Erik Romijn

31 practical tips for public speaking

From my past public speaking experience, I’ve collected these 31 very practical tips for public speaking. I hope they can help you to do a great session at your next event. I came up with some of these myself, but many were just things I noticed other speakers do.

If you like this list, also watch the meta presentation by Appsterdam’s Mike Lee, which adds many tips not included in this list.

Content

  • Be passionate about your subject. If you don’t care, why would the audience care? Passion is contagious, but so is apathy.
  • Being inspiring and entertaining is slightly more important than informing. I’ve been in many sessions where I learned no new facts, but still loved it because it was tremendously inspiring. And many sessions which included a lot of new information, but were too boring for me to care.
  • I often split the session up in sections, each with their own title slide. When I hit a new section, I pause for a moment and take a sip of water. By forcing a pause at this moment, I make sure I don’t have to take one at a more awkward moment. And it gives the audience a moment to process what I said until then.
  • Telling stories can make the audience feel much more connected to the subject. For example, if you’re speaking about a new technique, tell the story of the catastrophic failure that made you look for it. Try to use stories the audience can identify with.
  • Put some work in your abstract and title. They’re the only information your potential audience will have. Make it sound interesting, raise curiosity, make it a little controversial, etc.
  • No agenda. Including an agenda at the start of your session is a unnecessary and somewhat boring. It serves no purpose. Don’t talk about what you will talk about, just talk.

Slides

  • Slides should be complementary to a story. They should not replace you. Never write out your full text on slides.
  • Be very careful with bullet points, as they are often very boring. I try to avoid them completely. However, sometimes they are just the most sensible way to present the information.
  • Beamers have widely varying quality. Make sure your slides can tolerate a little colour abuse.
  • Make sure all animations and builds are smooth. It’s easy to screw up some of the builds while you’re editing the deck. Once you’re really done, run through every build one more time, to make sure it all still fits together. I usually find a few errors in this step.
  • If you show a slide with a screenshot, make the slide background black. This may look inconsistent or weird on a screen, but on a beamer, the black part isn’t really visible, making your screenshot stand out a lot more.
  • Make sure you know your slides. It makes you look silly if there’s a slide build that you forgot. If this happens repeatedly, it means you are unprepared. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen speakers being completely surprised by their own slides, and having to admit they have no clue what the slide is about.
  • Make yourself easy to contact. Make sure to include your name, e-mail address and twitter handle on both the first and last slide. Ideally, have it on every slide.

Humour

  • Humour in a session is great, but don’t make it a slapstick.
  • Don’t laugh at your own jokes. Never. Some jokes you make may not stick with the audience at all. If you’re snickering on the stage, and nobody else is laughing, you look like a fool who thinks they’re a little too funny. If you don’t laugh yourself, the audience might not even realise that that was a failed attempt at a joke, and you just move on. This happens all the time.
  • Beware of social norms. Never make discriminatory or exclusionary jokes. Follow the event’s code of conduct.

Timing

  • Make sure your timing is correct. If you don’t get this right, you will look unprepared and will annoy the audience and organisers, especially if you go on for too long.
  • Realise that your timing during practice may be different compared to being on stage. I know I always speak slower on stage, so when practicing, I need to keep an additional margin. Others speak faster on stage.
  • Watch your timing while speaking. While practicing, I note the time I take for every section, and I list this in my speaker notes. So when I start a section, I compare the actual time with the planned time, and I know whether I’m speaking slower or faster than planned. I then compensate by giving more or less detail in the remaining part. Nobody notices this – they’ll just think you are exceptionally well prepared.
  • For more extreme timing deviations, I sometimes include planned jumps in the slides. If I’m not entirely sure how a session will work out, I might pick some slides during my preparation that I can easily skip. My speaker notes will say something like “if past 23 minutes, skip directly to slide 34”. In Keynote, you can smoothly and quickly skip ahead by just entering the slide number on the keyboard, without exiting the presentation, so the audience never notices this.

Preparation

  • Rehearse enough. I find it to work best to rehearse the entire session a few times, but not write out the full text. This strikes a good balance between being flexible and sounding fluent, but not getting stuck or sounding like a robot. This is also when I check my timing.
  • Try not to count on others to provide items like a remote or necessary adapters.
  • Set up your equipment as early as possible. This will give you the time to fix any technical difficulties calmly. You can also check how well the beamer displays your colours. If you can’t set up with time to spare, because you’re scheduled right after another speaker, test earlier on the day.

Making mistakes

  • Realise that the audience doesn’t know your text or your planning. They will not notice most of the errors you make. No need to tell them.
  • You, and you alone, are responsible for the result of your session. If the organisation of the event causes unexpected difficulties for you, don’t complain about it on stage.

Other

  • Make sure you use software that works well for you. I love Keynote and refuse to make slides in Powerpoint, but others feel the other way around.
  • Buy a proper remote clicker. They’re quite cheap, and they let you move around while speaking. This is much more natural than hiding behind the lectern. It also makes sure you don’t get in trouble when your laptop has to be placed away from the stage.
  • There are a few common remote clickers. I use this Kensington remote. It behaves like a USB keyboard, so it’ll work in other people’s equipment too. It only has a few buttons that you can find by touch, and it does not require line of sight.
  • Always have a glass of water on stage. If your mouth becomes too dry, which happens easily when you speak for a while, you’ll start feeling uncomfortable and distracted, and the quality of your voice will drop dramatically.