Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to Give a Talk Where I Stay Awake

I fall asleep during lectures. I have even fallen asleep during one-on-one meetings. While I am not proud of my poor attention span, it has made me think about what makes a speaker compelling. Here are some actionable items from my observations.

Develop rapport with your audience. If your audience can identify with you as a human being, they will have an easier time listening to you. There are many ways to establish rapport: for instance, by making eye contact, by making jokes, and by identifying things you have in common with the audience. Anecdotes--especially those from your struggle in coming up with the solution--are great. Treat the audience as potential supporters rather than potential detractors. Avoid being defensive.

Address your audience’s interests. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says you should prioritize the other person’s desires and interests in conversation. For instance, the standard advice for technical talks is motivate the talk with respect to the questions the audience is interested in. There are also other dimensions of audience interest. For instance, some audiences may be interested in having everyone understanding all parts of a talk, whereas others may prefer talks with an obscure section that only a few experts understand. The interests need not be relevant to the topic at hand: for instance, internet kittens in addition to operating systems.

At least pretend you are having a two-way conversation. Speak at a reasonable pace.  Make eye contact.  Pause before and after the important points to give the audience time to process. The most engaging talks I have seen involve the audience without derailing the talk. This is done through asking questions the audience already knows, asking the audience to solve small problems, or asking the audience for questions. Strategically injecting opportunities for audience questions is the most lightweight way of achieving this. Skilled speakers may even moderate some amount of discussion.

Keep things interesting. Give a talk you would want to attend. Entertain. Tell a good story. Make slides that someone would want to look at (as little text as possible, with text as large possible). Make a cool interactive demo. Be outrageous.

Convey passion. If even you do not feel strongly, why should we care? Show this by putting energy into your speaking and/or by saying why you find something interesting.

In summary: focus on what the audience wants to hear rather than what you want to say. This is easier to achieve if you are comfortable with what you want to say. Prepare well. It is not uncommon for among my peers to run through a 20-minute talk at least five times. Being comfortable with your talk allows you to focus on establishing a connection with the audience and paying attention to their needs.

I hope to take some of this advice in my upcoming lectures and talks. Perhaps then I will not have to resort to throwing candy at those who have fallen asleep.

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