Public speaking advice

Public speaking advice

Last updated: 4th October, 2023

Presentations can be a great way to communicate EA ideas to many people at once. This guide presents mostly general advice about presenting. Much of it from Spencer Greenberg’s post on becoming a great public speaker, as well as our team's personal experience presenting EA and standard educational strategies.

1. Pre-planning

Note: Some of this won’t be applicable if you are modifying an existing source

  1. Know your audience - understand what they are interested in, what level of prior knowledge they can be expected to have, what sort of jobs they do, etc. If possible, tailor your content specifically for the interests and knowledge of that group, and ideally make it clear how THEY will benefit from your talk. Connecting the goal of EA to the goal of the audience members might only take a couple of tweaks to a standard presentation, but it might make a big difference to the level of buy-in.
  2. Decide what your goal(s) are for the talk. Pick one or two goals.
  3. Be able to state your thesis/key points. These could be the key facts or concepts that lead people towards your goal. Have a short version (a couple of sentences) of your talk would be, and keep that summary in mind while writing so that your talk stays focussed and doesn’t meander off-topic. Be sure to repeat these key points so they won’t be missed - audience members will inevitably zone out at times or lose focus. You can say things like “this is a really important point because...” or something similar to emphasise these ideas further.
    • E.g. if your goal is to motivate people to donate to highly recommended charities your key points might be
      • Your intuitions are not reliable when it comes to choosing the charities that work
      • There is a huge large variation in cost-effectiveness between charities
      • What charity evaluators do
      • You have the power to make a huge impact in the lives of others
  4. Understand barriers - understand what sort of resistance people will have in accepting your message, and include content that helps people get through those barriers.

