How to give a great talk – and why that matters for everyday life

by Ivan Mazour

steve_jobsIn the past few months, the number of speaking engagements I’ve been doing has increased rather sharply, and I’ve found myself spending a lot of time preparing talks. I’ve trained for, and enjoyed, public speaking ever since I was a kid, completing all of the grades in Speech and Drama when I was about ten years old. But since that was two decades ago, I decided that it was time to do a fast but effective personal crashcourse in how to give a great talk, and have come up with a set of personal principles for public speaking.

Take the audience on a journey. In one of the best metaphors I’ve come across in recent times, Nancy Duarte explains how when giving a great talk, the audience needs to be Luke Skywalker, and the speaker needs to be Yoda. It’s the audience that’s the focus, and the speaker is merely a guide, taking them from a beginning, through many exhilarating experiences, to a final conclusion that leaves them in a much better place than when they started. Before a single word comes out of your mouth, the structure of that journey needs to be clear in your head – otherwise those words are wasted.

Take time to consider what the audience know about your topic, and how much they care about it. A great talk still needs to be adapted to the people hearing it – most people forget to spend some time thinking about that before they actually go and deliver it. At the beginning of the talk, the key is to introduce the topic in a carefully crafted, concise, and effective way – you want to make sure they get to the right level of understanding, but you don’t want to lose them along the way. At this point you aren’t into the journey yet, so you don’t want them getting bored.

Don’t make it up as you go along, and don’t read. I have a personal aversion to people who do things to a “good enough” level – except for in specific aspects of software development where if you carry on trying to get to perfection you’ll never actually ship anything. Reading a talk is not good enough. Thinking of a topic and making it up as you go along is just about good enough. Neither is acceptable. To give a truly mesmerising talk, you need to prepare, you need to practice, and you need to iterate the talk throughout this process. The words you use, the intonations, the pauses and the movements – all of these have to come out naturally when you speak, and the only way to achieve that is practice.

Err on the side of self-deprecation, and not arrogance. Cocky arrogance works for only a handful of people – and for a very small subset of audiences. Self-deprecation, a tactic that has worked rather well for Hugh Grant, builds great rapport with your audience and gets them on your side. In any human communication, whether one on one or speaking to an audience, the goal is to first gain their attention, and then get them to believe in what you’re saying. Both of these are made much easier if the listener feels an emotional connection to you as an individual.

Be well-dressed, and talk in an animated and relatively fast way. Presentable people immediately get more attention – it’s just a fact of life. That doesn’t mean that someone in jeans and trainers can’t give a good talk, clearly Steve Jobs really disproves that. But if you’re not Steve Jobs, and let’s be honest most of us aren’t, then it’s a bonus to be well dressed and looking presentable. And then once you’re delivering your message, no one likes to listen to a monotonic droning sound. But what people love, is to go on a rollercoaster of emotions, so if they can feel you feeling these emotions, they will join you. As you get animated and excited about your topic – so will they. Instead of looking at their twitter feed on their phone..

So that’s the five key points that I’m keeping in my head as I write my next talk (“Ecommerce – a data-driven new frontier” at the Webit Congress in a few weeks time – I’ve got discount codes for free tickets if anyone wants to come!) But the more I kept thinking about these points, the more I started to realise how relevant they are to communication in everyday life in general. Every time we open our mouths to speak, there is a purpose behind it. We are looking to entertain, engage, or persuade the other person. Have a look at each of the points above, and place each of them in a context of a general conversation. They all make sense. Well – maybe not the “don’t make it up” one.. But the rest do. The most engaging people to talk to are those who can relate stories, those who know when you’re not interested, those who aren’t arrogant, and those who look presentable. Embrace this – a whole world of relationships and opportunities is waiting.


Find out more on the about Ivan Mazour page.
And watch Ivan Mazour's TEDx Talk - "Why we shouldn't be scared of sharing our personal data".

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