For work reasons, I regularly have to stand up in front of a bunch of people I have never met before, and talk to them. Usually it’s about fifteen people, but at conference time my seminars have upwards of seventy-five people or more in the audience.
For years, public speaking was not my favorite thing; I dreaded it more than anything else in the world. But I love it now, and I’ve been told I’m good at it, so I’m gonna share some tips.
Freak out. Go ahead. Give yourself permission to panic about having to stand up in front of a bunch of people and give a speech. Go. Panic, scream, cry, complain to the world. Just get it out of your system - really get it all out in one go. You can have anywhere from ten minutes to three hours, depending on how close this due date is. But however long you take, know that when you’re done freaking out, that’s it - it’s work time now.
Make an outline. Write down the main points you want to cover. Dates, theories, equations, all of the Big Stuff. Write them all down in the beginning, so you won’t forget them later.
Once the Big Stuff is written down, start filling in details: what’s important about this date, explain this theory, what’s the application for this equation. If it seems relevant, give examples (but limit it to one or two easy examples per item; overfilling with examples can lead to your audience forgetting what you were talking about)
If you are making a PowerPoint - start transferring that outline into your slides. Don’t worry about design, format, animations, none of that right now. It shouldn’t be pretty at the beginning, all you need is your information on the slides. Make sure your slides are simple and not stuffed with information. Font size should be at least 28 for every bit of text - if you need to shrink it down to fit your information on, move it to the next slide or user fewer words.
Write your speech in bullet points. Resist the urge to write it out word-for-word. If you write it out word-for-word and practice from that and nothing else, one of two things is probably going to happen: you will recite the speech as you have written and it will come across as a recitation rather than a presentation, or you will forget a word somewhere in the middle and stumble over yourself. Writing your speech in bullet points lets you fill in the transitions as you’re practicing; your flow will be more even and natural when you’re speaking, and you won’t get caught up in what the next word is supposed to be.
Practice. Practice, practice, practice. Do not, under any circumstances, wing it. If you wing it, you will feel unprepared, so you will come across as unprepared, and you will probably forget important details or be surprised when a particular slide shows up. Practice until you are tired of your topic, practice until you want to murder your topic and bury it out in the back.
There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a sentence and realizing you have no more air left. When you’re practicing, make note of where you should breathe.
Practice with an audience that can interact with you (your dog is a loving and supportive friend, but your dog can’t tell that you’re talking too fast). You need to give your speech to someone who will give you honest feedback - it can be an audience of one. Make it clear to them how you want their help: do you want them to critique your content, your presentation skills, or both.
Preparation is equally as important as practicing. Check your PowerPoint - are all your animations working correctly? Is everything spelled right? Do you have legible notecards written in a way that will help you? Do you have an outfit planned (you want to look nice, but you also want to be comfortable)?
Three days before, stop tweaking it. Stop making major changes. Go ahead and change the wording, but do not add any new content (and do not remove content unless it really is garbage). Up until now you’ve been practicing with a certain set of content, and throwing new content in at the last minute can unsettle your pacing and structure - it’s information you haven’t had nearly as much time as practice.
One day before, leave it alone completely. It’s locked. Done. It’ll be what it’ll be. 24 hours before your speech is not the time to making any kind of adjustments to it. You’ve practiced what you have, you know you can rock what you have, so you’re going to give what you have.
If steps 9 and 10 have both failed for any number of reasons (which is fine! happens to me all the time), then this is the rule you need to pay attention to. For the love of everything you find holy, do not make changes to your speech right before you give it. This has the same effect as winging it, and all the practice you’ve done will be for nothing.
Get a good night’s sleep. Be hydrated. Eat breakfast (but not a super big special breakfast that might upset your stomach; eat your normal breakfast, even if that’s toaster pastries and a can of soda). Dress in layers, so you can remove or add a layer as necessary and not be freezing or sweating up there.
Go first, if you have the option. Seriously. Volunteer to go first. You’ll get it out of the way, and you’ll be done. More importantly, you won’t be watching everyone else’s presentations/speeches while worrying about your own - that’s a super easy way to psych yourself out. So go first, or at least go early.
Watch stand-up comedy. What stand-up comedy teaches you is timing, pacing, and audience interaction. Stand-up comics stand in front of people and talk to them for a living - they just happen to be funny when they do it. Study them for timing and pacing: where do they pause, for how long, how do they transition two wildly different topics together, etc. Stand-up comics are great at handling unpredictable audiences.
PowerPoint animations: never use slide transitions, and the only animation you should ever use is “appear.” The “appear” animation controls what’s on the slide at any given time and is helpful for both you and the audience (though don’t make stuff disappear once it’s already on the slide). You won’t rush over yourself trying to move on to the next topic, because the next topic isn’t visible yet.
Also on PowerPoint: know where your slides end. Create a little circle or square in the bottom corner that’s just a shade or two darker than the background color, and have it be the last thing to appear on the slide. Your audience won’t notice it, but it’ll be an indicator for you that the slide’s over and you’re moving on.
If it’s speech with a time limit, have a buddy keep time by holding up a piece of paper with how much time you have remaining. Since you’ve practiced, you should know about how long your speech is, but you may speed up or slow down in front of people and you need to know about that. Be clear with them up front about what they need to tell you: you don’t want to be suddenly blindsided with 2:00 LEFT, but neither do you want to be warned every five minutes.
Have a buddy give you signals. I talk super fast in front of people, so I always have someone in the back of the room to give me the “slow down” hand signal. You may also get really quiet, and you need someone to tell you to speak up. If at all possible, you want to adjust your speed or volume before someone in the audience points it out to you, which can interrupt your rhythm and train of thought.
If you talk with your hands, talk with your hands. If you want to stand still, stand still. If you like jokes, tell jokes. If you need Star Trek references, make them. Let yourself be yourself. You’re already in an uncomfortable situation, and trying to silence something fundamental about who you are is going to make it so much worse. Be yourself in front of a crowd - you will be a lot more interesting, and a lot more fun (and have a lot more fun), than everyone else who’s trying to be as flat as possible.
If you have any questions or want some extra advice or anything, I’m happy to help!