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Peldi's 15 Tips For Public Speaking

If you are thinking "I want to give a talk at a conference / event / workshop", I have some tips for you. Well, they aren't from me; they are from a workshop called "A talk about talks" that our fearless leader and frequent public speaker Peldi gave us during our 2014 Company Retreat.

Let me break it down for you. Here are Peldi's 15 steps for a successful conference talk:

Image credit: ©John M. P. Knox

1. Get invited

Sadly, judging from most conferences' "Speakers" pages, the first step to be invited to speak is to be male, white, tall and in your early thirties. Things are changing though, and hopefully we'll all be able to go to better, more diverse conferences.

One good way to get invited is to write a blog. Blogging is the easiest and fastest way to get noticed.

You can also straight-up ask to be invited. If you love a conference and you are dying to speak at it, flat out ask the organizers. Peldi did this for Business of Software, and asked Neil Davidson: "What do I have to do in life to be able to speak at BoS?". And he did it! Peldi gave his first talk Do worry Be happy! at BoS in 2010, and that was the beginning of his public speaking "career".

Tip: If you are not famous, start by going to talk where no one else wants to go to, because it's far away or not in a sexy location. This will be great practice for you, and once you speak at a conference, you can put “Public Speaker” on your Linkedin profile and signature! Remember, conference organizers are always looking for speakers.

2. Have something useful to share

The worst thing you can do on stage is to do a sales pitch for your product or yourself. Instead, talk about something that people clearly want to hear about; for example, your talk could be based on your blog's most popular post(s).

After a while you might get invited to speak just because you are well known; in that case, ask the organizers what they would like you to talk about and send them a few topic ideas.

Tip: Send the organizers your talk’s outline at least 2 or 3 times. Work on it together. The worst thing you can do is go to the conference and disappoint the organizers.

3. Know the audience

Who attends this event? What kind of people are they? What do they do? These questions help you set the register, the tone and the language to use. Don't forget to ask the organizers about it; usually they have data from the previous years.

It is equally important to know why they're going to that conference. Put yourself in their shoes: if you were to go as an attendee, what would you want to learn?

Lastly, answer this question: what do you wish someone had told you when you were just getting started? Don’t forget that a lot of people that go to conferences are less experienced than you, otherwise, you wouldn't be the one giving a talk. In a way, your job is to try to remember what it was like when you first started getting interested in that topic and the things you were googling, the things you wanted to know...

Tip: Go the extra mile and think about any shortcut you can provide to your audience about your experience on that topic; they will be thankful for that.

4. Give it time to ripen

Peldi usually describes his process in this way: first, ideas come up in his head and then they go to his belly and they ripen; there is a "pregnancy" stage that could last one or 2 months, depending on how much time he has.

Let it simmer, don’t rush it out. And then you will feel one day it wants to come out. That is when Peldi opens Keynote, and in 1 hour he has all the structure down!

When you go to Keynote, the first step is to make one slide per bullet, then save and close; within a minute you will open it again! The very first days are all about opening and closing Keynote. By putting your talk down in a structure it will help you think through and come up with ideas.

You’ll get more and more ideas over time; add them to Keynote as they come.

5. Work on the talk structure

Here is the classic structure of a talk:

It's a good start, but remember Kathy Sierra's advice: your goal should be to make your audience awesome. This means that talking about yourself and how great YOU are is just a waste of people's time. Jump straight into the content instead to maximize time for things that will help your audience.

So here are better and better structures:

6. A clean title slide

It has to include:

  • The title of the talk.
  • Your name and Twitter handle: people will be tweeting your quotes during and after your talk, and there’s no better way to get feedback on how you did than looking at all your Twitter mentions! 🙂
  • Date and name of the event: for posterity and for people who will find the slides online.
  • Suggested hashtags: both the event's official hashtag and yours or your company's.

7. Skip the “About me” slide

People have already read your bio in the conference program guide, you don't need to prove to them that you deserve to be on stage. Plus it's much better to let the content speak for itself.

If you don't want to skip this slide altogether, you should make it very quick, as it makes you look sales-y and possibly insecure.

8. Skip the table of contents

Aristotle's advice is to "tell them what you're going to tell them", but I suggest skipping a TOC altogether. People don't have time and it takes away any surprise you might have during the talk.

9. Let the meat of the talk emerge

What Peldi usually does is start dictating rough notes on his phone (because ideas come in every moment of your day, when you are falling asleep or while you are driving). He just puts random things related to the main topic in a note.

