Although I’ve been speaking in public since elementary school (I fondly remember writing notes on recipe cards that I would refer to as I did my speech), my speaking abilities really improved once I started speaking professionally in schools 4.5 years ago.
To date, I’ve spoken in over 200 schools and more than 50,000 kids, with audiences ranging from 25 to 750 students. I would estimate that I’ve done roughly 200 presentations lasting between 30-60 minutes and over 1,400 workshops ranging from 30 minutes to 90 minutes with anywhere from 10-150 students per workshop.
That means I have approximately 1,000 hours of experience speaking in schools and I’m not counting the hours spent speaking and teaching frisbee for community programs, youth groups, sports camps, and other types of groups over the last 4.5 years.
I also took the Toastmasters course in high school through my church, have coached and taught ultimate frisbee for years, both as a team, in schools, and for various ultimate clubs all over North America, and have run disc golf and canine disc throwing clinics all over North American.
With all that being said, I’m definitely over 1,500 hours of speaking time in public, which doesn’t include any of the preparation or practice time. It takes a lot of practice, making mistakes, receiving feedback, tweaking my messages, reading/listening to books to grow my knowledge, connecting with experts, keeping up with trends, and learning what works based on the audience reactions.
Note: Speaking to kids is very different than speaking to adults. I haven’t had to stop and ask adults to stop talking multiple times (although adults definitely will sometimes talk and most certainly are on their devices), but I quite often will need to with kids (and sometimes the principal will even intervene when the kids get too loud). Don’t get me wrong, I include questions, photos and videos that will get kids talking, but I do expect them to be respectful when I’m talking so I try to keep the pauses for talking/laughter to a minimum.
Given my background, I’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work. I also took a public speaking course through Udemy delivered by the head of TED Chris Anderson, which I found quite valuable. I have also spent some time at CAPS Calgary, learning from other professional speakers including Vince Poscente, who gave the brilliant advice to replace every “I” with “You” in your talk and make it more audience focused.
I’ve gotten quite a few messages from friends and colleagues asking for my advice when it comes to speaking, so I’d like to share my top 5 tips for public speaking and make it clear that they all support each other. They are broken up into 5 categories: pre-presentation, delivery, content, evolution, and technology. Although I’ve found the first two tips to have the most impact on my abilities and success as a speaker, I would be naive to think that the others didn’t contribute in a big way to those learning points, and that you cannot have one without any of the others.
Get the audience excited and engaged
When I first started speaking in schools, typically I would first be introduced by the principal, and then start my presentation. However, what I found lacking was any sort of energy or excitement. Someone suggested that I play music as the kids were walking into the gym, which I did but then also had a slideshow of photos from my frisbee adventures playing to entertain the kids as they would get settled. Before the music and slideshow, there was a lot of talking, not a lot of focus, and after the introduction, I would jump right into my presentation. I found this led to the students not being as engaged, and that I would need to stop more often to ask them to quiet down.
Another thing I observed is that as they were filing into the gym, I felt awkward just standing there waiting so what I started to do is grab a couple of X Discs (trick discs) and go around the room letting kids spin the discs on their fingers. This was a huge breakthrough because not only did this immediately capture their attention, but it also got the kids excited for what was about to happen and what they were going to learn. I will only ever get to have a fraction of the kids try and spin the disc on their fingers, but it’s been a perfect way for me to engage with the audience, help settle my nerves (yes I still get nervous every time!) and also keep myself busy while the kids are getting settled in the gym.
Treat the audience as a group of individuals
Whether you’re talking to a group of 30 or 300 people, the best way I’ve found to adjust your mindset is to think that instead of talking to 300 people, you are in fact having 300 individual conversations. Pretty much everyone is good 1-on-1, so if you can think of having an individual conversation with every single person in your audience, it will help you relax, and focus on the content rather than focusing on trying to talk to the entire group. Do your best to try and make eye contact with as many people as you can as you’re talking to try and make everyone feel like they are a part of your conversation. I try to walk around as much as I can, but I always stay in front of the audience. I’ve tried walking up and down the aisles, but the kids would have to turn and look at me and it would take their attention away from the screen and just felt awkward for them. I’m not always able to walk much depending on the length of the microphone cable, but just even a bit of movement helps.
