10 non-standard tips for public speaking!

11 Apr
Old-school presentation image

Flickr CC Image via Louisville Joe – click to view original


I teach a full-day Presentation Skills course for the British Library, among others, and I recently sought feedback on it from someone I trust. The thing he wanted more on – and it was one of those ‘it’s obvious now they say it’ moments – was presenting itself, the process of it, rather than just preparing the materials. There was indeed a section on this in the training but it wasn’t very long, so in order to improve the course I’ve read up on it a bit more; I learned a lot of useful things (and had others I already knew better articulated to me) so I thought I’d share some of them here.


1. It’s better to know the subject than the presentation. Learning anything from memory is really hard. But so is looking at notes, or reading presentations out from a script. If I try and learn a presentation I get worried – I’m aiming for something so specific, there’s a feeling of pressure around getting it right, and a feeling that if I forget something the whole house of cards will fall apart. I prefer to only speak about stuff I know a bit about, and just use the slides to reinforce key points and basically prompt me to talk about certain aspects of a topic, as appropriate to that particular audience. This is much more relaxing than worrying about remembering particular phrases etc. It also means you’re more flexible – things can even be tackled in a different order based on what the audience wants, for example.

In short, you can’t be derailed because you’re not on rails. That’s a very reassuring feeling.

2. Imagine your audience leaving the room (after your talk!). It’s often very hard to know where to start when creating a presentation – the default position is ‘what do I know about this subject?’ but actually that’s the wrong way around most of the time. The more pertinent question is ‘What do the audience want from this subject?’ – if you imagine your audience leaving the room after you’ve spoken, what have they learned, what do they know now, what did they get out of it? Think about what is important to them in that moment, and build the presentation from there – if necessary going and doing more research beforehand, so you can talk more authoritatively about what matters to them.

3. The rule of three – there might be something in it… I’ve heard many times now that we remember things most easily in groups of three. There’s a lot of it about – 3 act plays, stories with a beginning, a middle and an end etc. Presentations-wise, it’s relevant because the audience will likely only remember 3 things from your presentation, so you need to make sure these are the most important three! If you’re completely stuck for a structure, try the 3:3:3 method – three main parts of your presentation, each divided into three sub-sections, and if necessary each of those subsections divided into three as well.

4. Store your presentation in the cloud. Of course every presenter takes their presentation along on a USB stick but USB sticks do break sometimes, and they’re small and easily lost. So a sensible back-up plan is to store your presentation in the Cloud, and of course the easiest way to store your presentation in the cloud is to email it to yourself. (Then it’s backed up twice! Once in your inbox, once in your sent box. :) )

5. Have a one-page cheat sheet. Part of presenting well is being relaxed, and a lot of being relaxed (for me, certainly) is knowing exactly what your doing with the logistics of the day. So make a one page document with EVERYTHING you need to know in it: presentation start time, room number, directions to the venue, contact name and details, train self-ticket machine reference number, etc – print it out and carry it with you, and email it to yourself so you can check it on your phone. You’re much more likely to arrive relaxed, on time, and focused.


6. Look everyone in the eye, then pick your favourites to come back to… This is particularly useful for nervous speakers. Public speaking is about communication, and communication is better with eye contact. So I will try to literally look every member of the audience in the eye at least once, at least as far as I reasonably can. (After 5 rows or so, it’s hard to be specific.) During this time, I’ll notice a few people who are particularly receptive – they’re nodding emphatically, or smiling at what I’m saying – and I’ll come back to them throughout the talk, as a form of encouragement… I don’t get nervous anymore, but even as a non-nervous person I like to see people on my side. (The flip-side of this idea is to work on the more indifferent members of the audience – or even hostile, but that doesn’t come up too often in our industry, thankfully – by focusing more explicitly on them.)

7. Remember if people are looking down at a screen and typing, it’s a compliment. I can imagine that it can be disconcerting if you’re not a Twitter user, and you see people looking down at their phones rather than up at you. It must feel like kids ignorning what you’re saying and texting their friends. But it’s a good thing! They’re sufficiently invested in what you’re saying that they want to broadcast it to their network on Twitter – it’s also a way for them to make notes at the same time. And of course, that means your words are reaching a bigger audience, which is excellent.

8. Have a Plan B for your intro and your outro. It sounds obvious but knowing what your opening line is going to be is quite important. Sometimes people decide to with something like ‘Hello everyone, my name is Ned, I’m from York’ but then the person introducing them says ‘This is Ned, he’s from York’ so you really can’t use that one… So know what you’ll say if your planned opener is ruled out for whatever reason. The same goes with the closer – if it’s covered in the questions for example, or if you finish surprisingly early and need some more material to call upon, have a relevant topic in mind in advance.

9. Listen very carefully, an introvert will say this only once… Lots of people reading this will be introverts; I’m one, certainly. A characteristic we share is only saying stuff once – if it’s said, it’s done with, we don’t want to say it again. I feel embarrassed telling a story to someone if I know I’ve told it to someone else, even if the two people are completely unconnected! But in presentations we have to fight that instinct, and make sure we say the really important stuff (main arguments, big statements, statistics, quotes) at least twice; perhaps in different ways but at least twice nevertheless.

10. Think in tweetbites. You thought it was enough to think in memorable soundbites! Not anymore. For the maximum impact, your most important statements needs to be tweetable so that your presentation is amplified beyond the walls of the room you’re in. You’ve put hours of work into it, so why not double, triple or otherwise exponentially increase the audience for your key messages? Think in quotable, tweetable chunks (as long as that’s not actually to the detriment of your presentation, of course…).

