I do not consider myself as an exceptional public speaker or orator, but as an educator I do make a serious effort to prepare for my public talk, so that I can manage to impart as much knowledge as possible to my audience, and that they would enjoy the talk I plan to deliver. My main objective as a public speaker has always been to impart useful knowledge to my audience, rather than to dazzle or mesmerize them. In other words, you do not have to be a natural orator to be an effective public speaker.
It is important to always think of the message you intend to deliver to your audience. Being an eloquent speaker, of which I am not, helps tremendously in getting an undivided attention from your audience, but it does not guarantee that they will also learn from your talk. Eloquence can be very entertaining but sometimes what you say enters a listener’s right ear and exits through his left ear. At the end of the day, they learn little from your talk. A good example are fiery political speeches with few take home messages.
Here are a few tips I have acquired in trying to deliver an effective public talk:
1) Having fear of public speaking is very normal. To overcome this fear, focus on the idea or message that you want to convey, rather than the words you want to say. Focusing on your idea or message will let the words flow freely out of your mouth. When you are lost for words, just pause and do not panic. Refocus yourself on your idea and message and the right words will come to your mind.
2) Dress decently for your talk. I have seen some speakers at international scientific conferences wearing sandals and jeans. It is acceptable in certain circles. However, your outlook influences your audience’s first impression of you, and you want their first impression of you to be good.
3) Use powerpoint (ppt) slides if possible. I find that the best background for my ppt slides would be white, with a colorful logo of your affiliation in color at the corner of the slide, and black or dark blue fonts.
4) Go over your ppt slides and what you want to say the night before your talk. Focus on the idea and message that you want to deliver.
5) Know who your audience are. This is very important as you do not want to be under or over technical in your talk. Therefore, always ask the organizer who your audience would be. If it will be a mixed audience, you need to cater to the majority group in your audience. However, make sure you have some general information for everyone in your audience.
6) Begin your talk by thanking the organizer for the invitation to speak at the occasion if you are an invited speaker. If not, thank them for the opportunity to speak.
7) Break the ice. Say something polite yet casual to calm you down and loosen up the audience. Say something like this is your first trip to this city, or your first opportunity to address a professional group, or whatever is appropriate. Avoid being sarcastic though.
8) In one ppt slide, give bullet points of what you want to say. I usually title this slide “Outline of talk.” It gives your audience a glimpse of what you want to say and prepare them for your talk.
9) Be aware of your “take home messages” you want your audience to leave the lecture hall with and take home with them. If you can manage to accomplish this, then you have delivered a successful talk. An example of a take home message would be that “smoking will not only kills you through active smoking, but also your loved ones through passive smoking.” Yes, this message is also meant for any reader who is a smoker and reading this post.
10) Make eye contact with your audience when you speak. Some speakers just look at their computer screen or their projected slide on the screen without making eye contact with their audience. This is a bad mistake as your audience would feel disconnected from you and would lose interest in your talk. Once in a while, scan through the audience as if you are looking at each one of them.
11) Cracking a few unoffensive jokes is good to kill the monotony in your talk, but do not overdo yourself as some level of seriousness is important to maintain formality and to send the message to the audience that you are serious in what you have to say. Then again, too dry a talk will leave your audience bored.
12) Relate to your own experience if any. Audience like to hear something from the horse’s mouth. It gives you the authority and credibility in what you have to say. If you have little personal experience on the subject matter, you can still deliver a good talk by doing good research before your talk and quoting reliable sources for your information.
13) Whenever necessary always footnote the sources of your information, especially when you are giving definition, data, tables and figures.
14) Have the right number of ppt slides for your talk. The rule of thumb I use is 1.5 minutes per slide. So, for a 30 minute talk, you should have about 20 slides or a maximum of 25 slides. I have seen professors with 100 slides to cover a 45 minute talk. The mistake speakers usually make is to have more slides than they actually need because they always fear that they will not have enough slides to cover their talk. What will happen is that they will run out of time and they will either rush through their slides of skip them. Your audience will think that you were ill-prepared for the talk. Just remember that it is perfectly alright to finish your talk slightly early, but a disaster to run over your allocated time.
15) Arrange your ppt slides in a logical order. The order of your slides is just as important as their content, as you need to satisfy both prerequisites to tell a good story.
16) Your collection of slides should not comprise of only tables, figures, diagrams and pictures, which are good to have as a picture tells a thousand words. They should be interjected with slides that contain texts to guide your audience through your “story telling.” It is also fine to embed a small photo or diagram in a slide with text.
17) Do not crowd or overload your ppt slides. Use bullet points and be brief in your texts.
18) If you run out of time, just summarize and stop. Do not take up the time of the speaker after you. That would be considered a serious crime in public speaking, especially at international conferences.
19) Summarize your talk. At the end of your talk, it is nice to summarize your talk in one ppt slide to recap what you have outlined in your “Outline of talk” slide.
20) It is polite to thank your audience for listening, and to tell them that you hope that they have benefited from your talk.
Good luck in your public speaking. Once you get the hang of it, it can actually be fun. It would be fun when you begin to start looking forward to your next public talk. I have one coming up in the middle of this month.
You are most welcome to share this information if you like.
Prof. Dr. Jamal Hisham Hashim
United Nations University-International Institute for Global Health
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Provenue Corporation Sdn Bhd
Subang Jaya, Malaysia