I will also try to notice who are the talkative kids right away and try to engage with them a bit more so that they are more likely to pay attention. This can be challenging with you’re speaking to 3,4,5oo people, but it does help.
Also, try to put yourself in their shoes. What would help you pay attention? For myself, knowing that the speaker is trying to engage me and not talk to one person or one section of the audience helps.
Make it from the heart
Talk about something that you are either passionate about, interested in, have experienced, or are well known for.
Don’t overprepare – know your content well but don’t memorize the words connecting your messages. Let it be natural
Realize that you can’t be perfect and that’s ok. When I think back to some of my earlier presentations, I cringe when I remember some of the pictures, messages, and stories that I would share with schools. But that’s ok. Because at the time, it’s what I knew, what made sense, and what was working. When it wouldn’t work, or I’d receive feedback on something, I would adapt and adjust, tweak my presentation, get comfortable with the new content, and try it in the next school. I learned that I needed to be ok with making mistakes, not being perfect, and being open to criticism, because that is how I would ultimately grow and improve as a speaker.
Be prepared for the worst case scenario
Although some speakers don’t use technology, it’s crucial for my presentations since I like showing videos, photos, having sound, and illustrating my point visually. If you don’t use presentation software, then your job is immediately simplified, but if you’re like me, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Ensure that you know the venue before you show up to speak. If you’re presenting somewhere that doesn’t have a screen, projector, speakers or a microphone and you need one or all, make sure you find out beforehand what you will need to bring. Once I book a school, I let them know what I’ll be needing tech wise, and the majority of schools will have everything I need. Sometimes they won’t have a microphone, but they’ll also only have 50-100 students so a microphone isn’t necessary if you can project your voice.
Although every school has had a projector and speakers, there have been many small issues including: washed out colour, resolution not compatible, no screen, computer speakers not suitable for a large audience, burnt out light bulb, projector overheating, and one school had 5 projectors but none of them worked very well so ultimately I chose the best of the worst. Sometimes I’ll bring my own projector (if possible) just in case something happens, like a school that the projector didn’t work so they borrowed a projector from the school across the road. It’s also not great when they have a working projector but your presentation doesn’t show up perfectly sized because of the resolution so give yourself some extra time to make sure you can get everything setup.
Aside from the client’s technology, make sure that your tech is working. One school I was at 3 years ago ended up having to stall for about 20 minutes because my computer decided to install updates upon starting up. So make sure that you have your laptop turned on and even open the programs you need BEFORE going to your speaking venue and then just put your computer into sleep mode so when you get there, you can wake your computer up and you’re all set.
For software, I recommend using Prezi. My first few presentations were done using Microsoft Powerpoint but after having a few videos not auto play, I switched to Prezi and have never looked back. Prezi makes it super easy to add media, change the order of your presentation using steps, and makes it super easy to organize your scattered mind (or as Tim Ferriss calls it, your monkey mind). I don’t use too many fancy transitions and I like to keep my presentation very clean because I want the focus to be on my message and on me, rather than on what’s happening on the screen (aside from the photos and videos, which are meant to engage and entertain my audience). Prezi will take some getting used to but essentially it’s a huge canvas that you add everything to, and then you decide how you navigate through that content.
Something that I’ve found invaluable is my wireless remote. I bought the Logitech R800 about 3 years ago and am still using it, having only had to replace the battery twice. It includes a digital timer, forward and back buttons, a screen blackout button, and a green laser pointer. It’s perfect for me since I can set the timer so I know how much time I have left and I can be done on time, which is extremely important when I’m speaking in schools where I have a very tight schedule.
Ultimately, the worst case scenario is bound to happen. You show up and your client’s projector isn’t working, you forgot your backup, and you are forced to give your presentation without the use of technology. This has happened to me and although I was a bit stressed at first, I knew my major messages and points so well that I was able to still give the presentation. So, although it wasn’t ideal, I was still able to deliver as promised.
Now, I won’t lie and say that these 5 tips will make you instantly a great speaker, but they will help you become a better speaker, and set you on the path to becoming a great speaker. I’ve learned from some of the best and have been dedicated to constantly working at my craft (with the same drive, curiosity, and focus that I give to frisbee), so you will continue to improve if you stay committed, open minded, agile, and coachable.
If you have any specific questions or would like some guidance with your talk, please Contact Me!