Yet almost anyone can complete a marathon, with practice and determination. We are mostly much better at talking to individuals than a group, yet anyone can learn to talk to a large audience. You will always learn more from your failures than your successes. This means always pushing yourself out of your safe zone, and then using your stumbles to become a better speaker.
It can be intensely painful, humiliating, and discouraging to give a bad talk. When you aim for perfection and you set your standards high, you will fail by your own measure more often. The good part is that your worst talks will still be better than average. For me, for example, a talk is a failure if I don't get more questions than I can answer in the time. My goal as speaker is to motivate people to do further research.
So a cold room or an empty one is data that I did something wrong. To avoid traumatic disaster, start with short talks in forgiving environments. Build up your confidence and skills over time. After every talk, do this:. Experiment with different formats so you build up your range. If you don't find events that offer you what you want, organize your own. For example, one of my favorite formats is a multi-day workshop, which I organize myself. Watch other talks and identify what doesn't work for you.
Be honest about your irritation and then ask whether you cause the same feeling when you talk. When you do have a bad talk, use this as material. It makes a great opening, and I've done this. Well, I hate Oslo. Nothing personal, but last time I spoke there exactly four people came to my talk, and two of those had come to the wrong room. Of course, it's never Oslo's fault. As speaker, you did something wrong, and you can fix that, and make it better next time. My main lesson from Oslo was that the talk title makes all the difference.
Public speaking is an old art with a well-defined protocol. If a conference doesn't maintain protocol, organize it yourself. I'm shocked by how few conferences know and maintain protocol. It's not complex, yet it does make a real difference. Here is how it tends to work:. This protocol isn't just decoration. It creates trust between speaker and audience, and it provides a fail safe in case the microphone isn't working it's the MC who suffers, not the speaker. It is less stressful for the speaker.
A good MC can save a flailing speaker from disaster, by intervening if the room is too cold to ask questions. And an MC can be a natural timekeeper, intervening when a speaker talks too long or bores the audience with endless slides. If you organize a conference, please have an MC on every stage. If you are a speaker without such support, get another speaker to be your MC. Personally, both in the audience and on stage, I want a dialog. I want to be able to interrupt and challenge the speaker, and as speaker, I want the audience to do this.
It is not about argument: it is about thinking together. As speaker, you face Newton's First Law of Thermodynamics: people will sit quiet and not talk unless they feel provoked. So creating a dialog requires some planning and effort.
Start with the talk title. I asked the organizer, is this acceptable, and she laughed, and told me it was great. And it was. A good title attracts and annoys, fifty-fifty.
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It fills the room with people who already want to argue with you. Next, take control of the room. There are many ways to do this. It depends on the room, the audience, the culture, the time of your talk, and how much beer you had the night before. Here are some of my techniques:. When you've taken control of the room, you can start to talk seriously.
You must anchor your talk in the experience of your audience. Again, I like to ask questions that show how common a problem is, or how rare a good answer is. With large audiences over 1, it can be helpful to bring someone on stage as your foil. If you follow my advice about having an MC, you have your foil. What the foil does is challenge you, in name of the audience. It is hard to chat with thousands of people, so the foil substitutes for the crowd.
I've also used a Twitter feed for questions, and that can work nicely. There is the danger of breaking the connection to your audience, as you read the tweets. The conference where I used that technique had arranged large screens at floor level, aiming up at the speaker, which was incredibly useful. Every room is different, so you must spend time in the room and watch other talks in that same space if you can. In small rooms you don't need to pass microphones around. In larger rooms, you must. Or, you must repeat the question for the camera and rest of the room.
You can also change the layout of the room, in some cases. I've done this successfully in smaller events, where the seats started out in classic lines facing the stage, like a school class room. Ten minutes of moving stuff around, and we had a nice circle of sofas and chairs, almost like a campfire. There are some terrible rooms: huge flat rectangles designed to hold a thousand people all sleeping at the same time.
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In such rooms, bully the organizers into switching off all video, then move left and right on the stage so you can speak to most of the crowd. You may also kick off by asking people to move into the center, if the room is not full. I like to poll for questions about half way through the time, and then drive the talk by answering questions. When this works, it is great. When it fails, it's dramatic. Recently there were no questions and so I simply stopped the talk early: the audience like me was exhausted from the party the evening before.
Having an MC on stage is a good backup: I learned my lesson there, again. Answering questions well takes skill at improvising. You don't actually need to answer the question. Rather, it can be an excuse for exploring another interesting topic. The best questions are a direct challenge to the ideas you are talking about. This is perhaps the hardest skill of all: to explore one idea in depth rather than touch the surface of a hundred different ideas. Yet it is the difference between garbage and gold. Every piece of your talk should be carrying your story forwards, not telling other random stories.
