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.”)
12 comments on “Some of the Best Speaking Advice Ever
  • Back when I was teaching public speaking at Stanford, one of the first things we told folks is never to end by thanking the audience.

    This forces you to devote some time and energy to coming up with a strong conclusion.

    Besides, isn’t your conclusion too good an opportunity to waste on a platitude?

  • Here’s a few more:

    + To avoid a monotone, inflect your voice at key points for emphasis. Think of your presentation as a musical composition with up/down rhythms.

    + In a short series of presentations, go first.

    + In a long series of presentations, try to be somewhere in the middle, both before and after lunch.

    I’m not sure about your rule for not starting with a joke. It depends on the audience, but I find it lightens the mood right away and gives you immediate character. A joke before switching to a new point always keeps the audience tuned.

  • Perhaps the best example of public speaking is David Brent giving a motivational speech to a group of young business men in the second season of the BBC show The Office. He ends his speech pulling out a handheld boom box, blaring “You’re Simply the Best” and then walks out of the room while the song is playing. He then comes back in as if for an encore clapping and dancing all over stage. I don’t think you can find a better example of public speaking than that. He hits a particularly high note when he tells the audience that he’d rather be dead than be a cripple. Unreal.

  • I dont know if it’s implied here, but i’d have to say Knowing Your Speech back to front is one of the key differences between a speech where someone is talking, to a speech that is interesting and engaging. Forget notes, or prompts of any kind.

    If you dont do this, you often dont leave enough mental space to be thinking about the key things here. Like tone, pacing, connecting with the audience.

  • Great post – especially the ‘How to stop’ section.

    I also recommend using stories to get you points across. Use negative stories to get attention and positive ones if you want the audience to go along with what you are saying and take action.


  • Yah, Humility is waayy over rated.

    If there’s three things I’ve learned from reading business/self-help book it’s that 1) Never say you’re sorry 2) Never say thank you 3) Never pass up an opportunity to mark your territory.


  • One thing I’ve found really important–look at the time you have and the audience, and work out how much detail from your paper/result/work you can fit into the talk. I notice a lot of young researchers trying to explain their flipping proof (the one they spent two years on for their dissertation) in a few slides of a twenty minute talk.

    In a conference with proceedings, it’s okay to leave a fair bit of the content of the paper out of your speech, but when I’m done watching your presentation, I need to know:

    a. The basic result you got.
    b. Why the result is relevant.
    c. Whether I need to read this paper.

    The other thing, at least in CS/crypto papers, is to spend a *lot* of time on your pictures, representations, notations, etc. The right picture can make a really complicated algorithm just *click*. Bad notation (lots of identical variables with subscripts, changing notation in different parts of the paper, notation that uses conventions of some other field but doesn’t follow the intuitions you’d expect from them) can make a fairly simple result almost impossible to follow.

  • I think the starting point of any speech would be the very thing that will stick to your audience mind so as much as possible, try to capture your audience within the first few sentences.

    also, it is used by the audience as a gauge on how your speech will be delivered so better make it good.

    thanks, great post. 🙂

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *