On my journey to getting better at speaking in front of a public, friend, or webcam, I learned and will be teaching you eight crucial steps that will make you think about how you speak.
How to start
Starting a conversation with a joke is not the best of ideas. I don’t recommend it because most of them fall flat at the beginning. The others aren’t yet concentrated on the conversation and haven’t adjusted to their surroundings and you.
Now, if you can’t start with some sprinkle of comedy, how are you supposed to break the ice? The most effective way is to make a promise. It doesn’t matter how simple it is. You must only ensure that the other person will walk out of this conversation learning something new. Although I am talking about spoken discussions, this can also apply to written ones. I started this article by telling you that I’ll teach you how you express yourself. What I said is an implicit promise.
When sharing your ideas with others, never hesitate to repeat them. Three times. You want to ensure that your interlocutor understands you and can contribute to the conversation. Yet, you don’t want to flood him with the same idea because you’ll risk sounding rude. Cycle through your thoughts with moderation.
Tell your audience where your idea starts and ends. Build a fence around it, and don’t let it run loose in people’s minds. Make sure people know it is your idea (without rubbing it in their faces and being abrupt).
Breathe, pause, and let others take the time to understand and appreciate what you are saying. In the case of lectures or conversations, you can walk on the scene, get to your boards, sit down, get up, and much more. These actions fall under verbal punctuation. They clue your audience about the state of your sentence or idea.
Finally, don’t forget to get others involved too. Don’t let them feel like you’re talking alone and taking up all the conversation. Listen to them when they speak and ask questions. No matter the question, the answer might surprise you. Again, don’t do too little or too much, and find the right balance. Besides, with an audience, you want to ask questions that are neither too easy nor hard. You don’t wish for everyone to raise their hand, nor no one. You want some who don’t know the answer and a few who know it. This interaction will help both groups learn and remember this situation and its message.
Time and place
What’s the best time to hold a meeting, organize a date, or speak at a conference? The answer is pretty straightforward. You want to have these conversations when people aren’t sleepy or hungry. Most often, this falls at 11 AM. The time might be different in other countries or cultures. However, having a conversation at 7 in the morning or 9 in the evening is rarely a good idea.
Choosing a wise time has little effect if you choose an inadequate location. A dark room makes people sleepy, and a well-lit room makes them stay awake, aware of their surroundings and the speaker. You want to meet people at a known location, not some sketchy or deserted one. A good rule of thumb is to meet up in places half-full, not more, not less. It’s also a good idea to go somewhere not too expensive or too cheap. Again, moderation is the key, and extremes are your enemies.
Rules of thumb
In a lecture, use your blackboard/whiteboard as a medium for informing your audience and slides for exposing. Slides with many graphics, paragraphs of text, the worst possible color combinations, and a ton of logos are objectively the worst. They are hard to read and pivot the audience’s attention further from the speaker. As such, try to use as few words as possible. No more hundreds of slides and more like ten slides for your entire presentation. The audience shouldn’t read from it and only look at it when necessary. Use the big screen when you want to expose an image, graphic, or another visual element. For all other purposes, mainly informing, use your board.
Why use the board if we can reuse the same information with our slides? It’s all about the speed and the target. You can quickly switch between slides but can’t rapidly absorb the information in them. That’s where the action of writing on a board becomes helpful to the audience. It helps listeners grasp and learn more effectively. Besides, you want people looking at you, the one talking, not the big projector screen on top of you that makes you look small. Also, hold back from using laser pointers or big wooden sticks. They make you look at the slides or board instead of establishing eye contact with your interlocutor.
You can use props to underline your idea. The most famous example is Walter Lewin’s wrecking ball demonstration. He uses empathetic mirroring involving his audience’s emotions of fear, worry, and suspense. It is much more effective than simply showing the animation of a 2D wrecking ball. Indeed, levering emotions is a great way to make something memorable.
Another tool you can leverage is an hapax legomenon, a word or expression used only once within the context of your dialog. You shouldn’t use this tool often but when you do, make it STICKILY STICK!
When informing someone of something, there are three roads to take:
- Promise them something. For instance, tell people how they think or do something now and how they’ll do it after hearing what you say.
- Inspire them with your passion. Someone expressing no emotion or variation in voice is someone uninteresting in the eyes of others.
- Teach them to think. Give people topics they should know, questions about them, how to analyze them, how to put different ones together, and how to assess their reliability. Make them walk out of this conversation with what you promised.
In the context of job talk, persuasion is the key. Take more or less 5 minutes to talk about your vision and achievements. The former serves as a path to mention a problem and your approach to solving it. The latter is a pretext to talk about the steps to solve it. These could be your behavior, the constraints, the system, a demonstration, and so on. Besides, don’t forget to mention your contributors if you have any.
You can also persuade others to get famous. Getting celebrity status shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself. However, you can achieve this objective if you are very meticulous about your communication. There is a technique named the 5S:
- Salient (an idea that sticks out).
- Story (how, its workings, and importance).
- Symbol (an associated icon or object).
- Slogan (an associated word or sentence).
- Surprise (unexpected feature to procure emotions).
How to finish
Remember when I said you shouldn’t start a conversation with a joke? Well, this advice doesn’t apply to the end of it. Joke away! You are now both conformable with each other. A nice pleasantry to end on a good note is a great idea because it leaves a good impression on you.
However, especially in a lecture or presentation, you should not end with a “Thank you.” Saying it makes you sound weak as if you weren’t expecting your audience to listen to you. Instead, finish with a salute, and tell them you look forward to coming back.
If you also present a slideshow, your last slide shouldn’t prompt your audience to ask questions. It shouldn’t be a conclusion of the lecture nor a call to visit a website to learn more details. Indeed, little if no one will look for these details that should already have been in the lecture. Also, don’t end it with “THE END” or “FIN.” It’s too dramatic. The best way to finish is to state a little bit about yourself. This presentation is your time to shine. Tell the people how you have contributed to your field and why they should trust what you’ve just told them in the last hour or so. You can also mention your collaborators during your lecture, preferably in the first slide rather than the last one.
I am a big fan of MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which offers video lectures on fascinating topics. Patrick Winston’s How to Speak talk is so good that watching it inspired me to take notes of the valuable information he gives his audience.
Learning about his advice is something but applying it requires more effort. I’ll do my best to follow his guidance whenever I communicate. You can read my other articles or follow me on Twitter to know if I’m following his advice or not!