Way back in 2015 YOW! granted me a ticket to a one day public speaking workshop. The workshop description had me a little uncertain (after all, I had never done any conference speaking before), but I signed up and took a leap of faith that Damian Conway would facilitate a workshop for people with a diverse range of skills so we would all benefit.
Looking back, I am so glad I took the that leap. I’m incredibly grateful to YOW! for the ticket to attend such an impactful workshop. I’m also grateful to my (then new) boss who let me take the day off work with a day’s notice. It’s so much easier to succeed when you have such a great community behind you!
Right after the workshop I wrote up my notes and shared them around with my fellow attendees. I always meant to publish those notes for others to reference (and to tidy them up for myself!) and now I’ve done it two years later. You can find the six page version of my notes here. Otherwise, here’s the condensed version:
Give the audience the best talk you can give. Don’t waste their time (or money) with a talk that’s not going to help them in some way.
As you start choosing a topic, remember that the talk is for the audience and no one else. Your talk should to inform, entertain, or make their life better in some way. Think about each of the topics on your list. How will this talk help your audience? How will it make their life better? (This doesn’t have to be “change the world” level, but it should be more than “I did this cool thing and people should know.”)
When possible, give talks on things you’re passionate about. You’ll be a more engaging speaker for your enthusiasm, and you’ll have lots of experience to pull from. It might take more work to find a place to give such a talk, but your audience will appreciate your interest in the topic.
Once you’ve picked your topic work on getting a “slogan” for your talk. This should be the key take away in five or six words. Spend some time thinking about those words (you’ve only got a few, use them well!). Think about this slogan as the thesis statement for writing; you don’t need to say it explicitly, but helps to know exactly the message you want to get across. (I really struggle with this; if you have tips or tricks I’d love to hear them!)
If you don’t have enough time to talk about something, don’t talk about it. It’s better to scratch the surface than to rush through the depths. Also included in this is don’t show a slide and skip it “because it’s not important.” (This is a pet peeve of mine - it makes me feel like the speaker doesn’t think I’m smart enough to get the topic.)
Break things down so they’re easy to understand. Put yourself in the audience mindset, remember your topic is new to them! If you’re not sure ask a potential audience member or err on the side of explaining more.
The most basic version is “remove anything that takes focus away from you and your message.” This can be expanded to a wide variety of rules (some of which are listed below). As you develop your slides and practice your talk constantly ask if there’s anything you can do to make it easier for your audience to understand and remember your main point.
Don’t make [them] think
Your audience should only need to think about the message of your talk. Nothing should get in the way of them concentrating on that message.
Make things easy for them by keeping your slides consistent. Slides talking about the same things should look the same; similarly, different things should look different. It helps if you use few (bold) colours; it means they don’t have to guess if colours are the same or not. Remember, the colours will probably be washed out on the projector.
If you have a complicated slide (perhaps a code sample), build it up slowly. Dropping the whole thing on your audience is likely to overwhelm them. Some will struggle through and try to process it, others will simply zone out. Take them on a journey through the slide so everything is explained.
On that note, don’t make the audience guess what to do either. If you want a response from the audience make it clear by modelling the response. When you say “raise your hand if...” also raise your own hand. This helps break the ice and let’s the audience know you’re serious about wanting them to mimic the behaviour.
Make it easy for the audience to connect with you.
Have as little between you and the audience as possible. As much as possible, don’t have any of the following in your way: desk, podium, computer, arms, writing on shirt, hair in face, etc. Look open and let them see the whole you!
Try to make eye contact with everyone in the room. This is hard to get right: if you do it too fast you can look shifty; if you do it too slowly it feels like you’re staring at people. Practice connecting with one person briefly and then moving on to the next member in the audience.
As speakers, our job is to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand our message. They’re giving us their attention, we need to give them thoughtful preparation and use their time wisely. Hopefully these notes help you better communicate your ideas at your next presentation!