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How to Get Good at Public Speaking

At the SXSW Interactive tech conference, Tim Ferriss was asked “What books should I read to learn how to get good at public speaking?” In his typical way to cut right through the chase, he didn’t recommend any specific book, but rather outlined what he does to prepare for speaking engagements:

Five Ferriss Tips to Make You Good at Public Speaking:

  1. He won’t focus on being a “public speaker”. He focuses on being a teacher from the stage.
  2. He has no problem if some people dislike or disagree with him, but he aims to not be misunderstood. Everything he says seems clear and concise.
  3. He accepts that he gets nervous and stammers from time to time, drops F-bombs where needed, or generally feels like a nervous wreck. He knows that if he gives good actionable, clear advice, people will forgive it all.
  4. He has fun and laughs at himself whenever possible. Beating the audience to the punch makes it much less fun for them to slam the presenter.
  5. He has one 16-oz. Diet Coke 45 minutes prior to speaking and another about 20 minutes prior to speaking. He pees before getting on stage to not look like a squirmy kid at a spelling bee. Yes, Diet Coke will give you hairy palms and insomnia, but this caffeine dosing has proven perfect for him for taking the stage. Could be as much placebo effect as anything else.

With the basics out of the way, he drew a summary to explain his approach:

Tim Ferris Formula to Get Good at Public Speaking

And here are his explanations of the paper summary above:

If the format is a 60-minute keynote, a typical format, then I automatically build in at least 20 minutes of audience Q&A, which I usually make 30 minutes. This reduces my presentation time to 30-35 minutes and allows me to tailor the presentation to the group (via answering their questions) instead of guessing what is most important to them and delivering as a pure monologue.

I assume my presentation will be in five parts: approximately 2-minute introduction, three 10-minute segments, and a 2-minute close. I use this “rule of thirds” for the three segments whether the presentation is 60 minutes or 10 minutes.

I then plan the content in this order:
10-minute segments –
For each segment, what is the main takeaway or usable action for the audience? This means I have three main points in this talk, no more. To flesh out to 10 minutes in length, I then use a PEP (point-example-point) format or, my preference, EPE (example-point-example) format. PEP means you illustrate the concept, then give an example or case study, then reiterate the concept and actionable next step. EPE means you give an example or case study, then explain the concept, then finish with another case study or example. I sketch out 2-3 EPE or PEP for each 10-minute segment, and all of this is done on 1/4 to 1/2 a piece of paper.
Introduction –
Now that I have a better idea of my content, I decide on the introduction, preferably starting with a story and then explaining that I’ll introduce three concepts that will help them do “X”, where “X” is whatever the overarching theme of the presentation is.
Unless you are a comedian or have already tested jokes with audiences who don’t know you, do NOT use rehearsed jokes. If a joke falls flat in your intro, it will ruin the experience for you and your audience.

Now the harder work and the fun of discovery – rehearsal:
The PEP/EPE is usually sketched out well in advance, and the rehearsal is done the night before the presentation. I rehearse the intro, segment 1, segment 2, and segment 3, all separately. I’ll repeat the two-minute intro — winging it — until I nail it. I use a kitchen timer on countdown, and each time I finish, I write down any one-liners or wording that I like. Note that I NEVER memorize a speech verbatim, but I do ensure that I have memorized the starting and closing 2-3 sentences for each portion (intro, segments) at this point.

How many times will I repeat each segment? Until I’m happy. I am a perfectionist, so for certain presentations, this could be up to 10 times.

Once I have these parts in order, I then wing the close (not before), and repeat like the other portions until I’m happy. For me, it’s not productive to work on the closing statements or questions until I have the rest of the content polished and ready to rock.

Now link them all together and do the whole thing until you nail it at least once. Expect you’ll forget about 10% of your memorized lines or anecdotes, and that’s OK, but review your notes each time to ensure you’re hitting the most important points. Once you’ve blazed through it well once, go to bed.One additional tip: I came to realize long ago that I can barely sleep the night before presentations; it doesn’t matter how many times I do them. So… expect that you won’t sleep and don’t let that add to the stress of the experience. Just get extra sleep the two nights before and plan on an all-nighter. If you get sleep, it’ll be a pleasant surprise instead of a source of panic.

There you have it! A simple and effective way to get good at public speaking.

To read the full article, head over to Tim Ferriss’s blog.

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1 thought on “How to Get Good at Public Speaking”

  1. Good public speaking skills are important in other areas of your life, as well. You might be asked to make a speech at a friend’s wedding, give a eulogy for a loved one, or inspire a group of volunteers at a charity event.

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