5 tips for public speaking

This week I was invited to be one of the judges for Heat 4 of the 3 Minute Thesis.

The 3 Minute Thesis is modeled on the classic 'Elevator Pitch'. An idea that a person can summarise their business or, in this case their thesis topic, in the time it takes for an elevator to travel from the ground floor to the corporate suites above.

Each PhD Student must present an explanation of their thesis topic in language that an intelligent but non-specialist listener will understand. That means no jargon, no acronyms, no [insert discipline here]-speak. They may not take any more than three minutes to do this, and if they speak past the "Tinkerbell of Death" (being the timer alert sound) they are instantly disqualified.

I had lots of fun, and it was so enlightening to find out some of the things that get researched at at Auckland University. In the end I listened to 25 presentations - 17 in the heat I judged, and the 8 in the final which I attended as an audience-member last night. Everyone presented to a very high standard, and it reminded me of the skills we need when speaking to a group of people.

  1. Pace - slow it down. Time does strange things when you're standing of people, especially when you know you only have a set number of minutes to get your point across. It tends to press on you from all sides and can squeeze the air out from your lungs, making your words rush out in machine gun bursts. This can lead to forgetting your train of thought and leaving large silent gaps that will make your audience feel uncomfortable. Breathe and pronounce all of your words. Feel the time you have like the space in a room and let the words have enough room to be present for your listeners. It may feel as if you are speaking painfully slowly, but to us, due to that funny time shift that this situation produces, it will sound perfect.
  2. Modulation - change it up and down. Find the song of your talk. The rise and fall of your voice will keep your audience interested. Give us information by the tone of your voice - make it excited when the information is exciting; tone it down when you are being sensitive; put a big smile into your tone when you have reached your happy conclusion, or deepen it if the news isn't great. You'll have lots of time to sing the song of your presentation and we'll love you for it.
  3. Gesturing and rocking - jazz hands and keeping those legs under control. Your body can help your talk so much so long as you are in control of what it's doing. If you don't make a conscious effort to control your body, it tends to do all sorts of things you're not aware of. Use your hands to emphasis points - points one, two, three fingers; show the movement of time - double karate chop segments of time, or taking from the future in front of you and pulling it to the present. Your legs are just as bad as your hands when left to their own devices. They're favourite thing is to shift your body weight from one foot to the other. If your legs tend to misbehave, make sure you walk, and make sure it's natural. Walk out from behind the lectern; move over to your projected slide; move across the stage to include all the audience. This will give your legs something to do and they'll stop being awkward.
  4. Engaging - look at me, look at me. We need to feel that you're talking to us. If you look at me, my friend next to me, the lady behind me, the chap on the aisle - we totally get the impression you are talking to us. If you look at your shoes, your notes, the sky, the empty seats - we'll feel left out and won't connect. You don't need to look deeply into our eyes, if you feel more comfortable skimming the tops of our heads, we won't be the wiser and you might be more comfortable. Oh and talk right to us "do YOU want to be hacked?" "Have you ever suffered this or that?" "Let me tell you about my thesis".
  5. Stories - everyone loves a good yarn. Number one, you cannot beat a good story. Even better is to tell half the story up front, and deliver on the punchline at the end. The more the emotional the story; the more the story resonates with us; the more likely we will remember you as we're walking out the theatre. The young woman who won the 3 Minute Thesis last night told the story of cataracts and alzheimers and two of the judges mentioned they had close family members who had suffered from both conditions. I'm not saying that she won solely based on this, but it made an emotional connection about something the judges cared about and that's gotta help, right?

Remember when you're on the stage, you have a superpower - to hook an audience's attention, hold it, and potentially influence the way they think - use your superpower responsibly and with confidence and above all, enjoy yourself. It's a precious chance to communicate your ideas to people who want to hear them.