Just brainstorm, don't focus on structure yet: structure will emerge later in Keynote or PowerPoint.

10. Try to be funny

Another ancient technique (this time from Cicero) is Captatio Benevolentiae: capture the goodwill of the audience at the beginning of a speech or appeal. Basically the first thing you want to do is to get the audience on your side. One of the easiest ways to achieve that is to make them laugh: start with a joke, or relate to the audience with something you might have in common. You can also make fun of yourself, it shows that you are humble, and it's a safe way to make a joke and not offend anyone.

Not sure what to do? Just add a cat slide! 🙂

Image credit: ©John M. P. Knox

If you can't be funny, you can steal other people’s funny stuff:

  • Videos.
  • Cartoons.
  • Memes!
  • Remember: Puns > Jokes.

Just give the author credit in a little note at the bottom of the slide.

11. Don't make the audience read

Don’t make the audience read your slides, except for short quotes. People can read faster than you can talk, and then you lose them because they are reading your text and in the meantime they try to listen; it doesn't work. So have bullets show up one at the time: in Keynote, use “Appear” > “By Bullet”.

12. Use different media

  • Use “Section Title” slides: they help you with pace and prompt your memory.
  • Use photos: a big photo + 0-3 words = Great Slide. A photo sets the mood, people read a lot into it without you having to say anything. Note: Do not use “stock photo” photos, except ironically.
  • Use videos: they can be very powerful. But don’t overuse it and keep the clips short (even a 5-minute video is too long). Remember to check with the venue about audio. If you are going to give a technical talk, this is also a great (and safe) way to do a demo: just talk over a pre-recorded video with no audio instead!
  • Use screenshots, for example from Wikipedia; it's better than just writing some text, it's more powerful for the audience.
  • Use short quotes, and give people time to read them. The best quotes are from people the audience looks up to and people that they might recognize. This reinforces that you understand them and you are all together in this. Peldi used a great Steve Martin quote in some talks, "Be so good they can't ignore you"; what happened is that people magically attribute that quote to Peldi, even though he kept saying "It's not from me!". Well, you can’t fight it, it’s human nature... Bonus Points: quote previous speakers at the same conference and provide a respectful counterpoint. That means you’ll be working on your talk until the very last minute and it makes a connection between people (this is called "pulling a Paul Kenny".)
  • Use cartoons the audience might love: people love thinking “I remember this one!”. This is another way to make a connection. Give people 5 seconds to read the caption and laugh before starting to speak.
  • Use charts / infographics: usually people love to look at them. You can also use some Prezi-style presentation software, where you dive in and zoom in. But be careful that they don’t overshadow your content: people might be more excited about the zoom in and out than the actual content.

13. Iterate!

Iterate, at least 5 times, up until the minute you give it. Don’t think that it’s going to be good the first time, this is one of the most iterative things that Peldi knows of. Some organizers say: "Send me your slides 3 weeks before the talk", and Peldi always says "no", because he feels that he's got nothing until the minute he goes on stage. Your answer might be: "The slide will be ready after the talk". There’s always something to change or add!

As you work on your talk, hit play; go left and right. Flip through it over and over! You need to feel the rhythm; it’s a dance, so choreograph it! It’s like a song or a poem, pay attention to the cadence.

Tip: Stub slides with words, then find images or short videos to replace the words to communicate in a more powerful way.

  • “Thank you”: you should always say thank you, possibly in the language of the audience, or something like "I hope this helps".
  • Your name, email, Twitter handle: people will have questions, but most of them are shy and they won’t come to you after the talk. But they will send you an email!
  • Ideally, a short link to a PDF of the slides. Right before he goes on stage, Peldi prints the Keynote to PDF and saves it to Dropbox. Right click, "copy public link", go to the last slide and put the link in there. Super quick!
  • Social links galore: by then, it’s OK to sell yourself a little bit. 🙂

15. Rehearse!

This is the difference between a great speaker and a bad speaker. Show your talk to at least one more person (a colleague? a spouse?): if it’s an important talk, rehearse at least 4 times, 2 of which in front of someone. Even if they have no feedback, it will be useful to you. You don’t really care what they think, but it forces you to go through it. Plus, it’s the only reliable way to know how long the talk will actually take.

Tip: The more you do it, the more you memorize it.

See the full slide deck!

For all the details and more tips, here's Peldi's original slide deck from the Balsamiq retreat about this topic.

I hope you enjoyed Peldi's Tips on Public Speaking.

Do you have questions, or other tips to share? Send us your feedback!