Public speaking is a great skill, and one that I strongly recommend people develop. The ability to get up in front of a crowd and speak to them is surprisingly useful in its own right, and besides teaches you a lot about communication and confidence.
Public speaking is also terrifying for new speakers, and as a result they often try to play it safe. This is entirely reasonable – when you are nervous, making your environment safer is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, new speakers are often wrong about what makes a talk safer.
Here is what you as a new speaker should do to actually make your talk safe:
- Under no circumstances read your talk from a written version of it. This includes reading your slides.
- Pick as short a time slot as you can find. Lightning talks are ideal. Twenty minute slots are fine. Under no circumstances give your first talk in an hour long slot.
- Practice talking about that topic repeatedly, refining your talk and slides until you are 100% confident that you can fit it in the time slot.
- Wear a watch on stage so you can keep track of time.
- Pick a niche topic that you find very interesting and that it’s unlikely many people know much about.
- Don’t take questions.
In contrast many new speakers pick an easy topic, read from their notes, and overrun their time slots. These are about the only things you can do as a new speaker to lose audience sympathy1. They can tell if your speaking skills aren’t polished, but they won’t care much – everyone either has been a new speaker or hasn’t yet given a talk and is very impressed that you are. If you keep them interested and don’t inconvenience them, the talk is a success.
In my post on satisficing I listed the following as the success criteria for giving a talk:
- It has to make sense.
- It has to fit its time slot.
- It has to convey something interesting.
I should add a fourth one for new speakers: It shouldn’t stress you out too much to give it. The above advice is designed to make it as easy as possible for you to satisfy all of these requirements.
I’ll now elaborate a bit more on how it does this.
No Reading Your Talk
The reason you should not read from a prepared version is that it will make your talk extremely hard to follow. It’s not impossible to give a good reading, but it is a legitimately very hard task, and you almost certainly don’t have the skill set to do it.
Doing this well requires two skills:
- Having a natural voice while reading out loud.
- Writing speech that sounds natural.
Most people are not very good at either of these.
Reading out a prepared speech will usually cause you to speak in a flat monotone, with minimal variation in pitch and speed, no pauses, and extremely restricted body language. This is almost impossible for a listener to understand, because all of those things are major cues that we use to understood spoken words.
Avoiding this is harder still if your prewritten talk is not actually well written for being spoken, which it probably isn’t. Writing is more measured, and tends to be more formal and stilted when read out loud. Most writing would be improved by making it suitable to be read out loud, but you don’t want to make your public speaking dependent on improving your writing skills.
In contrast, if you design your talk to be spoken from the start, you will avoid both of these pitfalls automatically: You already know how to speak, and you can lean hard on that and refine it further.
This doesn’t mean you speak without planning – rehearsing your talk is very important – but it does mean that your talk will be partly spontaneous and will not be the same each time you give it. That’s fine, that’s how talks work.
You can of course prepare cue cards if you’re worried about losing track of your talk, and you can read out anything you need to quote. I don’t personally do this, but if it’s something you find helpful then it’s a very different proposition to reading out your whole talk.
You can also write out a version of your talk if you would find it helpful for getting your thoughts together and planning it out. I do this occasionally. The important thing about doing this though is that you write it out and then don’t use it – the process of writing it is what was important. You are not giving the talk by reading it, or even attempting to memorise the wording you used in it.
Practicing Time Management
Time management for talks is a hard skill and I would like to give you an easy way out of it as a new speaker, but I can’t.
Unfortunately, it’s also a vital skill set: You are obliged to fit your time slot, and you will make things worse for everyone if you do not. As long as you fit in your time slot, everything else is forgiveable, but overrunning at best inconveniences everyone and at worst significantly disrupts the schedule, and you will make the organisers mad at you.
As you get more experienced as a speaker you will (if you pay attention) get better at judging time of talks and it will become more automatic, but in the beginning there is no substitute for practicing your talk.
The specific advice I gave for time management was:
- Pick a short time slot.
- Practice your talk until you are 100% confident that it fits the time slot.
- Wear a watch on stage so you can keep track of time.
All of this is designed to make your life as easy as possible while getting good at this vital skill.
Short time slots are much easier to get right, because it’s easy to pad or cut a minute or so, but if your timing is off you will tend to drift in a systematic way over the course of your talk. If you’re 5% off on a 20 minute talk then you have a minute to correct for. If you’re 5% off on an hour long talk, you have three minutes to correct for. This may not sound like much, but rushing through the conclusion of your talk in the last thirty seconds when you thought you had three minutes left is incredibly stressful, and the conclusion of the talk is the bit people will remember most.
Wearing a watch on stage also helps you keep track of timing so you can adjust on the fly – if you notice halfway through your time slot that you’re not quite yet halfway through your prepared material, you can adjust by speeding up a bit, cutting digressions, etc.
Pick A Niche Subject
It is possible to do an interesting talk about something fairly commonplace and widespread, and it’s possible to do interesting and useful tutorial talks, but it’s quite hard, and my recommendation is to wait on it until you’re more comfortable speaking. Even today I tend towards niche subjects, because it guarantees an easy win.
If people come out of your talk having learned something interesting and new, you won at speaking. If your subject is something interesting and niche, this is practically guaranteed because by definition a niche subject is something that not many people know about.
There are a bunch of ways to find good niches:
- Do a talk about something you’ve personally experienced – e.g. interesting debugging war stories.
- Dig into the details of something commonplace to a much greater degree than most people know about. e.g. talk about an aspect of language internals, how some sort of software works.
- Pick a weird interest of yours, or something that you’ve learned in the course of a specialised job.
- Talk about something from another field you’re in and how it relates to the conference subject (or don’t bother to relate it if the conference has a relaxed policy on talk subjects!)
- Talk about a skill you wish were more widespread – e.g. communication and writing skills.
It’s a little hard to give specific advice about this because everyone is different in what niches they know and like, and what they’d feel comfortable talking about, but my recommendation would be to write down a long list of things you could maybe give talks about (aim for quantity not quality: Don’t worry too much about whether it’s a good idea until you’re actually ready to submit it to a CfP!) and then shop some around friends and coworkers to see what they think: The ideal reaction is a faintly puzzled “Huh. Yeah, I guess that would be a good subject for a talk.”
Don’t Take Questions
At some point in your talk (probably the end), say something along the lines of “I will not be taking questions at this time, but if you want to talk to me about this I’ll be around for the rest of the conference”. If you don’t feel confident saying it, that’s fine, ask your session chair to say it for you.
It’s a bit of a power move, so it makes sense to get help, but it’s one that is absolutely the right thing to do for most talks, and by doing it for your talk you encourage others to do the same for theirs.
The reason for doing this is twofold: Firstly, answering questions on the spot is hard and stressful, so why do it if you don’t need to? Secondly, most people are bad at asking speakers good questions, so the Q&A session is generally low value and is safe to ditch.
Note that you will probably not be able to pull this one off at an academic conference. It’s genuinely fine at most industry ones.
Public speaking is hard, and it’s OK to be stressed about it – it’s practically expected. Do whatever you need to do to make your life easier. Try to stay calm on stage if you can, but don’t worry about feeling nervous if you can’t.
Ultimately, the audience is on your side, and nothing too bad will happen even if things go wrong.
Your goal as a first time speaker is to give a pretty good talk, and to become a second time speaker, and a third, and a fourth, and so on. Take any affordances you find helpful to get to that. Those can be the ones in this post, or they can be anything else that works for you.