The Art of Public Speeches

This article opens a series of articles, in case, if it will be found interesting, because the first rule of public speaking says: tell people that, what they are interested in!

If you have never experienced public speaking or are afraid to do it – here is “under the cut”. If you consider yourself an experienced speaker, the second article of this series will be for you.

Today’s article is going to be more dedicated to the speech, and less to its contents. If the future comments show, that the composition of the speech needs to be explained (the problem statement -> the solution -> the selection process -> the chosen solution -> the result), or the basics of public speaking (avoid using “hum and haw”, junk words and finishing phrases with non-normative interjections) – I’ll do it next time.

The smallest group, I ever had to speak to, consisted of three people (I don’t count the face to face negotiations), and the largest one consisted of 800 people in the conference hall of Sun Tech Days in India.

This text is not a set of obligatory rules; this is an exposition of my own experience. What has worked for me, may work for you, and what hasn’t - is also possible to work. I’m not offering universal advice; however, I’m going to share my personal secrets on, how to catch the interest of the audience.

I spoke mostly to the IT administrators, programmers, technicians and the students of the technical universities, and also addressed conferences. That means that for similar situations, my experience is applicable. If you are speaking to the lawyers or beauty products sellers – use my advices carefully.


Rule number two: Be aware of the interests of your audience, before making any speech.

The speech must be well prepared. Perfectly, if you tell people, what you know very well. What if you have bought a diploma thesis just yesterday, and the next day you have to report it to the hall of evil teachers? Or you have to go to the client to explain how to use the administrative system of the new site, even though you see this CMS for the second time in your life?
The only way out is to study the interests of your audience and speak about the most important things for them. For example, if you are afraid to talk about the new version of Solaris, because you do not know the latest updates, and you are to speak to the IT administrators, you can focus on what is important specifically for them - for example, on the administration features, or where you can find settings in the update version, in comparison with the old version.

Rule number three: Make good slides

Providing a presentation with the slides is not obligatory, but the majority of your listeners are waiting for the speaker to stand next to the projector, so they will see not only his high forehead and good suit, but also some illustrations to the speech. For those, whose reporter is wearing a miniskirt, slides will also play a distracting role, no need to stare at somebody’s knees.

Make your speech with the slides thoroughly. I’ll devote a separate article to the slides.
In short, what slides are good:
-Those, which help people to catch the point of the work. However, the speech is not a comic book, having a picture for each word is too much;
-Those, which are seen, well from each row in the hall. Type size under 30 is unlikely to be recognizable; there should be 5-7 lines of the text. Five will be better: a title, an idea and three sub-ideas on each slide. There clear-cut graphic primitives are required as well: a scheme, a photo and a picture. The slide with the text, but without the graphics looks like the speaker’s prompt.

An exception is a slide with a code at a conference of the programmers, here the code is essential and the key things should be highlighted. The code must be readable from far though: delete any code, which is not directly related to the case and use type size 30 for the remaining one.

Time of the speech

The speaker, as a rule, cannot choose freely how long it will take him to speak. A diploma defense takes 15-20 minutes, a thesis defense - 20-30 minutes, and the most convenient format at the conferences - 20 minutes. A good speaker always confines himself to the time limit, which shows his respect for the organizers, participants and other speakers.
For orientation: a full A4 sheet printed the 12th type size - about 5-7 minutes of the speech (if you speak without pauses). One slide should take not less than a minute (if you have a slide that is shown for five seconds, remove it, anyway, nobody will manage to study it completely).

Rehearsal of the speech

An inexperienced speaker should rehearse his speech at least twice at home (in the garage, in the bathroom on board of the plane), and the second time should be perfect. An experienced speaker needs one rehearsal, or at least snapping through the slides from the beginning to the end, making some mental notes: "Yeah, here I should tell about the types of data," "Here, I'll tell why the pointers are necessary" etc.

Equipment checkout before the public speach

At any decent conference speakers are asked in advance (the day of the speech or the previous day) to check whether their flash drive, laptop and other equipment needed, are compatible with the equipment, provided by the conference organizers. In the case of diploma defense it will be a commonplace checkout in order to find out if the projector connects to your laptop without problems and shows the picture in the needed resolution.

