When I was young, I was absolutely terrified of getting up in front of the class to present something. Physically shaking, a weak shaky voice, staring down, rapidly reading off the 3×5 index cards, you name it. Even doing the class reading where each kid reads a chapter out loud had me panicked and in a rapid fire shaky panic.
Things started turning around for me in my second round of college. Part of the mandatory class listing was a communications class that was all about standing up and presenting. The first and last presentations were video taped and we were given VHS copies.
Our first assignment was a two minute speech on an object that was important to us and why. I brought a guitar, one of my few non-computer related hobbies. The tape showed a terrified kid (even though I was a couple years older than all the other students), using the guitar body to hide behind. My voice shook, I trembled. It was sad and painful to watch.
A couple months later, the final speech was ten minutes long. I was still obviously uncomfortable, my voice still trembled. There was still panic and fear. But I was able to stand up without a prop to hide behind. I had learned that everyone is afraid, but I hadn’t quite integrated the lesson yet. There was still more to be done.
People of all ages were listening to what I said, they were interested! The audience was actually engaged! But I still spoke too quickly. I kept talking, even when there was nothing to say just yet. I got the verbal diarrhea. There were “um” and “uh” fillers, racing to the next slide. I had an audience that was engaged, but I was still racing and panicking.
Fast forward many years, I’ve been a “unix guru” at a small computer shop, a “senior technical analyst/sr unix admin” doing infrastructure tool development at a fortune 100, a computer scientist for the US Army Research Laboratory… And I got to sit in on a life changing event. A presenter that did it brilliantly, and then I went out to lunch with him. He was a real human, friendly, and he did this riveting presentation, unlike any I’d been before.
I learned two huge things that day.
Don’t read your slides. Never read your slides, the crap you present on the screen is just there to support what you say. If the slides are what you say, just email it and never do the presentation. The wall of text slide is soooo very wrong. But we knew that.
The other was to speak slower.
Sometimes. Very. Slowly.
Once I learned that, I can’t stop seeing it. People who have something important to say speak slowly and pause often. People who you want to listen to speak slowly and pause often. Presidential State of the Union Addresses are all slow speaking and pauses. The television show ’30 rock’ has “Jack Donaghy” as a high powered businessman, played by Alec Baldwin. He speaks slowly with conviction and determination. He pauses frequently. He only seems to speak quickly when he’s out of control.
If you want people to hear and understand your message, you need to speak slow enough for them to process what you have said.
You need to pause.
You need to allow them a chance to process what you have said.
I think one of the better presentations I’ve given was on the internal operations of the Meta-ball primitive in the BRL-CAD software package. The slides were bare, stripped down to the minimal. Each slide was either a single picture of a single line of text (rarely more than 4 words). I believe the only outlier was a grid of performance numbers. I was careful to speak slow and accept silent moments. Several of the audience found me after the presentation and complimented me on it. I was even accused of being good at public speaking, a far cry from the trembling guy trying to hide behind a guitar, rushing through a set of bullet points on index cards.
I don’t think speaking slower is just for public presentation. I think any time you communicate, slow down. Speak with determination and thought.
Give people a chance to hear and understand you.