David Edwards - guest public speaker providing 
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A great public speaker

Tips on how to be a great public speaker

You should build bridges with your words and images to help make it easy for the audience to enter and understand the world you are introducing them to. You may well be an expert in your field but that does not mean you can provide a good talk: you can’t rely on your expertise in the subject alone. Distilled from many years of public speaking experience, here is a collection of tips that help make a great speaker.

Be heard

The most important point. If people are straining to hear you they will switch off and it doesn't matter how good the talk itself is. Don't turn to look at your slides while talking: you should be looking at the audience to avoid drops in volume (and also to make them feel you're engaging with them and including them in your talk). If using a hand held microphone, hold it against your chin: this usually gives the correct volume level and also means that as you turn your head, the mike stays with you, again avoiding drop outs.

Have a clear aim

It's good to have a clear aim. "Surviving a volcanic eruption", "Why the Grand Canyon is so special", "How do we value nature?", are all clear aims that will guide you in designing the talk and help ensure you stay focused.

Be likeable

Audiences warm to a speaker who seems nice. They are more prepared to go along with you for the journey you are proposing to take them on, and it makes for a splendid social lubricant. Smile and make it clear you're glad to be there.

Start your talk with some 'oomph'

After you've been introduced and the audience go silent, they're all thinking "what is this speaker going to be like?", "will they be any good?", "is this going to be an interesting talk?". They are waiting to judge you. What do I do? I inject some energy into the room. I start my talk immediately: no bumbling, or fumbling or hesitation, just 'bang, we're off'. I might run a quick sequence of great slides to give a rapid overview of the talk. I might start with an arresting statement to catch the audience's curiousity. I might start with an attention grabbing animation. However I do it I want them to know within the first few seconds that they're going to have an enjoyable, worthwhile time with a speaker who knows what they're doing.
The most nervous person in the room won't be you: it will be the person who booked you, because it will reflect badly on them if afterwards their peers feel they booked a bad speaker. I love watching the booker relax in their seat a few seconds into my talk as they realise "hey, I haven't messed up here: this is going to be good."

Use visual aids to support your talk (if possible)

Whatever the audience is looking at should help them engage with your words. We are visual animals and well chosen illustrations or artefacts can make life much easier for the audience. I've used ropes, inflatable boats, and climbing equipment to bring a talk alive and help the audience relate to what I'm talking about.

Got text in your slides? Don't read it out

Don't treat text in your slides like a script and read it out: the audience will have read it much faster than you can speak it and will now be bored and distracted waiting for you to finish. Your voice should 'add value' to the text on the screen, not repeat it.

Put the graft in before the talk

I put a lot of time and effort into creating my talks: working out what I want to say, researching up to date facts, selecting good sounds and images, thinking about the best screen ratio, creating visually appealing slides.... The professional look of my presentations sends a message to the audience that I respect them, that I think they were worth making the effort for. I have attended some talks where minimal effort has been expended on the presentation, and unconsciously they're telling the audience that the speaker's time is more important than theirs. See an example below...

PowerPoint slides are cheap: don't skimp on them

I was once booked by a company who'd hired a TV celebrity and author the month before. The celebrity droned on, reading from a script for 90 minutes (therefore making no eye contact with the audience, who then started feeling irrelevant and so became disengaged), and used only two slides. The audience was unimpressed and the company swore never to book them again. Slides should support or illustrate the point you are making: this helps the audience follow you. Don't keep the same slide up long after it's ceased to relate to what you are now talking about.

Create branches in your PowerPoint talk

There are several ways of jumping around within a PowerPoint presentation at the click of a mouse. This means you don't have to follow the linear order of the slides in your deck. You could skip some slides if you realise the audience don't need to see them after all, or if you're running out of time. Or you can make your presentation more interactive and jump to particular topics within your talk as the demand arises.

Don't baffle with big numbers

It's hard for anyone to relate to big numbers: they're almost meaningless. At its peak in AD79, Vesuvius was erupting 1.5 million tons of ash per second. I can't envisage that, can you? What if I said it was the equivalent of 300,000 African elephants? Everyone can imagine an elephant and the thought of 300,000 of those dropping out of the sky a second makes it understandable why roofs were collapsing and people were struggling to wade through ash on the streets in almost total darkness.
I could tell you the volume of the world's oceans is x million cubic kilometres. Or I could say they would fill a vase 1,000km in diameter and 1,000km deep (and there's still more water than that trapped in the rocks of the Earth!).

Show, don't tell

Don't waste time and words explaining where a place is: show a map. Don't explain what something looks like: show a picture of it.
In my energy talk I use a simple, clear graph that shows the relationship between how much energy a country uses and its literacy rate, infant mortality, and life expectancy. If I didn't use that graph I would have to spend several minutes using words to try and describe those relationships and hope the audience could follow me. Instead, I put up that slide and instantly the audience grasps the point I'm making without me having to explain anything.

Go big

So, you've created a beautiful slide with maybe 3 or 4 images on it and some explanatory text. Looks great on your computer screen doesn't it, where you can pore over it, close up, like a printed document? Trouble is when you use it in your talk, people toward the back of the room, or with poorer vision, won't be able to see the images clearly or read the text. It doesn't matter how good the slide looks to you at your desk, always look at it from the audience's perspective. Too many images on your slide? Give them a slide each, where they can be displayed at a good size for an audience. Text on your slide? Make it big so people aren't squinting, or worse, giving up trying to read it. Hard to fit all that big text onto the slide now? Spread it out over several slides. Four extra slides in your presentation cost you no more than one slide: they're not rationed.

You are a story teller

Occasionally I've attended a travel talk where the images have been fantastic but there has been nothing connecting them. If you're giving a talk you are a storyteller, and so the images should serve the talk. I have some great images that will never appear in any of my talks, because they don't illustrate what I wish to talk about.

'The world belongs to the enthusiast who keeps cool'

Wise words from William McFee. Enthusiasm is good, but only takes you so far. An enthusiastic speaker, who also presents a well planned, well illustrated talk, will always be appreciated. Your talk should be an enjoyable audience experience, no matter how factual the subject. With so many demands on their time, you should leave them feeling glad that they chose to spend time listening to you.

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