How to give brilliant talks, presentations, panel talks … and continually improve
I’ve sat through many talks and panels, and I’ve been wondering about how to avoid the basic mistakes.
Pirate talks are the solution!
So, why do pirates say “Arrr”?
Pirate Talks, with their mnemonic Arrr, which I’ll explain below, are a way to remember how to give great talks or how to participate in panels and other forms of presentations. Pirate Talks also suggest ways to help chair sessions and panels — in any role, you can encourage others to use the Pirate Talk method.
Arrr stands for Audience, Remember, Route, and Reflect.
Read on! (Or read in PDF.)
Delivery: who is your audience, what do you want them to remember, and what route will you use?
Improvement: what reaction did you get, what did you reflect, and what will you revise?
Do you know your audience? What assumptions do they have, what do they already know and understand (or think they understand)? How will you find out? If it is a mixed audience, what sorts of people are represented in your audience?
What do you want to say? That may not help your audience! What does your audience want to hear? That may not help your audience. You have to align (another A for Arrr!) what they want with what you want to get them to remember.
Panels are often a series of short, closely related talks. Often the speakers are so keen to say things, the time slot overruns. The Pirate Panel would start by the chair asking everyone in the audience if they have any questions. Get a few questions going. Soon people in the audience start disagreeing with each other. Now is the time to start the panel, as there is energy and engagement — and the panel presenters now know the audience.
At conferences, pirates often sit in on earlier talks to reconnoitre the audience (and the AV system). They also scrutinise other speakers to see what things work best with the audience — and what don’t.
Sometimes called “take homes” or (more formally) “learning outcomes” — what do you want the audience to remember?
Maybe you want them to remember you are cool, you need contacts, you’ve got solutions to their problems, or maybe you want them to learn a specific solution or skill during the talk or session you are running. The short point is that if you don’t know what your audience is supposed to remember, they won’t remember it. They will remember something like one of your diverting stories instead, or a joke.
(Sometimes your organisation or its media department just wants the audience to remember their corporate image, logo and slide format. Pirates resist, unless it helps the presentation.)
What is your hook that will help your audience remember? It can be fun to keep referring to your hook in creative ways to rub it in. Brief, personal stories make for good hooks. Remember, the best pirates have hooks — and the best piratical hooks have one point that draws the audience in.
In a nutshell, if you haven’t worked out the take home, your audience certainly won’t!
Now you know your audience and what you want them to remember, plan the route from A to B. You will probably use a program like PowerPoint or Keynote, or something like Word if you are just working on a script to read: these tools readily allow you to develop and rearrange your talk. Do this continually, thinking about the route from A to B and what is relevant to it and what is a diversion, which probably you should delete.
The first few seconds are really important, both for you and for your audience. If you want your audience to be passive, now is the moment to train them you are not interested in them (tell them what they already know, like the title of your talk and how wonderful you are); or if you want them to be active, now is the moment to be interested in them:
“I am really pleased to be with such wonderful people today. Can I start by asking you all a couple of questions…”
If you want any interaction in your presentation, start off interactive.
(If you ask a difficult or poor question, everybody will hope somebody else will answer it. Instead, ask for a vote, say a show of hands, or ask people to think and write down their answers: then even if only one person speaks out the answer, everybody has at least had a chance to think. Try not to ask questions you know the answer to as the audience will feel set up.)
A very simple route that often works well is to start with a scenario, a story or problem (perhaps out of your own life so you and the audience naturally identifies with it) that is unresolved or creates tension; then at the end of the pirate talk, to return to the same story and resolve it using what you want your audience to remember.
Reflection means three things:
Do you know how successful you were in getting the audience down your route to what you wanted them to remember? Often talks and panels include questions from the audience. Why don’t you also ask the audience some questions? What’s the most useful thing I said for you? How could I improve the pictures/text to be more readable? Don’t leave before you get some feedback, at least don’t always leave without feedback — without reflective feedback, you will not be able to improve. Did the audience really go from A to B? How can you give a better talk next time?
Audiences are very bad at giving useful feedback unless you give them specific questions to help you.
Poor speakers often disappear immediately after their talks, so they never find out. They never hear the questions and new ideas from the audience that pirates bask in.
If you do not reflect about your Pirate Talk, you can’t get better. Where did it go well, where could it be improved? How do other people talk, and what can you learn from them?
Finally, right after your talk, revise it so that next time you look at it or need it for the next presentation it is better! You can remember all the slides that confused you; fix them. You can remember the spelling mistakes; fix them. You can remember the better slide order you could have used — well, fix it! (Somebody might ask you for a PDF, so fix the errors before you give it away.) If you don’t revise your talk or presentation, what use was it to reflect?
Many people do a lot of preparation for their presentations (even over several years on their research project) and they fall into the trap of thinking their presentation is the end of their work: finally they get to talk about what they have been doing!
No! The presentation is when you finally understand what you have been doing, what people are interested in, and how you can go on to develop even better ideas. Your presentation and the thought you put into organising it and filtering it down to the powerful hooks is the foundation for building bigger things.
Why should it be the end, when you are asking the audience to start from where you got to? If you have convinced your audience of something worthwhile to think or do, why not be convinced yourself?
“This is the first time I have spoken to such an experienced and professional audience. Thank you so much for your support. I would love to have your feedback about how I can do even better next time — and there will be a next time!”
Why are pirates called pirates?
Because they just Arrr.
How do pirates know that they are pirates?
They think, therefore they Arrr.
To err is human. To Arrr is pirate.
When the pirate’s audience gets the point, they will have an Arrr Arrr moment.