2. Planning

  1. Start with aspects that people care about, to motivate the idea of applying reason and evidence to doing good, then move on to the idea of other cause areas afterwards.
  2. Have something that is interactive in your presentation, especially if your presentation is longer than 20 minutes. This could be a giving game, a quiz, discussion questions.
  3. Surprise the audience or be humourous - it's a great way to keep them interested and to recapture interest if they are drifting.
  4. Make it moving - stimulating strong emotions in your audience will make your talk much more impactful. Get excited during the talk. Get angry. If something is crazy, show how crazy it really is! Make your audience feel something!
  5. SHORT stories are great. Just saying “I’m going to tell you a story” can gain people’s attention. Personal stories can be useful, especially if they show the thoughts you had when you first encountered these ideas (but try not to spend too much time on these!). I like to talk about the power and responsibility I felt when I first realised how rich I was globally speaking (36x the median income, even though I was just a teacher!), or how my relationship with money changed when I saw ACE's cost-effectiveness estimates for their top charities (several animals for just this one dollar), but of course, your team will have different personal stories.
  6. If possible, allow for opportunities for people to feel listened to and their points valued (interactivity helps this).
  7. If it fits your goal, it is great to show people they are WRONG in controlled and kind ways, letting them know that most people are wrong on this thing! ◦ The way to do this is to get them to state their belief (to the person sitting next to them, or by writing something down), then reveal evidence that shows that they are wrong, and let them know that most people had the same belief as them. You can do this by duping people into thinking PlayPumps are great or getting them to do a world poverty quiz. ◦ The education research suggests that this is a very effective technique for changing people’s minds on a topic. Often if people are simply told the correct answer, they just nod and pretend it fits in with their worldview. But if they are confronted by their incorrect beliefs, that forces people to try to incorporate this new evidence.
  8. Do your best to avoid technical words, or get into the complexities - most people don’t make things simple enough when talking to a general audience. You can flag that there is additional complexity that we don’t have time to consider, by recognising that the problems you are discussing are really hard, and it is a very difficult thing to weigh up causes/charities/actions. If someone throws a technical question at you, you can be a little more technical in your response (especially if you want to move on to the next part of the presentation).
  9. Start and end with a bang - the most important parts of the presentation are the first minute (where you have to capture attention and convince the audience to pay close attention - for instance with a provocative question, intriguing quote, shocking claim, amazing statistic, surprising anecdote, etc.) and the last minute (which has disproportionate weight in determining what the audience remembers about your talk). If one of your goals is an “ask” (e.g signing up for a newsletter, or donating to a charity) this should be right at the end.
    • E.g. Catherine likes to start with a story (e.g. PlayPumps), a quiz, or with the initial charity choices if it is a longer giving game. And then end with an emotional gush about how much power each of you has to create change for the better.
  10. For talks longer than 20 minutes - Give an outline near the beginning of your talk to help your audience structure what you'll be saying - it can be just after the initial punchy start.
    • This doesn’t have to be a spoiler. You can refer back to this outline so that the audience can treat it like a progress bar and understand throughout the talk wherein the talk structure they are now. For instance, you can say things like “The third important reason is…” to remind them that they’re in the middle of enumerating a list of things.
    • Another example is that you can use a question as to the beginning of each section that mirrors the outline reminding them of the outline. Note that while this approach can help your audience process the information you give them, a lot of the best talks don't give an explicit outline.
  11. Short is better than long. The audience will appreciate the brevity, and likely will enjoy it more since it will have a greater density of interesting things, plus you’ll reduce the risk of losing attention. Just do a longer Q&A or let people out early (I’ve never known an audience to mind having a slightly longer break before the next session). Brevity is not as important if you have activities.
  12. Bring it full circle - consider ending by bringing a reference back to the beginning of the talk, such as finishing the story you opened with, or restating what you said right at the beginning (but now, with the audience’s new understanding, they’ll finally realize what it means). This kind of ending can feel very satisfying to the audience.
  13. Keep ideas connected - don’t make your talk feel like a random grab bag. Each idea you talk about should both feel connected to the talk as a whole AND to the idea that came just before, so that there is continuity both at a global and local level. The audience should never feel confused about why you just made a point, unless this is done strategically to surprise them. If you want to say an idea that will feel disconnected (but tie back in later) you can hint to your audience that they won’t see the significance of what you’re saying right away, which can evoke their curiosity.
  14. If you choose to use slides, make them SUPER simple, with few or no words. AND NO TRANSITIONS! People tend to read slides rather than listen to you, so choose pictures, diagrams or graphs. It takes most people a while to interpret a new graph, so if you do use graphs make them as simple as you can, with only the data relevant to your point. Explain what the axes mean and the takeaway from the graph.
  15. Unless you are very familiar with your content, or very experienced at public speaking, it might be a good idea to write a script of what you are going to say. Don’t use the script in your presentation - it is best to just bullet points on paper to remind you in case you get lost, but a script is a good way of developing the talk.
  16. Decide whether you are going to allow questions throughout, or ask people to wait until the end for Q+A. If you are allowing questions throughout, make sure you state that at the start.
  17. Prepare answers - think up a list of questions about your talk and especially criticisms of your point of view that you think your audience members might ask or have in their minds after hearing your talk and include the most critical of those answers/responses to criticisms in the talk itself. For those that aren’t important enough to be included in the talk directly, jot down answer sketches of how you would respond to them so that you’ll have a rough idea of what you’ll say if they come up during Q&A (but respond from memory, don’t look at notes when responding). If there are certain questions you are afraid of getting, specifically practice responding to them so that you’ll know exactly what you will say if they come up.
  18. Consider what physical items you might need. Do you need handouts? Surveys? Signup sheets? Do you have books to giveaway?
    • Handouts - these should be given out at the precise time you want the audience to start using them. If you give them out earlier they will read them and not listen to you.
    • If you want people to write anything down, supply pens and paper
    • If you have signup sheets make several copies and get them passed around. Each signup sheet should have a maximum of 12 spots with plenty of space to write in large print. You don’t want people to have to wait long to sign up, or they just won’t bother, and you don’t want people to rush, or you won’t be able to read their writing. Make sure PRINT CLEARLY is written somewhere, or say it out loud!
    • If you are doing a survey it is ideal to give people the option of online or paper.
  19. If you do have things for the audience to do at the end, make sure you allow plenty of time. This could be a survey, signing up for a mailing list or a book giveaway. My suggestion for wrapping up is:
    • Finish your talk on a strong note
    • Hopefully, receive applause!
    • For Q+As: calculate how much time you have for the Q+A and state that “we have 5 minutes for any questions”
    • Thank the audience for their questions
    • Then do your final ask. I often have a short survey and a book giveaway, so I ask “Now, before we finish this session I have a request and an offer. The offer is <describe book giveaway>. The request is that you fill in this 5-minute survey. I would really appreciate your feedback. After you have finished I’ll collect them in and you can head off to morning tea. But also feel free to stick around and chat with me”. If the survey is required to get Giving Game funding, say so. People are usually happy to help!

