by Eszter Hargittai
As Jerry Seinfeld once noted, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy, since public speaking stresses people out more than death. But giving talks doesn't have to be such a frightening affair.
Whether you're giving a talk at your local library, updating your colleagues on work progress, or presenting to a large group of strangers, there are some simple steps that should help make public speaking a better experience - for both you and your audience.
Before you start planning your presentation, find out from the organizers how much time you have and what format they envision for your talk. Will you be part of a panel or will you be speaking alone? Will you be in a regular session or are you the dinner speaker? Do you have 15 minutes or an hour? Do they prefer to leave time for questions? If yes, does that come out of the allocated time you have been quoted? It is important to know what is expected of you so you can be well prepared and not have to scramble last minute to readjust your talk due to unanticipated logistics.
Get information about who will be attending your presentation. Will the head of the company be there or just co-workers? Are all participants experts at the topic or will there be novices present? Is there a mixed group of people representing different backgrounds or is everyone on the same page regarding technicalities? Depending on the audience, you will have to spend some time giving varying degrees of background on the material and explaining certain concepts.
If you have the opportunity, take a look at the location before the time of the talk. It will help you visualize the context of the event and ensure that you are not caught off guard by peculiarities of the space.
The take-away message
If someone who missed your talk were to ask an audience member in the elevator to sum it up, what would you like that person to say? Focus on that message. Start out with this summary statement in mind and build your presentation around it.
Once you have an idea of your presentation's main message, spend some time thinking about the structure of the entire talk. All of the material you cover should contribute toward communicating your core message effectively. Start by writing an outline of the talk including main sections and subsections.
The first couple of minutes of your talk should be the most prepared and polished. You want to get off to a good start. Those are likely to be the most nervous moments so it is best not to leave anything to chance. By being well prepared, you can convey your messages with confidence. It is important to establish early on that you are prepared and are worth people's attention.
Spend a bit of time up front talking about the inspiration and importance of your message. Listeners should get a bit of background on what motivated your work or project in the first place. What may be a fascinating topic to you may not be to the next person so don't take for granted people's interest in the issues you are discussing. Explain why they should pay attention and why your comments matter.
People rarely want to listen to someone for longer than the allotted time. Few people are such amazing speakers that an audience can't get enough of them. Do not assume you are one of those few. Wrap up your talk on time. To achieve this goal, ask someone to give you time cues by indicating when you have five minutes left, two minutes and when you have run out of time. Once you get the last notice, you should stop talking.
A common pitfall for presenters is to add unprepared introductory remarks to their talk. The temptation of addressing previous speakers is great, but beware. If your total alloted time is 15 minutes (a frequent limit with many speaking engagements), adding a 3 minute intro (not to mention longer!) will use up 20 percent of your time. However, this is something no one ever builds into their talk. Either prepare for this or let go of the temptation to add commentary at the last minute.
Organize your talk and know it well enough to have the flexibility to skip certain parts or expand on others depending on the circumstances. For example, if you do add a last- minute introduction (as per the previous point), be flexible to skip a part of the prepared content.
Confidence and enthusiasm
You have been chosen as a speaker because you know your topic. Make sure that you exert confidence during your presentation. Don't apologize for what you don't have with you to present or what you do not know. Rather, focus on what you can talk about and discuss the material with confidence. This does not mean that you should be arrogant or patronizing. It means that you should look comfortable covering the material.
Be sure to enjoy your talk and show your enthusiasm about the content. Your interest in the topic will be contagious and will likely result in a more engaged audience.
If there is a Q&A segment then be sure to keep a polite demeanor throughout. Thank people for their questions and feel free to praise them for good points. If you are not sure how to respond to a query then express your appreciation for the insightful comment and note that you will look into it.
Practice makes perfect
Practice the presentation a few times: more if you have less experience, less if you are a more seasoned public speaker. It can be especially helpful to give the talk to someone who is not in your field and is not intimately familiar with the material. This is helpful in seeing whether you have made the talk too narrowly focused or overly technical. Such a practice session does not have to involve the entire talk, it can consist of telling someone about your presentation outline.
Don't write out the material word-by-word and don't plan on reading text even if you do have it all written down. Having the text written out and parts of it memorized will constrain you. Memorize the structure of the talk and the outline, but not every word.
Finish by giving the audience some contact information, including an email address and Web site when applicable. Mention that you welcome people's feedback and they should feel free to ask you questions either after the session or by sending you email.