When I saw my son Tarun forget his lines and freeze up on the big stage at the 2011 Economist Ideas Economy: Information Summit, my heart sank. I wanted to rush up and give him a big hug and say “it’s okay son, it wasn’t a big deal, don’t worry about it”. Tarun had worked day and night to be prepared for his first big talk. He memorized every word of a 12-minute long presentation. And then he forgot his lines. I won’t forget the anguish on his face.
Tarun managed to fumble his way through the talk. The moderator also came to his rescue—knowing that any 23-year old would have difficulty speaking to an audience of 400 business executives and academics at one of the most prestigious conferences in the world.
Tarun’s mistake was that had no notes in his hand and no PowerPoint to remind him of the key points that he wanted to make. He thought this would be like giving a speech in high school—which he did very well.
I too made the same mistakes when I gave my first talks. I underestimated how intimidating it could be to be on a big stage with bright lights shining—and everyone staring at me..
When I think back, I realize that I used to be really lousy at public speaking. I could never captivate the audience. I could never make people pay attention. I doubt anyone would have listened to me even if I paid them money. So I used to avoid this.
That was then. I now speak at major conferences and at universities every week. Some even offer me big money! I can’t keep up with all the speaking requests that I get. That’s how far I’ve been able come.
This came with practice and perseverance. Let me share some of the lessons I’ve learned.
- Don’t try to memorize every line—it is a hopeless cause. Have notes in your hand or use a PowerPoint presentation which highlights the key points that you want to make.
- Know your material and rehearse it several times beforehand. Record yourself giving the talk and note what you did right and wrong. Have your friends critique you.
- Make it personal. Talk about yourself, what you think about the things you are speaking about, and most importantly—what this means for the audience. This means that you have to know your audience—who they are and what they are interested in. Remember: this is for them—not for you. Don’t do what most academics do—impersonalize the material and repeatedly give the same dry, dull, and boring lecture.
- Tell a story. Put the material you are presenting into a perspective that connects the pieces together and is a coherent story. Facts and figures are boring. Explain what these mean in an interesting way. Use examples and anecdotes.
- If you use a PowerPoint, just put the highlights on it and don’t read from the slides. Have the PowerPoint supplement and substantiate what you are saying and give the audience—and you—a roadmap of what your talk is about. Graphics are better than words.
- Be yourself. Relax. Speak to the audience as if you are speaking to a friend. Make eye contact and pause every now and then. It is okay to catch your breath and think. Take a sip of water when you need. If you feel nervous, tell the audience that. They will only like you more and do all they can to help you through.
- Add some humor. No, I don’t mean the corny, canned one-liners that professional speakers use to open their talks, but funny anecdotes and light hearted comments through your talk. This relaxes and engages the audience and helps you connect.
- Don’t hide behind the podium. Be casual, comfortable, and move around a bit. You are there to connect with the audience and engage them—not to recite some facts and figures that they can read in an academic paper or book.
By the way, Tarun has come a long way. His Economist talk was such a shock to him that he started learning and listening. And he kept practicing by speaking wherever he could. He is an awesome speaker now! Judge for yourself by watching the talks on his website.