3. Practicing

  1. PRACTICE OUT LOUD. TIMING YOURSELF. SEVERAL TIMES. USING YOUR SLIDES ON FULL SCREEN (if you have them), and any other physical resources you might have, pretending that you are actually in front of an audience. This is very important! What sounds good in your head or on paper might not seem so great when you say it out loud. You might realise you need to trim sections that are too wordy or change to a more colloquial sentence structure. Ask your audience to take notes and give you feedback at the end. If you are up for it, videoing your talk can be very helpful too.
  2. When you are practising, look at your audience, rather than your slides, to emulate how you are going to be doing the presentation on the day.
  3. Unless you have a great memory, or it is a short and high stakes presentation, you probably won’t want to memorise your entire talk. However, try to memorise:
    • Your starting couple of sentences
    • Your finishing couple of sentences - ensure they have a tone of finality so it is clear that you are finished and can clap!
    • Any segues between content (as segues can seem awkward)
    • Key points
    • If you do choose to memorise your whole speech, work on having it SEEM like it is your conversational speech.
  4. Vary your voice volume, speed and pitch. If you want to show you are really excited about something, a louder or higher pitch can work well. Add pauses before you say important statements or more emotional statements. Most people should try to talk more slowly and carefully than they normally do in conversation.
  5. Consider your gestures, body language and how you are going to move around the space.
  6. Try to get to the point where you can practice without seeing your slides on “Presenter view” depending on your setup, you may not be able to easily see your computer, and will only see what the audience sees.
  7. If you have interactive aspects to your presentation, ensure to practice the instructions, and practice your “Attention Cue” which is what you say when you are getting the attention back to you. Stand in front of the audience, and say your cue. This might be something like “Thanks everyone, wrap up your discussion now. Then wait a few seconds for a response. Avoid saying anything important until you have full attention.
  8. If you have handouts, identify when you are going to hand them out and how. Will you get a few people in the front row to do it for you, will you give them to the ends of the row to pass down, or will you do it yourself?

4. Pre-event logistics

  • It helps to know what technology you will have available (if you need technology). If you are plugging in your own computer you need to ask what adaptor you need (usually HDMI, but sometimes places have VGA still). Find out if you will get a handheld mic, a lapel mic, or will just be using your voice to project. Find out if you get a clicker to advance your slides. Clickers make it easy to walk around, so they are very useful. Consider buying or borrowing one if you don’t have access to one.

5. On the day of

  1. If possible, see if you can put your slides on the screen in advance. You might need to cycle through the “SOURCE” on the remote control of the data projector. If you are plugging in your own computer you might need to check your display settings. On PCs “Windows-P” gives you the option of duplicating the screens, or extending. Extending can be handy because you can use your laptop slides on “Presenter mode” where you see the next slide and the notes. But if there are any problems it is easier to use “duplicate”.
  2. If you have any materials lay them out in the order that they are going to be used.
  3. If you are using a mic, test it out beforehand, and ask the technician if the sound is okay. For handheld mics, you normally want to hold them close but not touch your mouth and keep the position steady, but it is best to check it out with the equipment on the day.
  4. If someone is announcing you or MCing, check in with them before the presentation. If you have any particular things you want the audience to do after the presentation you should let this person know. For example, if you have signup sheets you want to pass around, or if you are doing a survey let them know when that will happen.

