This is a beginner’s guide to giving a talk. How do you choose a topic? How do you keep people interested? How do you actually do the talking bit?

A few years ago I went to see some talks about design here in London.

It was summer, and everyone was crammed into a sweaty basement...

The next speaker walked on stage, or rather, into the only patch of clear space available.

And then, with an apology, he continued out of the fire exit, and proceeded to read his talk from a piece of paper outside the room.

It was funny for a few seconds but then it was just… weird.

I’m telling you this not to pour scorn on the guy, but because it demonstrates how scary the thought of speaking in public can be.

Why this isn’t a “public speaking tips for introverts” article

Last year, when I told my friends in the pub that I was being paid to give a talk, one of them flat out laughed at me.

“James, that’s pretty funny given how quiet you are!”
It’s true. I tend to clam up when I’m out with big groups of people. So initially, I thought about writing this article as a “Quiet persons’ guide to public speaking”.

But you know what, I don’t really like the “introvert” label. (Even though I would classify myself as one if push came to shove). If you’re not careful, it becomes an excuse for not doing things.

The fact is that introverts, extroverts, ambiverts, almost everyone on the planet gets nervous about speaking in public.

Here’s why….

That gut-wrench you feel as you step in front of a crowd is an evolutionary response.

In the wild, you don’t want to be out in the open on your own, with lots of eyes focussed on you. It’s dangerous.

Which is why the primitive part of your brain screams at you to run away (or rush through your talk so you can get the hell out of there).

Public speaking advice that doesn’t work

There’s a lot of advice about giving talks that doesn’t make much sense.

For example. you’ve probably heard this one before:

“Imagine the audience is naked.”


Not only will this shift your mental focus away from actually giving the talk, if it did work, it would be pretty hard to regain your composure.

I’m sorry, but there isn’t any magic advice that’s going to eliminate fear from public speaking.

No matter how many times you walk out in front of a crowd of people, you’re still going to feel nervous.

There’s no off switch for our primal responses. (Yet…)

What can we do then?

Here’s some advice that works:

Train your butterflies to fly in formation

Instead of telling yourself that you’re afraid, tell yourself that you’re excited.

After all, giving a talk is a privilege, and not everyone gets the opportunity.

(This tip came from Scott Berkun, who has a great book on public speaking which I’ve read a couple of times now).

The fear won’t ever go away, but you can train yourself to use it.

I know there’s probably a bunch of other things you’re worried about:

You might be afraid that you won’t be interesting…

You might be afraid that you won’t be able to remember your talk…

If you’re worried what people will think about your talk, ponder this for a moment:

It’s not about you

Giving a talk isn’t really about you or your feelings, it’s about the audience’s experience.

What does your audience care about? What’s their background? How do they hope the world will be different?

These are the questions which should be at the forefront of your mind as you chew over possible topics for your talk.

Think about the people who will be listening to you. (Ask the event organiser if you’re not sure about the demographic).

Most likely, they want to learn something, to be inspired, to have a positive experience they can share with others. These are all basic human desires, and with a little planning, your talk can easily tap into them.

What to talk about

The simplest thing to do is talk on a subject that you’re expert about.

By “expert” I don’t necessarily mean in the literal sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be something that you’ve done for decades or have formal qualifications in.

But it is easier to talk about things you have personal experience of. Just knowing that you’re the most qualified person to talk on a subject will give you confidence.

When I gave my talk about CycleLove, the story was mostly about myself. I knew there wasn’t anyone more expert on the subject than me. The audience was going to be graphic designers though, so I made sure that the story spoke to their worldview… hence the section about the design process near the start, and the slides of CycleLove logos and posters later on).

Writing your talk

Choose a broad topic. Then think about an angle on it.

The stronger your opinion, or the more remarkable it is, the better.

Grab a piece of paper, and write down everything that comes to mind. Get it all down, without stopping to worry if it’s any good.

(The title of my design/cycling talk was “A second-hand bicycle saved my life” which I hoped was intriguing. It also got a laugh from the audience when I pondered what could be so wrong with my life that I needed a bike to fix it).

The next day, review your list. Highlight anything that jumps out of you. Can you form it into a narrative?

