Brown-Bag on Public Speaking: 25 Tips

Redfin and Our CEO

Brown-Bag on Public Speaking: 25 Tips

Redfin launched its 2009 brown-bag lunch program last Friday, where employees and guests speak on how we can broaden our horizons beyond our little startup and develop our careers.

I addressed the first topic, public speaking, mostly because in 2002 I had attended part of a road-show boot camp that Sequoia Capital put its executives through before an IPO. The CEO and the CFO were the stars of the road-show, so I wasn’t the main attraction and didn’t participate in all the exercises, but the one session in which I did participate was one of the most useful of my professional career.

The man who ran the boot-camp seemed fantastically old yet emphatic, like a wizard. I wondered if at one time he coached other Sequoia alum, like Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, and was surprised that he didn’t seem to mind working with us. I have no idea what we paid him. Here’s what I learned, with a few extra suggestions of my own…

1. Go with what makes you comfy: a slide deck isn’t an end in itself, but a means to an end: to help you comfortably speak to strangers. Your slides should be like an old lady’s shoes: it doesn’t matter how they look so long as they feel comfortable. For this reason, editing someone else’s slides sometimes makes the slides better but almost always makes the presentation worse.

2. Give yourself cues, not a script: the audience has read every slide before you open your mouth, yet most presenters still say each bullet aloud. Why? Because the slide has so much text that there’s little left to say. Compare that to each slide in a Steve Jobs presentation. It’s a haiku, sometimes less, just a title and an image, sometimes nothing at all. Steve, not the slides, tells the story. If you have less text on the slide, you’ll find yourself looking at the slides less, and the audience more.
Steve Jobs, zen master

3. Don’t present at your presentation: a good presentation isn’t a presentation at all. It’s a dialog. PowerPoint is an evil matrix of command and control, squashing interruption. The only question that many presenters ask, “does that make sense?” — is really just a brute request to continue. A good presentation is a dialog between you and your audience. The last two words I think of before starting into any presentation came from Muhammad Ali, who from the depths of his Parkinsonian catatonia gave a speech to Emory students consisting entirely of: “ME… WE.” These are the barest elements of a great speech.

4. Mingle beforehand: during your presentation, use the questions, stories, names of people you talked to in the audience before the presentation started. If you’re presenting on the sense of smell for example, you could mention that  “one of your colleagues just mentioned that the smell of pizza now reminds her of all your late-night bug parties.” You don’t have to call someone out by name to establish a connection.

5. Ask questions:  it’s the best way to engage an audience.

to find common cause: (“how many of you wish there was a scent-based art form?”);

to set up a surprise: (“anyone want to guess how many different smells the human nose can register?”)

to gather information: (“What smells would be in your olfactory memoir?”)

People will initially be hesitant to answer your questions, so your first question should come early and be easy to answer. It helps to have a friendly face you can call on. And it’s not a big deal if you answer it yourself; you still got people thinking rather than just listening.

6. Establish eye contact with anyone who will give you the time of day.

7. Overdress, then roll up your sleeves: always take the preso  more seriously than the audience

diddyatparty.jpgand dress for the event. I learned this from Jim Flatley, a colleague who ran field operations at my last job. Deeply disturbed that I’d moseyed into a staff meeting in socks with no shoes, Jim immediately pulled his pants down and asked “Glenn, do you mind? I’m just more comfortable this way.” Now I dress up to present. But I think it’s effective too to build intimacy with an audience by taking off your coat halfway through, like Diddy at one of his parties.

8. Eat light, eat protein: it supposedly keeps you sharp. John Kennedy asked for a papal dispensation to eat bacon on the day of his great inaugural speech, a Friday. Don’t worry about milk; the idea that it coats your vocal cords is untrue.

9. Arrive early so you can relax: I’m usually cross at the beginning of a presentation because I barely have time to get the slides on screen. My brother, the one who left corporate life to save the environment, used to tell me that Hitler let crowd excitement build by arriving late and rushing on-stage. I took this advice for years, but it never worked for me. It’s petrifying to look out into an audience and have no idea what people are thinking. If you arrive early enough to mingle, you can adjust to what the audience wants.

10. Never turn down a mic: big, bearish men love to say they’ll be fine without a microphone. They probably refuse to ask for directions, too. Without a mic, you’ll sound pretty haggard at the end, and you’ll lose straight-away most of the vocal range you could have had for dramatic effect. Even in a room of 30, ask for a mic.

11. Tell stories: a story has at least one character, and a plot. Rather than explaining the three reasons why your startup will win, tell the story of how you came to believe in it: “I was buying a place and I realized I could find out more online about a hair-dryer than a house.” Be personable, not argumentative.

12. Show some passion: a former 60 Minutes producer was once trying to pump me up for a “Today” show interview. He said many people would be drifting by the TV without even listening, and their first cue that I was saying something interesting would be whether I looked interested in it myself. “Now,” he said, approaching the high point of his shtick. “Aren’t you interested in what you’re going to be talking about tomorrow morning?” “No,” I said. “You’re screwed,” he said. And I was!

13. Belittle only yourself (a little): your project is to please. It should be illegal to give a presentation without a few jokes. And the butt of all those jokes should be you. Obama would have been insufferable if he hadn’t started almost every campaign event with a few self-effacing wisecracks about how his wife keeps him in check.

