From spontaneous to structured and back: a journey in public speaking


I’m in academia for ten years now.

Many, many joyful, tearful and suckful experiences.

Academia, for those that never got into it, it’s a strange mixture of work, school and bar.

You work a lot, learn a lot and drink and party a lot.

As you would expect such an explosive mixture bear many gifts for those willing to grab them.

One of the greatest gifts that academia imparted me was public speaking.

Not because I attended classes on secret skills on how to be cool before and during a presentation (although they exist), but because of the hard way: I was required to present my lab data, papers and related stuff over and over again.

Over time, I developed the uncanny ability of improvising so well it would look like it was rehearsed. So, there is merit in just performing.

You will end in a better place skill-wise if you are just required to speak, or put yourself voluntarily in this position.

However, near a very important international presentation in 2016, I realized the limits of the method when I needed to perform my usual one hour-long presentation in just twelve minutes.

What is important? What I must prioritize?

A change in parameters forced me to rehearse.

I used to abhor rehearsed presentations, as I thought them stiff, boring and mostly dead. But all the boredom you felt during a presentation is mainly due to poor delivery skills of the speaker.

A well made rehearsed presentation is indistinguishable from a spontaneous one, given enough time to train.

The degree and detail of training will change based on the available time and energy you have to invest, but here are some general pointers:

1) Structure your thoughts. No good presentation was ever delivered without structure. Know the topic that you want to approach, what is must be said and what could be said just to improve your point. Everything else is fluff and should be discarded. After this step you should have a line of force that guides your presentation: what you aim to convey, the steps to reach that understanding and an idea of supporting data that must be presented.

2) Write it down. Write what you want to speak. Mark down pauses, emphatic words, and even jokes. The more detailed you get, more control you have over the finer aspects of it. Of course, more time will be invested.

3) Make Clean slides. One to three ideas per slide. Take your time and expose few ideas at a time for better assimilation of the public. If necessary, dismember a major idea in a series of smaller ones, and go a step at a time. Again, you need to consider the degree of familiarity of your audience with the theme, and the time you have to invest in making the presentation.

4) Proper Delivery. Walk into the spot, take a moment in silence then start speaking slowly. This will ensure you pass along confidence to your audience. Make eye contact with one person at a time, and only with those with friendly and affirmative body language. More tips on that here.

5) Make smart use of silence. Pauses for emphasis are pure gold! Before an important story or data point, pause. Collect and structure your thoughts. Just like in music, the pause will create tension by anticipation. The relief comes with the new piece of information. Pauses are your friend.

6) Train with the initiated and with the layman. You know you’re becoming good when you can present efficiently to your grandmother or your daughter and they understand most of what you want to say despite specialized training. However, just preparing for the layman can make your presentation shallow: train with your peers too, to fine tune the deeper ideas of your talk.

7) Remember to breathe. Ten deep belly breaths work wonders to stimulate the vagus nerve and tranquillize before a big meeting of any sort. The simple act of remembering to breathe can prevent the dreaded amygdala hijack, that easily could make a piece of cake presentation a nightmare.

8) Be yourself. Rehearsal is not an excuse for lack of personality. You should aim to make clean slides and present yourself properly, but do imprint your style on the above advice. If you are a funny guy put some jokes, if you are stern and serious go straight to be point. The important thing is to inform AND entertain AND be memorable.

9) Be Memorable. The easiest way to be memorable, is to have a strong opening.

Use a powerful quote, or piece of data that conveys the importance of the presentation you are about to deliver. People tend to remember what they felt during the opening, so if you convey confidence and power right at the beginning you are set.

Those nine tips are sure to get you up and running to face any public speaking event.

Practice makes better, and don’t beat yourself over a bad presentation.

Learn from the experience, repeat and improve.

After my period with structured, rehearsed presentations, I noticed that my improv ones got much better. I have come full circle, and I plan to keep training in both domains.

Try it too, then tell me about your results in the comments!

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