slideshow presentation notes, some of which directly support James Duncan Davidsons notes.

    Powerpoint slides… Yeah, most are pretty horrid and add nothing, may even detract a lot.
    But graphical support used well makes a good presentation better, clearer and more enjoyable.

    Use blank (black) slides in between, when you are just talking so you don’t have information on the screen all the time.

    Use your programs presentation mode so that you can see at least the current slide and the next slide on the laptop screen, as well as a timer.

    Use a remote to switch slides so you don’t switch attention over to the computer.

    Make notes (programs like PP and Keynote can display notes on the laptop screen) which remind you of where you are and what to say.
    If you need to read, or check info, read it from the laptop screen. Do NOT turn around to view the projector screen, it takes the attention from you and your presentation over to the Slideshow.

    Only use slides when they add to your presentation (sometimes a silly picture is a good idea, sometimes it isn’t)
    Keep text to a minimum, preferably keep it down to headlines or even better, only images.

    On information slides, keep the number of text lines low, below 7 is a good rule of thumb.

    And again, use black slides in between info slides so that the focus is on YOU!
    Steal ideas from decent speakers like Steve Jobs and quite a few TED talkers. Look how they present themselves, how they use slides and how they move. Look at good preachers, salesmen and magicians (not Criss Angel though, rather look at Derren Brown or Penn Jillette). Some of these people really convey a lot of meaning through what they say and how they say it.

    And to the guy above who tried to forbid hand gestures: bollocks. Just don’t do too much. Any motion or gesture will emphasize what you are saying so long as the movements are appropriate in size and intensity as well as not going on all the time. You shouldn’t be flapping your arms like a chicken ;)

  25. The advice I like to add here derives from the improv guru Keith Johnstone.

    Set out to fail. Make some mistakes. Say three of them. Be prepared to scold yourself if you don’t make your total.

    If you are worrying about messing up you will be tense and, if you succeed, pedestrian (and if something goes wrong and you cry the audience will feel miserable). If you intend to fail you are far more likely to risk something interesting (and the audience will be wicked impressed if something goes wrong and you enjoy it).

    You could also treat it as proof by experiment. Even if you do make an idiot of yourself in front of everyone, they almost certainly will not point and laugh and you will not in fact die. It’s good to know some things by experience.

    It doesn’t come naturally to an adult human, but that’s my suggestion. If it’s public speaking you do need to do all of that preparation, but still.

  26. @#1 Jewels Vern

    The only thing you need to be an effective public speaker is something to say and a burning desire to say it.

    Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case. Not by a long shot.

    A good speech is tailored towards your audience. While passion can be an important factor in public speaking, not accounting for the needs of your audience is a sure fire way to make your speech a failure. My tips as a former public speaking teacher:

    Ask yourself:
    1.) Who is my audience?
    2.) Why are they here to listen to me?
    2.) What are the goals of my speech?
    3.) How do the goals of my speech intersect with the audience’s needs?
    4.) How will my main points address their needs?

    1.) Give you speech an introduction and tell the audience what you are going to tell them. (They should have a road map.)
    2.) Structure your main points so the speech isn’t one long amorphous diatribe. (I recommend less than five so they can more easily digest what you’re saying.)
    3.) Give the audience “road markers” to let your audience know where you are in the speech and reiterate main points.
    4.) Support your arguments with evidence: facts, naratives, statistics, metaphors… whatever your audience will find compelling, comprehensible and moving.
    5.) Practice in front of a critical but friendly audience (friends, colleagues). That’s the best way to iron out your bad habits.
    6.) Use your nervous energy to engage the audience and impart your passion… but don’t be afraid to slow it down, pause, breathe and let your audience absorb what you have said.
    7.) Be yourself.

    Remember, this speech is not for you. It’s for your audience.

  27. #19 (Takuan)

    Yep. Sir John A was at least half cut 24/7 since his wife became bedridden. Yet he was one of the greatest Canadians who ever lived. As is often the case some of the greatest people in history are also the most flawed.

    Thanks for getting me to re-read his bio…

  28. Lyndon@28: Absolutely. I would even suggest taking some kind of basic improv acting class, if possible. Once it becomes second nature to make a fool of yourself in front of others, it’s much easier to just relax and say what you need to say. It’s worked pretty well for me at least.

  29. @27: Use blank (black) slides in between, when you are just talking so you don’t have information on the screen all the time.

    You don’t need to do that. All you need to do is press ‘b’ on the computer to black out the slide (or use the black out button on your remote). You can also use ‘w’ to white out the screen if you’re projecting onto a white board that you’ll be writing on.

    Use a remote to switch slides so you don’t switch attention over to the computer.

    Only use a remote if you’ve trained yourself not to fiddle with it. Then it just becomes something in your hand to take out your nervousness with. There is nothing wrong with bringing attention to the computer as long as you do it right: Introduce the slide, walk to the computer and trigger the slide, face the audience, and pause while they have time to take in the information on the slide before going on with your presentation.

    Just don’t talk to the slide or the computer.

  30. Well, if you want to engage the audience, you can do worse than falling off the stage. I say, walk backwards, while blindfolded and juggling!

  31. @#11 frankieboy

    If you want to connect with everybody in the room when you are relayed to a big screen or to those watching a recording of the event, you should talk directly into the camera lens. Use this wisely. it can be quite scary to the viewer because they are only used to it for some TV presentations. Most recordings will be viewed more like a documentary or an interview where the interviewee talks off camera to the interviewer. Your main camera will usually (hopefully) be positioned directly in front of you at center stage front of house (sound desk) position. If you are doing the kind of large events that I work on then you should also have red tally lights on the camera to let you know when that camera is cut live. HTH

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