Archive for October 11th, 2010

Being a Public Speaker October 11th, 2010

Vinod Kumar

SpeakerIn continuation to the series of write-ups done in the past on Evangelism here I, Part II, Part III and presentations, here is another post which has been on my minds for a while and I have never got the time to gather all the thoughts into a single post. In my activities at Microsoft, I need to do a lot of events and most times need to also formulate the technical content, speakers identifications and much more. As part of the process a lot of speakers have come back to ask, why didn’t I call them as speaker for the event. This is not a single simple answer, I look for many traits that make a speaker suitable for events.

Not to confuse yourself with the Presentation Skills 101 that I wrote a while back. That is the place to start, this takes the same discussion to the next level. Public speaking is not an easy task. But the good news is that it is not impossible to learn how to be good at it. You can learn and pick up the qualities of a good public speaker in order to become one yourself eventually someday surely over repeated practice.

Core traits of Public speaking

For me the traits of Public speaking either open speech or with the aid of Presentation (PPT) are the same. The presentation is a mere mnemonic to the flow of thoughts, not the content itself – You are the content, you are the content presenter.

Content is King

I cant emphasis on this point more. It is the experience the audience are going to go through make the speaking effective. Have a flow, story around your content and most importantly – make sure what are the top 2 takeaways for your session. Even a person lacking charismatic gifts can develop solid content. Always share something the audience finds valuable by being practical. Being real and practical means you are just like one amongst them and share their pains.

A public speaker cannot merely rely on his or her personal knowledge or experiences. Knowing where to acquire new information and how to relay them to your audience easily is one quality of an excellent public speaker. Knowing an audience’s interests and level of knowledge is also a part of his resourcefulness.

A speaker who is resourceful always knows how to use simple visual aids or items to evoke more interest from his or her audience. Using notepad, MS Paint have been some of the tricks I have used in the past.

Attitude matters

Outstanding speakers avoid saying they are going to deliver a speech. They never sound too bland and routine. Instead, they visualize having a lunch conversation with friends, when you’d share your ideas naturally, with no pretense. Professionalism is at the core to this nature and it oozes in everything they do – On stage or Off Stage.

I look at this trait when I am looking for speakers for Mega Events like TechEd, I seldom prefer people who make transits for delivering just their sessions. The audience want more time with these SME (Subject-Matter-Experts) as much as possible and as an organizer, I look for this attitude …


HumourousThe best speakers find a way to get people smiling early in the session. It opens hearts and makes the audience receptive. You don’t have to be super hilarious, just humorous. Remember the topics around politics, sports, Music and the hero’s people in that region worship which I highlighted on my previous blog – that concept exactly holds good here.

It is the sense of humor of the speaker that makes their speech easier to comprehend and remember for a long time. Incorporating a few jokes that would lighten your audience can very well assist you in conveying the message of your speech more effectively.

No one likes a boring speaker – so do I. It’s important that you don’t force jokes into your speech just because modern speech advice suggests that you should. Do it because you’re comfortable with it and it’s relevant to your topic.

Being Organized

When chances are given, there are things as organizers people take a note off. There are two fundamentals – Report Card (tells as a speaker how your session went – Speaker rating, Content rating etc given by audience) and second is Conduct Certificate (these are what we as organizers try to see in speakers). First part is easy, what I am talking about is the second part.

  • Does the speakers come the day before the session, giving lesser tensions to the organizers?
  • Does the speaker ask enough questions to know what, when, where and to whom he is going to address the speech? And also understands “why” he is called on first place.
  • Does the speaker land before time to check on the acoustics, projector, audience seating arrangements etc?
  • Does the speaker adhere to the timelines and deadlines set by the event team on – PPT submission, dry runs, templates usage etc?

Obviously, we do sit in the sessions generally to check if the speaker is “presenting” or “talking” or worst just “reading the slides”.

Tip: Have your notes structured in a way that keeps you on pace and on target. Listeners should feel they received a message that made sense and was easy to remember.

Doing the Homework

HomeworkGood speakers continue to grow in the knowledge and bring practical insights to the topics in hand. Their tone and talk generally makes one feel it is a problem in their backyard that is getting solved part of the session. I have voiced the concept that as a speaker when I present to a large group of people, it is tough because I cannot come back to the same audience and give the same content a month later. As a speaker it is upto me to go the extra mile and get information for the next level … You should be constantly reading, attending seminars or doing any other kind of activities that would enrich your knowledge. There is lot around you that you can learn from.

