Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How to Be a Great Speaker

Full disclosure: I am not a great speaker.

I have spoken at precisely one user group and one community conference.  I love community, however, and want to offer my perspective on what makes a great speaker from a frequent audience member.  These are things I strive to do in my talks, but still don't have down.  Each one of these tips has personally affected my enjoyment (positive or negative) of a talk I've been to in the past year.

That Conference call for speakers opens in about a week, so you may not be at this stage yet, getting your abstract ready and such, but keep this handy for when you're preparing for your big day on the conference stage.

Practice, Practice, Practice.

This should probably go without saying, but the speakers that seem to do best have everything down. They've rehearsed their demos over and over.  They have their slide transitions down.  When its clear that you're winging it, unless you have a true gift for extemporaneous speaking (you probably don't, even if you've always thought you did), you lose your audience really fast.

Never Complain About the Conference Setup.

I was at a conference recently, and one of the speakers was having trouble moving his mouse in the limited space on the lectern.  That was pretty obvious from his frustrated mouse movements, but on top of letting the frustration show, about every five minutes, he would articulate that frustration. As an audience member, there was nothing I could do, but it made the talk feel like a downer.

Here's the thing: the audience doesn't care about excuses.  They don't need to hear why things aren't smooth. Make them smooth.  If you can't, move on as best you can.  The show must go on.

Give the Audience a Progress Bar.

This is a tip that hits me subtly, but no matter how rapt my attention is during a talk, at one point or another, I end up thinking, "Gee, how much is left in this talk?"  If you put this information right on your slides (Slide 21/44), the audience never has to move their eyes from your presentation, but if it's not on there, then the listener may switch on their phone, see the time, but also see a tweet from a good friend and think to respond.  At that point you may lose your audience member and not get them back.

Never Forget Your Fans.  

Good speakers are public figures.  They are authors, actors, and performers.  Just like the most famous of those, people will follow you.  These people are fans.  On twitter, they will follow you. IRL, they may follow you.  You may see them at every talk.  They're probably not even stalkers. Note that you might be a huge inspiration to them, and they may be starstruck.  Yes, over little ol' you. Embrace that.  These are like-minded folks in your tribe.

Never Complain About Your Time Slot.  

I know all time slots are not created equal.  Speaking over the lunch hour, or maybe very early in the morning when people were out the night before, or maybe last in the afternoon, when everyone's brains are hurting and full - yeah, I get that those time slots have issues.  You may not get the full room you'd hoped for.

But never say that to the audience that is there.  They have given up their lunch or come exhausted to give you the gift of their time and attention.  To learn from you.  Don't insult them.  Remember, you are happy to be there.  You're changing their lives.

Never Diminish Your Subject Matter.

In a recent presentation, I heard a speaker introduce a bit of their presentation by saying "This isn't very exciting."  Really?  Then why include it?  Actually, I haven't seen it, so it's totally exciting, to me.  Don't tell me what I should and shouldn't find exciting either.  I'm in tech.  I like lots of weird things.  I like to learn, too.  I'm interested.

Also, your material was good enough to get you a speaker slot to talk to your peers.  Never sell your material short.

Don't Recognize Comings and Goings.

I've seen lots of speakers do it.  It's like a reverse heckle of people who are coming in late.  "Thanks for gracing us with your presence."  Or "Ok, now that you're here, we can start."  No kidding, I've heard people say this.  People coming and going may be obeying the Law of Two Feet and coming from another sessions they knew wasn't going to be as awesome as yours.  Maybe they are leaving yours because they thought it was going to be more basic than you're aiming.  Maybe all the bacon has their stomach in a knot.  You don't know, so don't give comings and goings any recognition.

There is an exception to the rule.  If you have a packed house (good for you!), people who walk in may assume there are no more seats left and stand against the wall or sit on the floor.  It's reasonable to interrupt what you're saying to let people know that they can come closer and fill in gaps up nearer the speaker.

Don't Criticize Other Speakers.

I've heard speakers actively criticize other speakers.  As an audience member, that does nothing for me. But praising other speakers?  I love when a speaker does that. I'm always looking for great new speakers to check out.  Guide your listeners toward other great speakers.

Make It Easy to Follow Up.

Given that your material may create fans, followers, or folks with interest in what you have to say, make yourself available.  If you Twitter, then offer your handle.  If you have material to offer from your presentation, make sure you let the audience know how to reach your material, whether it's on Slideshare, GitHub, whatever, make sure you offer all links in some kind of url shortener.

Those are just some tips I wanted to share with speakers and prospective speakers.  Given that the Call for Speakers for That Conference opens up soon.  Get out there and speak!

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