Tradecraft of Public Speaking

In the past couple years I've been to a bunch of technical conferences, dozens of Meetup groups, and seen hundreds of presentations. A presentation can occur in any venue, from small classrooms and conference rooms to vast auditoriums and theaters. Some presentations are witnessed live, pre-recorded, live-streamed via the Internet, or some mixture of all three.

In the past two decades I've had my hand in creating, designing, and providing production support for a variety of live events: musicals, plays, dance recitals, concerts, day-long music festivals, you name it.

Based on the latter, my impressions and comprehension of the former are different than others. I take as much note of venue's lighting, staging, and audio resources as I do the speaker's performance, and when assessing a speaker I consider how well they use the resources provided. I can discern technical issues from a speaker's issues with the technology.

There are many tips for creating better presentations, but fewer about delivering them.

These tips focus on tradecraft that affects how you are seen and heard; technical nuances that impact live performance. It doesn't matter whether your "stage" is an elevated deck in a convention center, a podium on the floor in the front of a conference room, or the yoga ball in your home office, speaking to others is a form of live performance.

The tradecraft of live speaking is even more important when you're being recorded. Unlike those in the film industry, public speakers rarely get a second take. And while those in your immediate audience are usually quite forgiving (and forgetful), video editing is a labor-intensive (read: expensive) process, so odds are high that your gaffes will end up on YouTube as-is.

These are all things that I've whispered to colleagues and friends before they took the stage.

Take Off Your Badge

Take a second and remove your conference or company ID badge. Place it somewhere the audience can't see it; they're there to see you speak, they know who you are, plus your name is probably on the first slide.

You don't want the details of your work/conference identity ending up on social media. It's one thing to have your badge scanned at a conference booth with your consent to get some free knick-knack, another to have that barcode available to the entire Internet. Same goes for your company ID; your security officer might not appreciate the details of your badge's look/appearance being shared with the entire world.

Also, the reflection from stage lighting can be distracting to those in the audience and those watching the video later.

Lastly, it looks tacky when you leave it on (example with and without, sorry Paco). Along similar lines, take the Bluetooth headset out of your ear.

Vanish Your Phone

Best case, turn your phone off and leave it backstage.

At a minimum, take your phone out of your front pocket. It looks silly.

Don't place your phone on the podium, especially if it's set to vibrate. Double especially if the microphone is on a stand attached to the podium.

Microphone 101

This is the part when I'd hold up a microphone and say "this is a microphone, it's your friend." Instead, I'll link to a lot of photographs.

There are many different types of microphones, but the principles of operation are largely the same. In simple hardware terms, a microphone is the polar opposite of a loudspeaker: a loudspeaker takes an electric signal and converts it into mechanical movement of air (which we perceive as sound), whereas a microphone takes the mechanical movement of air and converts it into an electrical signal.

The thing is, a microphone only reinforces sounds it can detect. It doesn't turn a whisper into a shout, nor is it able to discern your voice from ambient noise. If you speak quietly or too far away, the sound technician will likely have to increase the volume to make you be heard, along with all the ambient noise. So whether you're giving your talk in a conference room, your home office, or in an enormous venue, you'll need to project as if you were on a stage.

Your microphone may vary. Perhaps there will be cables or maybe none at all. Perhaps it'll be handheld, on a stand or attached to the podium, clipped to your shirt, looped over your ear, or woven into your hair or beard (pic needed). Sound technicians are magical: if you get the chance to interact with one, work with them to find out what they think would be best; even if there's not a selection of microphones, they'll be able to help you with placement and usage.

If you're holding a microphone, the business end will likely look like a mesh of metal. There might be a snowcone-looking cover made out of foam (called a windscreen, which reduces unwanted breath and wind noise). This is the business end. Get up on it, but don't suck on it. Speak directly into it. If you hear your voice distorted or muffled over the PA or you can hear your breathing booming through the room, you're too close. Adjust, so that the sound technician doesn't have to fiddle too much with the levels; good performers alter their proximity to the microphone as they go. Most handhelds need to be right in front of your face, not to the side, not at your chest, right up in front of your lips. Your audience wants to hear what you have to say, not to see your lips move as you say it.

Microphone internals can be sensitive to impact, so resist the urge to tap the head "to see if it's on" when a simple spoken "check" will suffice. Microphones range wildly in cost, especially the wireless models, so be polite. Even if you're willing and able to pay for it, don't drop a microphone, you never know who might be coming onstage after you. If you're a known abuser, you might end up with the shitty mic next time around.

Tuck in Mic Cables

If you've been set up with a lavalier or headset microphone, there will be a small cable that runs from the business end to the transmitter "body pack." Before going onstage, thread those cables under your clothes so that they aren't visible. Loose or hanging cables present a safety hazard, get caught on things, etc. When presenting, the best mic cables are the ones you don't see.

Once the cables are tucked out of sight, stash the pack in your back pocket or clip it to your belt near the small of your back. For those wearing dresses, gown, or other clothing without pockets or belts, the sound technician will have recommendations and/or accessories for use with your ensemble.

Do another level check after.

Look At Your Audience

You're on the stage, but make sure you look at your audience. An amazing amount of audience inclusion can be fostered by a simple glance, just as a speaker's assurance can be fostered by a few nodding heads.

Scan the room periodically, gradually. Look at front right section for a sentence or two, then over towards the back for a slide, then towards the center for a few more sentences. Slide transitions are a natural time to look at the adjacent group of folks. Mix it up, work your way through the room. You don't have to worry about making eye contact with anyone in particular, just go for zone coverage.

If the presentation is being recorded, include the cameras in your scans.

In the event that you're on a proper stage, you won't be able to see the whole room. If there are follow spotlights you won't be able to see more than the first couple rows. And that's fine, your audience has no idea that you can't see them, all they see is that you're looking their way.

Repeat the Questions

The only person that's going to be heard is the one with the microphone. That's you. If someone in the audience asks a question, repeat it before you answer. Every time.

For those not in the same room, there's no way they'll hear the questions. If it's a big room odds are the all people in the room can't hear the question either. It's confusing and frustrating.

"Yes, we'll support that."

Excuse me, we'll support what?

"I'll put those up on Google Docs."

Wait, what's on Google Docs? COULD SOMEONE REPEAT THE QUESTION?!?

Also, if your audience can't hear the question they won't know that their question has already been asked.

Not repeating the question also provides a disservice to remote employees. It sends mixed messages to employees who have been encouraged to telework, saying "your comprehension isn't as important as those sitting here in the room with me."

Even in venues where there is a separate Q&A mic, it's good to repeat the question. Most questions aren't straightforward, so you'll want to distill things down and make sure you understood. Repeating and summarizing the question gives the asker a chance to rephrase their question. Also, every once in a while the Q&A mic is only being used at the venue itself (i.e. not for the recording or live stream).

Again, the only person that's guaranteed to be heard is you.

Yes, You Need a Microphone

Don't tell the audience that you're pretty loud, then ask them if they can hear you okay without the microphone, and then use some percentage of nods and murmurs as justification for speaking without said microphone.

There's a reason you were given a microphone. Use it.

Last Modified: 2015-04-06

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