Some Things I’ve Learned About Public Speaking

There are certain experts you can’t learn much from.

You know these people. The naturals. They’re born with God-given talent. You can’t teach talent.

Brad Pitt can’t teach you how to be charismatic and good-looking. He was born with those traits.

I find it more helpful to learn from someone who acquired a skill they weren’t born with. Maybe they struggled a bit. They might not be the best in the world but they’ve gone through the process and improved.

That’s me with public speaking.

I know some people who love public speaking. I know others who would rather eat glass.

I used to get nervous about giving a presentation in front of 20 people in a college class.

This week, I spoke in front of 5,000 Italian financial advisors at their annual conference in Turin, Italy.1

I’ve been doing five or six speaking gigs a year for the past decade or so.

Here are some things I’ve learned about public speaking from this experience:

Know your audience. I’ve spoken to investment groups, financial advisor groups, women’s groups, college/high school classes and more.

I don’t change my overall ideas but it certainly helps to tailor your message to the crowd. I also ask these organizations for topics that will resonate with their audience.

It doesn’t hurt to ask people what they want so you don’t have to guess.

Keep it Simple. This was my second time speaking in Italy. The majority of the attendees spoke only Italian, so there was a translator.

When translating into another language, you must ensure that each word counts and distill your ideas to their most basic level. Simplify was the name of the game for this audience.

That’s a good lesson for all public speaking.

Don’t try to be Jerry Seinfeld. I’ve tried to lead off speeches with a joke before. It rarely works.

Icebreakers are nice, but you have to remember that you’re not Chris Rock out there. Making an audience laugh is harder than it sounds.

My biggest laughs usually come from a funny story or finance-based one-liner, not jokes with a punchline.

You don’t have to take yourself so seriously on stage but you don’t want to make everything a joke either.

It’s all about timing.

Take your time. I’ve always been a fast talker and fast reader when I present so I constantly have to remind myself to slow it down.

It’s not a race.

Speak like you talk. There’s a difference between being a polished speaker and having your speech memorized.

It’s much harder to show emotion if your entire speech sounds like you’re reading it from a script. You don’t want to be a robot.

I like using bullet points to stay on track but avoid reading off slides or notecards.

Podcasting helped me a lot with this. It’s much easier to show some personality if you present like you talk. It’s just a more theatrical version of yourself.2

Practice makes you better. I do multiple run-throughs ahead of time for every speaking gig. You can’t just wing it.

It also helps to practice out loud instead of simply reading your notes. Some words and phrases sound better on paper than the spoken word.

The best speakers sound so natural because they put in the hard work ahead of time.

Don’t give a lecture. Tell stories. How many lectures from school do you remember? If you’re like me, it’s slim to none.

Now think about how many stories you remember.

Too many words on a slide is a bad idea because it makes the audience read instead of listening to what you’re saying.

My general presentation rules of thumb are as follows:

  • Stories > Visuals > Data > Words

People remember stories, not statistics.

Always leave time for questions. The audience wants to be included. Q&A is a good way to banter and show some personality as well.

Finish strong. Most stand-up specials that last an hour pack in all of the good jokes in the first 20-30 minutes. Then there’s typically a lull in the back half before a strong finish that circles back to an earlier joke or story.

It’s important to leave your audience with some concluding thoughts or actionable advice that sums up the main points of your talk.

I might not have the greatest delivery in the world, so I make up for it with useful takeaways.

Get some reps. The good news is you can get better at public speaking!

The more events I do, the less nervous I get and the better my delivery. I like to pay attention during a talk to see which slides, stories, or visuals get the most head nods, laughs or interested looks.

The ones that don’t get thrown into the recycle bin.

Like most things in life, talking is a skill that can be improved upon the more often you do it.

Putting in the reps helps.

Further Reading:
Trying Not to Get Lost in Translation

1Beautiful city. The river walk was fantastic. Cafes, bars, restaurants and entertainment right next to the water. I also spent a day in Milan and it’s easily one of the coolest cities I’ve ever visited.

2The other nice thing about podcasts is more events are looking to recreate that format by doing more Q&As as opposed to presentations. Conversations are often more useful to the audience than a presentation.

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