Help Me Speak Pretty
March 12, 2012 8:50 PM   Subscribe

How do you give a presentation with confidence, without reading your notes word-for-word?

I've always been really shy and find that I can't really speak in front of an audience unless I memorize a speech word-for-word. This works OK if I don't make any flubs, but I'd like some insight into how more natural speakers give a more conversational speech, i.e. without having to constantly having to refer to notes.

I think this *might* have to do with trusting your audience. I usually perceive people as being hyper-critical, which is perhaps why I feel like I can't take a moment to connect with what I'm saying--instead I feel I have to keep the speech going at a clip without hesitations, hence memorizing word-for-word.

Natural speakers, what is talking in front of an audience like for you? Any insights welcome.
posted by oceanview to Human Relations (29 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
posted by empath at 8:55 PM on March 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yeah, practice it out loud, at home on pets or family or friends, driving in the car. Rehearse it in your head.

I was so terrified of addressing a group in college that the first time I had to make a presentation in class, my lips trembled and I froze up! Then after a few years teaching and doing outdoor education, I just got really comfortable with it. People are on your side. If you respect them, and you are prepared, they won't be feeling critical. People are not in your presentation to critique; they want to hear what you have to say.

A communications teacher at my job last year shared a good tip - before you start, stand in front of the group, breathe, smile, and look around. You usually would feel intense pressure to leap in and start talking, but she recommended just taking a moment to be present in the room, connect with a few people in the group, and gather yourself. Then, begin. It's a great tip and I think makes presentations more authentic.

I find it very, very important to keep looking around the room. Find a few different faces in a few different quadrants and return to them as you shift your gaze around the room. Some people wear friendly expressions and they can be good touchstones when you start to feel panicky - look back at the calm, friendly faces.
posted by Miko at 8:59 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

First of all, practice. That is really what makes for great smooth confident presentations. Practice, refine, etc.

Second, have a great outline.
This way you can have your full presentation stored in your mind in "chunks" - logical units that add up to the story you want to tell. The specific way you describe/convey each unit can vary, but the organization of the units does not change - it's always 1, 2, 3 etc. For each unit, you have a single very clear point that needs to be made, and then you also have details. Ideally you'll get the details right, but if one gets messed up, it's not the end of the world.

When beginning and ending each unit, at those transition points, you use very clear "signposting" language, recapping the story so far and telling us what is next: "So, we've just seen what the study included. Now, let's turn to the results" or "Until this point we have been talking about ancient languages, but now I want to look at a modern case to see if the same features occur today."

That way you are guaranteed to have a clear overall presentation even if something gets confused in your description of one of the units.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:02 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

The main thing: Really really really knowing and understanding what you're talking about. This is WAY easier than just having your speech really well memorized. In the same way that you can 'just talk' in a conversation because in a conversation you know what you want to communicate, just knowing what the point is that you want to make in your speech allows you to be flexible/flowing with it.

Practice becomes much less important when you just know what you want to get across.
posted by Kololo at 9:02 PM on March 12, 2012 [15 favorites]

I never use notes when I present, I try not to even plan what I say. I put together a slide deck that triggers the thoughts I want to talk about and I just go... practice is indeed the way to get conversationally comfortable with the points you want to make.

Part of your hangup might be characterizing your presentation as a speech. You're just talking about something, hopefully something you know a lot about. I find trying to plan what I want to say just messes me up. Get big, colorful slides that make your points, then talk about them! And definitely, as Miko said, find your faces you can rely on in your crowd. Hardest talk I ever gave was a dutch conference center with darkened audience and bright lights... couldn't see anyone to see if I was getting across the language barrier.
posted by ulotrichous at 9:03 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

The audience wants you to succeed, generally speaking. They have invested some small amount of time or attention in you and so they want to get something out of it and that usually makes them feel better if you do better. I am pretty natural in front of an audience. Some of this is practice. Some of this is confidence that if something goes weird I can get back on track. Some of this is knowing that if I take decent care of myself beforehand I will be in a good position [well rested, well fed, well dressed] to do a good job. Some of this is making sure that I only do public speaking in situations where I can do all of the things I mentioned before. Usually I work from an outline. Each bullet point of my outline [which is usually hidden notes in my slides or on a piece of paper] has a few sentences associated with it that I can talk about and so I usually just think in terms of timing [i.e. this slide for two minutes, this slide for three minutes, talk about this for a minute] and keep up with it in my mind and keeping one eye on the clock.

