Q&A: How to get better at public speaking

Main illustration: Joseph Alessio

This week, one of our readers emailed us to ask: “What advice would you give someone who’s just getting started with public speaking?”

There’s a lot to this question, so I’ll break into a few areas.

Pick your topics wisely

You should only choose topics where you can speak with a good degree of confidence, and that your audience will want to hear about. Beware of events that would require you to drop one of these requirements.

Confidence usually comes from both research and experience. For folks early in their career this means deep talks on specific areas, rather than broad “state of the nation” type talks that require a lot more credibility to pull off. For example, if you’re an engineer early in your career don’t try to give a TED style talk about “How software engineering is changing the world”. The likelihood of you delivering that with credibility and impact is pretty low. Instead, start with a specific topic where you have credibility e.g. a library, a language, a method, etc.

With a few notable exceptions most talks will either be deep or broad, and educational or inspirational. With enough time and experience a great speaker can leave you with all four, but they tend to be rare. The biggest mistake here is not making a choice at all.

Get comfortable with small empty rooms

My earliest public talks were to groups of 20 to 40 people, often less. It’s certainly not what you dream of, but it’s an important stepping stone. You’re gonna screw up early on, so best do it in front of a small group of people, not at an event live-streamed to thousands.

These events are where you can make your mistakes and learn the arcane Keynote knowledge. It’s where you learn things like how HDMI to Mini DisplayPort cables will break and where to buy a replacement with an hour to go, what to do when your laptop is low on battery during a presentation, how to use Keynote Presenter View, and why you should never rely on Speaker Notes.

Build your own social proof

You can actually build your own speaking resume without having a stage. Blog posts are a great way of doing that. A lot of the time when I’m speaking, it’s actually blog posts turned into a presentation, or vice-versa.

As an example, Benedict Evans has given great talks to his laptop and published it online. So when people tell me they can’t find their “first speaking event”, I tell them it’s right in front of them. A talk like Benedict’s has instant global distribution and undoubtedly gets them more requests as speakers.

Having material like this to point to also means when you ask somebody to speak at their conference or meetup you can clearly say, “Here’s the type of topics I can cover”. Recording them also also helps you cut out the “ums” and “ahs” and polish your delivery a lot.

Public speaking isn’t about the slides

There is a broken assumption that public speaking means a deck of 20 slides and a glowing screen behind you. Many times you don’t need any slides at all, you might just need one image or some bullet points on a piece of paper. In fact, an over-reliance on slides will take the power from your message. Just look at what happens when you put The Gettysburg address into Powerpoint.

gettysburg address public speaking

Credit: Peter Norvig

Don’t obsess about your slides early on. It’s less about the formatting of your information and more about the story you’re trying to tell. The best book in this regard is Resonate by Nancy Duarte. Once you know the story and how you’re going to communicate it, then you can start reading Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds which will help you visualize your story.

There’s lots more to public speaking, but the above four areas are a good place to start.

If you’re looking for some more advice on public speaking, you’ll enjoy our recent podcast with Etsy’s Lara Hogan, author of Demystifying Public Speaking. Check it out.