Be sure to check if all the programs that you are going to use at the speech (xterm, exceed, Adobe Reader, OpenOffice Impress, etc.) show what you need with the right resolution and no changes on the screen. Even experienced speakers find themselves in the wrong boat when the most interesting part of the window is off screen.

Make sure that the computer reads your USB devices.

These rules seem obvious, but dozens of people (including myself) regularly feel uncomfortable in front of the audience because of such trifles.

Beginning of the speach

Rule number four: Involve your listeners in the communication.

What should be done if the interests of the audience are unknown? Firstly, try to find out about the listeners from those, who organize your statement and the conference generally. Secondly, at the beginning of your speech, ask the comers what they are interested in.

Of course, it’s imprudent to ask the attendees at the diploma defense what they are interested in your work. It’s appropriate to tell there what your supervisor has advised. However, at a meeting in front of colleagues or customers it is quite natural, for example, at courses on UNIX, which I have been conducting since 1993, before the start of the course, I always ask each student about his own (or her own, that – alas! - is less likely) expectation of this course, and how he or she is going to apply their knowledge.

Whatever the answer is, there is no need to change course dramatically, but take into account the interests and talk more on one subject than on the other, if it’s requested, is considered a good form. This is not necessarily, and should be done only in case, if you know about the topic under discussion far more than you are going to tell. Otherwise - keep to the selected line of your speech and avoid unplanned digressions.

If you are asked the questions, which you cannot answer, sidestep them, telling the facts known on the subject, but if you cannot evade the question - try to reason aloud, engaging students in the process of searching for an answer: "is it possible to print with Linux on the HP LaserJet 1100? Let's think together. In today's GNU / Linux as a print subsystem is CUPS, right? If this is CUPS, in order to set up the printer, we’ll need file. ppd, and therefore, we must look for the file on the HP website or just on the Internet. If the file exists, we’ll be able to print on HP LJ 1100 with Linux".

At a pinch, take the listener’s e-mail and promise to respond as soon as know the answer. You are not supposed to know everything, but showing the goodwill and desire to help may be useful.

The speaker’s pose

As for the appropriate pose and place of the reporter, the piles of works are written and petabytes of video courses are shot. For those, who due to some reasons have not seen those materials, here is a digest:
-stand in the open position, avoid crossing hands on the chest, the abdomen and the genitals;
-move around naturally (around the scene, part of the hall), avoid immobility;
-look at the audience, best of all – choose a nice person from there and look at him as if you're telling your speech to him personally, it’s better to choose several people, and occasionally turn your gaze from one person to the other; avoid a permanent look sideways, at the floor or at the ceiling. What if you have been lost in thought, looked through the window or around? That’s alright, but don’t lose the visual contact with the audience, turn your eyes on it from time to time;
-never, do you hear me? - never read from your slides. I’ve made this mistake myself, because if the slides are well done, there is always a temptation to peep what must be said next. A slide is not a prompter, it’s only the illustration for your speech. It is bad manners to read from the slides. Try to tell your speech from memory. You do not usually tell your friend about a friendly carouse, peeping in the notebook? That speech should flow from your mouth, without a moment’s hesitation and peeping. Believe me: the speaker, reading the slides, looks pathetic from the audience and at best, can arouse sympathy and at worst - an aversion;
-gesticulate - moderate gestures will be approved by the audience in Russia. Of course, I mean the decent gestures. However, if you want to take a chance to become a hero on YouTube, try to show anything indecent at the crowded conference. The scandal will be remembered, but your name - without any guarantee. Do many remember the TV anchorwoman’s name, who accidentally raised the middle finger when pronouncing the name of the U.S. President? No, but the fact has stuck in our minds.

The speach itself

Rule number five: Speak briefly, citing specific examples from your life

The speech should be as short as possible, avoid waffling.
People like specific examples: when I talk about the fact that UNIX way means a lot of programs, each of which does only one thing, and does it very well, I immediately start explaining why it is useful, for example, the program grep is equally good for the analysis of log files and for searching for a file with the correct piece of code in the folder src/.
The speech must contain an improvisation or easy joke. If you know the audience - try to prepare some examples, which are close to them. For instance, speaking to the employees of the sales office of the building materials, you can safely make jokes on the topic of yesterday's hangover. For the priests and students of the philological faculty, you have to look for other jokes.

