I would never have said that I was a natural public speaker; when I was younger it used to terrify me. But I have been giving regular, popular talks now for almost ten years and there is something very special about interacting with others in this way, in sharing your love of a topic with like-minded people. So if you are thinking about doing the same, I have some tips for you.
1. Cultivate a coherent flow in your content
A talk is like a story you’re telling your audience, so take note of that old cliché about it having a beginning, a middle and an end. Grab people at the start, help them understand why you care and why they should care and lead them through. If you’re using slides make sure they are visually engaging and use words on slides very sparingly.
2. Balance the factual with the human
Depending on your field, you may have complicated factual information that you want to get across. Remember that people like people, and that human stories resonate, so try to impart factual information through a human lens, or at least mix the two. Think about how you fit into the story too. You don’t want to make it all about you, but neither do you want to leave yourself out entirely. The audience are interested in you.
3. Practice makes perfect
A smooth delivery will enhance that coherent flow that you’ve given to your content, so you should do some practice and maybe even learn a few lines. I find that learning my opening and my ending lines so I can begin and end strongly is key to making a good impression; you can free-wheel a bit more in the middle. If you have slides, know what is coming next and use a clicker to change slides or begin animations seamlessly with your words. To keep the flow I don’t use notes, which would interfere with my delivery; I use the slides themselves as prompts.
4. Warm up!
You wouldn’t run a big race without limbering up, so why give a big talk without doing the same? You’re about to put your body through a minor ordeal. Warm up your jaw muscles a bit (some people chew gum, I just make strange faces). Warm up your voice with some singing exercises and exercise your tongue with tongue-twisters. Even go somewhere private before your talk and do some stretches or vigorous hand shaking and shoulder shrugging to loosen up. If you do, you will be less stiff on stage and less nervous.
5. Think of it as a nice chat
Standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people could make you feel exposed and vulnerable, so try and re-frame it. You’re going to tell the audience a bit about something you really care about. They are not judging you, they are just interested in what you are interested in – so have a little chat. Of course, it is a very prepared chat (if you’ve done your homework). You know what you are going to say; they don’t. If you get it “wrong,” they will never know. There may be hundreds of people there but look around the room, talk to them all. Relax. Audiences like to feel that they are seeing your personal side, so drop in a little amusing anecdote or a little side comment.
6. Respect your audience
Try your utmost to keep to time. You have so much interesting stuff to tell them but your audience may have trains to catch or pins and needles from sitting down so long… and going over time will just make them restless. Use appropriate vocabulary – don’t talk down to your audience but don’t be afraid to explain simple concepts where necessary so that you keep your entire audience with you. Speak clearly and at adequate volume, be animated and vary your intonation to keep your audience engaged. They have given up their time to come and see you; it’s your job to give them a good show!
Dr Melanie Windridge is a physicist, speaker, writer… with a taste for adventure. She is Communications Consultant for fusion start-up Tokamak Energy, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights and is currently working on a book about Mount Everest.