Becoming a “student of the game ” is one of the keys to taking your public speaking and presentation skills to the next level. Getting better requires skill and practice, but learning from others is also a great way to make forward strides as a speaker.
For every conference or event you go to, one of your goals should be to come away with at least one or two new ideas on speaking or slide presentations. And keep in mind that you can often learn as much from an awesome presenter as a horrible or mediocre one.
Things to look for and learn from when watching other speakers (both great and horrible):
- What tactics do they use to open the presentation that grabs your attention immediately? Do they have walk-on music with a relevant theme? Do they run on stage and tell a funny story or something that happened to them on the way to the conference? Or do they start off their talk with bullet-point slides describing their 25-year career and then a commercial about their employer or business? Do they hide behind the podium or prowl the stage or even eschew the stage and walk among the audience and in front of the stage?
- How do organize their presentation and craft their story/stories? Do they pull you in like a well-written play or movie by creating tensions and conflict from the beginning? Do they then build on that on describing a solution to the problem and then move to “Act III” with the payoff or resolution? Or do they run through a list of 10 Trends or Things Every (Fill in the blank) Must Do; or other approach? There is more than one way to organize a presentation, but pay attention to which approaches work best for the context and type of topic.
- What do their slides, if any, look like? Do they use slides and if so do they look professional and use a visual approach? Of do their slides use a template that looks like it is from the 90s and is mostly bulleted text that puts you to sleep after the third slide?
- How does the speaker interact with the audience? Do they ask questions of the audience? Get off the sage and interact with audience members? Do they pose rhetorical questions?
- How do they use humor? Do they use cat and dog videos, funny images or animated GIFs? Are they like a comedian and able to tell funny stories or one liners? Do they use facial expressions and body language that makes you laugh so hard that you cry? Focus on finding a style of humor that works for you and feels natural.
- What kind of content gets tweeted and retweeted? Whether you are actively Tweeting during a session or not, monitor event hashtags and speaker handless to discover what type of content is most frequently Tweeted and re-Tweeted. This not only helps you learn what type of content tends to be share worthy, but more importantly what is simple and resonating with audiences.
- What is their pacing like? Does the speaker use a rid-fire approach with 150 slides for a 60-minute talk, a slower-paced style where they might amplify a point or slide with a 3-5 minute story? Or did they vary their cadence with a little of both?
- Does the speaker come off as sounding completely scripted or natural, albeit polished and well rehearsed? Does the speaker ad lib and/or do things on an impromptu basis in response to the audience or their own content or foibles.
- How they lead up to the end and then close their presentation? Probably the most common failure among inexperienced and experienced speakers alike is to end with a whimper and a thud. Watch how great speakers lead you up to a powerful ending and close that leaves you laughing, crying or at least more informed and wanting to know more. On the other hand, many presenters will be flying along with their presentation and then suddenly, without warning, click to the Q&A/thank you slide.
- What do they do after they done speaking? Do they head for the airport, or hangout and answer questions as long as there is a line of people? Do they thank the audiovisual person or run straight to their buddies for kudos? Do they ask the conference host and attendees for feedback – what did you like most, least about the presentation?
Other Sources to Learn From
Watching speakers live at events and conferences is not your only avenue for learning from. Consider these sources as well:
- Webinars: Presenting a webinar is a bit different from being on stage in front of an audience, but storytelling, methods of pulling in an audience that is distracted by other things you can’t even see, slide design and beyond are all still key. When you attend webinars for work (or personal interests) watch pay attention to things that presenters do that are effective as well as failures or ineffective styles and approaches.
- Study videos from your favorite speakers: If there are a few speakers that you enjoy, visit their website and you will likely find at least a few of their best performances.
- Watch TED Talks videos: The easiest way to binge watch speakers is by scouring the TED Talks video web site. I like to watch them when I fly (Delta has a TED Talks channel). Besides seem some interesting approaches to public speaking, you will learn some amazing things on a variety of topics.
- Watch and listen to great historical speeches: What makes certain speeches by JFK, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and others so famous and often cited? Beyond what these and other great orators said and how they delivered it, was the context and timing of their famous speeches. So while your talk on the future of autonomous driving cars may not change the world, watching these and other speeches can help you better understand the importance of both the context and delivery of your presentations.
- Blogs and Articles: Start with a search on an area you really want to improve on and then scour the dozens of blogs and thousands of articles on public speaking exist. Here is a Top 20 Presentation and Public Speaking Blogs list assembled in 2014 from La Fabbrica della Realtà .
- Books, Podcasts and eBooks: Browse the Internet for long-form content on public speaking, but here is a list of Amazon’s top selling books on public speaking and presenting.
Because presenting and public speaking is probably not your primary role, you won’t be able to absorb all of the above content. So pick a few things that you enjoy of look forward to. These could be watching TED Talks and famous historical speakers or reading one presentation book per year.