Tips for public speaking

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.

Now as someone who has trouble with regular conversation, can’t really do small talk and panics at the thought of meeting new people, this was about my worse nightmare. But it is true that the more you put yourself in these situations the easier it gets. Plus these events are an inevitable part of doing the job, if you want to make a living drawing pictures you’re also going to have to learn how to perform in front of a large group of people.

So… Here are some tips, some things that definitely worked for me. And none of them involve imagining the audience naked.

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. For talks where it’s focused on me telling a story for a set amount of time I write a script, not word for word but enough that I know exactly what I’m going to say.

When you’re given a talk, 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 (introduction), then actually tell them (talk), then tell them what you just told them (summary).

For things like radio interviews, you can prepare interesting things to talk about your work, why you did this, what inspires you. Try and find something different about the way you work, or talk about who has influenced you, what’s special about them. I’ve been in radio interviews unprepared, where it was clear the interviewer had no idea about me or my work, and I just floundered. Having these back up stories would have saved the situation.

If you’re going to ask people to make the effort to turn up and listen to you, the least you can do is entertain them. And 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 ok, but rather than risk it going off into unwanted, or worse boring, territory, have something to say.

2. Use stories

People like stories. Whatever you’re talking about, illustrate it with entertaining stories, the narrative thread also makes it easier for people to follow. Having a beginning, middle and end is easier to digest than dry bullet points. Metaphors and analogies are mini stories, use vivid ones. Try different turns of phrase, something new, capture attention.

A good way to draw people in is to start with a personal story, something from your own life will get people’s sympathy and on your side.  

When speakers are good, they can come up with stories on the fly. But as that’s not us, you can be systematic about it. Write down stories of your life, thoughts, personal experiences as a back up to use in different situations. 

3. Have a good structure and be interesting

No matter how perfectly structured your talk is, it will die a death if either the subject or the way you describe it isn’t of interest. Pick an interesting theme, it will make your life much easier.  

  1. Opening remarks. Don’t forget the obvious, who are you, why are you there, what you’re going to talk about. 
  2. Body
  3. Conclusion

When presenting, don’t try and memorise every word. Have a series of bullet points of the things you want to say, and your talk will feel much more natural. Having said that, I always try and get the opening lines word perfect, because once I get past that it’s usually easy going. 

4. Keep it short

This won’t seem like a problem in the beginning when you’re trying to get off the stage as fast as possible, but you’ll get confident surprisingly quickly, and then it’s important not to ramble on. Cut everything down to a few essential, concise points and pick the single best metaphor or analogy to get the idea across. 

5. Practise

And practise and practise, just keep repeating your talk over and over until you don’t have to think about it any more. I read somewhere the average for a TedTalk is 200 hours of practice. I usually record myself, then play it back while I’m doing other things just to hear how it would sound to the audience. Usually it sounds excruciatingly awful, but you’ll improve in leaps and bounds.

The main thing I’ve found that helps is to SLOW DOWN. Because I’m nervous there tends to be way to many ‘um’s, ‘ah’s, ‘like’ etc filler words. Just slow down, pronounce everything carefully, concentrate on what you’re saying. Public speaking clubs like Toastmasters even have someone take the role of ‘Ah-Counter’ to count the number of times you come out with these filler words, it’s amazing what a difference it makes – they really get in the way, whereas speaking slowly without the humming and hawing makes a talk flow. 

Here are the Toastmaster suggestions on how to improve your speech practise: 

  • When you feel you’re ready practise in front of someone, a friend or family member, someone who is close enough they will give constructive feedback. 
  • Video yourself, and go over the video. You’ll be shocked by how you actually look compared to how you think you come across. All those ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, a grim look on your face. It’s the best way to get better quickly. 
  • Practice in front of a mirror
  • Break up the talk into sections, and practise each part of the speech individually (opening remarks, body, conclusion) and then go through it again but concentrating on body language, facial expression etc. 
  • Once all that is done, concentrate on the time. For Toastmasters, there’s a very specific time for each type of talk, but even a regular public talk should have an allotted time. 

