Public speaking: how to go from abysmal to goodish

We all know how learning happens: you have to walk before you can run. You’ve got to be good before you can be great.

I’ve been to quite a few public speaking training sessions. All of them full of tips on how to be a great public speaker. Which is brilliant. But it’s also not. Because before you can be great you have to be good.

What about tips for those of us who aren’t even good?

speaking 2

I’ve also got a fair amount of less than good public speaking experiences to my name. But last week I finally gave my first goodish talk!

So today I’m going to share what I did to go from being an abysmal public speaker to giving an okay talk. None of the fancy stuff (“move your eyes around the room as if tracing a dodecahedron”) or the weird stuff (“imagine your audience naked”). Just stuff anyone can implement.

1) I Selected my audience

We can’t always choose our audiences. But to improve I’m looking for opportunities to practise. So I offered to give the recent talk, knowing the audience would be supportive.

2) I prepped my talk with bullet-debullet-rebullet treatment

For me, bullet pointing alone isn’t enough because I can’t turn them into full sentences on the spot when giving a talk. So instead I prepare like this:

  • BULLET: Bullet point my ideas
  • DEBULLET: Write out my full thoughts, which means I’ve had to turn the bullet points into fully articulated sentences
  • REBULLET: Rewrite my full thoughts as bullet points, knowing that I know the fully formed thoughts behind the bullets

3) I practised with the technology

Having a practice meant I knew how to set up, how long it would take, and I was confident about it.

4) I calmed down

After a hectic day, about an hour before my talk I changed gear and slowed down. My friend suggested getting a cup of tea, some fresh air and stretching. I did, and it helped.

5) I psyched up

The day before giving my talk I listened to an extract of Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your body language shapes who you are.” She says that standing in power poses before an event, like with your arms in a V shape, helps you psyche up. I tried it and I reckon it did help!

6) I started like a pro

Cuddy and many others articulate the mantra ‘fake it ’til you make it’. So I did what I could. I know that when people give talks they begin by asking if the people at the back can hear. So I made a point of doing that. Because I know it’s what good speakers do.

7) I prepared a cheat sheet

I had a 45 minute slot and reading my talk wasn’t an option. In a dream world I would have done it without notes. One day. However, I prepared a cheat sheet with my bullet points on, clearly spaced out and in big enough font that I could read it from the table. I also didn’t staple it so that I could simply slide the sheets away as I went through them. Something I noticed George Osborne do in his 2015 budget speech.

8) I made it a team effort

I got my audience involved by asking them to discuss amongst themselves some of the concepts I was talking about, then feedback to me. This worked really well because 1) it gave me a minute to breathe; 2) it kept them engaged; and 3) it was empowering for them because they realised they knew more than they thought.

Voilà, eight things you can do to help you improve!

In addition to all of the above, there are three more significant things that helped my talk to be goodish:

9) I knew what I was talking about

10) I really wanted to share the information

11) I let my personality come through

Finally, the reflective practitioner in me knows what I need to work on, so to take my public speaking from goodish to definitely good, next time I’m going to:

  • try to look at every individual in the room rather than the same few
  • have a better idea of timing as I had to rush at the end
  • drink water throughout the talk as by the end I was husky voiced

Three risks I’m glad I’ve taken as a researcher

I was bricking it right up to the moment I heard the first reactions to my audacious behaviour. As soon as the room erupted, though, I knew taking the risk had paid off.

Risk

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “oh, I’d love to XYZ, but I’m not sure I’m daring enough?”

About a year ago I was invited to lead a discussion seminar at Cardiff University. In advance, one of the conveners emailed me with the instructions: “you’re welcome to use any format you wish…”

What would you do faced with that information?

Amazing I thought to myself, for once I don’t have to prepare a standard PowerPoint-And-Paper-Combo; I can do something different!

But what?

I’d been asked to talk about my first experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, and I felt like I had a story to tell. Hmm; a story. One idea sprung to mind, but it seemed a bit outrageous. It was logical but was so far removed from the PP-A-P-Combo. I grappled with it for a few days then decided I’d take the risk.

Fast forward to that cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. People start filing in. It’s not my institution, so I’ve really got no idea who anyone is: that chap coming in with the stripy jumper, for example, could be a PhD student or lecturer or dean of faculty.