This way I feel that I can compress or expand on things if I perceive my audience is really into one part or really not into another part. And this way it's clear that I am prepared [sometimes I think audiences can get crabby if they feel that their time is being wasted when people don't prepare at all] which is important as Miko says. Look for the smiling nodders and get a little energy from them as you go. Keep telling yourself to talk more slowly because that usually projects calmness even if you're not calm. Have a few pauses, not long "I can't remember stuff" but just "think on that for a bit" spaces.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 PM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've done a lot of presentations, and a lot of it is being comfortable.

First up, remember that most speeches and presentations are incredibly pointless and/or dull, so that's the only bar you have to clear. Not high - you can cover it by knowing your stuff and being comfortable. Easy to learn!

Giving a speech starts the moment you enter the room, including the bit where you're just sitting around waiting for it to start. Look around the room at the people in a friendly way, encompass them, get comfortable with them. These are the people you're going to be talking to, and they want to listen to you.

As you continue, you want to get used to sweeping your attention around the room, so you're looking at everyone in turn. Not staring them out, but sort of charging them up with your attention. That way you'll have a feel for when attention is flagging, or if someone's got a question.

(I personally take questions as I go, and tell people that it's fine to interrupt me. You're there to impart knowledge, and that's often the best way to do it. But you may find it easier to do it at the end.)

So that's the 'vibe' part - for the content part - reading it out word for word makes it very hard to listen to, not least because we don't generally write like we speak. Instead, I recommend speaking from bullet points. Summarise your paragraphs into a single line then use the line as a speaking note. You can practice by looking around a room as you speak.

But content is less important than ... putting out energy, for want of a better way of putting it. TIme you're not spending meeting people's eyes is time that energy is draining away.

One last point - check your speech for voiced pauses, like um and ah. There should be none - just pause, instead. It will feel weird, but is amazingly effective - by 'umming' you're saying 'don't listen to me', by pausing you're making people lean forward - creating anticipation.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:05 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Less like Bach, more like Kind of Blue?

I'll let you decide for yourself how much teaching (which is what I do) parallels what you're doing. But I noticed I got a LOT better when I shifted my focus away from making a detailed plan and executing it perfectly to having more of an outline and filling in the details in real time, and responding to emerging circumstances.

I notice this with episodes of This American Life, when you hear Ira Glass talking. He stutters a bit and pauses, and it doesn't sound rehearsed, or like he's reading a script. It heightens the sense of intimacy.
posted by alphanerd at 9:06 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing to remember is that your audience doesn't know what's in your notes, so they'll have no idea if you missed anything. If you don't make slides full of bullet points that you dully read off, not only will you not bore your audience with redundant information, but they'll have no idea if you skipped anything.

Also, create a story, create a little bit of suspense. You didn't say what your speech is about, but one thing I really find compelling in lectures that I watch online (and I watch a lot of them) is when the person giving the speech presents an anecdote that represents a problem, and says something like:

"This is actually something that stumped scientists for decades, and it turns out the answer was extremely elegant and simple. I'll get to the answer in a little bit, but first I need to talk a about [some tangentially related subject]." That hooks people in to what you're saying, and they'll be engaged trying to figure out how one thing connects to the other.

If you have a well crafted story in your presentation, you'll find that all the pieces come naturally together in your mind as you're retelling it.
posted by empath at 9:19 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I give a lot of talks and what's helped me is going entirely to oversized graphics: a really fabulous photo, diagram or graph. Only one or two words per slide (none for the diagrams and graphs). This helps me:
  • adapt the content based on audience interest, whatever the previous speaker presented, etc.;
  • answer questions as they arise without mumbling about how I have a slide later that addresses that point or, later, flipping quickly by slides (too fast for the audience to read them) while apologizing for having already covered that content;
  • work in a forgotten point later without the audience being any the wiser;
  • avoid getting stale if I have to do the same presentation several times;
  • modulate the time spent on each slide such that I end, without any apparent effort, exactly on time with a few minutes left over for questions. This makes the audience feel like you cared enough to be organized and that they received a complete presentation;
  • provide handouts that are useful to people who didn't see the presentation (versus providing a printout of the PowerPoint show), which makes them more effective as marketing materials.

    Just last week someone came up to the podium after I gave a talk to say she'd seen me present another topic two years ago and it made her change her approach to slide decks. Made my day.

