Saturday, May 28, 2011

Speak Easy

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane e-mailed me to suggest a topic he thought would make a good post. This is an approach to blogging that had never occurred to me: you provide the ideas! I love it! That would make things much easier on me. More, please.

Jim sent me a link to this blog post by web designer Dan Cederholm on public speaking, and wrote: "Do you have any additional advice for speaking in front of large groups? I've done lots of TV shows and radio programs and lectured maybe 30 college kids at a time, but I've never handled a live presentation of, say, 100+ folks."

No I don't. But thanks for the question, Jim, and keep 'em coming!

All right, I may have a few more thoughts. First, let me bullet-point Dan's advice (and recommend you go read it yourself):

* Say yes.
* Get paid.
* Practice.
* You'll never please everyone.
* Take your badge off (the audience knows who you are, and it'll bang on the microphone).
* Drink water, and don't worry about pausing to sip.
* Tell stories.
* Use a remote.
* Share experiences instead of dictating.
* Embed interactions.
* Spend little time on introducing yourself (they already know who you are).
* Attend the event.

Some of that matches my experience and some doesn't. I think the writer/cartoonist's lot is a bit different, for example, when it comes to getting paid. Comic conventions don't pay you to do a panel, book stores don't pay you to do a signing (unless maybe you're a really big name). The trade-off is that you get an opportunity to promote your work, which is of value. Other types of events do offer a speaking fee or honorarium, and it's good to have a number in mind if it comes up. Here is an actual phone conversation I had:

"And what is your speaking fee, Mr. Fies?"

"Uh . . . a cheeseburger?"

The only way to know what that number should be is to find out what it is for other people doing the same sort of thing you do. Ask around. Don't quote anything less than $1000 (plus transport and lodging of course), although if they choke on that you can sputter something about taking less for special causes. Generally, I'm happy if I can get in and out of a gig without losing money. Of course, there's always author Neil Gaiman's strategy of asking an appearance fee of $50,000 because he hates doing them so much that it has to be really, really worth his while. Sometimes he gets it.

Be self-sufficient. Don't trust anyone else's equipment. Many a speech has been ruined because the speaker showed up with a jump drive containing a PowerPoint presentation that didn't work on the host's machine. If you can e-mail them your presentation ahead of time to test, that's ideal. I still build in as much redundancy as I can (one copy in my luggage and one in my pocket, in case my luggage is lost or I'm mugged, respectively), and prefer to bring my own laptop. And, as a super-emergency back-up, I always take a moment to survey the room for a chalkboard, white board, or a pad of paper on an easel, because if push came to shove I could vamp and draw live.

Speaking of PowerPoint: it's pretty mandatory these days, but don't let it dominate your presentation. People came to see you, not a voice narrating slides in the dark. And please take it easy on the fonts and animations and sound effects. Show some restraint and class.

But I think I've gone off the beam. Jim asked about handling large groups. I really can't offer much nerve-calming advice like "imagine the audience naked" because, although I'm an introvert whose idea of Hell is cocktail party chit-chat, I'm not afraid of public speaking. Oh, I get an adrenaline rush waiting to go on, but it's energizing rather than anxiety-provoking. I enjoy the performance. I realize that's unusual. What do they say, that more people fear public speaking than death? I think my confidence comes from both experience (the more you do it the better you get) and my frame of mind.

Frame of Mind: I am there to speak about myself and my work. I am absolutely certain there is no one in the audience who knows more about me and my work than I do. I am the world's foremost authority on me (well, my wife probably knows me better than I do, but she's too kind to contradict me in public). No question can stump me. In broader discussions--for example, a panel on webcomics or publishing where I may have some experience but not expertise--I try to make clear I'm speaking through my narrow context and experience, with examples. People like concrete examples.

