In a course I'm currently involved in building, I’ve posted a number of articles that provide tips on how to do a better job with presentations and speaking in public. I’m sure you will also be able to find a lot of other resources should you look for them. But I also attempted to share the things that have helped me personally. I can hold my own as a writer. But speaking is a different matter. I’m not a natural orator. Words flow better from my mind to my fingertips than to my mouth. Worse, I was awfully shy and modest growing up. I constantly feared looking stupid in front of people. Talking when under pressure filled me with great anxiety. I dreaded oral presentations and exams as a student. I also remember my very first paper presentation in a conference in Vietnam. It was probably no worse than some other presentations, but the ordeal felt awful. Thankfully, I overcame a lot of these weaknesses in time. I’ll never claim to be a great public speaker. In fact, I remain highly introverted, not wanting to have to deal with talking to people too much. Speaking spontaneously, let alone doing so in public, remains a challenge. But I can manage my fears and anxieties better now. And I think that’s what many of you need to do as well. Looking back, I believe there have been a handful of things I kept in mind which have helped significantly, and I would like to share them with you here.
Yes, people do rehearse in front of the mirror until they get everything right. But I’m not so sure that it’s absolutely necessary to go that far. Even imagining yourself speaking can help. In that paper presentation in Vietnam, I had not realized that I prepared too many slides and ended up spending more time that was allotted to me. It got so bad that I used up all the unspent minutes by the previous presenters and still got cut off by the moderator. Not being able to finish your presentation for any reason is never a good thing. Practicing, even if it’s just in your head, can give you a good idea of how long it will take you to present your slides. I usually do this maybe twice or thrice as the day of presentation approaches. This becomes even more important to me if I’m not given a lot of time for the presentation. Even for a pre-recorded presentation, this can be helpful as it allows you to spend less time trying to edit your video, deciding what to remove so it meets the time limit. I learned that with my style, it typically wouldn’t be a good idea to prepare more than 10 sparse slides for a 10-15 minute presentation. Try doing the same and figure out your own pace.
Compared to those in other campuses, we UPOU Faculty typically don’t often get to hold classroom sessions. I know I didn’t. So, for a time, I sought it out, offering every chance I got to hold face to face sessions because I wanted to get better. If you are a long-time follower of any online personality, be it a podcaster, reviewer or influencer (or perhaps you are one yourself), you would notice how their content improves over time. You can feel that they talk with more and more confidence over time. A bit of self-reflection and critique allows one to go back and assess their strengths and weaknesses, then adjust accordingly. Along with practice, this improvement over time is a function of repetition. Over time, you figure out what equipment works better for you, what mannerisms you need to manage, and what good attributes you have that need to continue to take advantage of. Repetition also helps build expand your comfort zone and be more confident in front of a microphone and camera. I'm not saying this is easy. In fact, those first tries will potentially be an excruciating experience. But as long as you keep going, if done right, chances are, it will get easier.
Get used to listening to your own voice
I remember the first time I ever recorded my own voice. I was around 14 years old. My mini stereo system (a gift from my parents for passing my high school entrance exam) came with a microphone. I was curious about using it. So, one day, I experimented with it and recorded mine and a few of my cousins talking. I was feeling quite good about it. I had a respectable singing voice at the time and was pretty sure I was going to sound good. Then I rewound the tape and pressed play. My cousins’ voices were the first to play and sounded fine to me. But then I cringed the moment I heard myself. My voice was starting to change at the time, but I still sounded a bit too effeminate for my liking. Yes, this was the early 1990s and I had very different sensibilities back then, like most kids of the same age. The point is, it was the start of my love-hate relationship with my voice. I didn't mind singing and playing the guitar. But stick a microphone in front of me and I'd mentally fall apart.
Chances are, you have comparable stories. And in all likelihood, they’re also rooted in this dissonance between what’s called your inward voice and outward voice. This talk from Rebecca Kleinberger offers an easy to understand explanation for this:
I wish there was a sure-fire way of overcoming your disdain towards the sound of your own outward voice. Lately, I had been trying to overcome it by singing on stage and recording myself performing. But I honestly don't know when the benefit repetition will kick in when the sound of my voice is pretty much set. In the Netflix documentary series, Song Exploder, an episode was dedicated to the R.E.M. hit, Losing My Religion. The band’s singer, Michael Stipe, was so effusive of his bandmates as he reviewed the instrument and backing vocal tracks of the song. But then he was also made to listen to a few verses of his lead vocal track with no accompaniment. He could not hide his discomfort as the camera zoomed in to the array of different pained expressions in his face as he listened. Perhaps we can look at that scene as a message that even the best and most accomplished share the same insecurities as the rest of us. It is a sign that it’s normal. And if we believe that it is normal, perhaps we’ll have an easier time trying to get used to it so we can move forward to do what we need to do – to put our voice on tape (or disk) and work on it without it being an excruciating experience
Do not start your presentation with an apology
I distinctly remember the most important lesson I learned in my undergraduate seminar class back in college. It wasn’t anything about whatever journal article I reported on. It was the feedback given to me by one of my classmates. Typical of me back then, I did not take it seriously. I randomly pulled a handful of journals scanned through them until I found something remotely related to my major. Then I haphazardly went through the article a few times and thought I’d be fine. Panic sunk in while listening to the earlier presenters who had clearly taken their time to prepare. So the moment I stood in front of the class, the first thing I said was to the extent of, I’m sorry I wasn’t able prepare enough, but I’ll try to do my best… and then I fumbled through the presentation. While we upheld this time-honored unspoken agreement of classmates not making things harder for each other in such situations, at some point we are forced to critique someone else. For my presentation, the proverbial straw was drawn by my former corps commander in ROTC. I didn’t know him well personally, but I instinctively respected him thanks to two years worth of military drill days. And with little to no hesitation, he said that I should never apologize for shortcomings, or at least not at the beginning, as it immediately sets your presentation’s tone for the worse and recovering from it would be difficult. More importantly, the truth of the matter was that I wasn’t truly apologizing. I was making excuses. And it is embarrassing. Funnily enough, he apologized immediately after saying that if I found his words offensive. I had to smile to and be like… no, sir. It’s the most important lesson I learned throughout that class. I always want to be honest with my audience. Nut at the same time, there really are some things I should try to keep to myself.
