This is part 6 of a multi-post series on public speaking
One of the important aspects of public speaking is what we actually say outside of the contents of the topic we’re speaking on. In this blog post I’ll cover this.
Words to avoid
Em, Hmm, Eh. Mm, Um, Er…
Those words we use when we don’t know what to say. Try very hard to cut them out. They are annoying, especially to those that pay attention (like myself). The best alternative to these fillers is to know what you’re going to say (and practice). However, if you find yourself struggling, replace them with a pause. Silence.
As an anecdote, it’s ironic that the recent demo by Google showing how their AI was having a casual conversation, it felt like the processing time (i.e. status progress) was using fillers to replace silence. It might be OK for AI (despite the whole thing being very morally questionable), but it’s not OK for a speaker.
Beyond fillers, it’s also important to not fall into the trap of constantly repeating specific words. I’m very much guilty of this myself, right, and when listening to some of my talks, right, I often hear myself repeating the same word over and over and over again, actually!
Some common ones:
- In essence
- For example
- For instance
- You know
The only way to know this is happening, is to listen to your own talks, as painful and excruciating as it may be.
There may be times you feel the urge to apologise to the audience. For instance
- You’ve not slept due to jet lag or a late night out
- You’ve not had time to prepare everything
- You’re going to skip a few slides because there’s no time
- This is the first time you’re giving the talk and you’re not sure how well it will go
- Your talk was brought forward and you didn’t have time to finish the demos
Of all those, the only time it’s valid to apologise is in none of the cases. First off, let’s be clear - the majority, actually scratch that, all of those are your own fault. Apologising to the audience is you asking for redemption. You’re jet lagged? Not my problem. Should have come a week earlier and get sleep. You couldn’t? Then don’t travel. You’ve not had time to prepare anything? Shame on you and your lack of professionalism. They moved your talk? Aawww, poor thing. Should have not left it to the last minute.
Hopefully you get the general idea. And I’m telling you this as someone that was guilty of it, and I’m also telling you it from someone that is in the audience listening to how lame these excuses sound.
A subtle error
If you made a mistake on a slide, or it’s out of order, unless it’s showing some fundamentally wrong information, you don’t have to specifically point it out. Chances are nobody really noticed the mistake apart from you and just saying “Oops, I made a mistake here” provides very little value. Again, as I mentioned, as long as the mistake is not misleading people or giving incorrect information.
Apologies for being nervous
Once again, I wouldn’t apologise for this, but I covered this in more detail in Dealing with Nerves
As this point you may be thinking that an apology is never needed. Not the case. Obviously when you have a demo go drastically wrong, or you’ve given incorrect information and been pointed out by the audience or noticed it yourself, an apology is in order. I’d also say you should apologise if you’ve been rude, but then I’d question why the hell have you been rude to begin with, which takes me to the next section.
Certain things that are important about how you behave during a talk.
I’m not going to define what being rude is, I’m sure we’re all grown up enough to know. However let me point out a few things:
I’m generally against strong profanity in talks. I’ve never said the word “fuck” in a talk (to my recollection). I have had it on a slide (“Fuck you”) but never repeated it. Other words such as “shit”, “bullshit” etc. I have used at times. But it’s very important to know the setting, the context, the audience. How you speak in front of 20 developers and those you have a strong rapport with may not be the same as a customer seminar where you know very few people and they don’t know you.
Each of us should know where our moral and ethical boundaries are and be comfortable with ourselves. As Gandhi said
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony
Do not make remarks, say things or make jokes that are discriminatory. It’s just plain wrong. In every setting, not only on stage. Much the same way, do not use slides that imply any of this. I’m also very much against sexual comments and imagery. Fortunately most Code of Conducts of conferences already point many of these things out.
Not being discriminatory is critical. Being inclusive is just as much.
Being inclusive isn’t always as easy as one may think and often speakers are just not generally aware of the mistakes they make. I’m not here to judge anyone, but I do want to point out some things you should avoid, and some of them are not easy habits to break, but possible with effort. And the effort is worth it.
Guys and similar words
Stop using “guys” in a talk. Just replace it with “folks” or any other valid option that is inclusive of everyone. I’m not going to debate why guys is wrong. I believe it is and there are tons of examples on the Internet as to why.
Much the same with other words that are gender specific or other words that may be exclusionary (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation) to those in the audience.
Asking questions that are inclusive
Generally avoid questions that assume biases, for instance, a question that assumes everyone in the audience identifies as male. If the question however is relevant, then make sure you ask in an inclusive way.
While this generally applies to all aspects of speaking, I think it’s very important to highlight in this post as this one is very much about what you say; be yourself. Don’t try and be another speaker. Don’t try and imitate your idols. Learn from them, but don’t be them. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re not, don’t try excessively hard to be. You’re not a comedian, you’re a speaker trying to transmit a message to people.
And just like life in general, don’t be one persona on stage and another off. Be the true person you are and aspire to be.
Until next time.