Mastery may or may not include academic degrees in that area. Primarily, mastery results from wide reading, research, interviewing experts, and learning through professional associations, not because you have to but because you have an overwhelming urge to learn all you can on this theme. Infact, during my talks to Computer Science students, as I finish my lecture on Data Structures I say – I did my Engg in Mechanical and getting a mastery of any subject is just in our own minds.

The best in this profession is to give without expecting returns. Giving must be in the DNA, it is this community spirit that keeps them wanted. The process of giving pushes you harder to start finding more knowledge.

Confident and Credibility

A honest arrogance is always better over false humility. We all want to know people are being honest with us and that what we see is what we get. Be true to yourself and others by being the same around everyone. I have seen, many new speakers just cant say – “I don’t know, let me get back to you”. Doing so as a speaker you go miles in the minds of audiences. BTW, saying that ALL times by showing honesty just means you didn’t do your proper homework on the subject Smile

When you are in front of audience, you need to appear confident (even if you are nervous). Audiences don’t like listening to a stutterer giving a speech. Simply smile and relax while you deliver your speech. A smile can hide all the nervous wrinkles on your face.

Remember that the audience sees you as the expert in what you are speaking on. Knowing this can give you the confidence to speak from a position of authority but not over-confidence.

Nervousness is fear of failure. Here is the secret of conquering your nervousness.

  • Become message-centered and audience-centered, not self-centered.
  • Stop thinking of yourself, and start thinking of your message.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
  • Talk out loud, and walk around while you practice.

Remember, you want to be nervous. You don’t want to eliminate the butterflies in your stomach; you want to get them to fly in formation. When that happens, you will have converted your stress into speaking power.

Top-caliber speakers strike you with authoritativeness. You consider them experts. Clearly, they have mastered their topic. Through long hours of preparation, possibly even years, they have earned the right to speak with credibility. In my opinion, if they can do it – so can you !!!

Being Natural – not fish out of water

Speak with your face. If your words are hopeful, you may lift your eyebrows; if your words are humorous, you should smile or laugh; if your words are questioning, your brow may furrow. Again, these are all typical means of facial expression you would use when talking to family or friends. Speak with your body. A great problem for many speakers is knowing what to do with their hands in public speaking. Let me ask you, what do you do with your hands when you are in conversation? Do you look at the ceiling while talking or do you express yourself with them? Do you move when talking to your friends, switching your wait from one leg to the other, for example? Does your head move as you look from one person to another?

Being natural in front of a spotlight is not a natural act for sure. But take deep breath and feeling natural is important.

Be natural in your dressing sense. As a speakers you need to look like professionals when you face your audiences. Ask your organizer what is the audience type, developer (Jeans might be fine), Architect (Formal wear works), Decision Maker (Formal if needbe a Blazer) … So know your audience profile – file them, profile them.


Being time conscious is the most important trait of any seasoned speaker. Know your time limits and attention spans of your audiences.

  • Know the mental map of which slide you should be at midpoint – it helps to pace. There are timing features of PPT that you can use to force move a slide if needbe. My rough calculation is 3 mins in each slide or sometimes as much as 5 mins. So a 1 hr session cannot have more than 12-15 slides – Period.
  • Ending a session before time shows your under-preparedness on the topic or you as a speaker don’t have enough meat.
  • Going really-overboard (debatable :)) on your time limit shows you are not organized on the topic in hand and just giving too much data and all over.

Understand if you are talking to 50 people for 1 hr, you infact are influencing 50hrs in a single shot. So let that be the best shot and you get only once chance.


Blue_energySpeaking transfers energy with words. The more passion passes through the message the greater the chance of it being remembered and applied. No one has ever said, “I hope the speaker is boring.” Instead people like to say things like, “Wow! he sure was excited on the topic.”

It’s hard for you to be interested as a speaker if you don’t care about your topic. It’s even more difficult for you to get your audience to care if you don’t care. Avoid this trap by choosing topics that you have a genuine interest in, and if you can’t do that, you should try to find an angle of the topic that you can get into. The more you care about a topic, the more you’ll be able to energize your audience, key traits for an effective speaker.

Tip: Energy is infectious, negative or positive. Use it to your advantage !!!

Keep Them Involved

If you know your audience well, a couple of anecdotes are probably fine, but otherwise you risk boring your audience or alienating them. Instead of personal anecdotes, do some research and try to find stories from history or tales specific to your topic. As long as you can remember, stories grabbed you, and wouldn’t let go until you had heard all of the fables. As adults, we still respond to intriguing stories. People learn from and remember the anecdotes, not the statistics. A typical example is the way “Harry Potter” are so famous in this age too. A tight story can take the experience a long way.

