As illustrators/artists, we’ve chosen a profession where we spend most of the time working alone, creating alone, lost in our own thoughts. But inevitably there are situations where public speaking is part of the job, even though it is completely against our natures to stand in front of a room full of people spouting off. I’ve had to do this a few times, just recently for a book launch where I was talking to a room of over a hundred people. Later I was interviewed on the radio, and this was in China so it was an audience of literally millions.
Here’s the most important thing…
1. Have something to say!
This might seem obvious, but if you can speak eloquently off the cuff, then you wouldn’t be reading this. Prepare, know what you’re going to say, either a fully planned out talk or a set of anecdotes and stories you can fit into a discussion. Yesterday I was invited to a discussion with several other artists, there were a hundred people in the audience and it was filmed for tv. The host gave me a vague title for the talk and said “don’t worry, it’s just a relaxing chat, we’ll just see where the discussion goes”. Turns out the host had a boring ramble, another artist had an entertaining talk about their own work completely unconnected to the topic, and I had absolutely nothing to say. So I just felt like I was wasting people’s time: If you’re going to ask all these people to make the effort to turn up, the least you can do is entertain them.
The same thing happened with the radio interview. I assumed (wrongly) that the interviewer would at least know what my book was about and would have prepared questions. In the end I felt like I was justifying why I was there in terms of selling a product – I was, but if you’re selling a book or a painting you don’t want it to sound like a laundry detergent commercial. What I should have done is have a list of things I wanted to say, stories I could tell, then go over these as if I was giving a talk. If none of that comes up because you’re talking about something more interesting, that’s great.
The lesson is, be active not passive. Your starting point should be ‘I want to talk about this and this and this.’ If the conversation goes somewhere else that’s fine, but be prepared.
Also remember this is the first time your audience has heard your talk, so explain everything: Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them.
I get horribly nervous in these situations, get the shakes and stutter. This usually passes quickly, and it does get better with practise, but there are a few things I’ve found help.
First thing to remember is the audience is on your side (usually). If you’re talking to other illustration professionals, or at your book launch or whatever, people have come because they want to see you. I was nervous at the start of my talk, stumbled over a line, and the audience all helped me through it then clapped when I got it right. From that point on I realised they were rooting for me, and I could relax into the talk.
If you have something to talk about, something you’re enthusiastic about, it quickly stops you being nervous. You can focus on what you’re saying, and that way you tend to forget that there’s a room full of people in front of you.
There are breathing exercises to help: Try holding your breath for six seconds, then breathing out for three seconds and breathing in for three seconds. Repeat. This works for me. When it’s not your turn to talk, just concentrate on taking deep breaths.
3. Ask questions:
Even if for practical reasons you cannot actually interact with the audience, ask rhetorical questions. This will stop your talk being monotonous, will engage people with what you’re thinking about, and for the seconds the focus is on them you can relax and it will improve your side of things. Also, we are tuned in to conversations more, the back and forth is just a better format for conveying information. It changes the atmosphere of the room into something more lively.
Focus on the audience, not the screen or your notes. I’ve seen myself on video after a reading, and my heads down and I’m mumbling – it’s terrible, really off putting. Instead it should come across like you’re talking to a real person, and sound like a one-on-one conversation no matter how many are in the room. Before you are confident and get into the flow of your talk, try looking above the audience, or not focusing on them so they turn into a blur. Then later you can look at individuals, which helps with the ‘one to one’ feel of the talk.
Sitting or standing I tend to slouch, it looks bad and affects how you speak and engage with the audience. I’ve been told that to solve this you should imagine there’s a piece of string dragging you up by the head, as if you were a puppet. I’m not sure this helps when you’re trying to think of what you’re going to say, but if you get a few moments to concentrate on your breathing and relax, also notice your posture, and try to keep your back straight, head up.
If you get a choice between sitting and standing always stand; it’s easier to relax.
6. Powerpoint (or whatever)
All images if possible, when there has to be text keep it to a minimum.
After changing to a new slide let people absorb the image, when they switch their attention to you start talking.
Bring a couple copies of your PowerPoint file, one on USB stick, one on laptop etc, just in case.
7. And also…
Also, arrive early, check equipment and ensure the lcd projector is talking to the laptop. the classic is often plugging both in but the lcd projector has to be turned on while the laptop is turned off and then after the lcd projector is on and projecting blue screen you turn the laptop on so that they talk to each other.
Chinese: For addressing the audience, you’d want to use 大家 instead of 你们 whenever it’s grammatically correct. For example, 大家猜一猜这个封面是怎么回事? 大家听说过xxx吗? Sounds more inclusive.