  • posted by carmicha at 9:53 PM on March 12, 2012

    Oh and if you can use your own laptop, get one of the many apps that allow you to use your smartphone to advance the slides. The better ones show you both the current slide and the next slide. Your transitions will improve dramatically and appear effortless: no more brief pauses while you advance the slide and then look at it to refresh your memory about it.
    posted by carmicha at 10:00 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

    As someone who presents for a living, I can definitely agree with the responses about knowing your topic. What I try to do is connect the dots for the audience, to help make it relevant to them. Try asking questions of your audience. You'll be amazed the first time you can step out of "presenter mode" and become more conversational.

    Ask something like "Who here has ever experienced a situation where..." whatever you're talking about. Pick someone with their hand up and ask them their name (repeat it), ask them about that situation. Relate that back to the point you are trying to make. IF no one raises their hand, don't worry, just try it again later. Or recall a conversation you had with someone prior to the talk. It could be your audience just needs to relax just as much as you (seem to) need to.

    Also since you specifically mention hesitations: Pauses are... good. Your audience is not waiting for you to take a breath and then run out of the room doubting your credibility. People are always speaking faster than they think they are, so s l o w d o w n. Look around the room during the pauses. Nod and smile, implying "Are you getting this? Is it making sense?" But be careful of being that presenter who gets lost and has his/her nose buried in notecards trying to remember where they are. THAT will lose a crowd.
    posted by punocchio at 10:07 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

    I'm a very shy person and I have great difficulty in just talking to people I don't know. Because of this, I used to do what you do when I started having to give presentations - write an entire speech out word for word, memorise it and make palm cards to make sure I didn't screw up. It didn't work and made me even more nervous because I was worried that I would lose my place or something.

    Once I 'let go' of all that, I very quickly became much more comfortable as a speaker and therefore became a much better speaker. If you're like me and a combination of introvert and control freak, that letting go can be tough, but it's worth the effort. I've spoken to groups from 10 up to 300 and have always got very positive feedback.

    I never prepare any sort of detailed notes for a presentation and never prepare detailed slides (there's no point in reading out 50 PowerPoint slides word for word - might as well just hand out a printed copy and not waste everyone's time). I prepare a slide for each point that is sufficient to remind the audience what it was about if they refer to the presentation later and to remind me what order I want to talk about things. Remember that people have come to hear you speak, not recite something they could read at home. If you have to give the same presentation to different audiences, it's much easier to vary the content for different groups etc that way, also.

    I tend to ignore a podium and microphone wherever I can (unless the room is big enough that this doesn't work and a lapel mike isn't available) because I think it feels a lot more like a conversation that way than a speech. Managing your time is important and I use a hand-held remote (an older version of this) that not only allows me to control the slides (and blank them out when I want to talk for a while without distractions and point at stuff), but has a timer function that tells me how long I've been speaking and vibrates with increasing insistence when my time is nearly up.

    Looking around the room and engaging with your audience is critical, as others have mentioned. Have fun and remember they are all there to hear what you have to say, so speak up and say it!
    posted by dg at 10:08 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Know your subject cold. Write out the main points you want to get across. Go.
    posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:21 PM on March 12, 2012

    Expanding on what JohnnyGunn said. sometimes I think it's helpful to talk out my topic with someone who doesn't know much about it. To explain what the theme is and then have them ask me questions about it which I can answer [why is this important, why should I care, why are you the person who is telling me about this, what can I do] so that I feel that I know my way around the topic generally. This can help you feel a little less likely to have trouble if you fall off the edge of your notes or otherwise get a little lost. You can keep the questions you want to answer in mind, know your topic cold and then you'll be fine no matter what comes up.

    So, if you're happier writing out your speech, by all means do it, but then see if you can remember how it generally goes by giving yourself a cue of, for example, just the first sentence of each paragraph and then speak the rest more from memory. If I'm giving a very serious talk [most of the ones I give are less formal] often practice over Skype and do the talk a few different ways and then write down the versions that I thought were more useful and try to stick to it more or less when I go to give the talk. Once you've done the public speaking thing long enough that it begins to be old hat, you'll feel better straying off your notes more and more, but at first just try to be able to do the talk without clinging to them and then move further and further away as you go.
    posted by jessamyn at 11:23 PM on March 12, 2012

    Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Can't be said often enough. If you have the time, think about joining toastmasters. None of the excellent advice given here will work unless you practice it.

    what punocchio says is great advice - get the audience to interact, even just a show of hands. This will relax you and engage them.
    posted by Touchstone at 2:29 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    From experience, vocalization trumps memorization; one of the best ways to sound natural, though, is only to have about 75% of it down pat (certainly your key points and major transitions) and leave the rest relatively loose.

