Giving good talks (my Top Ten Suggestions)

I was browsing through the archives of my blog, and found a post I published around this time last year. Since I’m about to speak at WordCamp Fraser Valley (this coming Saturday) I figured I’d resurrect and republish that post. As I was about to do that, I looked again at my suggestions and decided to re-phrase some of them. Therefore, this is a re-adapted version of my previous post on Raul’s Top Ten Suggestions on how to give good talks.

1. Realize that being nervous is perfectly alright. Then, forget about it
I have given hundreds of talks, and some of these included defending a doctoral thesis. Sometimes I have been nervous (more recently, when I speak about social media or tech-related topics, I’ve become less and less nervous). If you feel worried or stressed or nervous about your talk, just recognize it, embrace it, and admit it to yourself. Then move on and start thinking about the actual topic you are going to address. You will soon realize that your nerves will dissipate.

2. Understand your audience and tailor your talk accordingly.
One mistake I have seen time and again when I see other speakers is that their talk is not tailored to the specific audience. This is something that often happens when you are giving a talk for the first time. The secret here is to do some research about who will be your audience and target your message accordingly. If you are speaking to developers, go all geeky on them. If your talk is aimed at bloggers, ensure that you touch upon themes that are relevant to them. Don’t “talk up” – if necessary, “talk down”.

I am guilty of doing things way too fast, and sometimes I worry about whether audiences will understand what I am saying. Since I give a lot of talks in other languages (particularly English) I try to slow down and articulate my vowels and consonants more clearly. Slowly doesn’t mean that you need to slur your words, but you have to help your audience. Sometimes your audience’s ability to listen to your talk is hindered by the room’s poor acoustics. Make sure that the participants can listen to what you are saying clearly. Check acoustics if necessary before your talk. Enunciate properly and place your emphasis properly.

4. Provide an introduction, a main body, and summarize in a conclusion.
Some people call this the law of “say what you are going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”, or the law of threes. Begin your talk by providing little snippets of what you are going to say. Then, develop the message throughout your talk. Finally, make sure that the participants have really grasped your message by summarizing it at the end.

5. Engage the audience
In academic circles, I have seen hundreds of talks where this point is not taken to heart, and that usually leads me to leave the room and completely avoid attending that speaker’s talks ever again. There is nothing more boring than listening to a 45 minute speech without any sort of interaction with the public. Talk to the audience, engage with them. You will find that you will learn as much from them as they are learning from you.

6. Use visuals.
And by this I don’t mean that you need to always use some sort of presentation software. Whether you use Power Point, a piece of paper, or other kinds of visuals, make sure that your audience can see something other than yourself. I really like a lot of presenters who don’t make presentations with Power Point, and use alternative methods. But I’ll admit I use open source versions of presentation software. Don’t read off of your visual aids, though!

7. Don’t read – speak!
I am too used to the talks given by specialists in the humanities, who actually READ from a paper. I guess that comes from the time when papers were actually read. I have even heard spme humanities folks saying “I’m reading a paper on so and so” – and they DO! EEEWWW. When giving a talk, you can always have a piece of paper with talking points that you can refer to (or index cards, for that matter). But don’t read out of your 40 page paper!

8. Err on the side of giving a shorter talk.
I hate talks that drag on, and on, and on. I am pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I just attended an academic panel recently where the speaker had 15 minutes and he went on for 30. I was actually praying that the talk would end, by the time he was done, I had left the room. If you really need to fill the time, you can always talk to the audience (which in turn will be delighted that the talk was short and the interaction and question/answer period was longer).

9. Provide link love.
This doesn’t mean that you need to link to other bloggers in and of itself – what I mean by this is – link your talk to your fellow speakers if you are in a panel, or provide MANY examples of what you are presenting that are NOT yours. I know that I am guilty of self-citations in many of my own papers, but I also cite LOTS of other academics. There’s a lot to be said for link love.

10. If at all possible, provide handouts.
While I frequently participate as a speaker at geek (and academic) conferences, and that I am all for saving trees, I will be the first to admit that sometimes, you DO need a physical, printed piece of paper. I find it somewhat funny that at EVERY social media/tech/PR event I attend, people ask me for my CARD. I always tell them that I am anti-cards, and I tell them “find me on the internet” – so, I’ve come to realize that it’s true, people still DO read printed pieces of paper. And handouts can really help a reader follow your train of thought.

These are a few things that I’ve learned through my many years of public speaking. I am by no means a perfect speaker, but I have learned a lot from practice. Now, on to YOU – what would you say are your top tips for giving good talks?

Related posts:

  1. On tenacity and never giving up
  2. On giving it my everything…
  3. May 2010 – a month filled with talks by me
  4. Ten suggestions on how to give good talks
  5. The good, the bad and the ugly of being a good cook

Comments (10)

fotoeinsAugust 16th, 2009 at 10:47 am

* Practice your talk at least twice : the first will always be rough as you get the timing down, and you discover what information is missing and what slides to toss; the second test will be better. If a third test is in order, you’re likely going to nail your talk. If you’re going into the room “cold”, you probably know your content through and through; if not, you’ll be in trouble with a capital-T.

