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.  

3. 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. 

4. 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.

4. 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. 

3. Relax!
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.

4. 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.

5. Delivery
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.

6. 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.

7. Visual aids are great
If you’re 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.

8. Preparation
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.

9. Never say no.
Well, almost never. There was an opportunity a couple months back to be on a stage talking with two other artists, one of whom really isn’t a fan of my pictures (he described them as ‘fridge magnet art’). As he’s one of these loud, confident types who can talk a lot I didn’t see the benefit of being on stage with him, so I did turn that one down. Maybe one day if I can master the witty comeback I’ll take on these kind of things, but not right now. Also, to be fair, I’m not a big fan of his art either – blobby abstract stuff he paints in under a minute, you know, ‘ART.’ So as I said earlier, if you’ve been invited somewhere and the audience is coming to see you, you can be fairly sure they’re on your side. But if there’s a situation where there’s a known antagonist holding a microphone, I can’t see the point in spending time on it.

Having said that, ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and all that, so even if you get invited to something that you’re not really into then think of it as a learning experience. If it’s a disaster (which is highly unlikely) you can figure out how to do it better next time round. For example, I just got an invite to go on a tv show where you sit around a table chatting with various celebrities. I’m finally at a place where I don’t mind talking in front of a crowd as long as I have a prepared script and props. But now there’s a situation where I have to sit in front of a camera and say spontaneously interesting if not witty things with people who talk for a living. It’s not like an interview where I can prepare things to say, because I’ve been told it’ll be free conversation – about the food, about life, about whatever. I’ve got that old feeling of churning dread once again. But I’m going to do it – either I won’t say anything interesting, and thus they won’t broadcast it anyway. Or it’ll work out, and I get a few more people interested in my pictures. A friend of ours who has more experience in these things said that these kind of celebrities also know how to put interviewees at their ease, so not all the pressure will be on me. Either way, success or disaster, it’s a great learning experience for the next time round that I have to do this.

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.

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