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Public Speaking: A Geek's Handbook

Posted by davidrupp on July 25, 2004 at 11:54 PM PDT

No, this is not the next great book in O'Reilly's excellent Developer's Notebook series. Unfortunately for me. Nevertheless, public speaking is a topic that we geeks tend to avoid, given half a chance, even though it can at times be a significant part of our job function. Think about it: have you ever been asked to give a presentation at a team meeting? Ever had to lead a design/code review? Did the prospect thrill you, or did it reduce you to a gibbering mass of fear?

Jerry Seinfeld talks in his stand-up routine about a survey that claims the number one fear of Americans is "public speaking". Number two is "death". His conclusion is that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. He may be right. I've seen perfectly normal human beings, people who can laugh and crack jokes and speak in full sentences at, say, lunch time, turn into stammering sweat-machines when standing in front of a group of people talking about their latest project.

It doesn't have to be this way. With a little practice, you too can stand proudly at the podium while delivering that eulogy, not crawl into the casket. Unless your presentation totally bombs, in which case be my guest.

Here's a small sampling of tips that can help you on your journey from Gibbering Mass to Zen Speaking Master:

1. Take a class.

Your local community college probably offers a class or two in public speaking. An "Intro to Acting" type of course would give you a solid grounding in the elements of stage presence. For those who can't make that kind of time commitment, another good resource is Toastmasters International. Lots of companies sponsor (or at least tolerate) Toastmasters clubs. If yours does, you can lunch-hour your way to a happier, less-sweaty, public-speaking you.

2. Organize your thoughts.

Think of your presentation as a little five-minute story -- give it a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jot down an outline of the key points. You don't have to (nor should you) write down the entire text of your presentation, to be read verbatim when the time comes. Chances are you're developing some slides to display -- if so, they can serve as your outline. However...

3. Never, ever simply read your slides bullet-for-bullet.

Ever. The medium is not the message. Your slides should be for us what they were for you -- an outline, providing enough visual cues to help us keep track of where you are in your talk. Here's another way to think of it -- you went through all the trouble to write those slides -- let us go through the trouble of reading them. Then you can show us how brilliant you are by amplifying on them.

Speaking of slides -- have someone proof-read your slides. This does not mean run spell-check in PowerPoint. It means get a living, breathing human being to read them, preferably that obnoxious guy in your office who grades all the memos that come across his desk. In red pen. (In my office, that obnoxious guy would be me). Trust me, you'd rather suffer his (relatively) private ridicule than broadcast your typos, misspellings, and questionable grammar to the Board of Directors.

4. Pretend to be someone else.

Sounds silly, I know, but it's surprisingly effective. I have a friend who will not sing a solo at our church, but when I cast him as Linus in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" he was turning cartwheels and waltzing with a blanket. Oh, and singing solo. Any kind of performing can be less threatening if it's "not really you" up there.

5. Observe other speakers.

Learn good technique from people who practice good technique. One of the best places I've found to do this is at a No Fluff, Just Stuff Software Symposium. I'm always impressed (with some minor exceptions) with just how good these uber-geeks are at speaking. And yet they're geeks! So you know it can be done.

Now get out there and do it!