I’ve given a fair number of talks over the last few years, and I always try to keep improving. Before my recent talk at Beer City Code, I tried a few new things that (based on the feedback I got) worked very well.
1. Watch a recording of yourself giving a talk.
If you can record yourself, you might find there is an annoying habit that distracts from your presentation and it gives you a chance to see yourself from an audience perspective. As these are habits, they will be hard to break, so try and practice a few times deliberately not doing them so that your new way of presenting becomes your new habit.
A few months ago, I did a talk that was recorded, so I was able to see myself speak. The big thing that jumped out at me was that I was constantly looking over my shoulder at the main screen to look at the slide that was showing on my laptop. This was partly due to nerves and shyness—but also maybe because as a tester I trust nothing and had to verify that every time I clicked to a new slide the main screen reflected the change. It was a hard habit to break, but one way I found to try and break it was to actually refer to it early on during my talk.
2. Put presentation hints in your presenter notes
Presenter notes don’t always have to be hints or reminders of what you are actually going to say. You can also use them to remind yourself how to act and behave during your presentation. So I’ll sprinkle some hints such as SLOW DOWN, TAKE A BREATH throughout my notes. I’ll also add a note to ASK THE AUDIENCE if I’m posing a question that is not rhetorical. Yes, that does mean you have to look up from your screen and engage with the audience—but that is a good thing.
Just be careful not to read out your hint as an actual thing—and if you do, make it into a moment of humor. “Take a breath, oooops, I wasn’t meant to read that part out loud,” often gets a laugh when I’ve used it.
I’ve now used this trick several times, so it’s something that I now act on rather than just reading. I will take a breath and look around the room and slow down—for a few slides anyway until the next hint comes along. It’s becoming a good habit (unlike my looking-at-the-main-screen bad habit).
3. Take a break from preparing
I used to agonize over every word and image and would go over the slides and content every day, tweaking a sentence here, changing an image there. While I was preparing for my recent talk, a combination of work and personal events meant I was slammed, and I put no work or thought into preparing my presentation for a few days.
I found that when my time freed up and I returned to working on my presentation, I had some fresh ideas and that parts of my presentation needed changing. The break from working on it and a fresh perspective really helped. For future talks, I’ll make sure to take breaks from preparing and rehearsing.
Each of these approaches has helped me build good speaking habits and feel more comfortable and confident giving talks. I love giving talks, and I’m excited to keep getting better at it. If you have any similar tips to share, please let me know in the comments.