Back when I was preparing for my Special Guest Spotlight Panel at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con, which was a very big deal for me, I was talking with cartoonist Stephan Pastis, who had an insight that stuck with me. He said that most people who attend a talk like that aren't interested in you, they're interested in becoming you--that is, learning how you got to be the kind of person who gets a Spotlight Panel at Comic-Con so they can do it, too. So give them that. That advice became the foundation upon which I built my talk.

(Curiously, I recently reminded Stephan of his great advice, describing it pretty much as above, and he had no memory of ever saying or even thinking anything like it in his life. Maybe I hallucinated it. It was helpful nevertheless.)

I'd also advise speakers not to be afraid of silence. You don't have to fill every moment with noise, and silence is powerful punctuation. (A technique I learned as a reporter for interviewing a reluctant subject: ask one question and then don't say anything. Most people are so uncomfortable with silence that they'll leap to fill it, even with stuff they don't mean to tell you.) If you need to take a moment and find your place in your notes, take it. If you mess something up, admit it gracefully, chuckle at yourself, and regroup. Audiences are usually on your side and don't mind seeing a little humanity slip through. Don't be afraid to engage the audience one-on-one--you can roll with it!--but don't let one yahoo monopolize or throw you off track.

Bear in mind, I'm pontificating without knowing whether I'm actually an adequate public speaker. My hosts have seemed satisfied, but maybe they were just being nice. When I look back on the talks I've done, there is one I wish I'd done differently--it wasn't bad, I just took the wrong angle--and one I think I utterly flubbed, although I'm not sure the audience could tell the difference. From the first, I learned to put a little more thought into what my audience expected; from the second, I learned not to get too cocky. (I thought I'd given essentially the same speech often enough that I could wing it. I thought wrong.)

Preparation is important. Like so many other things in life, it takes a lot of work to make something look easy. In two weeks, I'm going to give a 90-minute workshop at the Chicago Graphic Medicine conference that I'm helping organize. I've been thinking about it for weeks and begun pulling material together. It wouldn't surprise me if I end up putting in 30 or 40 hours of prep work. I want to know the material forward and backward, understand how the ideas link and build, and have escape routes in mind if something goes wrong.

Jim, as I mentioned privately, if you've already got experience speaking on TV, radio, and small classes of students, I think you're better equipped than 97% of the other public speakers out there. Tackling larger groups should be more a small step than a giant leap.

Finally, let me steer anyone really interested in fine-tuning their presentation skills to the book The Way to Communicate by Other Friend O' The Blog Michael Harkins, known around here by his nom de web Sligo. Mike has had a fascinating career in writing, consulting, and other creative work--near the top of his "cool jobs" list must be touring with Michael Jackson--and I thought his book was helpful and perceptive. In particular, it talks about the physical aspects of speaking or performing, the cues an audience picks up, and how, for example, being literally well-balanced (like, floating on the balls of your feet) contributes to confidence and poise. Mike has some insights into how people like Jackson and Springsteen, with whom he also worked, do what they do, which is a few megaparsecs beyond anything you and I ever will.

I look forward to an interesting discussion in the comments!


Sarah Leavitt said...

Hmm. This post managed to be inspiring and intimidating all at once. and here i thought i could just wing it in chicago...

Sarah Leavitt said...

PS here is something a little more useful: I used to be really scared of reading or speaking in public. Then someone (I can't remember who, unfortunately) told me that I should tell myself that my job was to take care of the audience and make them feel comfortable and relaxed. If a speaker is nervous, it stresses the audience out. They don't want you to fail, and they are rooting for you. Don't make them nervous. Put them at ease. That made something click for me, and I have enjoyed public speaking since then. The most important thing for me, aside from keeping this perspective, is being prepared. Definitely.

Brian Fies said...

Sarah! Don't let my neuroses throw you off your game! Do what works for you and I look forward to seeing the results in Chicago.

I really like your second point about taking care of the audience. Like you're the host of the party instead of a gladiator facing an arena of hungry lions. Good!

Mike said...