Rule number six: Be emotional

Your audience must not fall asleep. Your speech must not be monotonous or sad; you need to speak with an expression like reciting poetry in school. Telling about configurations of MS Exchange Server? It seems to you magically cool - pressing the three buttons "Next" to set up the corporate email system (where the tag should be <irony/>)? Tell everyone how wonderful it is! Smile, upraise your hands to heaven, exalt the voice, and ask the audience: "Isn’t it cool!"

Emotionality is not the same as hysterics; emotions should be a flavoring for the content of the speech. Specifically, the speech should contain what you personally like: we usually present a nasty subject to those, who we want to repel it (or repel you, if you hate cats, infants, young girls, or that anything else of universal appeal).

Dilute your speach with the jokes: one joke per 5-10 minutes of your speech is a very good proportion. You may prepare jokes beforehand, or make it on the spot, if you remember by heart, try to remember something suitable for the occasion.

Questions in the course of the speech

Rule number seven: The reporter is the Master of his Time

Decide in advance whether the interruptions with questions are possible in the course of the speech. If you do not have a high priority among the audience, if you are afraid to lose your train of thought, if you feel uncomfortable to go away from the theme of the speech - at the beginning of the speech ask to write down all the questions and put them at the end. The explanations can be different: from the "I'm a mad control freak and cannot go bail for myself" to "Today I want to tell you a lot of interesting things, and if I’m often interrupted, we cannot make it."

In order not to fall outside the time-limits, ask someone of the organizers to keep track of time and signal to you ten and five minutes before the end. At many conferences for this purpose is put a timer that shows how much time is left until the end of the speech. At worst, you may use a smartphone or a watch, placed in front of you, but it shouldn’t be seen from where you walk around briefly during the speech.

Let’s make it even easier, you may look at your watch, in order to see if you wasn’t carried away by a conversation, nobody will be offended, although they may think that you are late for a train.

Good courtesy is leaving last five minutes of the speech for questions, if you have been telling the audience something interesting, and it is not taking place in China, you may be asked some questions. In China and in some other Asian countries asking questions in public is not accepted, and you can tell the audience that after your speech you are going to have a cup of tea at the cafe around the corner, and if someone wants to clarify something, you'll be glad to do it over a cup of tea.
Rule number eight: Control yourself and your sense of humor
Who likes to be laughed at? That’s why, getting into a ridiculous situation at the time of public speaking, treat it detached, take it all in good fun, laugh at yourself. You have stumbled and broken a chair on the stage? Never mind, remember the “hell's bells!” from the "Diamond Hands" or a close to the audience and appropriate joke.
The main thing is to keep within limits. If you appear in the stained suit and shake yourself on the stage, do not keep removing the specks of dust from your jacket during the speech, if you have put a stain on your tie and there is no time to rub it off - behave as if there is no stain. No need to speak ironically of it during your speech- after all, if the speech is interesting, they look at your face and not at your tie.

Speech completion

All is well that ends well. It is a pleasure to hear the cheerful conclusion at the end of the speech ("Therefore, my thesis - this is the first step towards a doctoral thesis," "As you can see, the project can produce for the company a 493 000 rubles a year return) or a logical conclusion ("agree with me, that any developer will be happy to use this powerful tool like dtrace »).

Good courtesy is to show on the penultimate slide your sources of inspiration (references) and / or the books and websites that you advise students to read, and on the last - the way to contact you (what if someone in a year will need to specify the name of that book you have mentioned on the third slide from the end). Leaving your cell phone number is not necessary - just e-mail.

Essential detail

Never read your speech from notes. If you want to make an impression of a vigorous and successful speaker - read the speech from memory. Peeping into your notes two or three times in half an hour is not a sin, but reading the entire speech from notes is a trouble! Your notes should look neat (a batch of two A4 sheets in hand, I think, looks neutral, but a piece of paper clutched in the cam looks suspicious).
So now, my patient reader, you can vote for the article - and thus to give a hint to the author, whether he should prepare the following articles, dedicated to the ways of getting out of Dodge at the speeches, making slides, compiling a vitae and cover letter for employment purposes, if you want to work in the western company.
MeLavi 6 june 2012, 14:07
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