[Lesson 4] Learning how to tweak and iterate your talks

I have to admit something: I’ve given nearly one hundred talks over the past few years — everything from large university commencements to small group sessions — and it never gets any easier. And that’s OK.

What does get easier, however, is the process I use to iteratively improve my content, style and overall delivery.

That’s what we’re going to focus on this week: the system of improvement itself.

On Giving and Getting

As we learned in Lesson 3, the basic fact that you’re on the stage gives you all the credibility you need with an audience. As long as you’re giving the audience what they want, it’s OK for you to use each speaking opportunity as a chance to refine your own techniques.

Said another way: if you’re giving the audience what they want, it’s OK for you to get what you want.

By the time we finish today’s lesson, you’ll have all the tools you need to begin collecting feedback and improving your own talks iteratively.

First, Nail The Visuals

Before we do any sort of iterations to your deck, let’s agree that attention is the currency of public speaking — don’t make the rookie mistake of thinking you can lose it and earn it back repetitively within the same talk.

We talked a little about your slide deck in Lesson 2 already (see the sample slides I included in that lesson) but there are a couple of easy things you should do immediately:

  • Put the event’s logo on your opening and closing slide. This makes it more likely that the organizers will leave your slides on the projectors for a lot longer than usual. Remember, event organizers are usually strapped for cash so they’re usually trying to leave their own event logo on the screens for as long as possible so that they sponsors are happy.

  • Be selfish with your slide headers. If you want to make your content easier to share, don’t make the audience think. Put your Twitter handle at the top left of your header and put the event’s hashtag on the top right of the header. Boom.

  • Don’t make your audience read. They could’ve read this stuff at home — they didn’t come here to read it off the screen. They came here to hear you talk about the topic. Use the slides to direct the audience’s attention and use your voice to engage them. While you’re at it…

  • Avoid using built-in slide transitions. Animation is generally bad. It might look cool for 2 seconds but, if you over-do it, you’ll quickly lose attention during those repetitive transitions.

  • No videos. Got it? Nothing pisses me off more than someone stepping on the stage for a talk but then wasting 60 seconds of my life on a video. Again, people come to these events to hear you talk. Not to watch something from an uncomfortable chair in the audience when they could have watched it at home.

  • Slide counts and page numbers never help. When you’re on stage, you want the audience listening to you rather than counting the number of slides.

  • End strong. Use the last slide to your advantage. It should basically look like your title slide — with the addition of your own URL (or other action you want the audience to take). In the early days, I would publish my slides on Slideshare and then tweet them just before I walked on stage. I’d then push the audience to follow me on Twitter for a copy of the slides. These days, I’m focused on capturing email addresses for my weekly newsletter. At the end of each talk, I tell the audience to sign up for the newsletter and they’ll receive a copy of the slides automatically.

Content is important but delivery is everything.

As with your deck, we’re eventually going to iterate and improve it (more on that later). For now, here are a few tips I wish someone would have told me five years ago:

  • Find your speaker’s outfit. Take a quick look at pictures of me speaking and you’ll immediately notice that I appear to have a “standard uniform” when I know I’ll on stage that dat. (Usually a red button down shirt, jeans and dress shoes. If I’m on a panel, I’m less strict about it.) Having a go-to outfit helps me get into a speaking mindset and, although anecdotal, I’m convinced having a common uniform helps the audience remember me better over time.

  • Learn to love the lavalier. If you’re going to be entertaining the audience, it’s best to use both hands. Avoid having to hold a microphone up to your face the entire time and ask the organizer for a lavalier microphone well in advance. Better yet, ask for an over-the-ear headset and you’ll never have to worry about the mic losing your voice if you turn your head suddenly.

  • If you must use a handheld microphone, eat it. Most people have never learned to use a handheld microphone, but you’re not most people. Hold the microphone extremely close to your mouth and talk normally. Better yet, hold it slightly against your bottom lip to ensure that you don’t pull the mic away from your face accidentally.