Everyone is finally installed: It’s showtime.

Thump, thump, thump: I can hear and feel my heartbeat. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea?

No going back. I begin:

“Hi everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and for today’s discussion I’ve drawn a cartoon…”

Cue: excitement, amusement, surprise, interest, laughter, recognition, engagement, questions, tangential thoughts, and animated discussion…

Like I said, as soon as the group reacted I knew the risk had been worth it. Just because we are scholars and are used to traditional forms of delivery doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we should use. I’m so glad I didn’t play it safe, because five awesome things happened as a result:

  1. I got a great reaction to my presentation
  2. I got to consider my research in a completely different way
  3. I was able to contribute in some small way to diversifying the appearance of academic research (cf. the ocean being made up of drops of water)
  4. I got to bring my creative skills into my research
  5. People remember me (a year down the line, the convener emailed me asking if she could use my cartoon to illustrate a blogpost on the discussion group)

Maybe cartoon drawing isn’t your thing, but I bet this next risky situation is one that has been – or could be – on the cards for many of you: the interdisciplinary conference.

An opportunity recently arose for me to submit an abstract for an interdisciplinary conference. I thought to myself:

Interdisciplinary? Hmm, risky: I’d be out of my comfort zone, I might look stupid. Though that probably is the worst thing that could happen. 

But lets be rational: it’s interdisciplinary; everyone will be a bit out of their comfort zone. People sort of expect you not to be an expert.

And what about the best thing that could happen? It’s interdisciplinary: people will have very different research backgrounds to mine; they could give me really great input and insight.

So shall I take the risk? Yes.

And so what happened on the day?

Well, I went to the conference and ‘confessed’ to my audience that I wasn’t an expert and that I wanted to learn from them. Then this happened:

  1. I felt liberated because no one expected me to be an ‘expert’: I could legitimately be a ‘learner’
  2. Others imparted their wisdom to me
  3. I met people from really different disciplines, and diversified my network
  4. I got to enrich the minds of my audience by sharing theories and ideas from my discipline

Now finally, some reflections about the biggest risk I think I’ve taken, and a risk I imagine at least some of you have contemplated: tweeting data, results or research as an expert.

This summer an article appeared on i100 listing the top ten baby names for boys and girls.  Something linguistically interesting appeared to be going on . So I did some basic data analysis and visualisation.

The patterns that emerged were fascinating (we have a gendered alphabet: boys names favour consonant letters and sounds, whilst for girls it’s vowels). The thing is, the patterns were so striking, I wanted to share what I’d spotted with the wider world.

But there was a problem. I’m a PhD linguistics student: I’m supposed to be (becoming) an expert. What if I’d miscalculated something or made an error?

Putting my calculations into the public domain felt quite risky.

But the data was astonishing.

So what did I do? I checked my calculations a zillion times, scrunched up my eyes and clicked tweet.

In came the likes and the retweets. I was beaming; others had found the linguistic patterns equally fascinating.

I was loving seeing the retweets, then suddenly I got a notification of a reply: someone had said I’d got it wrong; I’d done my vowel analysis wrong.

What you have to know is that my PhD is all about vowels.

Ground swallow me up.

Not good. Not good.

I looked again at the data; I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

And then salvation came: another linguist pointed out that I’d analysed the data with a British accent in mind and, since it was British data, I hadn’t made a mistake. They supposed my accuser had had an American accent in mind, which would explain their confusion. Big sigh of relief.

So what did I learn?

Well, it was a high risk, but, because I went for it:

  1. I got to use my skills and expertise to analyse data not related to my research
  2. I was able to share some remarkable linguistic patterns with experts and non-experts
  3. I strengthened (virtual) links with my research community

Will I do it again?

Yes. But I’ll continue to look at my calculations a squillion times, which, let’s be honest, is no bad thing.

And so to conclude:

Dear Friends,

Take risks:

with presentations, conferences, social media, whatever.

If nothing else, it makes life more interesting!

This Christmas give yourself the gift of audacious behaviour, and make it next year’s resolution to be more outrageous!

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

But what’s the best thing that could happen?