    Other things: preparation isn't only about practice. To what extent are you hoping to inform, and to what extend persuade? Presentations generally have elements of both, but in the case of the one you are planning now, which is more critical?

    To make it go really well, you need some sort of "micro-message" running throughout the presentation: the one thing that you want your audience to take away from hearing you talk. What is it?

    The best book on presentation preparation that I know if is this one: The presentation coach, by Graham Davies. ISBN: 978-0857080448

    Good luck with it!
    posted by Prof Iterole at 3:24 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I help presenters develop customized presentations and I train them in delivery.
    I can tell you that a lot of practice is not the best prep for a presentation. Intense practice encourages speakers to hang on to words they have memorized which makes for a boring and tense presentation -- god forbid there's a tech glitch or you drop a card during a highly-rehearsed delivery, ugh. What you want is NATURAL. As Kololo said, it's more about knowing and internalizing the story you want to tell. Here are a few more basic tips!

    #1: Think of times you have been an audience member. All you want is for the person taking that stage to do well. You have never watched a presenter take the podium and thought, "Oh boy, I hope she messes up!" The best speakers know the audience is on their side from before they even open their mouths because if you are uncomfortable speaking I AM UNCOMFORTABLE in my seat. Believe me, they are on your side! This is a revelation to most green presenters.

    #2: Get up there and own your space. Take a full 15-20 seconds to set yourself. Arrange the water, the papers, the mike. Do not drop your head and instantly launch. 15 seconds will feel like forever to you, but it's absolutely no time at all and you will have brought the audience to you without doing one thing.

    #3: Before you begin, look around at the audience. Pick out faces. Make tiny connections around the room. If you know someone, nod at them. Pretend you have walked in to your favorite joint, and are casing it for your friends.

    #4: Come out from behind the podium if there is one. If you can't make yourself do that, DO NOT TOUCH THE PODIUM if you are nervous -- your body language will telegraph to everyone in the room. Bring a pen, a pointer, or fiddle with rocks in your pocket. Just don't grip the podium.

    #5: Deliver chunks of thought to individual audience members. Say your piece to a single person, not a sea of eyes. Finish the thought, pivot your body, find another set of eyes and deliver the next thought. Move around.

    I could go on forever! Good luck, it's actually kind of addictive (hence, the whole acting thing) once you master some very basic tricks of the trade.
    posted by thinkpiece at 4:36 AM on March 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

    Also, dropping a card, messing up a thought, stuttering or mangling a word, clarifying, backtracking, adding something you left out, needing a drink of water -- these are all natural and normal. The audience won't even notice them if you just roll on just as you would talking with a friend. It's when you get thrown by "normal" that the audience tenses up with you.
    posted by thinkpiece at 4:39 AM on March 13, 2012

    Kololo and dg. what they said. And thinkpiece.

    I'm typically uncomfortable in front of an audience. Practicing will just make you self-conscious, I've found.

    You need to know your subject. Not better than everyone else, but where you can talk about it with someone one-on-one.

    If you can do that, structuring your presentation is a key part. It should develop as a story, that would align with how you'd talk about the subject with someone one-on-one that you're introducing to the topic, or trying to convince of your final outcome/decision/opinion.

    Use pictures in your presentation, with limited bulletted lists. You'll be less likely to just read off the slide, and you can talk to the picture that way.

    Definitely don't stand behind the podium. Walk around, ask for a wireless mike for a big room. For a small room, just make sure to project your voice. Use a hand-held mic if that's all they have.

    You're the one with the info. They asked you to present because you know the stuff. Give your opinion, show how interested you are in the topic and why it's cool and interesting.

    I work a lot on the prsentation, to make sure it flows well in creating a story, then wing it when speaking about it. I'll bullet key points I want to make, especially if there is specific data that I think needs focus.
    posted by rich at 6:26 AM on March 13, 2012

    Try practicing your presentation by printing out your slides and sitting down with them and a good friend and a (bottle of wine/6-pack of beer). Don't think of it as "practicing your speech" think of it as "showing your friend what you've been working on". The whole point of most talks is that they're explanations of a concept, so use your slides to explain your concept to your friend in a one-on-one setting that you don't have to be nervous about. Then the talk itself is nothing more than explaining your concept to a big group of people who are in "polite audience" mode and are much less likely to give you crap than your tipsy friend was.

