Thursday Thirteen – Preparing to Speak
My Thursday Thirteen this week is inspired by my upcoming trip to Madrid. I am flying out this Friday for a conference where I’ll be delivering a paper. As I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little preoccupied by this, I’ve decided to concentrate on tips for preparing for a speaking engagement. Now some of you reading this may be thinking, “Well, I won’t bother reading any more, as I’m not a public speaker.” But before you click away, bear with me, read number one, and then see if I haven’t managed to persuade you to read on.
- Take A (Calculated) Risk: It can be a difficult decision to agree to give a talk. What will you say? What will your audience think of you? What if you freeze? I’d like to suggest that giving a talk can be such a positive experience that it’s worth taking the risk. And, I’d also like to suggest that this is not something which you can only ever expect to crop up in a work situation. Giving talks, lectures, presentations can be related to a hobby or an interest. By putting yourself out there, you are making yourself open to connect with others, and this can be incredibly positive, fulfilling and inspirational. It can be a way to meet new friends, make new contacts, and can lead to opportunities opening up for you.
- Choose A Topic: Pick something to talk about that interests you, not what you think will interest your audience. I am by no means suggesting you ignore your audience, only that if you don’t choose something that interests you, you cannot hope to interest others. An audience can tell when the speaker is less than enthusiastic about their subject, and, quite naturally, they follow suit. Choose wisely, but also selfishly.
- Right Audience: While giving a talk will involve some risk, you can ensure that this risk is reduced by firstly targeting the right audience for your talk. For example, there is no point giving a lecture about stamp collecting to a photography group, just as there’s no point in offering a speech on the history of photography to a group of philatelists. In fact, this is a recipe for disaster! You need to locate the correct audience for your talk, as they’re already going to be interested in what you’re discussing, and you won’t need to fight for their attention.
- Give Yourself Time: I know some people who can deliver a lecture off the cuff, and I know some who write up their lecture the day or two before they are due to deliver it. I am not one of those people. I aspire to that, but I’m still a long way off it! If you are like me, then I would like to suggest that you give yourself plenty of time to plan your speech. That way you can revisit over a number of weeks, and iron out any problems. But…
- … Not Too Much Time: You don’t want to have your speech ready to deliver too far in advance, as it could come out sounding too rehearsed. I think a good rule of thumb is to start thinking about the speech a month before, get your prep done and your speech perfected over the next two weeks, giving you a fortnight to polish it. Which brings me to number 6.
- Practice: You’ve probably heard the old adage that practice makes perfect, but it can also make you sound over rehearsed. I probably run through my talks 5 or 6 times before I deliver them. At least one of those times will be to a (very) friendly audience, such as my husband, another family member or a willing friend. They may pick up on things that you hadn’t, and they’ll be able to tell you if they thought it was structured/paced/delivered correctly. A couple of times, I have read out my paper to friends, and discovered that I pronounce words in ways that no-one else does. It’s such a minor thing, but correcting them can do wonders for your confidence.
- Backup: If you are going to use technology, you have to accept that things may go terribly wrong. However, when the technology goes well, it can be extremely effective and can really help to make an impression. So, what I suggest is that you have plans A, B, C, D etc. I usually give a powerpoint presentation along with my talk: I bring my laptop, my cable for connecting to the digital projector, my usb drive, and a cd rom that I’ve preprepared. On top of this, I have handouts, and I have, on occasion, brought transparencies for an overhead projector. Usually, you will only ever have to go to plan B or, at worst, C. Knowing that you have plans D-G, however, acts as a great reassurance, meaning that your nerves won’t get the better of you, in the lead up to your presentation.
- Dress The Part: This is trickier than it needs to be. As long as you are smart, but also casual, you can’t go too far wrong. You want people to focus on your speech, not on what you’re wearing! Something simple and comfortable enough to move around in should be fine. Don’t choose something that you’re constantly going to be adjusting and fussing over. I would also like to suggest that you wear layers, as you never know what the temperature is going to be like in various venues, and there is nothing worse than trying to get your speech out while your teeth chatter.
- Friendly Faces: Before you give your speech, make sure you mingle with some of your potential audience. This makes sure that when you are delivering your speech, you have a few people you have already connected with, who are looking back at you with interested, engaged expressions (well, hopefully, anyway!).
- Engage Your Audience: People love a good story! They want to be entertained, as much as they want to be informed. If you are planning a speech which contains a lot of facts and figures, make sure that you have some narrative which connects them. Make your audience care about what you’re discussing, by being aware that you are talking to an audience. Not making eye contact, not varying the tone of your voice, and running over time are all disrespectful to your audience, so don’t do them!!
- Ask Questions: Don’t be afraid to integrate questions into your talk. Often, when I listen to a speech that is going to be opened up to questions at the end, I am desperately trying to think of something to ask the speaker. By asking questions in your talk, you are stimulating your audience’s response and are ensuring a lively q&a session at the end. Believe me, the last thing you want is no-one to have a question or comment at the end of your paper. I’ve seen this happen and it’s uncomfortable for all involved, speaker and audience.
- Don’t Be An Expert: This one may come as a surprise, but I really don’t recommend that you set yourself up as an expert. There will always be someone in the audience who knows more than you do about something. To assume otherwise would be arrogant. By setting yourself up in this way, you are putting yourself in the position to be toppled. Instead I recommend that you…
- Be An Enthusiast: When you talk about your subject, let your passion show. Let your enthusiasm carry you through, as I can assure you that enthusiasm is catching; expertise, not necessarily! What I generally find, after I’ve given a talk, is that my audience has caught my passion for the subject, and that they then like to offer their own experiences and their own understandings based on their own fields of expertise. In this way, you can work collaboratively with your audience to make sure that everyone feels engaged and enthused, and no-one feels that you have created an antagonistic you-and-them relationship.
I realise this is a slightly more specific TT than I usually do, which is why I prefaced it with the fact that I am more than a little preoccupied with my own immanent speech. Public speaking can be very intimidating, but it can also be very rewarding. I hope that if you’ve got a speech coming up, then my tips will come in handy. Equally, I hope that if you have never given a speech before, that I may have inspired you to give it a go.
I’ve got a feeling my next TT may have something to do with my Spanish experience, so you can expect a more personal TT then. Apologies to any who didn’t like the temporary deviation! I would love to hear anyone else’s tips on public speaking, and if anyone would like to share their speaking experiences, that would also be very appreciated Oh, and also if you can recommend any restaurants/clubs/cafes etc in Madrid that would be great