  • Know the stage (and use it all). When you lock in the speaking engagement, ask for the layout of the stage. It’s good to know the placement of the projectors, whether a monitor will be present and roughly how much room you’ll have to move around. When you arrive at the venue, get there early enough to physically walk around the stage itself.

  • Cadence, tone and volume are important. When you’re speaking publicly, you should feel like you’re talking a bit slower than you would in a 1:1 conversation. The same goes for your tone: it’s a good idea to vary your tone and volume a little more than usual, it’s a great way to keep the audience interested in what you’ll say next.

  • No gum. Ever. This seems obvious but you’d be surprised. That mic in your face will pick up any noise coming out of your mouth, including that old piece of gum you’re holding next to your teeth. Actually, that reminds me…

  • Take off your badge. You’re on stage, you don’t need to wear a badge. You’ve already been introduced on stage, don’t be a rookie.

  • Kill the “um’s”, “uh’s” and upspeak. In the bigger picture, these little behaviours that probably didn’t matter much earlier in your career. Now that you’re on stage, they can quickly become credibility-killers. Knock them out. (Seriously, imagine if I was saying this sentence out loud and ending it as if it were a question. Isn’t that really f*cking annoying? This is upspeak — stop it.)

The Art of Systematic Improvement

At the most basic level, systematic improvement is relatively simple. The faster you can cycle through these steps, the faster you’ll improve your talks. Here’s how you do it:

Step 1: Record each talk. Use your own mobile phone to capture the audio of your talk. Better yet, have a friend use their mobile phone to capture a video of your talk. In the early days, I would activate the voice recorder on my iPhone and stuff it into my pocket before I went on stage. These days, I ask the organizers to include high fidelity audio and video recordings for my own use.

Step 2: Review each talk. On your way home, listen to the audio (and watch the video, if you have it). Open up a Google Doc and make annotations for each pause, “um” or other issue. Also make annotations for any mental notes you made during the talk. It might look a little something like this:

[0:23] Didn’t let the audience finish their applause before starting.
[2:05] Awkward pause.
[2:08] “um”
[4:00] Why have you spent 90 seconds re-introducing yourself?
[4:30] I recall a large number of people in the audience checking their phones — boredom or social media?

[25:00] Forgot to make the strong ask before thanking the audience.

Step 3: Ask three friends to review the talk. Send them the Google Doc you created above and ask them to run through the same exercise above — adding directly into the same document.

Step 4: Wait three days, then review the Google Doc alone. This, for me, is always the hardest part but this is where you begin to separate yourself from everyone else: you’ve done the work, delivered your best talk and now it’s time to read about all the mistakes you made. The goal isn’t to embarrass yourself, it’s to identify the seemingly small mistakes you made and systematically remove them. This is where the magic happens.

Step 5: Rinse and repeat. Find a new event to test your talk once again, repeat the above. It may not seem like it now but commit to trying this process three times and you’ll already be a better speaker than 95% of the people that currently call themselves public speakers.

Alright, so that was a lot to digest. Now you know the basics of decks, content and delivery. You also know how to to tweak and iterate your talks. Let’s get into the hard work.

Exercise #1: Review the audio / video of your last talk and create the Google Doc described above. If you don’t have that recording available, use your phone to record a rehearsal of your talk. Then play it back.

Exercise #2: After you complete #1, send the audio / video files and the Google Doc to three of your friends. It’s time to get them to add to your notes. Ignore their praise, pay attention to their concerns — especially if more than one of them identify a specific quirk, behavior or piece of content that they dislike or don’t understand.

Exercise #3: Send me the results of your efforts on the last two items. If you’re serious about doing the work, I’ll help you get ahead.

That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll learn how to book yourself solid (and how to get organizers to pay for you). Get the exercises done and send them to me, all you have to do is hit ‘reply.’

Talk to you soon.


P.S. I focus on the systematic improvement I mentioned above with the handpicked members of my 3 month 1:1 coaching program. This is a first come, first serve program that is customized to YOUR specific needs and objectives. I only work with 10 people at a time, apply now.

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