I am writing this from a hotel room in Toronto, where I gave a speech. A highlight for me was signing 300 copies of I Know How She Does It. Writing my name again and again (and again!) on the title page was a meditation on bringing an idea to fruition.
Of course, if I wanted this career, it is slightly different than I envisioned. I did not set out to become a public speaker. I have simply found that book writing and speaking go together as a profession. I have also discovered that speaking taps into interests of mine I did not pursue directly. I spent a lot of time dancing in my teen years, and I sang in college and afterwards. Speaking gets me back up on stage. I often remind myself before gigs that I am really in the entertainment business.
Since I have wound up in this business, I am working to become better at it. A reader wrote the other day asking for advice on how to get better at public speaking. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and asking lots of speakers for their tips. The simple answer is to practice. But as I know from watching my boys interact with the piano, simply telling someone to practice is not the same thing as making progress. So here are a few more specific discoveries in my grand Public Speaking Improvement Project.
1. Speaking is a two-way street.
A good speech is only good if the listeners engage with it. I do not know what the goal is for your speech — motivate people to vote for someone? Entertain your listeners? Have them think differently about their lives? But you should figure out what that is, and write your speech with that in mind.
2. People like stories.
I know there are some people who specialize in telling stories of trauma that turn inspirational (or are supposed to move people to action). But I have found that even the speakers who want to turn particularly deep do better when they get the audience laughing on occasion. It is part of not taking ourselves too seriously.
Getting better at audience engagement can only happen by seeing what works and what does not. This is why speakers get better over time. Giving your speech 100 times in front of the bathroom mirror is fine, but you have no idea what will make audiences laugh or sit in rapt attention. You need to get your material in front of people. Correspondingly…
5. You should practice in front of people.
I have given versions of my speech to a few small groups for free partly as a way of getting practice time for bigger paid speeches. This does not work if you are incredibly famous, since the clips will wind up on You Tube, but most of us are not in such high demand that we cannot practice in low-stakes ways.
6. You should know your material cold.
Time management is universal. Everyone thinks that no one else understands how busy people in that particular profession are, but any given group has its own woe. Part of engaging an audience is having them feel like you know them and their challenges. This comes from doing research. One reason I often have people keep track of their time before my workshops is that it helps me get to know what any particular group cares about.
7. Consider skipping the slides.
Perhaps a controversial suggestion, I know, but I now consider myself PowerPoint free unless an organization specifically requests it. The key reason to do this is not that slides add nothing (though that is often true) but skipping the slides requires you to know your material without any back-up. Because guess what? Slides fail. I have seem some examples of epic slide failure, and even if it is not the fault of the speaker, no one in the audience knows that.
8. Pay attention.
To me, a big upside of going to conferences is I get to see other people practice their craft. I see what works for them and how people react. Watching excellent speakers is quite pleasurable. Watching questionable ones is sometimes painful, but I try to analyze why it is painful so I can learn.
A version of this post originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website.