the two most important things I know about public speaking

So I was talking to Annie Pho on Twitter a month or two ago, about the keynote I was about to give at ACPL, and the fact that I used to be completely terrified of public speaking. I mean, completely, hiding-in-the-bathroom-having-a-panic-attack terrified. And that was interesting, and I thought I should write a post about how I got over that, and maybe I still will, but I realized I don’t have as much to say about that as I do about how to be a good public speaker.

So the short version is, “teach middle school for five years”. But I realize this may be impractical advice for some of you, so let me try to distill the key points. Here are the most important two. If I remember, I’ll write more posts about others. (Anything else you want me to address?)

The most important things I know about public speaking concern audience and structure/hook.

Audience. The key part of preparing any talk is considering the audience. We’ve all seen meticulously prepared, articulate talks that fall flat because they are delivering information into a vacuum, without any consideration of audience. (Academic papers read aloud at conferences and most vendor talks: I’m looking at you.)

How familiar are they with your topic? Are you going to need to give them backstory — and, if so, what, and in what order — for your points to make sense? Do you need to skip ahead to the advanced stuff to stay engaging?

Why are they there? Do they have to be (in which case you have a whole range of concerns about getting their interest and possibly overcoming hostility) or do they want to be? You have to establish rapport and credibility either way, but it’s easier in the second case, and can be driven more by engaging their curiosity and less by engaging their hearts. Are they there to be educated or inspired? Do they need to walk out with new, actionable skills, or are they there more for ideas or entertainment?

The more hostile or skeptical (not the same thing!) they are, the more you need to think about “how can I solve their problems?” These audiences won’t be there to hear you give your spiel about your thing, and they won’t care if you do. You have to relate to their thing. This can mean piquing their curiosity, or addressing some concern in their everyday workflow, or any number of other things, but you must think about what problems they have that you can solve. The more hostile they are the more you will need to be explicit about characterizing these problems and framing your talk in terms of their solutions.

What’s their subculture? This governs both the kind of jokes you can make and the subcultural references you can make to establish rapport. Yes, you can try to establish rapport via your bio, but this is usually boring, or via sheer incandescent charisma, but most of us don’t have that. Referencing subcultural touchstones adds personality, is frequently funny, and communicates that you are part of their tribe, or at least understand their tribe, and thus are more relatable and credible. (Of course this only works if you actually do have some level of familiarity with their subculture…otherwise it makes you look more out of touch. Good reason to read widely, I guess.)

Example: I gave a talk at Google’s Cambridge office about Gluejar, in which I explained what we do by reference to the Unix command chmod. Trust me, not only does this communicate to engineers that I have some technical credibility (and thus they should give me the time of day) even if I’m not a developer, but in context it’s is hilarious…and I cut that slide out of every non-Google version of that talk.

Since I mentioned middle school earlier, I should mention that age is an important element, too. If you’re not speaking to adults you have this whole other range of concerns about age-appropriate language and activities, and a much increased need to break things up, to let people move around, and to establish behavioral norms. But I’m not going to worry about that in this post.

Structure and hook. I find that I have speaker’s block preparing every talk until I have either the structure or the hook…and once I have one, I have both, and the rest is relatively easy.

My talks tend to be structured around a list of three things, plus intro and conclusion. This is a fabulous structure because it can be used at any length — it governs both my 7-minute TEDx talk and my almost-an-hour ACPL keynote. It’s also a fabulous structure because the three-act (or five-act, if you count the intro & conclusion) structure is well-established in literature; it’s something audiences will easily comprehend. And it’s fabulous because it creates a hook. For both talks, my hook is a one-sentence description of the structure of my talk, using some offbeat words. “It’s a story of Twitter, lightning rods, and spoons.” “I’m Andromeda Yelton, and I’m going to tell you three lies about technology.” That’s it. Dead simple.

Hooks are great for a couple of reasons. One is that they pique your audience’s curiosity and give them a reason to listen. Twitter and lightning rods, whuh? Lies? They’re going to have to listen to make sense of the hook. Furthermore, the hook is a promise: “I’m going to cover the following topics. You listen for them, I will reward your attention.” And it’s a roadmap: “You’re always going to know where you are in this talk and how the elements fit into the whole, because I just gave you an outline so short you can keep it in memory.” (Some people really crave the roadmap.)

And having a good structure removes a lot of the cognitive overhead from designing the rest of the talk. It tells you what to do. And, like I said, it’s expansible, so your one favorite structure will do for a variety of formats. At 7 minutes, my list of three is three brief anecdotes, with a lead-in and conclusion. At an hour, it’s three higher-level ideas, each of which has a couple of supporting examples I use to elaborate those ideas. I can readily see making the list-of-three a daylong workshop.

Another advantage of the list of three is that less is more. Too many presenters try to shove everything they know about a topic into their talk — yes, you’re an expert, that’s great, but your audience cannot comprehend or retain the firehose of everything you know. They don’t have time to think about it and listen in a talk. Whether because they’re thinking or distracted, they’re going to miss parts of what you say (another reason it’s good for them to have a roadmap — easier to reorient and catch up). If you give them a ton of facts, they’ll leave dazed. If you give them a list of three things, they’ll remember it. Maybe not the details, but the important parts. A spare structure is a discipline forced on the speaker for the benefit of the audience.

Of course, list-of-three isn’t the only way to go. I expect a lot of my readers are English majors, which means you know a lot more than I do about stories and how they’re put together. And doubtless some of you know about the great structures of music or dance. I think any time-tested artistic structure works; human brains comprehend them readily, and any structure is a hook when laid bare. But I don’t know a lot about that and am limited in creativity, so I like my list of three.

So there you have it. Use a good, simple structure; explain it with quirky words as a hook; and consider the needs of your audience in elaborating your structure with anecdotes and examples. You’ll be most of the way to a good talk.

ETA: There’s a follow-up post, Three more things I know about public speaking.

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