Love, Sarah

 

How to be heard: tips from the top…

I am not a great public speaker, but I wish I was, and any tips are always gratefully received. Except the one about imagining the audience naked; I’ve never yet managed to apply that one and if I’m honest I’m slightly apprehensive about what would happen were I to attempt to do so.

On a largely related note, yesterday was budget day and also my turn to attend prime minister’s questions. For a summary of the questions and budget speech, see any British newspaper, political blog or even Buzzfeed because you’re not going to get that here.

Instead, I’m going to share with you three things I learnt yesterday. As a wannabe-better-public-speaker and a sociolinguist who dabbles her toes into the linguistic ethnography pond, I was riveted yesterday not by Osborne’s plan to save the nation’s purse but by the way he, Cameron and others did their public speaking thang.

So here’s what I learnt:

1. To make a good speech, some trees are gonna have to be sacrificed

Anytime I give a paper or talk, I always print my talk out double sided and staple it in the top left hand corner, that way I can be certain that I won’t lose a page or somehow get the order mixed up. What tends to happen, though, is I stand or sit clasping my paper between both hands, setting up some kind of speech-speaker force field, and then proceed to babble as if I’m very poorly channelling the words on the page. People say you should never read a speech so, with that in mind, I usually attempt to ad lib, however, often find that my ad libbing attempts coincide with a total inability to remember how to construct a sentence.

So, what to do?

Osborne rocked up to the despatch box (the box on the table in the middle of the House of Commons where they make their speeches) and set his wad of paper down on said box. No clasping. No force field. He then set off on a steady pace, with a controlled volume, reading verbatim what was on the page in front of him. Yes, reading it. But it wasn’t boring and my attention didn’t wander because he owned the words, rather than them owning him. The speech was well crafted and so very listenable; I mean, like an audiobook, just much more political. When he got to the end of the page he didn’t grab at the wad of paper and attempt to turn over, fold, and replace said wad; he simply slid the page  to the side and kept going: seamless. No ‘print-on-two-sides’ for Osborne.

2. Making a speech is like cycling up a hill

It’s common practice when speaking in the House to take a few stabs at the opposition, you know, mock them and their policies. This usually results in cheers from one’s fellow party members, and the whole place gets a bit noisy and raucous. People speaking yesterday dealt with this in one of two ways: 1) by pushing on; or 2) stopping to enjoy the view. Have you ever stopped half-way through cycling up a hill because you want to admire the view? The result is that it takes time and a lot of effort to start up again, right? Well, the same can be said for speeches. One lady, having made a dig at the opposition which caused her party to cheer and jeer, stopped to enjoy her moment and the view. Error. Just like peddling up a hill, she really struggled to get going again and to regain the attention of the house. It was pretty painful.

She was not the only one to get cheers and jeers out of the House, but others seemed more clued up: they did not get off the bike to enjoy the view and internally pat themselves on the back for doing such a good job; instead they pushed through. The result was that they didn’t lose the attention of the House. I’m thinking that overall it was a much more pleasant ride for them, too. Lesson learnt.

3. Waiting at the bar to get served is an ideal time to practise public speaking

Right, so, whatever your political views on Cameron, and regardless of my own, yesterday he was utterly spellbinding. I cannot deny that he was head and shoulders above every other person who spoke in the House yesterday. There was simply no competition. Okay, so a lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s prime minister, because that sets him in a fairly exceptional position of power. But, having observed quite literally his position, or rather positioning, I’m thinking that it could be in part emulated by those of us who don’t have the title of PM. Here’s what he did:

In contrast to Osborne and Greening (secretary of state for international development who also took questions) who stood at the despatch box to deliver their speeches, Cameron leant on it like he was waiting to get served in the pub. I mean, how much more casual and relaxed can you get? His posture, the way he interacted with the furniture around him: he totally showed it who was boss. His stance was that of someone who was so familiar with what they were doing, they didn’t even need to think about it; it was the ‘walk-in-the-park’ of public speaking postures. He was so much more chilled out than everyone else, it was like he was in his own home and so everyone else sort of had no choice but to assume the roles of guests: on their best behaviour. Man, did he own it.

So, tips from the top: no staples, don’t stop peddling, and, above all, OWN IT!

July 8th