Start with an outline. By outline, I mean a bullet point list of 5 to 10 items. Make sure that each point is compressed into a tight argument, and keep shuffling them around until the order makes sense.

Remember that you can’t cover everything. Boil things down to the essentials: you want the meat, not the potatoes.

Another great way to brainstorm is using index cards. Write down all of your possible points on separate cards, then try to arrange them in an order which makes sense. Put any cards that don’t fit to one side — you can always work them back in later.

Here’s my “Why You Should Write” talk in nascent form on index cards:

  <img src="" alt=""/>

I ended up with five key sections, and then a bunch of cards expanding each section. A lot of these were discarded, and eventually I ended up with a talk outline that had 9 main points.

Practice, practice, practice, but don’t polish

Once you have a talk outline written, it’s time to flesh it out.

This is the most time-consuming part of the process. But it’s worth it…

Whatever you do, don’t try to memorise your talk word-for-word.
Not only is this impossible, it will make you sound lifeless.

Don’t even think about reading your talk from a piece of paper (Or an iPad, which I’ve seen someone do!). Bits of paper have a nasty habit of ending up in the wrong order. And if you’re reading, you can’t be making eye contact.

Leave some room to improvise.
Another down side of over-planning your talk is that it makes you less flexible.

What if the atmosphere on the day is less (or more) formal than you were expecting? What if you want to riff on something the previous speaker has said?

If your talk is rigidly planned out, you won’t have any flexibility to adapt on the fly.

Practising will give you confidence. Confidence is good.

But keep things loose. There’s another reason for this…

It’s a talk, not a lecture
Mistakes will happen. You won’t get things out exactly as you intended. But guess what… most people won’t notice, let alone care.

If something goes wrong, make a joke about it, or even better just ignore it and carry on.

Human speech is full of mistakes. And it’s never grammatically perfect. If you don’t believe me, record a conversation and then transcribe it. You’ll notice there are LOTS of little imperfections in the grammar. Your brain skips over these.

We’re wired for meaning, for connection, for understanding, not to be grammar nazis.

Timing matters
You’ve probably been giving a length for your talk. It’s important that you stick to this, because if everyone runs over by a big amount, the whole event will be scuppered.

If you’ve been giving a 10 minute slot, aim to make your talk 8 minutes or so long. If it’s 20 minutes, aim for 17 or 18 minutes. You get the idea.

Your talk will probably take a bit longer than you think. It might take 15 seconds for the applause to die down and for you to get on stage. You might take a slight detour, or ad-lib a section, or say something about the talk before you. None of this is a problem if you’ve got some leeway in your timing to accommodate it.

Practice out loud.
As stupid as you might feel doing it, this is an essential step.

Reading you talk in your head is not the same. It just doesn’t register the same way in your brain, because you’re not working any muscles.

So. Find an empty room, stand up, and talk.

Give you talk to your imaginary audience as many times as you can. (Aim for at least 5 run-throughs if you can)

Optimise for flow
As you practice, notice where things don’t flow.

Maybe you need to set up an idea differently.
Maybe you need to change the order of your slides.
Maybe you can change some bullet points to an image.

Keep practicing until the talk flows smoothly.

Now start timing your talk. (I use a cheap kitchen timer to do this.) This isn’t complicated stuff… if you’re rushing to fit everything in, you need to take something out. If your talk is way too short, look at the structure again.

Don’t forget your audience.
What do you want them to take away from your talk? How do you want them to feel afterwards?

Designing your slides

Whatever you do, don’t start by designing your talk in Powerpoint or Keynote.

Write the talk as an outline, then expand it into a talk, and THEN design your slides.

Keep it simple
Your slides should be either single images, or very short sentences.

Use the same font on every slide. Use no more than 3 type sizes throughout the slides if you can.

Use simple images
Choose strong photos, with as few distractions in them as possible. Think big and bold. And if in doubt, look at some Steve Jobs presentations. There’s a reason why people got so excited about his Apple keynotes. He was a master. (And guess what, he practised his talks a lot too).

Think about shareability.
For my last talk, I put my Twitter handle in the corner of the most quotable slides. (And sure enough, people took photos and tweeted them).

Whilst I hate bombastic talks which are just motivational quote after motivational quote, I think a light sprinkling of soundbites can be good.

