Public Speaking BadAss, Part 1 A Practical Guide to Inspiring Audiences

Dave Speaks! photo by Kris Krug
Dave Speaks! photo by Kris Krug

Note: Draft

Ever since performing alongside my Mom in old folks’ homes as a little leprechaun, I’ve always seemed close to a stage, a lectern or front of a classroom — although it’s never been exactly my job per se. Though working at various high-tech-focused start-ups and participating in the surrounding creative community as a whole, I’ve come across a number of opportunities to share my stories through presentations in front of groups of all kinds. And throughout, i’ve challenged myself with audiences, topics and methods to “increase the degree of difficulty” and, as a result, become more a master of this craft.

I’ve spoken to conferences of Financial Services Ombudsman’s, destination tourism pros, two solo “core conversations” at Austin’s South by Southwest filled with the smartest, techiest people around who i managed to engage and educate despite using no technology expect boardgames, onto conferences for both the dying daily newspaper industry and the still plucky alternative newsweeklies, plus telling stories of revolutions at Toronto’s NxNE after a rock and roll train trip in which i mentored bands, and all other speaking series who would give me stage time including 4 times at Pecha Kucha (including headlining the Vancouver All-Star edition), a killer TEDx romp, dozens of endearing student groups, and all sorts of others.

I’ve never been taught how to do this and I’ve never really read a book about public speaking. I also don’t watch others too closely as i want to create my own way of presenting.

So, for what its worth, here are tactics and distillations of what works for me. I expect you’ll remix, re-envision and re-create your own way and share on with others.

Mantra: Edutainment and Inspiration

First of all, no matter what kind of presentation you’re going to give to whatever kind of audience, you have to think of your chance as a little bit of performance art, not a “talk” not a “presentation” — this is storytime. You’re there to entertain as well as to educate. But there is also a piece of inspiration, that something more that’s going to get people talking about you and what you had to say, which will of course turn into more gigs and more success for your tour or other aspirations. Remember this as you read on. Entertain, Educate, Inspire.

Slides Are Not The Talk

Think about your goal, it isn’t just to tell people about your topic. They can find the information in other forms elsewhere. Your goal is to find a little bit of a state of flow with your audience and take them on a journey. Along the way, they pick up nuggets of knowledge.

To commit to this throughout your talk, I give them something more than they’re expecting.

Here’s how to get them there:

First of all your slides are not your talk. Over the last bunch of years as various presentation software tools emerged with handy pre-planned templates of bulleted lists and flashy transitions, public speaking in the corporate world has (often) turned into reading from bulleted lists over a blue marbled background on a dreaded PowerPoint slide and trying to interpret poorly displayed graphs and apologize for bad clip art. This is ridiculous and should never be done. In fact, this destroys storytelling and i’d suggest is amongst the poorest ways to share information. The inspiration is lost, the entertainment gone in a series of groans from the audience as they spend the time checking emails before flaccid clapping at the end.

Instead, there are many different ways to augment and add a mixed media component to your talk if you choose. Do you play accordion? Bring that up for a little bit. When I saw Josh Fox, a documentary filmmaker sharing stories about the negative impact of “fracking” on health and communities, he lightened the heavy topic with a banjo accompaniment. Unexpected and changed the mood and made for a talk no one spaced out on.

Either way, don’t depend on your slides. Let me give you an example: When I spoke at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas,I knew the audience would include many of the most digitally curious and technologically connected people really on the planet. They’ve all seen the gadgets and gizmos and they have all sat through loads of talks at dozens of conferences that pop up for this industry. So I knew I had to do a little something different.

So instead of a slide deck and a microphone, I went a little “acoustic” as it were and brought an old, timey suitcase (made in Alcatraz with prisoner labour) filled with various props for a talk called “Fck Stats, Make Art.” Some of props were collage art, some hardback books, a smoking jacket, postcards, letters and artifacts all arranged in the suitcase as it corresponded with my talk.

This gave a real intimate tactile experience, as I was able to interact and walk around with these props through the audience which building anticipation about “what would come out next”. People could get an up-close look, pass it around amongst themselves and even participate in an interactive component where they reached into an envelope to pull out a card — the kept the cards as a momento which also provided a reason to come say hello to me and ask more about the image on the cards or just get a signature. These artifacts all supported the educational points which would otherwise lived as a bulleted list on a PowerPoint slide, but instead the “analog” components kept the audience involved in a very tactile way that they weren’t expecting.

It was so much fun that i recreated the vibe two years later at the same conference in which i channelled Mark Twain and shared stories about crowd-sourcing while using Tom Sawyer’s story of white washing the fence as the over-arching metaphor and then articulated the examples of projects with boardgames boards which were liberated and decorated with artifacts. I could stroll the room, in smoking jacket and pipe, while giving up close views who were eager to see the details rather than rolling eyes at a fancy slide transition.