Tip: Don’t be perfect – give yourself permission to make mistakes. People are not perfect in real life. But you did be a fool to repeat a mistake twice though .

Questions handling Techniques

Business questionLet me move into one of the most difficult part of any speakers nightmare – Q&A time.

I have seen multiple styles of presentation where the speaker insists of taking the Q&A at the last. It is fine to set the stage at the start, but in my opinion I have never done it this way. The presentation is for the audience who are with you now – in front of you. So if asking a question clarifies and makes your presentation clearer to all, why not take them now?

As a seasoned presenter, we know what the limits are – when the session is getting derailed by questions and when someone is trying to act smart showing their superiority etc. Handling these situations is something I am ready to do over a chat if you want any day.

Here are some of the tips you might want to keep behind your mind when you are put under the spotlight during a Q&A session –

  • Repeat the question for three reasons.
    • There are more people in the room who have not heard/got the question asked.
    • It also helps you as a speaker to paraphrase to check if the question you mapped in mind is inline with the question asked.
    • Finally, selfish plug as a speaker you get that extra moment in your mind to think through the answer.
  • When answering a question from the audience never point with your finger at the individual. Doing so sometimes singles out the person and makes them feel – it is just their problem.
  • Give as quick a response as you can. You don’t want to start a session inside another session.
  • Give credit to the person who asked the question. DONOT ridicule, make pun or worst pull a joke out of the question.
  • Make clear eye-contact with the individual or in a group (direction of question). It indicates confidence and more importantly you are giving attention.
  • Finally, thank the audience member for taking the time in asking it. You will go places as a speaker if you master this !!!

If you are every caught off-guard and don’t know and answer to a question – don’t lie or make up one. Say to the audience member (and all the listeners) that you will exchange e-mail addresses with that person at the end of the program, do some research and get them the correct answer.

More DON’T – keep in mind

DangerThere are many things that get un-noticed, un-intentional without your consent as a speaker … It is good to be aware of them consciously in my opinion.

  • Many speakers let their voices trail off at the end of sentences. The audience can hear the first part of their sentence, but they have no idea what pearls of wisdom might be lost in the whispers at the end.
  • Sometimes speakers deliver complete sentences inaudibly while looking down. You surely are showing your disinterest in the topic/question or low of confidence. Either of them is not a good signals or vibes.
  • Muttering is not cool. Inexperienced speakers will often speak at conversation level, not giving any thought or consideration to the people in the back of the room.
  • Don’t rest your elbows on the table or fold your hands in front of your mouth while speaking. Know where your hands are – if not there are 100’s others in front of you who are watching. Remember the topic around talk with your body above.
  • Never try to make your presentation by just reading from your slides. The fact remains, most of your audience has finished reading your slide even before you finished finished calling out the first sentence.
  • Even some professional speakers still use too many filler words. It takes practice, practice and more practice – but you can rid your vocabulary of those filler words like, uh, ah, er.
  • In a very small group or when the audience is sitting in a circle of chairs  for example, speaking while seated is generally okay. But if you have a room containing six rows of chairs or more, you really should express respect for those in the back of the room by standing so that you can be seen as well as heard.
  • I cant emphasize this more, DONOT OVERSHOOT. Time is of essence and many a times in events there can be multiple tracks and there needs to be some unison which cannot be compromised. Please !!!
Personal Learning’s

If you ever wondered if I have gone thorough any of these, well. Yes almost ALL of them – it has taken me over 8 years of speaking at various groups to get to where I am today. But I am still light-years to where I would want to be. Let me tell you some of the questions back of my mind when I get on stage – I still battle them every single time I get in front of my audience.

  • Will this topic excite the audience? Even after the audience profiling this comes in mind every single day.
  • “Little nervous.” – Generally I Sip a glass of water and relax. Practice eliminates most of it. I try to see into the eyes of few and start the session on a casual note.
  • “Talk too fast,” – Esp times when talking to other nationals I have seen this was a big issue. But over the years there is conscious decision not to be that way. Again practice helps tons !!!
  • “Have to have things written out.” – I have seen many a times with Demo only sort of sessions one can get lost in the actual flow. So I generally carry a cheat sheet that helps me organize my thoughts, demo flow and hence the final content delivery gets done. If it works for you – surely try it.
Final words –

These are a compilations of various attributes I see into a great speaker and I know everyone has some or most of the traits but not all. I try to learn and have over the years learnt from people around me. You don’t get to grow if you don’t see the learning opportunities around you. Have fun, I hope you enjoyed reading the post.

Feel free to pass me your comments and your experiences.

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