There are logical yet false reasons why speakers try to cover way too much. They feel they have to fill their speaking slot rather than give the audience time to think and argue. They still use slides, so work backwards from the time: "in one hour, I can convey ten big ideas. I think public speaking is like writing, carpentry, cooking, or music. You add value by making your product simpler and easier to digest, not by adding more. Any fool can make complexity.
Simplicity is the real challenge. The core of your talk should be an idea or argument or model that is rare, controversial, and valuable enough to justify the moment. It should be worth the time the audience takes to travel, and the cost to you and the organizers to be there.
Above all, you should be answering real questions the audience is facing now or will face soon. You can then explain and describe your model from many angles. These are not different stories. They are the same story, told in more and more detail. Each explanation gives the audience another perspective, and if you are doing your job well, they start to see the whole picture. Do not expect people to understand a complex new idea in a single sitting. That is not how it works.
All you can do is break the ice of skepticism and plant a tiny seed. If conditions are right, the seed will grow and many months or years later, come to fruit. If you are challenging established culture, or authority, or habits, you will face resistance. The more investment in out-of-date models, the more resistance to change. Imagine this as wind.
The simpler your idea and the more focused your presentation of it, the smaller your wind profile. And so, the lower the resistance. Your work starts long before you give a talk, and ends long after. Subtle and deep truths can take years to hit home. And your own thinking will evolve and deepen over time. So you help yourself, and your audience, by keeping the discussion going over months and years. I use various techniques for this. Obviously, there's this blog and my books, which act as shorthands. Instead of repeating myself, I can refer to an existing chain of argument.
This article, for instance, came from a corridor discussion well, more of a beer and rock music discussion with Dylan Beattie. Perhaps in the future it would make a subject for a talk, in its own right. When you can, connect the past with the future like this.
It just takes the habit of writing short pieces regularly. However, articles are opinion. Facts are more compelling. So a key part of the long term discussion is code and formal documents such as RFCs. These are not truth, yet they are easily falsifiable. If no-one uses a particular piece of code, or a given contract, you can assume they are inaccurate or irrelevant. I also like to collect my videos, as it gives people a view that stretches over years. It is also about self-promotion, something you must do as a speaker. People need to want to come to my talks.
Empty rooms are no fun for anyone. Self-promotion sounds negative, yet it's essential. Partly you need to build and understand your own success, to be a better speaker. This is to deal with imposter syndrome, which I'll explain in the next section. Partly, you need access to interesting conferences, and that means gaining a reputation and a following.
My advice is to build your reputation by your work, no more or less. The world cares about results, not ideas or vision, or even history. Don't tell us who you worked for, who your best friends are. Tell us what you made and give us a link so we can check it out. If you are, like me, in the software business, invest in open source. It is the number one way to build your knowledge, and reputation. Your Github profile is your CV. This is mostly true today and it is almost entirely true tomorrow.
Show me a solid history of work and I trust what you say. Show me a blank page, and I'm going to start questioning your motives. Once you drink the github koolaid, you can use it for everything. Put your talks there, and accept pull requests. Put all your writing there, and accept pull requests! Use it for your blog and accept pull requests. Lastly, and hardest for many of us, is dealing with the fear and anxiety of speaking to a crowd of strangers.
Many of us don't feel competent, or confident enough. We are afraid of saying the wrong things, of looking foolish, and of being rejected. Yet there are ways to overcome all these emotions. The fear of performing is called "imposter syndrome. The feeling is one of, "I don't deserve to be here," and it can be crippling. It is worse for anyone who suspects they were invited for reasons other than their skills and experience. It is often worse for women than for men.
All our emotions can be tamed, it is a matter of technique and practice. I've written about this on my blog and in my book The Psychopath Code. This also applies to imposter syndrome, which is essentially the fear of exposure as a fraud, and rejection. The fear is based on a chain of subconscious assumptions. One, that we're not really good, just lucky. Two, that we will stumble, and reveal our incompetence. Three, that people will react by rejecting us in horror. Let's tackle competence first. This is, I feel, a symptom of society placing too much burden on the individual to be special, and different.
Accept that we're all ants, little pieces of a complex system that works astoundingly well. Sure, we can flicker with individual brilliance now and then. It means little. Our superpower comes from working together. Simply by existing, you add value. Next, fear of failure and exposure. This is a symptom of culture asking us to be perfect. I've said, embrace your mistakes and learn from them. Fail with happiness and grace, recover, and continue.