6. Emotion and enthusiasm

But after all this practice, remember to practise being enthusiastic as well :) After repeating a talk a hundred times, you may be so at ease with it you’re just repeating it like a robot. There’s a fine line between practising enough you’re confident and going so far that you’re just spewing out words by rote. Try and keep the illusion of spontaneity, and try and speak as if you’re having a conversation with just one person – rather than barking at a hall of passive listeners.  If you are passionate about your subject, your audience will be too. 

There seems to be two main kinds of speakers. Those who speak as if they’re in a conversation with an individual rather than a room full of people, and those who talk down from the podium like a Roman senator. Both seem to work well, I think it depends more on individual style. 

7. Relax and smile!

I get horribly nervous in these situations, get the shakes and stutter. Looking at videos of my talks, this is also reflected in an angry grimace, the frustration of a caged animal wracked across the muscles of my face. This does nothing to endear you to an audience. If you can relax and smile, that’s half the battle. 

This does get better with practise, but there are a few things I’ve found help you to be less tense.

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.

8. 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.

9. Delivery – Focus on the audience

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.

10. Posture

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.

11. Using visual aids (PowerPoint)

I’ve changed my mind on this. In the beginning, I loved having a PowerPoint screen as something to divert the audience’s attention, and I liked riffing off the images (using humour to contradict something shown on the screen, etc). However, as I’ve grown in experience it seems to me now that the more powerful talks have no props at all, they all focus on the speaker, their face, their body language. If you can do this, and hold an audience, then visual aids are just an occasional extra rather than a crutch. 

But, if you are using Powerpoint (or whatever) keep it 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.

12. Practical preparation (does the equipment work?)

Arrive early, check equipment and ensure the projector is talking to the laptop. The classic problem is forgetting to plug both in, but also make sure the projector is turned on while the laptop is turned off – then after the projector is on and projecting blue screen you turn the laptop on so that they talk to each other.

13. If there’s no time to prepare

If you are not given enough time to come up with something, don’t get hung up on the details – you’re going to have to wing it. But in the minute or even seconds before you go on stage, come up with a beginning, middle and end – the main points you want to get across. Then keep those in mind and just riff around them, thinking on your feet. 

This sounds difficult, and it is, but my original method was to get the first few sentences down pat because that was the toughest hurdle for me, then once I got through the first 15 seconds I was no longer so nervous. The worst thing is walking on stage and then choking – staring blankly at the audience. Then I’d ramble on and get through the talk. But once you’ve graduated from this and talking in front of a crowd is not overwhelmingly daunting, try and think of a big point you want to get across, and turn it into a three point story (set up, conflict, resolution). As long as your brain is not freezing up you should be able to talk around those points and get a decent talk across. 

14. Never say no

A friend of ours who is now a fairly well known singer said that the trick to her success and professionalism was just relentless practice. For years she would tour, performing in the worst places, a dead bar with three antagonistic drunks. But every night she gave it her all, and now when she’s on television performing to an audience of millions her act is pitch perfect. 

Although I said before that usually the audience is on your side, which is a great boost to confidence, there are antagonistic situations. 

I was on a stage with a famous artist, a modern abstract artist who hated my cute illustrations (he described them as ‘fridge magnet art’). He was a powerful, accomplished speaker and there was not much I could do except nurse my l’esprit de l’escalier (which for the record would be, ‘I’d much rather have a fridge magnet in every home than a painting in a hedge-fund manager’s office.’ Ah well.).

Just a week ago I gave a brief talk to middle-schoolers about book cover design. It was fairly off the cuff, and they were paying attention – I think most were interested, talking to them afterward. But the star off the class, the popular boy, just looked at me throughout with such utter contempt it was quite difficult to carry on – really threw me (especially as it was unexpected, I’ve never had a conversation with him). 

In retrospect I’m glad I had both these experiences. You often learn a lot more through a bad experience than a good one. So my advice would be, never turn down an opportunity to give a talk, even if you suspect it’s going to be a rough ride.  

In 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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *