Some of the Best Speaking Advice Ever

MIT Professor Harry Winston every year gives a famed lecture on "The Art of Speaking". Cal Newport attended the lecture this year and posted the notes. They’re awesome – some of the best advice on speaking I’ve read. Read the whole thing, excerpted below are my favorite parts. In particular, I found the advice "don’t thank your audience at the end" pretty interesting.

How to Start

Some advice for starting your talk.

  1. Don’t start with a joke. The audience is not accustomed to you or your speaking style yet. Humor will be difficult at this point.
  2. Do start with a menu. Tell them exactly what you’ll be speaking about and in what order.
  3. Do provide an empowerment promise. Explain why your audience will come away from the talk better than when they entered.

The Big Four

A collection of four heuristics that make a talk work.

  1. Cycling. Deliver ideas first in brief, then in detail, then in summary. To use the lingo of artificial intelligence: let your audience load the schema, then fill in the details, then let them know what’s worth indexing for future reference.
  2. Verbal Punctuation. Provide a mechanism to help people who “fogged out” to easily rejoin the talk. For example: “We have just finished talking about the first heuristic, cycling, I am now going to talk about the second heuristic for helping to make your talks more interesting…”
  3. Near Miss. When explaining an idea, also describe other ideas that are close but not quite the same. This will help people understand what the important points are that define your idea.
  4. Ask Rhetorical Questions. Don’t make them too easy. Don’t make them too hard. Wait 6 seconds for an answer.

The Tools

Four tools that can make or break your presentation.

  1. Time and Place. If it’s in your control: mid-morning is the best time. Choose a location that will look full with your expected audience size. Make sure it is well-lit. Don’t let them turn down the lights. (“It’s easier to see slides in a light room then to seem them through closed eyelids.”)
  2. Slides. Don’t use anything less than 24-point type. If you can’t fit the information at this font size then you have too much. Follow these four rules:
    1. Don’t read the slides! “A special circle in hell for those who…”
    2. Don’t stand far away from the screen. This requires divided attention from your audience.
    3. Have one meaningful picture per slide. If it’s found in Microsoft’s clip art gallery, it’s not meaningful.
    4. No pointers. Laser or otherwise. These are distractions. You’ll play with them. They’re annoying. Stand by the screen and point with your hand or refer to visual anchors on the slide.

How to Stop

Some things to keep in mind about concluding a talk:

  1. Deliver on your promise made at the beginning. Remind them what it was and summarize how you satisfied it.
  2. Tell a joke. They know you now. And if they leave happy they will assume the entire talk made them happy.
  3. Call for questions.
  4. Don’t thank the audience. It makes it seem like they did you a favor by listening to your boring babble.
  5. End with a salute. Compliment without thanking. (i.e., “You’ve been a great audience, I hope you learned a lot about how to give a great talk.”)

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