When there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to expose. Last, fear of rejection. There's a small mantra you can repeat to yourself. It's our vulnerabilities that make us attractive to others, not our strengths. We reject people who are difficult to work with because they are anti-social, arrogant, and deceptive.
Such people never feel imposter syndrome. The simple fact you're afraid to fail makes you precious to others. If you're passionate about your work, then sooner or later you will want to share that passion with others. There are many reasons to want to become a good public speaker. Perhaps the main one is simply to get out into the world and meet interesting people. For me, it is a way to learn from others, and shake up my ideas in a way that's impossible working alone. I've explained my best techniques for capturing an audience's attention, and getting them to consider your ideas seriously.
It is not easy. OK, I'm making this up, yet you get my point. Stop using slides, get closer to your audience, and challenge them. Engage them in dialog, and make them think. Keep your voice and body focused on the room. Use no props, gimmicks, or notes. Leave your fear off-stage, and if a talk bombs, accept that with grace. Can someone elaborate or link to information on "never raising your hands above your shoulders"?
I'd like to know why this is bad, and how bad different gestures of this type are. Thanks so much for this post. I've wanted good information on how to improve my speaking skills for some time, and this is exactly what I needed. Body language is a delicate thing. Try standing in front of someone, then raise your hand to body height.
Then raise it above head height. Then ask the person if they felt differently each time. Most people will interpret the high raised hand as aggressive, threatening. That is powerful body language when you are provoking a mob. When speaking to friends in a group, it invokes all the wrong emotions. Good post, thanks. But, er, what do you put online with no slides?
I see you post your videos, but pull requests to videos surely isn't what you mean. There's a tricky middle ground, where I'm talking about something that could benefit quite a lot from a picture. Imagine I'm explaining Newton's method, and showing a few pictures of stepping through the algorithm on a curve makes it all easier to understand.
But for much of the talk, I don't need slides. And then I have this projector going. I can put up blank slides. Often I put up a slide with just one or two words that summarize what I'm talking about now. I wrote that assuming most people won't ditch slides. Pictures can of course help a lot. I'm hoping eventually to have a live drawing approach which works with a tablet in my hand.
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This is also true when streams of tweets are being projected on big screens left and right of the speaker. To all conference organizers: twitter is a wonderful thing, but please, keep it out of the room where the talk is held. It's so difficult to keep focused on what Melvin Conway is trying to present when everyone's opinions are constantly being projected ;-. Great stuff. My heuristic for choosing what to talk about is: Have I explained this to people before? When I've tried to give talks that I wrote in isolation, I've had terrible results.
But if it's a topic that I find myself explaining over and over again, at my clients or in social settings, it means I have direct one-on-one experience with how people react, what kind of questions they ask, which analogies work or not. The next step is finding a small free meetup, where I do a half-improvised talk using a whiteboard.
No slides, after you advised me to do without two years ago. Typically they are long and messy. I start with a joke about the audience being guinea pigs, or that they'll get the 0 euro back they paid to attend. The final step is turning them into proper 45m talks. Increasingly, the triggers of rage are being pressed upon in modern life. Global communication at the speed of light and international travel increase interactions between people and this in turn increases the opportunities to set off these triggers.
Now, add the most dangerous component into the mix: new technology guns, bombs, the internet that amplifies the destructive effects of sudden violence in an individual well beyond the capability of the bravest among us to confront with bare hands. Finally, alcohol, drugs of abuse and drugs used for treating certain mental and physical illnesses that the brain never encountered until recently all act on the brain's threat-detection circuitry, releasing the brakes on our rage circuit. You can see why people seem to be angrier and more violent — snapping in anger every 20 minutes or so on the road, and at other times throughout our day.
These neural circuits perform a vital, complex function, showing the best and worst of humanity. Mostly, they work amazingly well. Although we are wired for violence, we are not slaves to the beast within us. The conscious mind can activate or inhibit the brain's rage circuits via connections from the prefrontal cortex. Members of Navy Seal team 6 and extreme athletes practice to develop this cortical control of the rage circuit, to exploit it to best advantage — and so can you.
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Understanding the brain's threat-detection and sudden aggression circuitry is the first step in controlling it. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Try Independent Minds free for 1 month. Independent Minds Comments can be posted by members of our membership scheme, Independent Minds. It allows our most engaged readers to debate the big issues, share their own experiences, discuss real-world solutions, and more.
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