Public Speaking and Dying

Public Speaking and Dying
Jul 21st, 2009

The number one fear of people isn’t dying, it’s public speaking.

— Detective Richie Roberts, American Gangster

One of the most critical skills of any user experience professional is presenting ideas to an audience.  It is not an easy task by any means and we all have to start somewhere.  For me, I found the best way to learn to present my ideas was to do lectures and public speaking engagements at conferences. 

Yes, quite a different type of presenting but it helped me to become more comfortable with speaking to an audience by learning what I should and shouldn’t be doing.  I am not perfect nor an expert here.  I have made plenty of mistakes while on stage in my time, trust me.  But through these mistakes and failures I have learned a lot. 

Rather than just give you a list of links to great articles on the topic I thought I would share some of the commonalities among these articles and what I have personally learned about public speaking.  I have grouped them according to when the tip best applies to the process.

Preparing for your talk

  • Ask who the audience is
  • Square away the logistics to ensure you will be there on time
  • Make sure you feel comfortable giving the talk, if not, ask to change it up so you are
  • Ask to speak earlier in the event if possible
  • Ask for a room you know you can overfill
  • Know if someone is going to give you an intro, so you don’t have to
  • Ask for the native resolution of the projector you will be using

Preparing your slides

  • Start with the goals, what do you want them to walk away with
  • Do your freak’n research!
  • Build an outline of your talk, just bullet points
  • Each bullet should be a short story
  • Plan for Q&A at the end
  • Always cut the sales pitch
  • Never talk about the competition
  • Do not start with the history
  • Start with the end; results
  • Tell interesting stories & entertain
  • Plan for about 1 to 2 points per minute
  • Reduce your outline by half
  • Turn bullet points into slides with images and no or minimal text
  • Use Keynote, you shouldn’t need anything else
  • Make the font readable from afar
  • The first slide contains the name of your talk & the event
  • The last slide contains your email and/or URL

Leading up to your talk

  • Rehearse the entire talk all the way through
  • Revise where needed
  • Rehearse it again
  • Do a test run in front of a friend
  • Revise where needed
  • Rehearse it again
  • Stop fucking rehearsing

Just before your talk

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Be well hydrated
  • Pee before hand
  • Overdress
  • Have your business cards handy
  • Don’t stand around on stage
  • Mingle with the audience
  • Step on stage when prompted

During your talk

  • This is not a conversation, its a talk
  • Be yourself
  • Slowdown, dont rush through
  • Look at the audience not the floor
  • Project your voice
  • Get out from behind the podium
  • Transition the stage on key points & and pause
  • Repeat key point if needed
  • Don’t dance around in a box or fidget
  • Keep hands around chest level & out of pockets
  • Use your hands to communicate but don’t wildly gesticulate
  • Ditch the air quotes
  • Don’t read any slides word by word, ever
  • Never announce you will skip slides
  • If something goes wrong, recover & move on, don’t apologize

After your talk

  • Put up your email and/or URL on a slide
  • Tell them where they can find the slides online
  • Open the floor for questions, ask that they be in the form of a question
  • Take audience questions until your time is up or there are no more questions
  • Repeat the damn question or die trying
  • If it wasn’t a question, ask for a question
  • Don’t be afraid to shoot down off-topic questions
  • Answer the question to your best ability
  • Ask if that answered the question for them
  • If one person is playing Q&A ping pong, table it until after
  • Stick around for drinks later

Other resources

Also see

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

— Jerry Seinfeld

About the author

Nick Finck is a user experience professional who has dabbled in the web for over a decade. He specializes in information architecture, interaction design, usability and user research. Read more

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