You’ve been accepted to give a talk. You’re at least a little scared, but nevertheless want to do a good job. How do you do it? That’s what this article seeks to answer for you.
“With an introduction like that, I wish my mother was in the audience to hear it!”
I was sitting in the audience, watching a speaker mentor of mine give a keynote address. This was how he started it.
A grown man, talking about how he wished his mom was in the audience.
You could feel positive energy flowing from the audience to the speaker. You could feel them trust him, and settle in. They knew they were in for a good one.
And a good one it was. He was absolutely electric. It was one of the best keynotes I’d ever seen. His message was perfectly tailored to the group. His body language was relaxed and also perfectly emphasized the right points. His tone, cadence, and pitch were perfect. It was truly a masterclass.
Afterwards, he and I sat down at a nearby bar. I had about 20,000 questions, but the first one was the simplest: “What made you start your talk that way? It was about branding, not about love or relationships.”
He held eye contact, letting my question hang in the air. Then he answered simply “I wanted to connect with the audience. If we are connected, I can help them.”
For the second time that day, my mind was blown. His audience-centric view has since become a cornerstone to my own approach to every talk I give.
So just like my speaker mentor helped me think differently about my own opportunities to speak, I’m here to help pass along to you some of the things I’ve learned. If as a result you can get up on a stage and help an audience someday, I’ve done my job.
Why Should You Listen to Me?
As a keynote speaker, I am often asked how to give a good talk. The fact that you’re reading a blog about how to give a talk suggests you are the kind of person who would seek advice on how to do a good job with it. You’re in the right place.
Now, I’m not a speaking coach and, frankly, am still working tirelessly at improving my own speaking skills. But I have given a TED talk (haven’t seen it yet? Watch it here), regularly keynote conferences, and have found myself on stage more than 200 times. I’ve worked with several speaking coaches and have been relentless in soliciting feedback on my performances (a lot of which has been brutal to hear, but overall beneficial to my abilities). The point is: I don’t know if I’m an expert, but I have learned a few things about what makes a talk good.
Here are the biggest things you can learn. Whether it’s for a keynote address or an informal internal presentation, every time I have a microphone, I aim to do all of these. You should too.
1] Serve Your Audience
It should go without saying that the point of any talk should be to help your audience solve a problem. This is not about you. It’s about the audience. It’s about their problems, and how their life will be better for listening to you. If you do it right, you’ll experience many benefits (raise your profile, establish your credibility, find opportunities for customers or even a new job, get press, etc.). If you do it wrong, you will erode your own personal brand and waste everyone’s time. Do not waste everyone’s time.
To serve you audience, you must:
- Know who the audience is. What are their titles? Where do they work? How senior are they? How technical are they?
- Grasp their goal. Why is the audience taking time out of their day to listen to you? What problem are they looking to solve? Why is that problem important and worth solving?
- Give your audience something they can do. Ideas are great, but actions are more important. What can you teach your audience that they can go implement? Be specific.
Once you know who the audience is and what they need from you, you can craft your talk to directly speak to those things.
Now, if you’re like many speakers, you also have an agenda to pursue. Maybe you want people to hire you for consulting, support your cause, sign up for a course you created, buy your book, fund your project, or hire you for a job. That’s ok! A lot of my talks focus on hacking, and it’s very common that members of my audiences who struggle with getting hacked (or fear that they will) approach me after to hire us for ethical hacking and/or vendor risk management. But that’s only because I do not try to sell them; rather, because I legitimately help them.
Don’t sell to your audience. Serve them.
Understand who they are, what they want to achieve, and give them tools to achieve it.
If you prioritize serving your audience, you’ll likely be able to achieve your own agenda, too. But if you get up on a stage trying to sell, the audience will reject it and reject you.
Serve your audience and you both win.
“I don’t want to rehearse too much because it will come across as forced. I want my talk to feel natural.”
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people utter some version of this nonsense. Let me be blunt and brutally clear:
Your performance on stage is directly related to the level of preparation you invest off-stage.
There is absolutely no way around that hard truth.
You know how sometimes you see a speaker get up on stage and it feels so smooth and natural, almost like they’re just... talking... to you? You want to be like that, right?
Those people spent an enormous amount of time to make it appear natural.
