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Speaking in public, occasionally

finnhvman profile image Ben Szabo Updated on ・7 min read

Most people in the software industry rarely have to speak in front of a public audience. Let that audience be a meetup, the company you work at or your team. However, sometimes you find yourself being assigned to do a presentation. If some sort of anxiety is starting to kick in thinking about this task, read on, this is for you.

To be honest I get anxious every time I have to do a presentation. That's because I rarely have to do one. But one time I did talk at a local meetup for the first time ever and it went pretty well. I also did a talk at a company event and folks from overseas recalled it weeks later. So you don't have to be regular presenter to do a decent enough presentation, but these tips below might be just what you need.

Tips

🗣 Rehearse your presentation
🤔 Reduce the amount of uhh's, umm's, ahh's, hmmm's
🔁 Avoid repeating filler words
🎵 Find the right amount of intonation and emphasis
🏇 Speech tempo: try going for a medium pace but err on the side of going fast
🧠 Know your audience's level of understanding of the subject matter
🎓 Bring quality presentation content
🙂 Keep a positive facial expression i.e. smile

Rehearse

This is the single most important one. If you are not used to doing presentations regularly, you should probably rehearse. Think about it, most people are not good at things that they don't do regularly. You attain most masteries in your life by practicing. Great musicians play their instruments a lot, great sportspeople train a lot, great chefs cook a lot before they get good at cooking, and the list goes on. Public speaking is no different so practicing it and rehearsal should be part of it.

What I do is I actually perform the presentation out loud. Don't just rehearse in your heard, speaking it out loud makes a whole lot of difference. One of the best things you can do is to present to someone who can listen to you and provide feedback: your spouse, friend, coworker, whoever is up to that. In case no one's there you can still speak in an empty room. You could even record yourself (audio/video), but beware that presenting and analyzing the recording takes double the time or more, does not worth it in my opinion.

Speaking out loud helps you identify the "weak" parts of your presentation, and when you're alone you can stop and think about these on the spot. It's a pretty efficient way to "debug" and improve your presentation. The goal is to get to a point where you have already fixed, polished and memorized every important block.

For me rehearsing one time is usually not enough, two times might just cut it, but really three times is the charm. More than three times is overdoing, but if the stakes are high enough it can be justified. We are talking about an hour of prep work in case of a 15 minutes long presentation. I would bet that squeezing in an hour in your day for an important presentation should be possible in usual circumstances.

Ummm

Watch this video (with sound!) if the title doesn't make any sense

Get it?

Each one of us is guilty ummming every now and then. It's kind of a natural thing to do and you don't really notice it in everyday communication. It's a different thing in a presentation context though. If you haven't rehearsed enough you might be ummming when you are figuring out what to say next. That makes your presentation slow, boring, and maybe unprofessional. So when you are rehearsing try to notice when you are doing this, and think of it as a sign to what parts need improvement or some minor rehearsal in a rehearsal.

Filler Words

Slipping in filler words are a somewhat more sophisticated way of buying time. The filler word I commonly repeat is actually. What does "actually" mean? It could be used to reinforce factuality or it could be used as a way to introduce contrast. However, it rarely wears these qualities when I say it. The word is just there, adding no further meaning to my presentation. This makes your presentation longer, potentially boring your audience. Pay attention to which words you are using as a filler and try skipping them altogether.

Some common filler words to watch out for:

Intonation and Emphasis

I'm not a native English speaker, I'm Hungarian and I noticed that tone has much more significance in spoken English than in my mother tongue. I mostly hear American English being spoken and it seems its "melody" carries a lot of information. As a non-native English speaker, I have to put extra care into learning which parts of words and which words to emphasize.

Accept the fact that your audience will usually only remember just a few things from your presentation. Identify the key takeaways of your talk and put most emphasis on the words/sentences that convey them. Don't fall into the trap of emphasizing too much. If everything is emphasized then nothing stands out and this is how it looks in written form:

Book opened in the middle, every line highlighted in lime color

Intonation is bringing your pitch up and down, for example you bring your pitch up at the end of a question. It's a natural way to convey your emotions. You should align your intonation with the content you are delivering. Spark interest with a question before introducing a new concept. Use falling intonation at the end of a segment to signal a short break. Most of the pitch manipulation should come naturally if you are really "living" your presentation. You will speak higher at happy parts and lower at sad parts. However, if you have ever been told that you sound flat, monotonous (like me) then focus a little more on your voice so you can improve it.

If you are not presenting in your native language then strive to bring your best pronunciation of the language you will be speaking in. In my case that's English. While native English speakers are able to understand various different accents from around the world, non-native English speakers with a different mother tongue than mine will be having the hardest time deciphering my accent.

Speech tempo

Ever watched videos on YouTube with a speed of 1.25x (even 1.5x)? We tend to consume aural (even visual?) content faster than the rate it's being produced. This tells me that most of us could speak faster than we usually do and the audience could still handle it. So if you haven't been told that you speak fast, you could probably go faster in your presentations than you would initially. But be careful, don't go as fast as Eminem!

Your pace will define the length of your talk. A shorter talk allows more time for people to ask questions bringing in more interactivity. Or more time for coffee and chit-chat with your audience. I never once heard anybody saying "I just love long presentations!". So rather focus on getting your message through than filling available time.

Know your audience

Figure out your audience's familiarity with the subject matter. The bigger the audience the harder to narrow down what they all are likely familiar with. But that's okay, the generality of your presentation should be proportional to the size of your audience.

For example don't assume that all people in your company know your team's product well. Contrarily, assume that your team knows their product well. Take some time in the beginning of your talk to even out the differences of familiarity within your audience with a preliminary section. This is where you introduce concepts that are essential to understanding your presentation.

Presentation content

Putting your presentation content on slides will give you a good baseline sectioning of your content. The sectioning outlines a steady rhythm to your flow. If you have to change the font size on a specific slide to fit the text, then it's probably a sign that the slide contains too much. Of course you can spend more time on key slides, but the general rule of thumb I always hear is aiming for 1 minute per slide.

Another easy win is staying consistent. Use the same style system within in your slides. One or two accent colors can cover most cases. No need for fancy fonts, I generally pick a sans-serif and stick with it. You can draw custom images if you are talented and efficient enough, but do consider whether it's really worth the extra effort. You can use copyright-free images from sites like Unsplash if you lack the resources to add custom images. The least you can do with stock images is to crop them to an aspect ratio that fits well within your slides.

(Lots of other things could be covered here but I focused on the - in my opinion - common low hanging fruits)

Smile

I don't think it's easy to keep smiling while giving a presentation at all. There are already so many things to pay attention to and consciously maintaining a smile adds to the cognitive load. On the other it would be foolish to deny the fact that smiling attracts people.

Luckily, there's a way to make yourself smile even if you are not in the mood. It's the basis of the "Facial feedback hypothesis" and it's pretty simple: bite on a pencil and wait. After a few moments you will be having a better mood and smiling. The video below explains it in detail, maybe it's something worth trying right before your next presentation!

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