Public speaking, for undersocialized geeks like us

Every decent university in the US will require you to give a presentation for nearly half of the classes you take.  There is a reason for this.  Presentation skills are important.  They are really important and they are in short supply in some industries.

Back in college, I recall a CS course that I took.  We had a group project and we had to present it to the class.  During the students’ presentations, most of them were making sounds like “uh” and “um” and various combinations of those sounds repeatedly.  You could tell they had not prepared.  A week prior to the presentation, when the professor put us into groups, I pressed my group, saying that we needed to practice 5 times (or more) until it felt natural and it just flowed out of us.  Practicing didn’t take up much time and the practice turned out to be fun.  After our presentation, the professor asked the class if something seemed different about our presentation; did anything stand-out?  The class agreed that it was pretty obvious that we had prepared and practiced.  We seemed comfortable and the words flowed smoothly.  We set the curve for that assignment.

Ironically, I am terrified of presenting.  In high-school, I failed speech class twice and finally passed when I was allowed to take a remedial public communications class.  A decade ago, a colleague persuaded me to teach a course at GRCC.  On the first night of the course, I was so nervous that I nearly went unconscious.  The room filled with fireflies, turned gray and then gradually, I started getting tunnel-vision.  These are all sign that you are going to pass-out.  Next step was going to be gravity starting to spin backwards and then I would bite the turf and wake up surrounded by shocked students. Can you imagine if one of your professors had fainted from nerves.  OMG!  That would be so epic!  I gripped the desk, got a little closer to the desktop (just in case) and just kept speaking from memory.  I had practiced that two-hour lecture 12 times over the past 2 weeks.  I could do it in my sleep, under water, backwards.  All of that practicing saved my hide.  The nervousness subsided after an hour and I was able to give the rest of the lectures with no problems.

How good is good enough?

How many of your teachers/professors/leaders have been dull or irritating?  How many have been captivating and delightful?  You probably learned more from the good presenters.  A super-smart person who stinks at presenting is such a sad thing, because it is so hard to pay attention and learn.  Some of the smartest people you know might not have good communication skills.  Now imagine if they did.  Wow!  How awesome would that be?  Imagine what you could learn from them.  Imagine what others could learn from them.

I recognized that public speaking is very important.  If I ever come up with something intelligent to say, I hope people will want to listen. I’d like to be in the top 50% of presenters that people know (not in the bottom 50%).  That should be achievable.

Getting started

I started by studying the good presenters and the bad ones.  What was it that made the good ones so captivating?  When did my mind wander and when did it come back?  Why couldn’t I stay focused on the dull ones? What was their magic “attention repellant” made from?

After all of my analysis and research, this is what I have found.  Apply this and you should find yourself in the top 50% (not too bad, IMO):

  1. A presentation should be informative and entertaining.  If it is not both, then your audience will not appreciate it as much.
  2. Prepare.  You may think you have a natural talent and do your best thinking on your feet.  You are wrong.  You can always tell when someone is unprepared.  It is rare among professionals, but more common among amateurs.  If you don’t prepare, you will sound unprepared.  If your presentation is important enough to give, then it is important enough to prepare for it.  You should even prepare for a 1 minute status in a department meeting.  Be prepared.  Always!
  3. Practice, practice, practice.  If it doesn’t feel right, then practice some more.  You will find that every time you practice, you will want to make some little tweaks in your presentation.  This is called polishing and it makes a gigantic difference.  Just think how you would have sounded without all of that polish.  It most-certainly will pay off.
  4. Weave some funny quips in there.  Your audience may tire after a while.  A little humor or good story telling will reel them back-in and regain their attention.  Be willing to take a chance and seem a little silly sometimes but DO NOT get carried away.  Always be professional and don’t say/do anything that could get you in trouble with HR. That is unforgivable.
  5. Visual aids. People like to read books with pictures.  They don’t like PowerPoint slides as much (because they start reading the words instead of listening to you).  Be prepared.  Funny pictures are extra points, as long as they aren’t offensive.

Delivery, like a pro

Once you have assembled an excellent presentation, there is one last hurdle to overcome: delivering the presentation. Here are the things that I do, that ensure smoothness and confidence:

  • Recon your presentation area. If you need a projector or internet (or whatever) and you show up and that stuff is broken, it can break your momentum (or maybe throw you into a panic). Don’t let it catch you by surprise. If possible, do a “dress rehearsal” in the same room, to make sure everything will work. If that is not an option, maybe you can do a fly-by, or show up early and take a peek or set-up early. Also, have a backup-plan in case of technical difficulties (and by “backup-plan”, I don’t mean: prepare a lame excuse. You can do better, if take it seriously and prepare seriously).
  • Get in the zone. Practice for the half-hour before your presentation. It will get your momentum moving in the right direction. It will also prevent you from spending that half-hour, getting yourself all nervous and worked up. Focus on the task in front of you, and retain that focus.
  • Nervousness. This isn’t high school. Your colleagues are not going to heckle you. Be honest with yourself: you already did steps 1-5 (above), and the previous 2 bullet-points. You are fully prepared and it will show. Remind yourself of that. Also, your colleagues really do want to hear what you have to say. You are going to be great and they will be impressed at how polished and confident you will be. Your preparation was an investment that is about to pay-off. So, relax.

The most important thing

I can’t stress the preparation and practicing enough.  IT IS EVERYTHING!  You may be really good at other stuff, so maybe you think that you can wait till the last-minute.  Nope! Don’t do it with public speaking!  If you goof it up (or go unconscious or something) it could be one of those epic moments that you never live-down.  However, if you practice enough and prepare enough, you will seem like a natural.

About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
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