Is there anything else you’d add? I’ve love to hear from you in the comments so this post becomes more useful over time.

More tips

You can find all sorts of presentation tips online – the following three articles were particularly useful in assembling the list above: 30 quick tips for speakers; Compulsive obsessive details will save your neck; and the Introverts Guide to presenting.

As the title suggests, these are non-standard tips for public speaking – which is to say, beyond the obvious ones everyone knows such as not facing away from the audience etc: for more ‘nuts-and-bolts of presenting’ advice, and more on creating materials, check out these previous posts:

Plus there’s also this early blog post on: tips for first time speakers.

Good luck!

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  • Anneli April 12, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    Not sure if this is a good tip but I found, as a very nervous presenter, being on the stage as people come into the room is much easier than joining the room once everyone is already there. I know it is often the case you might already be there as people come into the room, but if you can avoid the waiting off stage whilst being introduced, then it helped for me!

  • thewikiman April 12, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Anneli thank you – I love this sort of thing because I’d never have thought of it but can immediately see the truth of it… Cheers for commenting!

  • Sarah April 12, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    I was intrigued by your 9th tip about introverts saying something only once: I’m an introvert, and teach public speaking for a living, and have not thought before about disliking repetition in terms of introversion. You’re right, I really dislike repeating myself, and have had to learn that it’s an essential part of training and coaching! Thanks for pointing this out. Sarah

  • Sarah Stamford April 12, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Thanks, Ned. Could I also add a couple of suggestions (1) speak so it sounds a bit slow to yourself, you’ll probably be at the right pace and (2) aim your voice to the back of the hall (especially if there is no mic) rather than just the front row!

  • Jess April 12, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    One thing I’ve found helpful as a nervous presenter is to try and make sure I speak to several people before I start. It helps me then to see them as individuals who aren’t that scary, rather than a big, terrifying mass of people, and it reduces my nerves. The conversations might be quite trivial/brief, so in small classroom situations I might ask which lecture they’ve just come from or whether they would like the window shut and in a large lecture I might speak to them about what the view of the screen is like from the back or whether they have a copy of the handout. In both cases, I find circulating around the room / walking to the back of the lecture theatre helps to break down barriers between me / the stage and them / the audience, making the presentation easier to give (and possibly making interactive bits easier from the audience point-of-view too).

  • thewikiman April 12, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    Hey Sarah(s), yes the introverts saying things only once is interesting, certainly I can identify with it.

    And yes, the speaking so it sounds a bit slow is right – I use the same thing with tempo as a drummer, if it feels a little slow on stage it’s probably about right… I’m definitely guilty of speaking too quickly on occasion.

  • thewikiman April 12, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Hey Jess this is an excellent suggestion! Thank you. I agree completely – I hand out my own hand-outs rather than asking someone else to help me, for this same reason. Generally thinking of the audience as a group of individuals – or alternatively as a community of which you are also a part – is an excellent thing not just for nerves but in general, I think.

  • Bernie April 12, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    This is so useful, thanks. I’ve retweet ed. I’d add:
    1. If you’re a nervous presenter and worried about shaky voice etc, rehearse your first couple of minutes to perfection. By the time they are over, the physiological stuff making you sweat and shake will be under control as the adrenaline reduces and you can afford to be more improvisational.
    2. Remember, it’s ok to be nervous and the audience want you to do well. They are on your side.
    3. Don’t be afraid of silences. Better to have a few than fill them with erms and other tics.

    I completely agree that knowing your content is key.

  • Weekly Link Roundup | Lone Star Librarian April 12, 2013 at 11:41 PM

    [...] 10 non-standard tips for public speaking! « thewikiman [...]

  • pollyalida April 12, 2013 at 11:48 PM

    Great tips in the post, slides and comments. Only thing I can think to add is fairly mundane. Wear clothes that are comfortable, don’t distract from your message and make you feel great. Oh and comfy shoes for those really long days!

  • Hazel Hall April 17, 2013 at 2:50 PM

    My tip is not to worry that you will forget some of the detail that you have prepared. If it really is just detail, it won’t matter: you’ll forget it due to its low importance, and it’s highly unlikely that the audience will notice that it’s missing from your main line of argument. If the detail really *is* something that does matter, then the likelihood is that an audience member will ask about this is the question slot, and then you will have a chance to show that you do know this detail.

    Allied to this, unless you are delivering a presentation that is purely for teaching purposes and your charges will be relying on your slides for later review (e.g. exam revision), don’t be tempted to articulate every point of your presentation in textual format (including that detail that you are worried about forgetting). Remember that your audience has *chosen* to see and hear you deliver a *presentation* (as opposed to read handout in slide format).

  • thewikiman April 17, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Hey Bernie, those are great tips, thanks for adding them!

  • thewikiman April 17, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Pollyalida I agree – it all comes under the category of ‘feel comfortable so nothing distracts you from what you’re trying to do’ – so clothes are important.

  • thewikiman April 17, 2013 at 3:02 PM

    Hi Hazel, yes that’s what I was getting at with the first tip, really – trying to remember specific stuff adds unnecessary strain.

  • Shaan Goerge June 12, 2013 at 11:26 PM

    Great tips for improving your public speaking skills. Speakers need to constantly be learning and updating their knowledge, skills and abilities.

  • Antonia July 2, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Having a one page cheat sheet is definitely a key tip to remember! Thanks for sharing :-)

  • […] can read some of the kinds of things we’ll be talking about in this 10 non-standard tips for public speaking post  and this presentation on making […]

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