A few things I learned in public speaking
Be entertaining and fun
I have 10, 20, 40 minutes of the time of a group of people who are going to listen to me. It’s an investment for them. The worse than can happen is they get bored. Don’t be corporate. Don’t try to pitch your stuff, you can talk about what you do now and then but it should not be the center of your talk. Remember that while what you’re doing or building is very important to you it’s probably not that important to them. I always try to have as key objective to make people have a great time and make them smile if I can. Whatever you say they will at least remember they had a good moment with you.
What will the audience actually remember?
Do not make your talk a collection of things you think you want to say in no specific order. Try to have a structure. Tell a story. Make them dream. Get their attention, don’t be “flat”. I always try to focus on what I think they will remember from my talk. Keep in mind we all have too much information already in our heads so it’s likely they will not remember anything from what you’re saying. Focus on one message. Make it clear and unique, oh and memorable. Articulate it throughout the talk and repeat it using different illustrations. Seth Godin is a master at this, watch his talks. Look at his titles “We are all weird” or “Forget CRM” those are clear and provocative titles.
Less is more
Sure you probably have 20 or more key messages you want to really emphasize on. Problem is attention and memory are scarce, forget it. Focus on a few ideas and make your talk simpler.
Be provocative. Make people upset.
When I was advocating the raise of social media about ten years ago, I gave a talk to a room full of marketing executives which was all about how traditional marketing was dead in my opinion. I did know I instantly made the whole room hate me. I made them upset at me but I had the attention of everybody throughout my talk. It’s a dangerous technique but you get their attention once then you can use the whole duration of your talk to recover. You can admit you were full of shit and make friends with them again. You can say what you really wanted was their attention. They will remember your talk. I remember having made them really upset I asked the room “did I get your attention yet?” and everybody laughed. I had everybody with me and eager to hear the next point.
Pause to emphasize an idea
It can be a little stressful to give a talk and we all tend to speak too fast. Pause. Breathe. If you finish an idea and you’re going to the next one take a few seconds. It will wake up some of your audience that might be lost in their own thoughts and get their attention to your next point. It will also put more emphasis on whatever you just said or are about to say.
What would the Wall Street Journal [replace by your favorite source] write about your talk?
Press actually being in the audience or not doesn’t really matter. Imagine you are talking to many journalists and always think about what they could write about what you are saying. Most talks I hear unfortunately the answer is “nothing”. There is no story there. Nothing interesting. Nothing that makes you dream or think about the future. It’s just a pitch. Another of those talks just trying to sell you something or like something boring. Think again about your talk. Would anyone write about it? If the answer is no, try again, it’s probably boring.
One photo or word per slide!
We see this less and less. What people can understand and remember from a slide is also limited. I like one photo or illustration per slide with just a few words. Or better one word per slide. Larry Lessig is the absolute master with hundreds of slides carrying very little on them. Larry goes faster than anyone I know to go through the slides and the result is absolutely genius. I tried many times to be as extreme as Larry and it is very difficult, you can screw up in so many ways you’d better rehearse may times.
Bonus: questions can make you shine or make you look stupid
When I find a talk interesting and the conference opens to questions I used to ask a lot of questions. You can communicate a lot about yourself to a room just by asking questions. If they are smart and you express them clearly, if they make the speaker shine or adds a great new point that wasn’t in his talk thanks to you, everybody will like you and you might have people walking to you after the session to further comment or congratulate you. My friends Martin Varsavsky and Esther Dyson are the question masters, even when they are not invited to speak somewhere (which is rare) they manage to win the audience and be remarquable. Careful if you ask a question the audience finds ridiculous though. It happened to me at a very exclusive event full of top investors and the CEO of the company behind the game World of Warcraft was showing his incredible financial results from the game. As a father of three teenagers, I had one of them completely addicted to WOW, playing many hours a day and spending his week-ends in it. I was trying to get him out of that addiction so it was very present in my mind. I asked for the microphone, stood up and asked “this revenue growth is very impressive congratulations but what’s your advice to deal with addicted teenagers who don’t do their homework anymore?”. The whole room laughed at me. It was clear they were all thinking “Who cares, what a stupid thing to say! More addiction means more profits! You, idiot”. I understood that day I should be much more careful about my questions, I don’t think this question was stupid but it was ridiculous for that specific audience. I did not present myself very well to that crowd that day and hurt my chances of doing business with them. It wasn’t that bad in the end, but a really good lesson. In the picture above I was asking Sergey Brin how a self driving Google car would deal with a truck hitting it in the back with someone crossing the street in front. In other words would the car kill that person or kill its occupants :-) It was definitely a risky question to ask in front of the Re/Code conference audience but in the end that one worked well.