Some DOs and DONTs of Public Speaking

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This post might be kind of stupid. I’m by no means an experienced public speaker. However, I DID have to do a couple of presentations this past half-year, and I DID get the feedback that most of those weren’t half bad, so I must have done something right.

Here are some DOs and DONT’s that I learned while preparing and holding those talks - oh, and also seeing a couple of other people do theirs. This is just personal experience (mostly), so keep in mind that some stuff I write here might just not work for you. Also: You might want to consciously break some of those “rules” if you are confident that it will work out.

Structure

The story behind a talk is pretty important. Here are some notes on what to consider when thinking about story and message.

DOs

  • Start with something to capture audience attention, for example a question or an interesting story.
  • Be mindful of your audience and spend some time thinking about what they care about. What do they understand, what can’t they understand? What do you need to spend more/less time on?
  • Have a short and powerful take-home message. This is the most important part of your presentation, make it count!
  • Display confidence. If you are talking about something, at least act like you know what you are talking about. Works even better if you actually do!
  • During a Q&A, repeat questions, so everyone in the audience understands the question.
  • If your presentation needs a complicated title, explain it early on, and don’t keep the audience guessing what this talk will be about.
  • If possible, wrap up the Q&A session with a “Learn more”-slide.

DONTs

  • Spend a lot of time on overview. Telling the audience what awaits them is important, but not as important as the actual content, right?
  • End your talk with “Thank you”. How about “Questions”?
  • Use a complex quote as take home message.
  • Create a negative atmosphere. At least at the end, you should create an optimistic or positive feeling. I tend to rant quite a bit, so this one is pretty important to me.

Visuals

How your slides look is also very important. Although I feel that the main focus of your preparation should be the actual content of your talk, visuals serve to support your story and statements.

DOs

  • Keep presentation title on first slide. Should be a no-brainer, people actually do need to read what you are going to tell them about.
  • Number slides! During any Q&A people might want to reference some of your slides, and this will be helpful.
  • Put the speaker name on each slide. Because, you know, name recognition.
  • Be aware of font size, especially when using figures. Figures are only useful if you don’t keep people guessing in regards to what those figures actually show.
  • Be aware of color weaknesses! To you that graph might be perfectly fine, but for other people it might not look like anything.
  • Use animations and graphs where applicable, they might really help. But do use them sparingly and with great care. Same as with font size: If it confuses the audience, don’t use it. Make sure to explain graphs thoroughly.

DONTs

  • Use dark slides. Again: Readability is important. For the same reason, don’t use text over images.
  • Use a “questions” slide. The last slide should be the summary. It will be the thing that the audience sees during most of your Q&A.

Body Language & Speech

Not only is it important how your slides look, a lot hinges on how you appear to your audience. Are you nervous? Do you look like you want to just run and hide? Proper body language and pronunciation go a long way to make your talk enjoyable.

DO

  • Just generally: Relax, and be comfortable. In the words of a wiser man, don’t panic.
  • Walk around a bit, and be dynamic. Smiling and just generally looking fairly happy not only makes the audience more comfortable, it will (certainly!) help you feel more comfortable.
  • Try not to speak to fast. Hard to do, I know, but from time to time make sure to pace yourself properly. I myself have the hardest time doing this.
  • If you are not a native speaker try to familiarize yourself with the pronunciation of some words that commonly occur in your talk.
  • If the audience does not consist of native speakers, do be considerate of which words you might have to explain.

DONTs

  • Stand behind objects, this will look like you are trying to hide - and that’s not a good thing, obviously.
  • More generally: Look passive and/or uncomfortable. Do you look at your monitor/slides all the time? Do you cross your arms and just generally close up? Yeah, don’t. Hard if you are nervous, but it goes a long way in building a connection with the audience.
  • You might be prone to using a lot of filler words like “ahm”, “like”, “ehm” or whatever. Don’t overdo it.
  • Speak in a low voice. Your talk won’t be any good if nobody can hear you.

I learned most of this stuff by, well, looking at a lot of talks. Amateur talks mostly, for example during the course “Technical English Presentation”. Or fellow student’s talks during “Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten”. About 50 Talks in total this semester I guess.

Additionally, I had the pleasure of visiting We are Developers and seeing how some of the PROs do it. Finally, for your consideration, a set of slides for a talk I held this semester which I am moderately proud of. Similarities to the “… for Dummies”-Book Series are entirely unintentional.

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