14. Use simple words: imagine if, instead of saying “tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan said “eradicate this fortification”? Simple words are more powerful; Martin Luther started a revolution with eight simple words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” A professor once told me to use Anglo-Saxon-based words instead of so many fancy Latinate terms. “Which is which?” I asked. “Hit your thumb with a hammer,” the professor said. “The next 50 words out of your mouth will be all Anglo Saxon-based.” During my brown-bag, Chris Glew called out his favorite example: instead of ocean, say whale road. Now you’re talking Chris! Our goal isn’t to sound smart; it’s to be persuasive.

15. Be spontaneous: Martin Luther King was about to flounder in his most-famous 1963 speech for the Civil Rights March on Washington when Mahalia Jackson called out “Tell ’em about the dream Martin.” Listened to in its entirety, what’s remarkable about King’s speech is how unremarkably it starts. Fortunately, King soon veered from the prepared text to give a variant on a speech he had tried out before, in what became the 20th century’s greatest prophecy. If during your speech you discover in yourself a vein of genuine emotion, follow it. Your audience will be alive to the risks, and reward you for it.

16. Move as fast as possible, but not fast: If you ever ask yourself, “is it time to move on?” move on. I have never, ever listened to a presentation without wondering “when’s lunch.” If you’re running late, don’t rush, just be concise. If you don’t have time to be concise, skip slides. And even if you’re not running late, you should not speak to every bullet on every slide. You’re not Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If I ever get to make my case at the Pearly Gates, my opening argument will be I skipped slides and let the crowd eat early.

17. Move, then be still: a salesman from Buffalo once told me he liked to find a few people scattered across each audience, and then move around the stage at key points in his presentation to establish eye contact with each one. For most people, the moving part is easy. What’s hard – especially for a spaz like me — is standing still after you’ve moved. Just look at Gordon Gecko in his overwhelming “Greed is Good” speech: he moves easily around the stage and into the audience, but stands stock-still to make each of his major points. For the final 20 seconds of his speech, he doesn’t even blink.

18. Hold the basketball: if you hold your hands in front of you as if you’re gripping a basketball, it will encourage you to gesture in measured ways. I was told this by the great Dan Fabulich, organizer of Harry Potter and open-source conferences, someone who travels with a large bag of dice for serendipitous gaming opportunities. However unlikely a source for sports metaphor, Dan is a fantastic speaker.

19. Know your wiifys: a wiify is what’s in it for you, a one-line summary of each slide that explains why your audience should care about it. The you isn’t your bottom-line as a speaker, it’s the bottom-line of your audience. The goal is to connect to their reptilian brain, promising money, sex, power. For each slide, you have to imagine someone yelling “I don’t care.” If you actually write out a wiify for each slide, your presentation will be much more crisp, and you’ll be able to adjust if the prior speaker goes long or a key audience member announces he’s leaving early. You should be able to whisk through the highlights of an entire deck in five minutes, without hurrying.

Bush looks at his watch during the 1992 debate

20. Never leave without the ball: make sure you understand the question before attempting an answer. Nothing is more deflating than an audience-member saying, “Actually, that wasn’t my question.” If you don’t understand the question, apologize, and ask the person to repeat the question, but never imply the question was poorly phrased. You can also repeat the question yourself, to affirm that you’ve understood it before answering, to prune away any negative distractions, and to give yourself time to think. A perfect example of answering a question before you understand it came during George H.W. Bush’s 1992 debate with Bill Clinton. It is hard to remember now that, basically until Bush answered a question he didn’t understand, #41 was the overwhelming, post-Desert Storm favorite.

21. Never say “good question”: unless you want to say it for every question. The person who asked the “good” question will like it, but the next questioner may feel slighted. If you want to affirm each question, do it in different ways: “wow, I’d never thought of that,” or “hey, thanks for asking.”

22. If you have to cut off questions, give notice: Norman Schwarzkopf, the Desert Storm general, ran press conferences like military drills. Nearing the end, he would say, “two more questions.” Then, “one more question.” Even though most journalists didn’t get to ask their questions, he never seemed rude or abrupt.

23. Start every answer with yes, no or a number: it drives me crazy when presenters don’t answer the question directly, instead using their “answer” to repeat their spiel. In any presentation, as early as possible, you want the audience to have some measure of control. So get right to the point and answer the dang question, then (if you really must) do your spiel. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, say “I don’t know.”

24. Come up with a fun title: especially at a conference, where you’ll be competing in the program guide with other talks in other rooms.

25. Always say thank you: even if you flub horribly you can still be humble. Provide your contact details on the final slide so people can find you and your slides via email, in the blogosphere or Twitter.

There’s plenty more good advice, but that was the list we came up with during the brown bag. If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment! And if you’d like to come to the next brown bag, on what venture capitalists are funding these days, sign up here.

Neurotic post-script…
Make the slides look sharp: yes, the slides are just a prop but I still fuss over their formatting anyway. The hallmarks of a good slide, about, say, controlling feral cat-population are:

  • 5 lines, 5 words per line, max: though I break this rule all the time
  • 2+ bullets: if you only have 1 bullet, you don’t need bullets
    • Parallel structure: the bullets are consistently either
      • imperatives (find cats | capture cats | transport cats)
      • nouns (large dogs | dead mice | snakes)
      • sentences (Rob finds the cats | Sarah captures the cats)
    • Consistent capitalization, punctuation: if you start using periods, use ’em on every bullet.
  • 1 font: this is arguable;
  • 0 animations
  • Meaningful titles: avoid generic titles for each slide like “Cats (continued)”
  • Native charts, created by the presentation software: which look better than pasted-in spreadsheet charts

For more public speaking tips, visit alltop.

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