Like most of America, I watched the presidential debates. While I did pay attention to the content, I was more drawn in by the speaking style of each of the candidates. Rhetoric is one of my nerdy passions. I want to improve my speaking. I am frequently reading books or blogs on speaking. I have taken classes on presenting, and I find that I learn things when I watch good speakers.
If you want to start giving technical presentations or you want to improve your speaking skills here are some things I recommend to help out.
The number one thing that will improve your speaking is practice. Your practice does not necessarily have to be conference talks. You can practice giving presentations at your job, at a social group you belong to, or lightning talks at your local meetup.
Another way to get practice is to join a group dedicated to public speaking. Toastmasters has clubs all over the world that are devoted to improving your public speaking. You can also find public speaking classes at local universities or community centers.
I did Toastmasters for two years early in my tech career. While I am not a fan of parliamentary procedure and the competitiveness that is present in some clubs I do think there’s a lot you can learn in the program. The core curriculum provides a set of speech topics that focus on different speaking skills. Your local club offers opportunities to speak and after you speak a club member gives feedback and tips for improvement. One common thing that speakers struggle with is using filler or crutch words like “ah” and “um.” At most Toastmaster’s meetings, there is an official Ah-Counter who tracks the use of filler words to help speakers become aware of these often unconscious habits. My personal crutch word is “so.” While I was attending Toastmasters meetings regularly, I got much better at not filling spaces with unnecessary “so”s.
Focus on the Story
Another thing you can do to improve your public speaking is to focus on telling a story. Every speech or presentation is a story. Even sharing the Q4 P&L report is telling a story. Focusing on that story will help you remember what you intended to say and will help you keep your audience’s attention.
I got introduced to the idea of storytelling as a skill in college. At dorm meetings, individuals would be invited to the center of the room to tell a specific story. Some had happened recently, but others were years and years old by the time I arrived. Traditionally the stories started with “back in the day” and they were part of college culture. Alumni events often include time telling the same stories again and again. Listening to many different individuals tell the stories I gained an appreciation for how storytelling skills could turn a mere anecdote into a compelling narrative.
To practice storytelling think about stories you already know well and find opportunities to share them with others. Perhaps you can retell fairy tales to your children on long drives. Or maybe, something funny happened that you can share with buddies over a beer. At conferences, I have found it fun to talk about bad days and war stories over lunch or dinner. Everyone has a story about a horrible bug or a CEO who accidentally hit the big red button in the data center.
Focus and Get Feedback
There are lots of facets to good public speaking. Working to improve them all at once is overwhelming. I know; I’ve tried. Instead, focus on one or two things you want to improve at a time. For example, this year I have been working on reducing my use of “so” as a filler word and I have been focusing on making my hand gestures less nervous and more effective.
Getting feedback is also important. I will sometimes tell a co-worker or friend what I am trying to improve and ask them for feedback after my talk. Even though it is uncomfortable, I force myself to watch all of my talk videos. (Well sometimes I just listen to them). It was through watching my videos that I noticed my new filler word was “so” and that I have a habit of elongating my ess sounds in a way that is especially pronounced when I’m using a mic.
Watch Good Speakers
A final thing you can do to improve your speaking is watching good speakers. At conferences, I seek out speakers I admire and try to notice the compelling things they do. If I see something I really like I may try it in a future talk I give. A speaking class I took used TED talks for examples of different skills. A mentor I had years ago recommended listening to recordings of speakers like John F Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and reading Mark Twain’s speeches. And this political season has provided many opportunities to watch professional speakers.
The more speakers you watch, the more you will notice common rhetorical patterns. One common pattern is lists of three items. Repetition of a phrase or pattern of words is another. Great speakers often use inflection and silence to emphasize their points in ways that beginners do not. Noticing these patterns will help you tune your delivery and make your speeches more effective.
Remember that not everything will work for you. One of the speakers I admire rarely has more than one slide a minute. I have tried that, but I prefer 3 - 5 slides a minute. I also struggle to use silence effectively, but I feel comfortable with self-deprecating humor. The most important thing is to use these skills to enhance your technique while still letting your personality shine through.