6. Presenting

  1. Keep an eye on the time! If you don’t have a visible timer I suggest a wristwatch that is always visible (so you don’t have to push up your sleeve to check it).
  2. If you are nervous, take a deep breath, smile, and reinterpret the nervousness as excitement.
  3. Start in a strong stance - stand tall and confidently, don’t start with your hands in your pockets. Pick a person out in the middle of the audience, this is the person you’ll be saying the first few sentences to when your talk begins.
  4. Move around, and gesture, but avoid blocking the slides for long.
  5. Start with a short pause - it’s fine to look out in the audience letting the tension build as they watch you before you start speaking. Don’t feel like you have to immediately speak just because people are looking at you.
  6. Look at your audience. Look at different people around the room, and pick one person per point.
  7. Don’t apologise if you make a mistake, just correct it and move on.
  8. Managing questions
    • Listen to the question, repeat it if it is likely not to be heard by all. If it is a good question, say so.
    • Feel free to pause to think about the question. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, just say “Thanks, that’s a great question. I would need to do some research to get back to you on that.” Or even just “That’s a great question, I, unfortunately, don’t know the answer offhand.” And move on.
    • If you have a rough idea, it is okay to give an answer, but indicate your level of confidence in your answer.
    • Even if you think the question is irrelevant, pretend to consider it, and try to move on. Saying something vague like “Hmm, I don’t think that is a key issue in this situation”, seems to be fine, then look away from the questioner to suggest that you are ready for someone else to ask.
    • If time is getting short, say “I’ll have one/two more questions," then select the next one or two people. This avoids you having to stop with your hands in the air.
    • If someone is dominating try something like “Please save your comments and questions for the Q&A period in the end.” OR “I’d really like to chat with you about those ideas later”
    • Don’t call on one person more than once - it’s unfair to other audience members who may have questions, plus it encourages that person to start a dialogue with you which you probably want to avoid during Q&A.
  9. Managing discussions
    • After asking the audience a question, wait a couple of seconds before calling upon someone to answer (or giving up if no one answers). Sometimes it takes a while for people to formulate their response. It is also a good idea to have a ready response if the audience is not interacting, e.g. “Most people say that they’d DEFINITELY save the child”
    • If you are in a small group, feel free to ask quiet people if they want to share, but move on fairly quickly if they don’t.
    • With a larger group, if you have some hairy discussion questions, it sometimes works well to get people to discuss in small groups before large group sharing. That way you can ask “What did your group come up with”. This way less confident people will be more willing to share.
    • Disagree without being disagreeable - if someone gives you critical feedback, thank them for it. If there is something you do agree with them about, mention that then you can say “I don’t agree with everything you’ve said” without responding to every point, especially if they made a lot of different criticisms. Just focus on the most important. You can also invite the person to discuss their criticism with you more afterwards one on one, which is a graceful way of avoiding having a fight right there in front of everyone.
    • An example of this might be someone who thinks aid is harmful. A response might be “I certainly agree with you that there are charity and aid programs that do more harm than good. However, the evidence suggests that there are things we do that really do make a positive impact, such as…”
    • If someone states a commonly held but incorrect belief, say that it is a very common belief before correcting it. If true, it might help to say “I used to think that too, but then I found out that…”. That way you are not really criticising.
    • In discussions, you don’t have to respond to each person’s point. You can ask the audience if anyone wants to respond to a participants point, especially if you think it is something you think that others might be able to respond to.
  10. Your final sentence should have a tone of finality, so people know you have finished. But if they don’t realise it, then say “Thank you.”

7. After the presentation

  • If you have things you are asking your audience to do, you might like to summarise them very briefly at the end. Make the “Call to Action” clear.