The best way to be interesting

If you’re not sure what to talk about, think about your personal story.

What really scares you? What drives you forward? What were the big moments in your life?

Be honest. Open up and tell people about something that made you feel something. Be courageous. Don’t just tell stories about things that went right for you, talk about things that went wrong as well.

Authenticity is rare, which makes it interesting.

Props, equipment, extras

Stuff breaks. So don’t be dependent on your slides. They should enhance your talk, not be crutches for it.

If you like, invest in a presentation remote so that you can walk around the stage, and practice with it at home. (Staying put, and tapping left/right on your keyboard will work too though.)

If there are videos in your slides, double check they are working when you arrive, and make sure the volume is set so that you don’t deafen anyone!

Give something away
A great way to break the ice is to take something on stage for the audience.

Take a copy of a book or a poster you’ve made, then ask the audience to put up their hands to claim it. Or use your gifts as rewards for people who ask the best questions at the end.

(I gave away a copy of the amazing “Bill Cunningham New York” documentary when I spoke about cycling, as it was the film that inspired me to start blogging).

Record your talk
If you’re lucky, the event organise will do this for you. But as a backup, you can always use your phone to record the audio. Set it going a few minutes before you go on stage, and place it somewhere close to you. (But not right next to a microphone!) Make sure it’s in airplane mode too ;)

On the day

You’re going to feel nervous. Remember the trick: tell yourself that you’re excited.

Don’t each too much before your talk. (Don’t eat so little that your stomach is rumbling though!)

Do do something to relieve the tension. Go to the gym, or take a long walk, or meditate for a few minutes.

Cut to the chase
You’ve watched TED talks before right? No-one wastes time introducing themselves or on niceties like “It’s so great to be here”. You don’t need to thank the organise for inviting you. So feel free to skip the boring intro completely.

Also, don’t apologise for anything in advance. Don’t say that you’re nervous, or apologies for not having practised enough,

Dive straight in.

Set the scene by telling a story, or ask a provocative question.

Remember: no notes or scraps of paper with your entire talk written on. If you think you might need a prompt, write your bullet-point outline (5 points maximum!) on a piece of card. Then fold the card and put it in your pocket in case of an emergency. If you’ve practised properly, you won’t need it anyway.

Make eye contact
Don’t just stare at the same person though. Pick out different people around the room for a few seconds. (You can even look slightly above their heads to make it easier)

Silence is golden
Sometimes the most effective thing to say is nothing.

If you pause whilst you’re talking, it creates tension.

So try adding pauses after key points. (A couple of seconds will seem like an eternity to you, but perfectly natural to the audience.)

Turn things up a notch
Remember that some people in the audience could be quite far away from you.

Dial up your energy level. You have to embody what you want to the audience to feel. Want them to be excited? You have to get excited, and visibly so. Want them to smile, or even laugh? Break out a smile yourself.

Ending your talk
Think about the closing note. What do you want people to remember? Is there a question you want them to leave with?

You can also include some kind of call to action near the end of your talk. For my talk on writing, I set up a page on my website which had my slides as a PDF, some related reading links and a signup form for a course on writing (which I haven’t forgotten about by the way!).

A slight pause or change of pace will help the audience realise that you’re wrapping up. Then make your closing statement. (This, along with your opening line, are probably the two parts of your talk which it’s ok to memorise word-for-word).

Say thank you. Smile. You’re done. It was good!

Things to do after your talk

A few days later, listen to the audio recording of your talk. It’ll be painful, but you’ll notice things you can improve on for next time.

Did you have any annoying ticks? (Weirdly I seemed to touch my earlobe for about 5 seconds the last time I was on stage, so that’s top of my list for things not to do next time!)

Be sure to take note of what went right as well, and congratulate yourself on those.

Lastly, search Twitter for people tweeting about your talk. Not as an opportunity to boost your ego, but as an opportunity to connect with people. (It’s also useful to take note of which slides people shared the most!)

How are you feeling about giving a talk now? And more importantly, how do you want your audience to feel when they’ve heard it?

Exclusive bonus: Download a step-by-step checklist for giving a talk without losing your marbles.

Posted to Uncategorised in 2016.

Join 2,474 readers receiving my thoughts on life, design and making stuff happen each Sunday