5 public speaking tips

18 April 2017

From dad jokes to visual cues, our very own TEDx speaker Dr James Humberstone shares tips to help you nail your next public speaking gig. 

Public speaking can be daunting, regardless of if it's your first talk or fiftieth.

In the days leading up to his TEDx talk in Oxford, James Humberstone was feeling the pressure. His speech was seven minutes over the prescribed limit and he was suffering from a particularly nasty cold.

Plus, he was nervous. 

“I get really nervous every time I have to do a speech,” he says. 

"And to make matters worse, on the day itself my talk was scheduled towards the end. I had to sit backstage for hours feeling really nervous and going through my talk way more than I needed to, with a dry mouth and panicked feeling, and with the remnants of a cold. It was awful.” 

Yet to watch him on stage, you would have no idea that this was the same person. We caught up with James to get his advice on public speaking like a pro. 

1.  Preparation is key

The first step when giving a lengthy talk is identifying a key message and working out how to structure your material around it. Once you’ve done that you can go about memorising it – for James this means writing out the whole talk verbatim a few times. 

2. Use slides to your advantage 

Once he’s comfortable with the content, James turns his focus onto the accompanying slides. 

“The slides become the thing that I’m going to speak to. This is where the speech turns from being essay-like on the page and into a performance,” he says. 

“Sometimes you can make a point better with a good slide. Generally, changing slides every 30-60 seconds to complete the picture really helps people to stay with you.” 

James advises keeping words to a minimum and steering clear of lengthy bullet points altogether. It’s better to use a picture or diagram to illustrate your point, and helps the audience focus on what you’re saying. 

3. Don't stress about forgetting your speech

The great thing about using slides is that they trigger your memory.

“You can’t forget what you’re doing if you practice with slides because they’re your visual cue, as well as the audience’s visual cue,” says James.

“What you’re saying and what people are seeing should complete a picture.” 

4. Break the ice early

It’s normal to feel butterflies before public speaking. The best way to deal with nerves is to break the ice early on. James suggests making a funny remark, or bouncing questions off the audience.

Once he gets the audience on-side he can start to feel like it’s a performance.

"And when in doubt, chuck in a dad joke," he says with a laugh. "Dad jokes have gotten me a long way."

5. Keep your audience interested

A TEDx talk is 18 minutes long, which, when you think about it, is a really long time to be holding your audience’s attention. One way to keep them interested is by employing what James calls the ‘educational reveal’. 

This involves incorporating an element of collective learning to lead up to a sort of ‘aha moment’.

“So rather than telling the audience the punchline straight out, you get them to discover it on their own. They’ll be much more interested if they’re invested and feel like they’ve worked it out for themselves.”

More information about TEDx Sydney: 

  • The University of Sydney is proud to once again be a partner of TEDx Sydney. Learn more about this year’s TEDx Sydney line-up, which will be held at the International Convention Centre on Friday 16th June. 

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