Note: I wrote a draft of this post before attending Startup School. I’ve added a few notes from Startup School at the end.
As a young student, I was petrified when my turn came to read out loud to my classmates. To this day I’m not a confident oral reader. Eventually my paranoia about reading translated into a fear of public speaking. But as I gained more responsibility, I realized public speaking wasn’t only going to be critical, it would be expected. I’ve had to force myself to improve my public speaking. I’m still not a great speaker, but I’ve gotten better.
I’ve given dozens of presentations over the past few years, and I still find it challenging and often mentally draining, but I still do it. While most engineers, myself included, want to be judged purely on the merits of our work, if you want to drive innovation, you will often have to convince others of your project’s merits and get others to follow you in your pursuit. Complex projects require communication, and public speaking is one critical way of communicating your intentions to your colleagues, customers, and investors.
I have a lot of room for improvement, but here are a few tips that have helped me.
The best way to improve as a public speaker is to volunteer to give talks. If you are given the opportunity to talk about something you are working on, take it. Once you are scheduled, it is difficult to turn back. If you are working in a technical role, you may want to recommend a “brown bag lunch” on a topic you are interested in.
For good reason, managers are often unwilling to put unproven speakers in front of customers. But you can prove yourself by giving talks to your peers. If you show initiative in this area, I suspect many managers will make time for it. If you want to lead a project, this is just as important as learning about the latest technology. For many people this is painful as hell, but many of us have been there, and the sooner you do it, the better.
I have most senior developers on my teams give presentations to their peers. I think it is an important aspect of leadership (and it has been interesting to watch as engineers have grown in this area), but not all managers require this, so you will have to take the initiative to make it happen.
Be absorbed by your subject
I stole this one from Dale Carnegie. I find it difficult to talk about something I do not agree with (although this is necessary from time to time). It is easier when you care about your subject and believe in it. It will translate to your audience, and make up for experience. I’d rather hear an unpolished speaker give a talk on topic he or she is really passionate about, than a professional speaker rattling off sound bites.
My subject is my work. I’m passionate about what I am doing, and that makes my job when speaking a little easier.
If you are frequent speaker or lecturer, you can probably get away with winging it, the rest of us need to practice. Knowing the content well can help you get over stage freight. If you are really well prepared, you will go into automatic mode. This isn’t as good as being fully engaged in the moment, but it will get you through the content.
I record the talk and play it back. This can be difficult to hear, but it helps a lot. Force yourself to do this. I also practice the talk or the pitch for my colleagues.
Assume things will go wrong
I’ve given many talks on the road where I couldn’t control the environment. This can be a nightmare if you depend on internet connections or multiple monitor setups for presenter notes when combined with the pressure of having to give a presentation. Assume that your presenter notes won’t work, the internet will fail, and the resolution of the projector will be very low (more on that in a minute).
Unless I’m demoing something where the interaction is key to the feature or product, I now use screenshots to point out different parts of the application. In all cases, I have screenshots as a backup.
Forget the slides
If Beck was an investment banker, he’d ditch his turntables for two slide decks and a microphone. This is just how it is done. Or at least it can seem that way. Along the way, I was introduced to Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching out Corrupts Within, and it changed the way I think about presentations. (Thanks Will!). Jeff Bezos must have read it as well, as he practices what Tufte preaches.
Tufte argues that PowerPoint is a crutch for the presenter and doesn’t provide a lot of value to audience. Presenting is about the words coming out of your mouth, not an outline on a screen. If you have more than a couple words on a slide, your audience will not read it. Tufte also recommends that if there is a lot of dense data to presented, then explain the data and content in prose and print it out for your audience.
There is a practice, especially in the investment banking world, of sending out slides as the outline of a presentation. If all the content of a presentation can be gleamed out of a couple PowerPoint slides, why are you giving a presentation? If you have a lot of content on a slide, it isn’t going to translate to the projector, which will likely have lower resolution than your PC or laptop. Looking at content projected on an overhead screen is different than looking at it on your monitor. If you are going to use PowerPoint, then try the slide deck with a projector. Does the content make sense for that medium?
These days, when I use slides they typically consist of one word or image. This makes some people uncomfortable, because they can’t tell what my talk is going to be about just by reading the slides. But the PowerPoint isn’t supposed to be a replacement for the content of the talk. If your organization has a big PowerPoint culture, this can be really difficult to change, but do what you can to simplify your slides. If you can show that it works, then maybe you can effect your culture.
If you need notes to help you remember the content of your talk, then keep the notes to yourself. Don’t project them to your audience.
Get plenty of sleep
I do not perform well on low sleep. I hate flying from west to east, getting in late, and then doing a presentation at 8:30AM. While 8:30 might not seem that early, if you get to your hotel at midnight, have trouble falling asleep, it is like getting up at 5:00AM. There is plenty of research which shows the negative effects that jet lag has on performance. Professional athletes often travel out ahead of their games when going from west to east. You might not be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t mean you are immune to the effects of jet lag.
If it is worth the time and cost of flying from the west coast to the east coast to give a presentation, it is worth getting there early. I don’t buy into the machismo of jamming your schedule – because ultimately something will get short thrift. If your presentation is what can give why are spending so much time traveling to get there?
At the same time, don’t do yourself unnecessary injury by heading to the bar for a few drinks and then staying up late. Maybe you can get away with it, but I know I can’t. It can take some restraint when all your colleagues are headed out on the town, but keep in mind why you are there. Don’t blow all your preparation with a hangover. I say this from experience.
It gets easier
Public speaking gets easier with time. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to put the work in, but you’ll know you have to put the work in and will be better prepared. When you are prepared, things tend to go better.
Thoughts from Startup School on public speaking
The biggest audience I’ve spoken to is about 200 people. Startup School is a whole other league, but it helped confirm a couple points for me.
I was blown away by Chase Adam’s talk on Watsi, and by the end I was starting to tear up. It was that powerful. After watching this talk, I am hesitant to use the word “passion” when describing my feelings about my work. I’ve never seen a talk with as much passion as Chase’s. There is no doubt Chase will change non-profits for the better. He may even help change the way people perceive health care.
Zuckerberg mentioned he had some significant issues with public speaking. This wasn’t with just people outside of Facebook, but his own team. If you want to lead, you have to overcome your fears of public speaking. His advice was just to push through and do it. He sounds much more confident now than a few years ago. He probably seemed aloof for many years simply because he was petrified of public speaking.
Attendees expressed mixed feelings about Jack Dorsey’s talk, but I enjoyed it. It reminded me of some of the discussions I’ve had with the best operational leader I’ve worked with (minus the awesome jazz). His talk was about focus and repetition. It is clear he learned many lessons from the chaos of the early days Twitter, and I’m sure Square is a much better run company. I came away thinking I’d love to work for Jack Dorsey, and if one of his goals is recruiting, then he succeeded.