    Advice #2 - do something that involves performing. Like improv. Like open-mike nights. Like karaoke. Work on it till you're doing these performances someplace that there's an audience. Then when you stand up to give your talk, part of your brain is saying "this isn't so bad, at least I'm not singing Joan Jett covers".
    posted by aimedwander at 6:33 AM on March 13, 2012

    A friendly audience goes a long way towards comfort for a good speech and the abandoning of notes.

    You sound like a shy intellectual, and therefore, you might be nervous about "hecklers" - an all too common occurence in public speaking. Try and vett the individuals in your audience. If you find potential saboteurs, see if you can have them removed in advance. Learn the name of at least one of the security personnel in the room (call him by his name if you need a participant ejected quickly). This is your speech, you have every right controlling the setting.

    You also might be concerned about your personal safety when presenting, and this can be tremendously distracting. Elect to only speak where the facilities have metal detectors or such things in place. Make sure the entryways to the stage from which you will be speaking have no blind spots, and have people posted at the ends of the stage stairs in case a protestor tries to rush the stage.

    Finally, if your topic is controversial, go with a an invite-only guest list, and broadcast the rest via live streaming. You cannot be accused of censoring feedback this way. You must always protect yourself, which is just as important as protecting the thoughts and ideas you are bringing forth.
    posted by Kruger5 at 7:15 AM on March 13, 2012

    Does it have to be a one-way speech? The best way to feel good about your audience is to get them involved by asking them lots of thought-provoking questions during the "presentation."

    Before: "As this slide shows, discombobulation makes the widget perform better at high altitudes. Discombobulation consists of..."

    After: Show a widget. Say, "Let's say that we want to use this widget at a high altitude. Will it work the same?" (wait for answer) "What should we change about it?" (wait for several suggestions) Show the discombobulated widget. "What's different about this widget?" and so forth.

    Presenting is a big part of my business. I use this technique even for keynote "presentations" and it works. The example I've shown is for an informational presentation but the same technique works for motivational stuff. Your goal is to have the audience uncover the message themselves, thanks to your questions. You won't be able to worry about people being hyper-critical because you'll be too busy having a friendly conversation with them.
    posted by ceiba at 8:32 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Overwhelmingly most public speaking situations are to a friendly interested audience where there is no danger. In most public speaking situations, trying to remove audience members in advance, check them for weapons, or include people by invite only and let others watch by video would be extreme and bizarre overreaction.

    Maybe OP is delivering politically-heated presentations, but that seems like something they would have mentioned in their question. But for more than 99% of presentation-givers, those suggestions are out of place and read as some kind of pointed parody.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 10:32 AM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

    2nd those who say not to memorize. And when in doubt, COUGH. You cough, you take a sip of water, and in that time you've gathered yourself and you're ready again.
    posted by one4themoment at 10:33 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    [folks, please try to answer the question being asked and not whatever scenario you envision, thank you.]
    posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:53 PM on March 13, 2012

    As Touchstone suggests, Toastmasters. Also, after doing the practice everyone recommends, write down your fears 10 minutes before the speech. This technique of cognitive distribution has been researched and found to be very effective. Moreover, I use it with great success when I speak in front of groups, which is often.
    posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 4:11 PM on March 13, 2012

    Practice, Practice, Practice. The worst thing you can do is either read or memorize. What has worked for me:

    1. I make "talking points" This is essentially a bullet point list of everything I want to remember to say. I rarely refer to it unless I have a brain fart, but it's comforting to have. This is not a detailed outline at all but rather a real quick and dirty bulleted list of every point I want to make.

    2. Join toastmasters --- there's certainly a local chapter near you and gives you a place to practice where there's nothing at stake.

    3. Tape record yourself. I used to have a lot of pauses and ums etc. and now that's improved because I tape record myself practicing and make not of the ums etc and then practice again until I get rid of the ums. My mother got over near paralyzing stage fright by recording herself reading her poems. It really, really helps some people.

    Good luck
    posted by bananafish at 5:25 PM on March 13, 2012

    Also, if you are relying on PowerPoint or similar for your talking points, take a printed copy with you or have a copy some other way that you can use if the projector or associated equipment fails. I was giving a presentation at a workshop last week and the projector died during an earlier speaker's turn and the replacement projector didn't work, so the next couple of speakers had to ad-lib until a second replacement was brought in. Fortunately, I had a copy of mine on my iPad, so I could have delivered the presentation easily.
    posted by dg at 5:54 PM on March 13, 2012

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