What I’ve learnt from public speaking

I was recently asked for some of the lessons I’ve learnt, or guidelines I follow when I’m getting ready for a talk. After sharing them I was asked if I would consider sharing them more broadly, so I decided I’d put them here on my blog.

  1. Never break a speaking slot down into the number of slides you think you might need, for example some people have a rule that says 2 minutes per slide so if you’ve got 30 minutes then you need 15 slides. I personally feel this is a really bad habit to get into, by the time people have looked at your slide and then tried to listen to you, you’re already onto the next one. People don’t digest the information and it can make it feel like you don’t really know your topic.
  2. An obvious one but so often ignored, be prepared! Some of the worst presentations come from people who have just grabbed a slide deck from some internal company repository and then proceed to simply read through it.
  3. You do not need a different slide deck for every talk, remember the audience changes so you don’t always need to. I was given this advice early in my career and it’s been invaluable. It’s incredibly stressful if you think you need to come up with new slides and new stories every time you present.
  4. My number is 3, it’s the number that my brain tends to process things in, most people are a 3. Try this…say your phone number in the way you would if you were sharing it with someone, how did you break it down? Mine is 07810….152….994, it’s a very simple indicator, one of many, as to what your number is. Now that you realise this then you can start to build your content with it in mind – 3 sections.
  5. Knowing your number is really powerful as you can use it to help you with keynotes where you have few or no slides, if you’ve finished the first part of your story then it’s on to the second part, finished the second then on to the third. If you have a moment where you freeze then just think about what you’ve already said and you’ll quickly remember what comes next. You can even use movement to help, go to the left of the stage for part 1 of your talk, head to the right for part 2 and then back to the centre for the final part, now simply where you are on stage will remind you of where you are in your story.
  6. Always start by thinking about the story you want to tell, and work out what the 3 sections for your story will be, never start with creating slides. Once you start to work out what each section is then you can really start to focus on the message you want to convey and the anecdotes and slides that you’ll use to re-enforce it.
  7. Ask questions! Even in front of large audiences where you don’t really expect them to answer, when you ask an audience a question you’re getting them to do something, it gets them thinking and makes them more engaged with you, they start to think about the topic rather than simply trying to absorb the information you’re delivering.
  8. Be personal, but not too personal. If people see you up on stage as a human being with feelings and emotions then it can often establish more trust and empathy, you’re no longer just a presenter.
  9. The Mirror effect, how you feel and behave on stage is often how your audience will be feeling too. If you’re stressed, talking too quickly, moving around too much then your audience will be feeling the same way. I know it’s easier said than done but try and relax, use humour where it makes sense as this will be reflected in your audience
  10. Practice, Practice, Practice! You should know exactly what slide comes next, what animation will happen when you press the button, this should be the very last thing that you’re thinking about, you need to be focused on your story and not on what’s happening with your slides. As you gain more experience you gain more stories, the less you focus on your slides then the more you can be thinking about whether a particular story might be relevant and you can drop it into your talk.
  11. Something I learnt from Tom Mendoza was, what do I want the audience to be thinking about, how do I want them to feel and what do I want them to do? (back to 3 again) never finish a talk with a thank you, people frequently remember the last thing you said or the last thing they felt when you spoke to them, make sure your close makes an impact.
  12. Find someone you trust to be honest with you and try your stories or content out on them, do not find someone who will simply placate you. My worst presentations have been where I’ve tried out some stories and I didn’t get honest feedback, you need to find someone or some people that have the honesty to disagree or to be critical. None of us really want to hear that our story is bad but I’d rather hear it from one person than from an entire room full of people.
  13. Probably the most important one though, you need to find a way to enjoy it. I can’t tell you how to do this I can only say that if you enjoy telling your story and you can see the audience responding positively then it spurs you on.

I love being a speaker, it’s offered me opportunities that I never thought I would have, I enjoy telling stories and get a real buzz when I hear that people have enjoyed a session that I’ve delivered.

I’d really like to hear if you have any tips that I could add to mine when I consider my next talk


  1. i use number 3 in emphasizing the content during my presentation.
    1. tell them what you are going to tell them
    2 .tell them
    3. tell them what you just told them.

    I still remember the best demonstration of “3” in your previous elevator speech. Help customer make money, save money and avoid losing money. Brilliant. still using it now.

    1. Good advice, you have to find a balance between how much you tell people and how many times you tell them. I think I saw a figure once that said people only remember about 20% of what you said so it’s good to be clear on what you want that 20% to be

  2. One of the best group presentations I did at university was on bread. Not a very interesting topic but we brought in samples and included “fun facts” about bread, factories and the brands that sell it. We asked ourselves “what would we (as a group) find captivating about bread that would appeal to our audience”. The end result was a fun, engaging presentation and got a pretty good mark in the end!

    1. Stevyn, you took the right approach on this, if you have a topic that’s maybe somewhat dry then find the angles, stories that bring it to life for the audience. Thanks for the comment.

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