* Where #5 above is concerned, I’ve witnessed too many talks where the speaker’s body is turned partly or completely *away* from the audience and to the screen. That is all sorts of badness. If I know my talk well enough, I’ll be facing the audience, looking at all parts of the room at different times, and I’ll turn away from the audience only for slide-transitions and to ensure I know about what slide is discussed. This is not obvious to everyone, even in our line of work.

* Do not block the screen. If the venue is small and/or “low,” there are going to be folks sitting at the front or sitting off to the very side of the auditorium. Try and figure out where the next place to ‘stand’ which, if possible, gives everyone in the room an unobstructed view of the screen. This point is important for those of us who go to meetings, conferences, symposia, workshops where it is not standard practice to distribute handouts to talks.

Jon JenningsAugust 16th, 2009 at 11:04 am

All good points!

I’m especially fond of the “don’t read your Powerpoint slides” one. I see so many people using Powerpoint as an alternative to actually memorizing their speech… just treating it as electronic notes. Except it doesn’t work because the audience reads ahead of you and then you’re just boring them. If you’re really going to force your audience to go through the slide word-by-word then it’s probably less condescending to simply give them 20 seconds of silence to do that – but then you’ve lost their attention. My preferred method is to flick to the slide, flick my glance at the screen to check it’s there and then totally ignore it.

Oh – and if you’re using OpenOffice beware that its transitions are not compatible with Powerpoint. I wrote a presentation in OpenOffice last year but had to give it on a machine which only had Powerpoint installed. I’d put a lot of work into some of the slides to reveal my points one by one and mesh well with my speech… Powerpoint just goes *blam* and shows the entire slide in one go! (Although that was OO 2.4 – maybe 3.0 is better)

The intro/body/conclusion thing is very important. I’d also comment on limiting the number of points in your body and making clear transitions between them so that your audience knows where they are in your talk and where they’re going.

I’m a BIG fan of introductions… if you don’t engage your audience in the first 15 seconds then you’ve lost them for the entire talk. I like to start with a question or a surprising statistic.

The conclusion is also key. A lot of people ad-lib their conclusions – they say everything they want to say and then they just wrap it all up with whatever words come to mind at the time. But the conclusion is very powerful because it reinforces everything that’s gone before and wraps it up in a neat couple of soundbites for the audience to take away with them. It’s definitely worth writing out your conclusion beforehand and memorizing it word-for-word.

The ‘rule of three’ is sometimes applied to the intro/body/conclusion structure but more frequently means something else – listen to professional speakers and you’ll often hear them list items in threes. See some examples here: – it’s a very powerful technique.

Two of my other favorite techniques are vocal variety and body language. There’s a time in your speech to be loud and a time to be quiet, a time to talk fast and a time to talk slowly (and, equally importantly, a time to pause altogether). The key is mastering when to use all these facets of your voice to reinforce your content and to keep your audience interested. Body language is very interesting… if your body language is good then your audience probably won’t notice it, but if it’s bad it’ll detract awfully from your words until your audience are focusing solely on your pacing, your hand-clasping or the way you keep scratching your ear.

GarthAugust 17th, 2009 at 1:58 am

“…some of these included defending a doctoral thesis”

How many doctorates do you have, Raul?

Vincent NgAugust 17th, 2009 at 2:00 am

I agree with many of your tips. I think what happens is that people forget that educational presentations need to be engaging to the people we listen too. I think what happens a lot in academic circles is that we’re often presented information in a way that our brain doesn’t enjoy. And even though there are some fascinating discoveries, many people make them sound incredibly boring. I still remember lectures back at UBC, and how no one seemed to be interested in WHAT they were actually saying. They only listened to get a passing grade. Thanks for the great tips! I’ve retweet the post.

RaulAugust 17th, 2009 at 9:24 am

@ Jon and @ Henry – thanks a lot for the suggestions!

@ Garth – I have only one, but I meant – I have done lots of presentations, of which one was my doctoral defence (ooops I hate it when my writing doesn’t convey my thoughts well!)

@ Vincent – glad the tips have been useful. When I’ve taught at the university level I’ve always tried to implement these tips.


VinceAugust 17th, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Hey Raul, this is an excellent top ten list. I thought you have some great insight and advice, I am always trying to improve my public speaking. I think that speaking and interacting instead of reading is so important to engaging the audience and presenting an effective talk. I found you through Twitter and am now following you, we are @toptentopten. You can cross-post this to our site and link back to your site. We are trying to create a directory for top ten lists where people can find your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

RaulAugust 18th, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Hey Vince

Thanks! I appreciate all feedback and link love :) and promptly shall be returned too!

fotoeinsAugust 19th, 2009 at 5:12 am

How’s this for timing …

BBC News | UK | Magazine | The problem with PowerPoint

[...] Hummingbird604, who teaches us how to give good talks [...]

JaniceDecember 28th, 2009 at 11:49 am

Great points!
Some of the best presentations I’ve attended always have some personal stories or experiences related to the topic woven through them.
Almost always, the worst presentations involved the presenter narrating the contents of a PowerPoint deck (bullet by excruciating bullet!)
When I’ve given presentations, I always find it easier if I am able to arrive ahead of time and chat with a few audience members on a break — helps reduce any nervousness I might have, and probe a little bit to see what people’s expectations are

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