Politics and activism

The perils of public speaking

(Let’s see if I can make all this week’s posts nostalgia-based.)

My uni course (Bachelor of Computing — Information Systems) included some business-oriented subjects, and I remember studying and practicing public speaking.

I don’t remember specifically what lessons I learnt from it, though I suspect like much in the course, the knowledge sifted into my mind in subtle ways and has been useful since then. (Though I’m not convinced PSY192 — psychology and sociology — was much use at all.)

I do remember that I really hated giving presentations at uni, and I suspect I wasn’t very good at it.

It’s still not my favourite thing to do, but hopefully I’ve improved.

Things I have learnt with more recent practice:

I’ll glance at the audience every so often to make sure they’re not falling asleep, but try not to focus too intently on them. That is, I’ll look in their direction if possible, but stare at their foreheads if they’re close by, or into an empty spot in if not.

(In this respect it’s quite different from radio or TV.)

I prepare notes, but not detailed notes. More like dot points, prompts to remind me what to talk about, but not a script. I can’t deliver from a script well — it’s likely to sound too monotonic monotonal. Everybody’s different with this I suppose. And of course not using a script means I have to know what I’m talking about.

For some indoorsy things there’s the option of a slide presentation. At uni this was done by using transparent plastic and an overhead projector, with marker pens (or a printer that could handle printing onto the plastic). These days it’s Powerpoint, but I endeavour not to overdo the animations, or the number of slides. Don’t put every single point up there, just the major ones — you don’t want the audience fixating on the slides instead of what you’re saying. The slides themselves can be the prompt for speaking from, instead of separate notes.

(At the last presentation I did, in front of hundreds of people, I goofed initially and assumed someone else was controlling the slides. Then it was pointed out the remote was sitting on the lecturn, right in front of me.)

If one has a choice, I’d probably include slides. It makes me less nervous by giving people something to focus on rather than me. And it reinforces points that people might not catch when given purely verbally.

At rallies and other outdoor events, it can be a little harder, as obviously you can’t use slides. I’ve sometimes found I veer off my notes a bit. Oh well — again, if you know your stuff, you can do that, and come up with some ad lib rhetoric that keeps the crowd happy and provides media sound bites.

(Why would you bother holding a rally if no media have been invited? You don’t want to just speak to fifty of the faithful who already believe in your cause, you want to speak to a million who you can influence.)

Ultimately when speaking publicly you do need a balance between style and substance. The best material can fall flat if delivered badly.

What speaking tips to others have?

I don’t know if any of you lot have ever been to something where I was speaking. If you have, what tips do you have for me?

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

6 replies on “The perils of public speaking”

Monotonal, not monotonic. /editing pedantry

My only point of disagreement with you is that I’d never use slides for the kind of presentations you give (maybe for a content-heavy technical or business presentation, but never for something punchy, topical and political). Prepare & give out hand-outs if you feel there are bullet points of facts & stats worth sharing that might go by too fast, but slides just dilute people’s attention away from what you are saying.

There is quite a bit of research on that actually but it’s 9:36 and I’m tired, so I can’t be stuffed to dig it out.. But will do so tomorrow if you care ;-)

Not seen you do public speaking, but can you do everything well? Your tv and radio are good. TV sounds bites are good, but there is always such heavy editing. Especially on radio, you interact well with the radio host and still stay on topic, which shows you are listening to what the radio host says. Makes the radio person happy and you get another gig in the future.

I expect your public speaking is fine.

@Kathy, it’s probably worth noting that the sort of presentation to something like CEDA or even a PTUA forum is likely to be much more content-heavy than anything at a rally, which will be much more rhetoric. But agree, slides can distract if not carefully handled. Handouts often aren’t practical if it’s not your gig, and are too expensive if it is your gig and you’re expecting/hoping for lots of people :-)

@Andrew, yes the editing of sound bites can be brutal. Live radio can be very tricky if you get a question out of left field. The same goes for answering questions at speaking events, in fact. I’ve floundered sometimes.

Agree with Andrew.
Your 10 second bites on TV are good. Your longer radio interviews also come across credible. You put forward a logical argument but are balanced (give credit where it is due).
While you believe in public transport, you are careful not to appear as an over-zeaous nutter. You also look respectable – wear a suit and show no visible tattoos or nose rings, etc.
Keep up the good fight!

Herschel commented elsewhere with some good tips: always start with a joke..say what you are going to say, say what you want to say, and finish by saying what you said… the shorter the better.

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