Golden rules of public speaking

I do masses of public speaking. These are my ‘golden rules’, which might help you. (If you have other good ‘golden rules’ to add to this list, do get in touch.)

1. Assume the technology will fail

It fails more often than not, in my (pretty extensive) experience. Be prepared and able to give your talk without any of the visuals. Have enough notes and know your talk well enough that you can proceed without them.

A good idea is to ensure that there’s a flipchart handy, and that the pens work, so that you can hand-draw any charts or diagrams if necessary.

I recently had an epic fail, worse than no slides, in which the slides appeared on screen in random order(!)


2. Most of the audience can’t see the bottom third of your slides, so don’t put anything important there

Pretty self-explanatory. Use the bottom third (or half, if it’s a big audience in a room with a flat floor) for notes about the source of your graph or whatever: only because that should be in the materials somewhere (unless you’re inviting the assumption that you fabricated the data…)

3. Talk slowly 

More slowly than you can imagine. It’s almost impossibly to speak too slowly on stage.

The purpose of your talk is to tell people things that they don’t know. So by definition you’ll be saying things that are unfamiliar. People need time to process what you’re saying.

Hence shut up for the 30 seconds or so after you put up a new slide, so people have time to concentrate on that and interpret it. They can’t concentrate on both a new picture and new words simultaneously.

If you are speaking in your native language and there may be non-native speakers in the audience… well… think of your high school French (or whatever) and think about how slowly the speaker would have to be going for you to have a cat in hell’s chance of understanding them. Brits and Americans are particularly bad at rattling on way too fast (presumably because we so rarely have to understand other languages at full tilt). Also avoid complicated vocabulary and idioms which non-native speakers may not know.

After I’d been living in Vienna for six months, I told a Bulgarian colleague that my German had improved loads. He said “yes, and your English is much better too.”

See this.

4. Practise

This is like the best-guarded secret of public speaking. Practise. Out loud. Address the cushions in your living room. You’ll feel like an idiot at first. But you do not want the first time that you hear your talk to be when you’re in front of a big crowd. My cushions hear a lot.

My flute teacher used to say that “The difference between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs practise until they get it right. Professionals practise until they don’t get it wrong.”

I once gave a super-high pressure talk, for which I was being paid a lot. Mindful of my flute teacher’s advice, I learnt it verbatim.  A good job too: when it came to it, I was losing my voice, we had to decamp from one room to another, one prince flounced out of the room because another prince had allegedly breached some rule of etiquette (I’m not making this up). Because I’d learnt the talk, I could just ‘put the tape on’ and focus on the audience in the room – and getting the waiting staff to bring me water all the time so I could literally speak – and not worry about the content.

When I spoke at my mum’s funeral – obviously a high-risk idea – I practised my talk so well that two years later I still know it verbatim. I practised it in three churches (‘hello, my mum’s funeral is next week: do you mind if I just practice my address in your church for half an hour?’) and in my head constantly for the fortnight beforehand.

5. Think, breathe, speak

This is the central advice from RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Use that in your Q&A session – and tricky meetings.

6. The slides

Oh man. The slides. They can kill your talk.

First, think how many of the slides you’ve seen in your life you can remember. That is about the chance that any of your slides will be remembered. You can probably bin at least half of them.

Second, they’re there to serve you, you’re not there to serve them. If you don’t need a visual, have the screen blank (make a black side: a slide with a massive black box covering the whole area). See my TED talk. Then, when you need the screen again, it’s way more striking.

Third, remember that you’re talking to the audience, not to the slides. You shouldn’t need to see the slide (except instantaneously to check that it’s there): you should know what’s on it.

Malcolm Miller, the expert in the windows of Chartres cathedral, gives all his talks about them with his back to them. “In the third pane from the left, on the fourth level from the top”. But then, unlike you, he doesn’t have to check that his visuals are still there 😉

Fourth, have a slide at the end with your contact details on.

——I hope that this was helpful! ——

Since I wrote this article, various people have written with their presenting tips. They include these:

Always, but ALWAYS go to the lectern beforehand, table or wherever else you are speaking, and check:

  • the trip hazards en route – and back
  • the table or lectern height
  • ditto the mic
  • that any notes won’t fall off the lectern (and number each page if you do use notes, for when they do fall off)
  • that the lighting is OK and you will be able to see & read
  • that ideally you can see a clock
  • + test your voice in the room.


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