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alastair humphreys speaking

Advice for Speaking in Public

Many people have to speak in public. Few enjoy it, at least not beforehand. Afterwards, if the talk has gone well, there is relief, pride, satisfaction and -yes- a nice boost to the ego if people enjoyed what you had to say.

There are countless books and blog posts on this topic, many from cheese-tastic American motivators with glossier hair and shinier teeth than me and Ten Steps to Motivational Success guarantees.

So I shall be brief with my advice and encouragement for you.

  1. Make sure you are an expert in your subject matter.
  2. Be passionate, truthful and honest.
  3. Do not speak for longer than you are supposed to do. Shorter is ok. Longer is not.
  4. Look at the audience, not at your slides / monitor / notes.
  5. If you can master points 1-4 then you honestly don’t need to worry. The rest is just fine-tuning.
  6. Don’t cower behind a lectern unless the event dictates that you have to.
  7. If you must use notes then they must not be more than bullet points. If I wanted a long, printed-out script then you could have just emailed it to me and I’d read it at home in my pants, not in some crap conference centre near the motorway.
  8. Make sure you know how to use the microphone and technology beforehand. Faux amateurism is annoying.
  9. No Clipart. No pixelated images. No witty video clip of a kitten in a tree to start us off. No long lists of text swooshing in to sound effects. No exceptions. This isn’t 1997.
  10. Be funny if possible.
  11. If you are not a funny person do not try to be funny.
  12. Be honest and open and true. Integrity is king.
  13. Know your audience.
  14. Do not read out long boring lists from your slides. I know this is what everyone who has ever advised on speaking says. But it is also what happens at every single conference I ever have the misfortune to sit through. Stop it! Seriously. Stop it! If you don’t know where to start with your slide design then this will do you fine: have a lovely photo or a blank slide, with no more than one sentence of text on it to jog your memory and prime the audience. Seriously. Any more than that and I’ll personally punch you in the face on behalf of  bored audiences across the land. Although having you on stage before me does make my own job infinitely easier. Thank you for that.
  15. If you don’t need slides, don’t use them. Tell your story without them. It’s more powerful that way.
  16. Do not try to cram too much into your talk. Less is more. Fewer slides. Fewer take-home messages. Fewer stories. Just make each one better.
  17. Arrogance is forbidden. Most Brits will implicitly understand this. So beware of the next worst thing: false modesty. It makes my toes curl.
  18. What is the point of your talk? Don’t just fade away. The old maxims are often the truest: Tell us what you are going to say. Say it. Tell us what you just said. Sit down.
  19. Make sure you know off by heart the very first sentence you will say on stage. You might be ad-libbing much of the rest, but start solid. Nobody wants a rambling, wet beginning that takes two minutes to get going.
  20. Stick to your strengths. If you have been asked to talk about Cheese because you are an expert at Cheese, then don’t make the mistake of thinking anyone wants to hear about your latest hobby of Beagling. I don’t care about Beagling. Tell me about Cheese then sit down.
  21. Speak clearly.
  22. Move around the stage, but not in a caged polar bear manic kind of way.
  23. Maintain eye contact with all areas of the room.
  24. Be clear in your own mind about the message you wish to convey by the end of your talk.
  25. Be an expert.
  26. Be passionate.
  27. Do not over-run.
Repeating some of these points was not accidental.
What else would you add to this list? Have your say in the comments.

alastair humphreys speaking theatre

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  1. Timely and excellent advice – rewriting an old speech at the moment to give to a group of young track (velodrome) cyclists but for the very first time they want photos integrated into my speech. Never used supporting photos/slides etc before and wasting too much time on how to do this without them breaking the flow of my topic I know so well. Reading your Points 14 and 15, I’ve chucked them out and gone back to my tried and tested speech! Feeling much better now!

  2. Oh boy did you strike some chords there. Points 13 and 14 particularly. 13. I once sat through a talk where a guy put up twelve pp slides giving the full technical specs of each computer in the new range and he read out every word. Zzzzzz 14. One of the best talks I ever heard was by Squadron Leader John Peters. With nothing but words he conveyed exactly what it felt like to fly a low altitude high speed bombing raid and get shot down in the process. Gripping stuff. Good tips there Alastair. The one I would add is slow down. Nerves tend to make me gabble.

  3. Don’t talk in a monotone!


  4. Rory Graham Posted

    What you are speaking about is more important than you are.

  5. I heard you speak at Hazlegrove a year ago and was moved to take up micro adventures which I love. Part of my job is running conferences and I think that you are spot on with your advice. The only one I would add is “know your audience”. Too many times I have heard speakers either try and show off with complex language or hide behind jargon that no one understands. If you do either of these you might as well not turn up in the first place. At least then people can have a cup of tea and ‘coffee-house’ rather than sit there playing on their smart phones.

  6. Your point about knowing your audience when public speaking is important because it would be hard to tailor your speech to an audience you don’t know anything about. I have found that the speakers that have been able to relate to me, as an audience member, are the ones that are the most memorable. So get to know who your audience would be and how you can reach them in your speech.



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