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Fear of Public Speaking

Who I am

As the team lead of the Part-Time Scientists I naturally have to give a lot of presentations and talks. We are one of 26 teams participating in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a race to send a rover to the moon, which must be achieved with at least 90 percent private (non-government) funding. That means we have to present and advertize our idea to many people, for small groups of people or at large events with over 1400 attendees. At first it was not easy for me to speak in front of a large audience or just give any presentation, but I stuck with it, learned a few things about it and feel much more confident now.

The beginnings

I started public speaking by taking a big plunge. My first serious presentation was before 1400 attendees at the 26th Chaos Communication Congress (26C3) in Berlin, Germany, one of the biggest and most important hacker conventions worldwide. My second presentation was shortly afterward at O’Reilly Media for a markedly smaller and markedly different audience. That was a large difference, and it highlights one of the important public speaking strategies: know your audience. It is important to consider who will be sitting in front of you and listen to you, so you can adjust your presentation accordingly. You structure a presentation very differently when you are preparing it for a group of engineers, a general audience, or a group of potential investors or sponsors whom you have to thrill and sell your idea to.

It is also important to know what kind of talk one is preparing for. There is a huge difference between an Ignitetalk, which takes at most 10 minutes, and a 90-minute presentation. For an Ignitetalk, your aim is going to be to get people excited about a problem, and then show you are the only one(s) who can solve it. For longer presentations you want to get more detailed information across.

In the beginning I relied heavily on the book “slide:ology” It helped me prepare for my first few presentations. I read the whole book several times before my first big presentation, and picked a few ideas and concepts to put into practice.

Before the speech

Important strategies for a good speech can be separated into the preparation and the presentation itself. A good preparation is essential for a good presentation.

Idea and structure of a presentation

You start with a topic, whether chosen or assigned, and think about what you are trying to say about it. Then you collect everything you can find about the topic. I always start with a new share in Dropbox to collect images, photos, graphics, ideas, sketches, screenshots and data that I have available. Then I note how long the talk is scheduled for, and adjust the time for the actual speech and presentation. If the talk is scheduled, for example, for 60 minutes, I plan for a 40 minute presentation. It takes five minutes to get up on stage, back off stage, and do the introductions and greetings. Another 15 minutes are reserved for questions and answers at the end. Mind those 15 minutes, because they are important.

When you are making the slide presentation itself, there are a few points to consider. One of the most important slides is the very first one, because it will be projected on the screen even before your talk starts. Therefore it is important to show some graphics and not too much text. The graphic should indicate the theme of the talk, without getting too technical.

I don’t just use graphics in the beginning, but most of my presentations are images with little text; at most one or two bullet points. My goal is to hook the audience on a particular medium. That is voice of the presenter, and not the pixels that are projected onto the screen. The image just announces a new theme or topic and then lets the audience focus their attention again on me, the presenter.

Another consideration is whether a purely slideshow presentation is the best option, especially when one can derive a solution for the audience or demonstrate a chain of thought on a whiteboard, one should seize this opportunity.

Leitmotif

It is important to memorize the leitmotif or central story of your talk. You have to know its structure and the logical order. When you’re up on stage giving your talk and moving to the next slide, you should know what’s on it without looking at it. This also prevents that nagging feeling at the end of the talk of having forgotten something important, or that one suddenly thinks of a hundred other things one would have wanted to say.

Practice

That is why practicing is important. However, one should be cautious not to overdo it. Too much practice can create too much of a routine, which will make the presentation less lively and more monotonous and plain. Another benefit of practice is that when you are nervous, you like to fall back on what you do best, and when you haven’t practiced then there is nothing to fall back on and the stuttering starts. For long talks, I usually practice the entire talk 3-5 times. For shorter talks, like the Ignite Talks, I often practice 30-40 times, and usually with a camera. So it turns out I spend about as much time preparing for short talk as for long ones.

Copy&Paste

You should pay attention how others make their presentation. I find especially interesting how people use notes. Some have lots of little papers that they flip over every half minutes. Others have no notes and wave their hand wildly about. Neither is good. You can have a few notes to refer to here and there, and you can illustrate concepts with your hands, but one should not attempt to circulate all the air in the room just with one’s hands. That looks rather silly.

Know your tools

If you are using tools and gadgets, you should spend considerable time before the presentation to become thoroughly familiar with them. It makes a bad impression to be repeatedly looking for the laser pointer button during the presentation, esp. when one has already messed up the presentation by pressing the wrong buttons. My gadget of choice is the Logitech R800 Professional Presenter. It can go forward and back in the presentation, fade the presentation out to white or black, and the green laser pointer works well even on LCD screens. One can also set a vibration alarm for different periods to get subtle reminder of how much time has passed or is left, so you can move on to the next point or know when there are only 5 minutes left.

It is also important to have your own gear with you. Many events have their own presentation computer and pointer tool, but you are really familiar only with your own gear.

During the speech

Feedback

In order to get some feedback on how the audience is perceiving the talk, I try to pick out one or two people who seem particularly interested in the beginning, and use them to gauge how well your talk is proceeding. It makes no sense to worry about the people that are about to nod off at the start, one should try to keep the people that are willing to pay attention engaged. This works better with 1000 attendees than with 40, because it is less obvious who you have picked out. Under any circumstances, do not just look at your laptop or notes. That won’t engage anybody.

Stage fright

Stage fright is good. Nobody believes me, but in my opinion stage fright is useful, as long as it is the right kind. There are two kinds of stage fright. One just blocks all thoughts and creates the dreaded blackouts. The other gets me into top form, sky rockets my adrenalin level and brings me to maximum concentration. It helps me focus completely on my talk.

Flawlessness

If something doesn’t work right during a speech, or there is small glitch, it’s no big matter. Be relaxed about it and try to turn it into a joke, because you can’t undo it. A speech with a little mishap is often more memorable than one that went off without a hitch. When something is completely perfect and flawless, there seems to be something missing.

The last am standing

A lot of presenters get worried when people leave the room, but you shouldn’t let that distract you. In all likelihood somebody needs to go to the restroom or is taking a very important phone call. Of course, there will also be people who leave because they are not interested in the talk. That’s normal and just as well. One cannot be all things to all people. If you end up with just five people in your talk, at least there were five people that stayed until the end and paid attention. I’d rather have five engaged and enthusiastic listeners than 100 people who won’t remember anything I told them. Most people choose to attend a talk, and it is their right to choose to leave.

Questions and Answers

The Q&A session at the end of a talk is very important. Many people’s mind aren’t made up about a talk until one has taken a few questions and given some answers or there has been some discussion with the presenter. You shouldn’t be worried if you can’t answer all questions, because you can’t have all the answers, and not all questions can be answered in a minute or two after the talk. Clearly you have to know your area, but if there is a question you cannot answer, it is best to just admit that and move on instead of hemming and hawing and wasting time. People can tell when you’re not sure of your answer, and it’s big to admit your lack of knowledge.

You also should think that many questions indicate that your talk wasn’t comprehensive or detailed enough and that you need to rework it. You can’t cover everything in one talk, and there will always be some questions at the end. That’s the purpose of the Q&A session and why it is so important.

Talks given

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