No insights to share, just an agreement that some of us are more comfortable on stage than at a cocktail party. But here's another wrinkle:

As a reporter, I hated "man on the street" reporting, where you would walk up to people and ask them a mundane question -- like if they were enjoying the parade or how they felt about a new sales tax. On the other hand, I never felt nervous talking to someone whose home had just burned to the ground or whose bank had just been robbed.

Maybe there's an adrenaline factor in there somewhere -- the higher the stakes, the less self-conscious I become.

Jim O'Kane said...

Good points all. Thanks for the in-depth responses.

My only advice on public speaking is to be self-conscious of verbal crutches. When I first appeared on TV shows, I'd watch replays and realize how many "uhhs" and "umms" I'd fit into every sentence. I'd also begin my answers with a lot of excessive phatic (great crossword term) preambles before getting to the meat of the response. As the scientist-philosopher Mr. T would put it, cut out the jibber-jabber. It's a conscious thing to overcome during a presentation, so I usually write "NO UHHS - NO JIBBER-JABBER" at the top of my notes. Dumb, but effective (at least for me).

Brian Fies said...

Mike, I was hoping you'd respond with some journalistic wisdom. Agreed about man on the street interviews: my attitude was always along the lines of "you and I both know this is stupid but let's play our roles and get through it." But I never warmed to interviewing people who'd just had something bad happen to them--like I'm the last thing they need. I could do it, just never liked it.

Jim, for me the "no Uhhs" rule fits in with "don't be afraid of silence." Instead of using Uhs and Ums to fill the space between sentences, I try real hard to be quiet. It's literally just one or two seconds--I won't lose their attention that fast, they're not going anywhere! In fact, I think a moment of silence builds a tiny bit of anticipation for what you're going to say next. But it's something I need to work on, for sure.

ronnie said...

My frequent public speaking gigs are quite different in nature - usually me standing next to a PowerPoint outlining government programs or policies to groups of 4 to 100 people - but I learned a lot from this. I especially like Sarah's point about putting the audience at ease - although trust me, the people I present to aren't usually "rooting for me". They aren't even there to see me, unlike your gigs - they're there to hear about the program. And they're usually skeptical. Bizarrely, I enjoy doing them. And if I had one tip to add, it would be to have copies of your presentation on paper or flash drives. 'Cause they'll ask.

Mike said...

You know, Brian, I found that people often welcomed the chance to talk about a loss as long as it was on their own terms. I guess if you aren't genuinely empathetic it won't work -- and that means that you want to know because you want to tell the whole story, not because you're looking for a quick tragic sound bite to make you look good -- but the main thing is not to ask "How do you feel?" because it's a stupid question and they don't know how the hell they feel.

"How are you doing?" is more open ended and has brought forth some wonderful answers.

And, in the case of a death, "Tell me about (name)" is a winner, because it really allows them to say anything they want -- general or specific, about the last thing he said to them or something he did back in the fifth grade, what his favorite things were or just how much they're going to miss him.

Example: I was at a garage fire where they did well to save the house, and the guy's (adult) son told me about how his dad had assembled this amazing tool collection and put together a great workshop ... all gone now, and dad had a bad heart and didn't likely have time left to reassemble all that stuff again.

Beats hell out of "how do you feel?"

Mike said...

Oh, and the bank robbery? I was a business writer but stumbled across yellow tape and a million squad cars on the way back to the office for lunch. The bank's vice-president, who I knew from various chamber-of-commerce and what-does-the-new-sales-tax-mean stories, was standing alone in the parking lot.

I walked up to him and said, "How much did they get?" and he said "$25,000."

"You're bonded, right?"


And I said, "Well, it could have been worse. They could have taken out a loan to open a restaurant. You'd have never gotten that back."

I'm quite sure it was the first time he laughed that day.

sligo said...

yikes, ya get distracted in something for a couple of days and look what happens! Brian, thanks so much for mentioning The Way to Communicate, and glad you found tidbits of useful stuff in there.
and, for the record, you are indeed a professional, likable, humorous speaker (non-compensated, unsolicited opinion).