Here are some guidelines for how to prepare:
- Organize into 3s. The human brain retains information best when it is organized in groups of three, so build your talk that way. Whether your talk is 15 mins or 55 mins, you can use the same basic format, which is something like this:
- Intro: This is be a story that outlines the talk thesis
- Point 1. This is a story (or combination of three stories) that supports the thesis
- Point 2. This is a story (or combination of three stories) that supports the thesis
- Point 3. This is a story (or combination of three stories) that supports the thesis
- Call to action. Summarize the talk with a call to action that has been introduced in the thesis and supported by all three points (do not introduce new content here)
- Build a visual deck, not a wall of text. Most people use slide decks that are filled with words, as a crutch for lack of preparation combined with fear of public speaking. Do not do this. Whenever the audience has to read a word on a slide, they stop listening to you. Think of the slide deck merely as the guideposts that keep the audience grounded on where you are going or what point you are making; they are not the info itself. The best way to do this is have three words or fewer on any given slide and fill the slide with a beautiful picture (you can get amazing, royalty-free, free art at sites like Unsplash). If you need to send a slide deck afterwards summarizing the talk, make sure you have two versions: one you’ll deliver that’s mostly pictures, and one you’ll send, that is mostly words.
- Invest 1 hour per minute. Once you’ve got your talk outlined and the deck developed, now you need to rehearse your butt off. For every minute your talk is, you should prepare by that many hours’ worth. For example, prepare 30 hours for a 30-minute talk. This is indeed rehearsal, but the way to think about rehearsal is that you are refining and re-organizing along the way; the original deck may change shape, you might swap stories, you might even change the talk thesis. All of that is ok and is part of the rehearsal process. Just keep putting in the repetitions. Prepare out loud alone, do it in front of friends, record yourself. Whatever method gets you comfortable with the content.
3] Deliver like a human
In one of our research projects, we discovered ways that hackers could kill patients in a hospital. In another we found how hackers stole $55m worth of cryptocurrency. In another we identified ways that hackers could mess with people’s dating lives by scrambling their choices on dating apps.
Those are some pretty scary stories.
And yet somehow, I still manage to have fun telling them in my keynotes. I aim to have fun because I know that the audience wants to have fun, and I know that I want to have fun. If we are both having a great time, then the core message will be delivered more powerfully. A speaker buddy of mine is a juggler and comedian, and he’s hilarious on stage. I’m not trying to be to his level of comedy, I’m just trying to have fun, so my audience can enjoy what is otherwise a serious topic. You can do it too, no matter what your topic is. Here’s how.
- Inject your personality. If you over-prepare like you just learned about, and you know the content cold, you can let the real you come through. For most people, if your brain is trying to remember what you’re trying to say, it turns you into a stiff zombie. But the audience has a much better experience if the real you shows up. If you’re funny, inject some humor. If you’re quirky, point out something weird. If you’re analytical, gush about a bizarre data point and how cool it is. Whatever you are in your truest self, find a way to weave that in. It will powerfully resonate.
- Use silence to your advantage. Most speakers overlook the power of silence. I get that, it can feel uncomfortable to be on a stage and not say something. But think about using pauses as a highlighter: wherever you have an important point, pause after you make it. The audience will realize that what you just said was important, and their brain will have more time to process it. Every great orator is a master at silence. Ironic, isn’t it?
- Consider your body language. The audience is consuming your information not just from the words you speak or the visuals in your deck, but also in how you move, where you move, and when you move. This one point can take years to master, but even for a beginner you’ll find power in the ways you can spread your arms when making an important point (pair it with a silence and this hits hard). Don’t walk aimlessly, but instead have 3 spots to stand (middle, left, and right) and walk between these, pausing at each spot. Use your movement to convey information. If you are behind a lectern, then your hand gestures, facial expressions, and even shoulder shrugs can all take place of your feet.
Now Go Give a Good Talk!
If you do all of these things, you’ll set yourself up to give a great talk. So have fun with it! Think about your audience, put in the work to prepare, and optimize your delivery.
If you need any help preparing, just hit me up and it’d be my honor to help you.
You got this.
PS - If you’re not a speaker yourself but instead are organizing an event and looking for speakers, hit me up for that too!
Ted Harrington is the #1 bestselling author of Hackable, and a TEDx speaker. He is the Executive Partner at ISE, and co-founder of both Start VRM and IoT Village. Learn more at https://ise.io