Make Awsum Slides

I often times do use slides, so don’t get me wrong. But these images are meant to be wallpaper, decorations, and inspiration behind you, not to be the notes or the cliff notes of what you’re talking about.

My usual style for slides is simple: one interesting picture which i can build mystery and metaphor around (stretched and bled out to the edges) and three words (usually in white san serif on a black bar towards the bottom of the image. I keep the slides simple and this also gives me a chance to dig into my own photo collection from over the years and pull out all those weird photos that somehow you can tie a story to which has nothing to do with the original image.

My Mom scanned in thousands of childhood photos (including all the dorky ones you’d never want anyone to see) which provided me a rights-cleared stock archive of interesting images which no filters or disclaimers required.

Another way to prepare slides it to “papercraft” each into unique works of art which can “storyboard: your points out with a variety of imagery. And these images all act as reminders of the stories and points to cover without relying on cue cards or teleprompters.

In some cases (i.e. SXSW) when i was in a more intimate sized room, i could walk around or pass around the paper artifacts. The audience were gentle as they realized the care of the construction and could “find their favorite,” take a photo to share because they experienced a physical connection to this information which is usually created and displayed digitally and coldly. Holding something made from scissors and glue creates an entirely new emotional reaction and sensory hit which harkens back to early days when we all used seemingly rudimentary materials for art projects.

The other benefit for you as s speaker (besides having a set of wicked paperpoint slides in your files) is: when preparing the slides, we easily fall into a state of clear understanding of your talk. You’ve spent an hour or more on each slide, so you no longer need the scaffolding of cue cards, the stories are self-evident in the art you’ve created.

When presenting the same talk in a larger venue requiring slide (Pecha Kucha), my pal, the noted photographer @kk, took photos of me in his brick walled loft holding each sign. My hands, my sweater, the wall, and occasionally a bit of my beard appears but, this too allows the audience to see the analog/digital remix process which went into the creation.

Even though I work (often anyhow) in social software technology, and I’m often talking about software, I very, very, rarely ever show a screenshot unless it’s to support a story — and heaven forbid — please never add another pie chart or graph going up and to the right. Those results can be a great thing to tell in your story, or pass along resources that people can download later, but don’t burn a slide on a visual which has lost meaning due to overuse.

Overall, the sentiment that “serious technical information needs to be presented in a linear, serious way which we’ve always done (since Office 95 anyhow)…” to be is simply wrong. I’ve seen engineers, programmers and scientists be candid, insightful, and even funny by tailoring their remarks to the audience in a compelling, calculated manner using stories the attendees could relate to.

Let Robots Help

It used to be at the beginning of talks, the moderator would politely ask, “Please turn off your cellphones, pay attention, and put those laptops down.” But i protest! I want you using devices and amplifying my thoughts and sharing the bits you found useful. Whether they are taking notes, sending tweets, live blogging, mind mapping or drawing pictures, taking photos, whatever — encourage the audience to get up and participate.

Sure at some conferences, there are people who are tuned out and checking their e-mail — I don’t even know why they show up, or others who may get prickly at the rights and atmosphere of capturing media (i.e. they have an “official” photographer who is now where to be seen after taking one shot, posting it a low-resolution and adding a copyright watermark on it, Forget that, i’ll take the snaps from the audience so encourage people to pull out their phones: Ustream in their buddies for a few minutes,;take some Instagrams; and, send out some Tweets.

Make sure you declare a hashtag for your talk. (If you don’t know what this is, that’s the little Twitter thing with a number sign in front of it that allows people to tie into the conversation easily). I often use #daveostory or something simple and not confusing. Also consider displaying a Twitter feed right alongside of your talk where people can add in their comments and their thoughts, and add another dimension to your talk. This scares some presenters and some event promoters as a crappy talk can turn the audience unruly in a hurry and embarrass, insult or disagree with the presenter. Set some ground rules, have a moderator and remind the audience that there “dickhead” comments are public and you’ll be shaming them later.

You’ve heard a million times that people fear public speaking more than… well anything… so the curmudgeon in the audience is likely just letting their inner-jerk out. Roll with it as the benefits of having dozens of hundreds of tweets with your #hashtag and name and thoughts contained within are too valuable to pass up. Suddenly your talk is sorta live everywhere and you’ll know from the reactions, what points hit home and what fell flat.

Wear Your Uniform

I’ve read articles positing that you are supposed to dress “a little bit nicer” than your audience is expected to dress — you are hired help remember. The audience might be at a retreat so they might be business casual, but you should take a step up with a tie and polished shoes.

