Acing The Technical Talk: Take Control Of the Room

Posted on Jun 11th, 2012
Categories: explaining

Last time we looked at how to get ready for your talk, about how you want to think through the points that you want to make before you dive into the world of Keynote or Powerpoint. We also saw how important practicing your talk is. So let’s assume that you’ve done all that and now it’s game, err, talk day. You are feeling both excited and terrified. What can you do to actually get the talk out without seeming like a amateur?

Fly the confident skies

Ever watch an airline pilot walk through the airport? They have a certain casual ‘I own the place’ attitude. The airline pilot attitude shows in the unhurried but purposeful way they stroll through the terminal, pulling their little wheelie suitcases. It shows in the confident way they settle into the cockpit and in the voice that they use when they ask the flight attendants to prepare for take off. Pilots adopt that athoritative attitude because it is part of the job. When you place your bottom in seat 16A you are also putting it in the hands of the folks in the front of the plane, trusting that they know what they are doing. A serious part of being a pilot is to look and act like you are worthy of that trust.

As a speaker, you have something approaching that pilot-passenger relationship with your audience. They are putting the next 30 minutes or hour of their life in your hands and it is up to you to give them a smooth flight. And, as every pilot knows, the first step in a smooth flight is to inspire confidence. What this means is that you don’t slink to the podium: You stride, like you own the place. If someone introduced you, take a second to thank them: You’ve got time, you are in control. When you talk, talk five percent louder than is strictly necessary to be heard. You don’t just need to be heard, you need to fill the room. Don’t be afraid of silences either: If you want to make a point and think it will take a second to sink in, give it a silent moment before you continue. Above all, look people in the eye and keep on looking them in the eye. All of the practice (you did practice?) will help here: Since you know what you are going to say, there is no reason to keep looking at your slides to remind you where you are going next. You want to be locked onto to the audience for the entire talk.

And what if you don’t feel very confident? Well in the words of Leo McGarry, “Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you. Put it another way, fake it till you make it.” Stage presence is a kind of bootstrap process: The more confident you act, the more your audience will respond, which will inspire actual confidence. Just keep reminding yourself that you are (literally) running the show.

What if an engine falls off?

If you do enough speaking, eventually something will go wrong. The PA system will produce feedback or a mistake in the schedule will direct people to the wrong room or the river will rise and wash away the projector. These are the times to take that airline pilot analogy to heart. If one of the engines on your plane falls off, you don’t want the pilot to panic, or sound rattled, or even to apologize constantly. You want him to come on the PA and say “Well folks, looks like we lost an engine and will have to set down on that tiny Pacific island back there. With a bit of luck you will all still make your connecting flights.”

If something goes wrong during your talk, mention it, and if need be apologize - once. Then move on. Your audience came to hear you talk about HTTP or the sex lives of Amazon beetles, not at how distraught you are over the bad lighting. Apologize once and just keep going. The good news is that the most likely source of trouble is the apparatus that you need to get your slides on the screen. But if you have practiced your talk enough, you should be able to get through it sans slides. In fact, one advantage of creating physical index cards (see part 1) is that you can drop the cards into your pocket on talk day. That way, if all Hell breaks loose on PowerPoint you can still deliver an old fashioned, peeking at the index cards occasionally style of talk.

The Secret Sauce

So there you have the things to keep in mind while you are doing your talk: No matter how intimidated you feel, act like you own the place. Focus your attention on your audience. If something goes wrong, admit it and just move on. Oh, and you will need to add just one more thing to your talk. Something we will look into next time…

Russ

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