three more things I know about public speaking

Monday I wrote about the two most important things I know about public speaking, and response to that has been gratifying, and here I am on a train for a few hours, so here you go: three more things I know about public speaking.

When you’re stuck, tell a story. I mentioned in the last post that finding a hook is the first important way to get un-stuck when you’re planning a talk. The second is to tell a story. Seriously, next time you’re feeling speaker’s block ask yourself: “What story can I tell here?” It will work.

It will work during the talk, too. People like stories. People relate to stories. People remember stories. Your audience is likely to be more engaged with a story-driven talk than a more abstract one.

It also works because you’re people too, which means that you probably like stories. You will probably be more comfortable and personable telling a story than in other modes of engagement.

Not all types of talks lend themselves well to storytelling — it may be that you really need to communicate about data or teach people an abstract concept — but even in those cases, you can frame, motivate, illustrate, or enliven the whole with a good story.

Corollary: when you’re stuck, use concrete details. Part of why stories work is narrative, but part of it is the concrete details: they’re more memorable and striking than abstract ideas. (“Social media, crystallization nuclei, and empowerment” vs. “Twitter, lightning rods, and spoons”? Seriously, no contest).

Sandwiches are tasty. I had the fortune to have exceptionally good professors in my undergraduate department. I mean, it was spooky: I could actually pick courses based on what I wanted to study rather than who was teaching, because I knew all the teaching would be solid. So one of the things I thought about when my mind was wandering (it does that) during class was, what exactly are these people doing that’s so effective? And I realized: it was sandwiches.

I think, broadly speaking, there are people who need to see concrete examples before theory makes sense, and there are people who crave theory and then can apply it to examples. Some people can play against type, but often it’s a struggle, and some just can’t. My professors were reaching both types by teaching new concepts either as theory-example-theory or example-theory-example. That is, explain the theory, illustrate with an example, and re-explain; or provide a motivating example, generalize to the theory behind it, and wrap up by showing an application. Doing this means some people may be confused for the first third (but they’ll hang with you because they know everything will make sense by the end) and others may find the last third extraneous (or maybe not; they might appreciate the review from a standpoint of greater understanding), but everyone will have received the concept in their preferred order.

So, particularly if you need to get across some kind of abstract or technical material, I recommend sandwiches.

Be a person. As noted above, you’re a person. So be one! Lots talks are painfully dry, as if people have confused “professionalism” with “leaching all the personality out of the room”. Against this backdrop, having any personality at all will make you stand out. Telling jokes, even if they are totally lame, will be funny, if only because it’s so unexpected. (Similarly — but only with the right audience, and in moderation — swearing.) It is fine if your personality is awkward or quirky or otherwise not what you think of when you think “polished public speaker”. Just have one.

The other great thing about this tactic is — if you’re nervous about public speaking or you haven’t found your voice yet — you can be someone else. This was my first effective tool against my formerly-crippling terror of public speaking; when I first had to present to a serious audience, I thought about all my favorite teachers, and I thought: which of those has a personality that I think I can emulate? And I copied his style for slide design and body language and vocal modulation as well as I could. Because excellent teachers can have a wide range of personalities, you have probably had an excellent teacher with a personality not unlike yours — or, at least, not unlike something you think you can fake on stage. Awesome. Just be them until you figure out how to be you.

For what it’s worth, my style on stage and (especially) my slide design have changed a ton since I started with this tool, since I now have my own voice. And I’m not going to claim I’ve ever been so excellent in front of an audience as he is, because Ran was one of the flat-out legends of my undergrad experience — people majored in CS so that they could major in Ran. Really what I’m saying is: thanks, professor. Debugging and infinite series were diverting, but this is the part where you really changed my life.

Ask me about the Nerf guns someday.
This is Professor Ran Libeskind-Hadas and he is pretty much the man.

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