I don’t really subscribe to this assertion (though I’m sure it rings true for many) because I think any public appearance you make in a (professional or otherwise) capacity as a speaker is an opportunity to show who you really are. Ergo: Show your real personality and show what kind of character you are. What would you usually wear if you were just going out and about on another day out? You don’t want to be too schleppy or casual but think about it this way. Soldiers have their uniform. Athletes have their uniform. And you as a public speaker should have your uniform, too.

In my case, and also there is a mental thing to it where you never have to worry about what am I going to wear and there is some good luck that rubs off in those accoutrements you add to yourself on “game day.” In my case, I have an old timey trilby-style hat which goes with me everywhere when I go to speaking gigs and has become part of the shtick. When I have that hat on I know it’s game on, right.

Now I also had a red velvet jacket that mysteriously went missing at South by Southwest this year and I have worn that for the last whole bunch of speaking gigs. So I hope not all my magic is lost with that! In the meantime, i often seek unique pieces which will be comfy on stage, photograph well, and accentuate who i am rather than being “just another tech dude in a off the rack grey suit.” Boring.

One of my favorite public speakers is global political columnist, Gwynne Dyer. He always seems to wear a beat up old brown leather jacket — the jacket has taken on a bit of a personality of its own and become part of the crowd’s expectations of his brand, although he would likely loathe to admit this.

This comfort of having a uniform removes another decision to make while you are visualizing your talk and prepping to inspire the audience.

Don’t Re-introduce Yourself

I can’t stand it when the first impression a speaker makes is talking about themselves. In my mind, your time in stage isn’t a chance to give your comprehensive bio or C.V., you’ve just been introduced where they shared the relevant info. Also, any savvy person who is truly engaged in the event have likely taken the time to look you up and get your whole dossier.

They’ve read the program, they’ve seen your website, checked your Linkedin, and maybe poked around on Twitter, Youtube or elsewhere. So don’t go up and say, “Thanks for the kind introduction Bob, I’m really glad to be asked to come speak here at this event. As Bob just pointed out, I am the Senior Vice President for Widget Analysis and after 17 years of doing that I’ve also did this and so we will get into that a little bit. So, today I’m going to be talking about…” Everyone already knows that, right. So get right into the point.

Also be genuine about why you are excited to be here speaking. I often choose speaking events in industries in which I’m curious (news media, tourism, youth education for example) so explain where you’re coming from and — assuming you genuinely are — tell them you are here to learn from them, ergo: What challenges do their industry face? What are their misconceptions about new technologies? How are they adapting social tools to fix business problems?

Non-linear Story with Characters

The Greeks got it right centuries ago about the secret to good storytelling is starting somewhere right in the action. Don’t start at the beginning, start just before something terrible goes wrong and work back to it. In other words, start just before the end, then go flashback to the beginning and wind it all up in the end in a way they don’t expect.

Now, this attention to structure may sound more appropriate for dramatic productions or creative writing but this is powerful skill and something you want to think about as a speaker.

Instead of starting them off by re-introducing yourself, begin with a story — not a short anecdote but instead start a meta-narrative which may extend through the whole prezo. Talk about a real case scenario, situation or study with characters that they can get interested in. When speaking for HootSuite, i’d often start with a current event (Egyptian revolution, Japanese earthquake) and how we found ourselves involved — albeit inadvertently — and the unique point of view we saw with our social media tool. This context would keep the topic relevant and also allow me to demonstrate logistical ways to use the tools without having to resort to abstract examples.

By setting up this non-linear story framework, you can share the important points and content with them but you’ll take them on a journey by establishing a context in which to discuss these topics. By weaving a story through the talk, and adhering to the same characters, and real examples, you’ll build interest and credibility.

If you are planning on talking about the changing role of exports from Eastern Europe to South America with Poland joining the EU (I’m making this up), don’t start with, “In 1967 the trade statistics show…” Instead start with introducing the characters: who are the people on the ground; who are the government officials; or, who are the characters who are going to weave in and out of your talk to support the annotations in your talk.

I saw the English folk/punk-singer, Billy Bragg and he did a great job of weaving a story in and out of his in-between song banter throughout the evening. Rather than mumbled “thanks” he he kept on bringing up the band the 80s new wave band OMD who are out on a tour as well and they seem to be showing up in the same city as Billy every night at the club down the road.

Sure enough, this was the case in Vancouver and he was grousing about different things about how they have better busses, they’re always getting the better venues and worked them into all sorts of different context including how he met the Queen and somehow OMD came into that story. So, it was a great way to kind a keep of forward momentum going with your talk.

You can do the same, no matter who your audience is, you just have to find out who they are so you can build this rapport.

Whatcha think?