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Become a Better Public Speaker with

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Public speaking is tough. You’re trying not to say “um” too much or speak too fast or crash your presentation or poop your pants or do any of the million horrible things that, in those first few minutes you’re up on stage, feel way too possible.

I started speaking at web conferences a couple years ago, and have since given a few dozen talks, many in front of hundreds of people. It gets better—way better—but those first few times? They were pretty rocky. Not only was I anxious as hell about being onstage (Is there food in my teeth? Did I remember deodorant?), but I also felt exposed. My ideas—things that had been rattling around in my head for months—were suddenly on display. Would people relate? Would they find my topic useful? My words meaningful?

Am I full of shit?

Don’t answer that question. Instead, go check out, by Github’s Zach Holman. From how to find an appropriately focused topic to writing pitches to determining whether your font is too small (hint: probably), Zach offers guidance for every stage of the process. Even stuff that, usually, you only learn the hard way:

No one told me I’d have to put my laptop down on the ground twenty feet away behind a couch because that’s the only place the projector’s VGA cable would reach.

That sure would have been useful before I spent a day last spring at an under-construction Marriott in a business park in La Jolla trying to explain to a disinterested organizer why no, in fact, it didn’t work for them to play my Keynote file from a mystery PC located at the back of the room.

But enough about me. Like writing, speaking about your work “makes all of us smarter for the effort, including you.” It’s been one of the most satisfying parts of my career. And it’s something I think more people in our field can learn to do—well.

Reading all of won’t suddenly make it easy, but it will help you avoid some rookie mistakes—like forgetting to use the flaming fire explosion slide transition. “That one is gold,” after all.

3 Reader Comments

  1. Thank you for the link. I have enjoyed A List Apart for years, and have always considered it a go-to source for quality information.

    I have noticed that A List Apart’s blog posts are regularly littered with profanity. Please note that this not only sounds unprofessional, but also makes the entire post feel less intelligent and I find limits my tendency to share these posts with anyone else.

    “Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly.” – Spencer W. Kimball

    I was wondering why the editor would allow such, but as this post comes from the editor-in-chief I suppose that answers my question. I am sure all of you are thoughtful, intelligent, professional people – I just wish you would take more care and make use of your certainly expansive vocabulary.

    We will understand big words, you don’t have to talk down to us.

  2. Hi Tony,
    Sorry, we happen to disagree with you. We’re very comfortable with our language choices here, and we see a few well-placed swears as right in line with our voice and our role in the community.

    As someone who runs my own business and works with large clients, I will also say that I see absolutely nothing “unprofessional” about swearing in an article or blog post. I wouldn’t swear in a proposal. But I _might_ swear when out to dinner with a client.

    Ultimately, I think being a professional means knowing how to conduct oneself in different circumstances, and being confident in one’s communications. Does the fact that I wrote the word “shit” in this casual and personal blog post make me less credible or hirable? I have no evidence for that.

  3. This was a nice article because public speaking is difficult for just about everyone. Actually, they say that public speaking is the #1 fear of people, more than death! So that just puts things into perspective.

    I’ve been in a part of a program that helps you to learn how to speak publicly for the past 15 years, and it’s helped me tremendously. They bring out stuff like the importance of an outline over a manuscript. Learning how now to use word whiskers like, ‘and uhhh’, ‘umm’. Say enough of those and people will quickly lost attention. Also, the use of illustrations, that probably is the best way to explain a difficult topic, because it relates it to something that people understand. Also, gesturing is huge.

    The points are more about delivery though, and not necessarily about the technicality, but really, delivery is the most important.

    Kudos for writing a post about this. Something that most people don’t really think about.

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