I’ve had the good fortune recently to attend, and give, several industry talks around AI, startups, synthetic media and ethics, and a few other topics. In doing so, I’ve born witness to some truly great speakers…and some completely awful talks. So today, I want to dive into some of my thinking about public speaking, and how I’d suggest one approach a talk to ensure everyone receives the maximum value.
As is so often true for me, I organize my thinking here as a rough list of steps. These steps ignore the initial requirement of someone wanting you to speak about something, since eliciting that kind of interest is something that probably deserves its own post – not to mention the fact that I don’t have much track record there yet. But I do have a fair amount of experience thinking about how to communicate once you know what you’re trying to say, so hopefully my advice around actually constructing the talk will be more helpful.
Step 1: Determine why you’re giving a talk in the first place.
It’s amazing how many people seem to give talks that simply detail what they’ve been up to, without a clear thesis statement or apparent mission. (Not even a thesis of “I’m so exciting, you all should expect great things from me!” – which, while arrogant, would at least be a coherent intent!) So the first question you need to ask yourself when preparing to speak publicly is – what are you trying to communicate in the first place?
Is this a sales pitch for your product? An investment pitch for your company? A public service announcement? An opportunity to build your personal brand? An opportunity to change the flow of a company or industry for the better? Until you have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish, it will be impossible to determine the right content to share and the best way to frame it.
How can you tell? I suggest a couple of questions you could ask yourself. First, consider who you’re truly hoping will attend your talk – or, alternately, who would have to not show up in order for you to consider it to have been a waste of time. Secondly, consider the context – that is, the event, venue, and timing – of the talk you’re giving. Would you give this same talk in another situation? Any talk designed to be timeless will lack the specificity to be useful – so before you come up with the details of your talk, consider what’s unique about the current context that made giving a talk here a good idea, and be prepare to craft your comments accordingly.
Step 2: Understand the format of your talk.
OK, now that you know what you want to get out of your talk, it’s time to start thinking about how to deliver the message to your listeners. The first step of this is to understand the format of your talk. I roughly group talks into a few categories:
– Lecture: I am the expert, and you all are the uninformed, Listen and absorb my expertise! (If you couldn’t guess, I tend to dislike lectures outside of academic settings – far fewer people are actually equipped to deliver wisdom from on high than those who believe they are.)
– Panel: We panelists are experts regarding a certain problem or topic, but have all come at it from different perspectives. We’re here to ensure people get a broad understanding of the complexities of this topic, without being biased into believing there’s any single clear right answer.
– Dream: I have a vision for how things are going to go, and I want to get people aligned with my goals and plans, so that we can realize my/our desired outcome.
– Interview / Fireside Chat / AMA: People are curious about me, perhaps as a role model, and/or as the equivalent of an interesting character in a show they enjoy checking in on. This is an opportunity to build my personal brand – hopefully what I say will also be useful, but I’m not entering the room with specific “wisdom” I believe everyone needs to have.
Depending on the format of the talk, you’ll have different opportunities to direct the conversation and therefore will have different abilities to convey whatever you want to be sharing. Think carefully to ensure the format of the talk is right for you, and prepare yourself remarks to fit into that context and flow smoothly. Don’t try to take over a panel to give a lecture!
Step 3: Don’t just speak, be heard
I can’t emphasize enough that communication is a two-way street. This even extends to lectures, in which one person is doing all of the talking! The reason for this is that communicating entails both the act of speaking and the act of being heard. If I say, “Excuse me, could you flargle that smoozit?”, then even if I know what I mean I’ve failed to communicate, because you certainly don’t understand what these non-words mean. In the same vein, if you abuse jargon in a way your audience cannot follow, you don’t get any partial credit for having tried to communicate, or for sounding like you know what you’re doing. Either you’re understood, or you might as well have been shouting gibberish into the void.
Most people understand this on some level, and attempt to think about possible explanations that will simplify their topic and make it easier for their listeners to engage with. Unfortunately, people in general have a habit of underestimating something called “inferential distances.” (I could simply drop that phrase there without explanation, but that wouldn’t be very effective communication, now, would it?) What I mean by “inferential distance” is the gap between my prior beliefs, context, and experience, and yours. Let’s break that down a bit further here.
Generally speaking, if I don’t know you, I’ll model you based on the explicit things I observe, but then fill in all the gaps by assuming you’re basically like me. This means I will subconsciously be assuming it will be much easier to get you to understand my point than it actually is! In particular, I see many, many speakers discover an obscure analogy or metaphor which helps them with a concept, who then mistake this for the metaphor being a good explanation for the concept in general. (Even worse, metaphors can easily be “zippy” and memorable, which tricks audience members into feeling like they’re learned something when they haven’t actually understood the concept you were really trying to teach! I’ve had people tell me that their takeaway from a talk was something like “Business is like air hockey” – but I’ve never seen such a claim actually help those people reason about business in a new and better way!) Think not about what makes sense to you, but what will make sense to your audience.
There are a couple of ways to mitigate this failure mode – the most important of which is making sure you get feedback from your listeners in real time so you can tell if you’re being understood. (Though please, for the love of god, don’t cold-call audience members. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t know what the best use of their attention is, so leave everyone to learn in the way that makes sense to them!) Good use of analogies or metaphor can also be helpful, but as mentioned above, use this tactic carefully! Finally, try running your talk by others ahead of time – members of your prospective audience are best, but anyone less expert than you will be a useful sounding board for catching your mistakes here.
Step 4: Show, don’t tell.
This aphorism is used a lot – when I say it here, what I really mean is that it’s your job as a speaker to help your listeners understand how they might solve problems like you have, as opposed to proving that you could theoretically solve their problems. If all they get are anecdotes about you magically doing the right thing, they haven’t learned anything which they can actually apply to their own lives! I often see subtle errors here, where people try to explain how to solve a problem, but at the same time try to puff themselves up and emphasize how atypical and great they are. People respond better to collaborative discovery than to being told the right answer from on high, so try to focus less on making your credentials sound impressive and more on giving them content they can actually use!
Step 5: Hammer in a memorable takeaway
Talks need a thesis statement. This is true for more than just direction – it’s important that people leaving your talk have a clear image in their mind of what they just learned, in order to ensure they actually hold onto it. Keep in mind that this means your thesis statement should be simple! I see far too many speakers attempt to get their audience to memorize a 9-step framework or something far too large to be grokked during a single talk. Rather than adding all those extraneous details, focus on simplifying your point down to one core idea which will help people – and then direct them to where they can learn more if they are intrigued.
Taking all these suggestions together, my “thesis statement” would probably be that your job as a speaker should be to make darn sure the audience has learned exactly one usable concept. Don’t assume they’ve understood you, and don’t try to teach several things and get bogged down – just identify one important piece of advice or context and make sure you’ve actually communicated it to your audience.
I know many people have strong opinions on these kinds of talks – does my advice sound like it would create a talk you’d enjoy listening to? Any terrible talk experiences you’ve had that you want to share advice to avoid? Looking forward to hearing from you all!