Your slides are for bullet points. It’s not your script.
One of my peeves, which admittedly I was also guilty of doing early on, is presenters dumping long passages of text on their presentation slides and then proceed to reading all of them aloud in front of the audience. It’s a sign of lack of preparation or poor technique. It can also prompt your audience to just ignore whatever you’re saying and just read the slides themselves… and that is assuming they can. I’ve seen slides with text so small only the speaker who’s right in front of the projection or his monitor screen can read them. Keep the contents of your slides short and easy to read while you yourself talk about the details.
Loosen up and breathe!
It seems like a small and silly thing. But when anxiety starts building up as the time to speak in front of an audience to present your work draws near, I close my eyes and constantly take slow deep breaths. I also do a few stretches if I feel like it. I never want to start any presentation while I’m tense and stiff because it ensures an internal uphill battle. Breathing somewhat slows my heartbeat and calms my nerves. Even when I’m not nervous, it still helps. Ensuring I’m feeling loose and relaxed makes it easier for me to connect with my audience as I can put my attention to them more rather than myself. It also induces me to talk more deliberately, lowering my tendency to try to talk fast and stutter.
Do keep in mind, however, that it might not be a good idea to breathe the same way when you’re already up there in front of the audience. Keep it deliberate, but don’t pause for that long deep inhalation and then let it all out quickly just before your next spoken lines. When you listen to good voice actors, podcasters or radio show hosts, sometimes you wonder how they keep the breathing noises to a minimum. Of course, you can make corrections and remove those noises in post processing. And yes, you can have a good amount of success with it. But like with a good general performance, a naturally quiet breathing technique makes your life much easier in post. This video does a much better job driving the point I am making:
Develop ways of recovering from difficulties on-the-fly
One big advantage for pre-recorded presentation is that if something goes wrong, you can easily go back and do another take, or at least do some edits. But when doing it live or if you’re in any other instance where you’re not in a good position to make corrections in post, you’ll need other ways to compensate. It’s tough to climb out of any proverbial hole in front of an audience. Dead air, bad video and sound are quite effective in ruining any sort of connection or engagement that you’ve already established with your audience. I’ve seen different ways of handling these, all of which seem to involve wit and humor. I usually resort to small-talk and making fun of both myself and whoever’s seated nearby. It’s hit and miss. However, one of the best that I’ve seen in recent memory in managing these mishaps is progressive metal artist Devin Townsend. For context, this is typical of what he’s capable as a live singer ang guitarist:
However, as a touring musician he is not immune to both technical and performance difficulties on the ground. YouTube has a lot of video clips of him and his band masterfully dealing with all sorts of difficulties, be it technical, such as this:
… or even mid-performance as he struggles with one of his own songs.
Despite that, in large part because of the way he handled matters, his audience loved him even more. Granted, the ability do pull this off does not magically come to you out of nowhere. It is important to make the time to build some connection with your audience, that is why, after everything I’ve already said here, perhaps the most important thing you can do is…
I suppose that, in a way, this sums up everything that has been mentioned. Perhaps what separates good presentations from the bad is how much care was taken in creating them. How passionate are you with what you’re going to talk about in your presentation? To what lengths would you go to ensure that your audience stay engaged with you and your content? It’s not easy, especially for us and the type of content we are going for. Presentations dealing with academic or technical information require wit, rather than a pretty face or a hot body. But I will say this. Sometimes, you’re going to have a bad take or performance. You’re not going to do well in your presentation. But if your audience sees and appreciates what you’re trying to do, chances are, they could still look past your shortcomings and value your message. If you’ve watched Elon Musk do product reveals, you can easily surmise that he’s not a very good public speaker – which is quite common for people within the autism spectrum. He’s definitely no Steve Jobs. But it’s easy to appreciate how he powers through his weakness through sheer passion and wits. He mumbles and stutters making it harder to follow what he’s trying to say. But he is no less compelling than Jobs. We believe him and believe in him anyway. And isn’t that what we’re all ultimately after from our own audiences?
Again, let me lay out my disclaimer. This is totally an opinion piece. Perhaps later on, I can make my opinions much more informed. But I can attest that these things have helped me as an oral communicator. And it is my hope that these can be of some help to you.