How to give a bad talk

I give lots of public talks and am always (hopefully) improving. I shudder when I think of mistakes I have made in the past, and yes, before you write to me in wounded grievance, I have made almost all of the mistakes on this list, so suck it up - I've had to. And yes, of course there are always exceptions - your entire shtick might be built up around one of these techniques. And that's fine - but you better not be doing any of the others! Let's make a deal - you only get one.

Me - hopefully not being TOO boring. This pic is from 8 years ago, and I wouldn't compose a slide like this anymore.

I also love attending talks and lectures and conferences, and have sat there withering in pain and boredom, and also been transported by a speaker's charm, cleverness and ability to win an audience. I have also observed speakers making all of the below mistakes, and seen their audience slowly fade away.

No matter what your subject, your primary goal is to win over your audience - if it isn't, why are you even giving a talk? You'd be better off at home binge watching Babylon Berlin.

So, in the spirit of helping both speakers and listeners, here is my list of how to give the perfect bad talk:

1. Make political points when you are talking about an unrelated subject: Just remember - 50% of the audience completely disagrees with you. Are you so good you can afford to lose 50% of your audience? This is happening WAY too often lately, and even when I agree with the speaker I die a little inside when they make a clumsy political joke. Yes, you can make sophisticated critical points which may very well be profoundly political, but the moment you re-situate those points in the present moment you have squandered all of your good work. Let your analysis speak for itself, and avoid the temptation to express your current pet political  peeve. People came to hear about the Lives of the Saints or an account of your Journey Through the Greek Isles. They really don't want to know how you intend to vote.

2. Say: "But I won't tell you more because I want you to buy the book": The last time this line was funny was 1948. People don't want to feel obviously manipulated, and they don't want to believe that the whole purpose of your coming was to sell a few books (even if this was indeed the sole reason you turned up). It's rude, it's a dumb tactic and it's counter-productive. Several times I have decided NOT to buy a book because the author said exactly that. Be generous, share whatever stories you want, and make attendees feel like they want to know more. Indeed, be mysterious and leave a few cliffhangers - but NEVER say that deathly line. The audience will work it out for themselves. Leave them wanting to know more - don't tell them they need to.

3. Slam another author or speaker on stage: This is surprisingly common. In almost all cities the literary and intellectual circle is tiny, and you can bet that a friend or relative of the person you are dissing is in the audience. Worst case is that they will stand up and challenge you publicly (I have seen this happen). They might also corner you after the talk and give you a talking to. They might instantly contact the slandered party and tell them what you said. Or (most likely) they will simply seethe in silence and walk out thinking the worse of you. The last time this happened to me the author on stage had just written a book about a subject that had also recently been covered in a book by another author. I was furious as the author being spoken about was my friend and, having read both books, I knew for a fact my friend's book was far superior. I left a strong advocate for the wronged book, and actively encouraged people not to buy the later book. Make your own points, and don't bad-mouth the work of others.

4. Have no visuals: The age is long past when you can hold an audience's full attention with no pretty pictures. I have seen speakers give talks that needed a few key images to make their point. I know that they didn't do it because they were either too lazy, too unprepared, or too afraid of technology to organise it. You need visuals - no exceptions.

*Strangely enough, this is the only point I have received any push-back on. So I am going to double down. You really do need pictures. I know you are a born storyteller who can set imaginations alight. But a quarter of your audience are bored, and always will be. Give them some distraction, for pity's sake. Other people have said that the pictures need to be good and expertly designed. Nah. Just big snapshots that fill the screen will do. That's just an excuse not to do the necessary extra work.*

5. Tell people about your good reviews and your entire back catalogue: Stop boasting and keep to the topic. You only get to tell people about your good reviews if it is immediately followed by an anecdote about someone who hated your book. Audiences HATE braggards and show-offs. If you really do need to tell them about how celebrated your book was/is, have the person introducing say it so you can put on a fake humble/embarrassed face while they say it.

6. Don't give someone a take-home fact or a moment of transformation: You need to start constructing your talks around these things. Think to yourself: "Now this is one of those amazing pieces of info that they will go home talking about," or "this is where I pause to let them absorb the amazingness of the story I have just told them." Give your talks some texture, and some high moments.

7. Don't prepare, but rely instead on your charm/cleverness/experience/intuition: Trust me, you don't have enough of any of these things to sustain a 45 minute talk. If you are unprepared you WILL be boring. And even if you are possessed of these remarkable qualities, imagine how much BETTER you will be if you prepare. And if you don't want to prepare, why on earth did you say yes to this in the first place? You owe it to your audience to prepare properly. And to rehearse after you have prepared.

8. Have slides full of text in 20 point: Unless your talk is a close reading of a particular text, I would avoid having words on the slide at all. Of course, sometimes words can make a nice additional element, but you must NEVER rely upon them to make a point, because guaranteed at least 25% of your audience won't be able to read them. I always have a rule: I can only use 60 point type. This drastically cuts down on the number of words you can put on a slide. But really, let pictures do the talking.

9. Give an intro, a little bit of background, and an overview of what you are going to talk about: Honestly, STFU. We don't need to know how the sausage is made. Just start telling the story with a strong idea and a strong visual. I think this really afflicts people with a corporate background, who somewhere along the line have picked up this ghastly advice on how to structure a presentation. Just tell us what you need to tell us. We couldn't care less about its structure. Stop telling me what you're gonna tell me and just tell me. OK?

10. Don't have a Plan B: This is a special community message to all the people who use Apple products. I have seen so many people turn up at a library/community centre/conference room and see their beautifully constructed presentation show up as a blank screen. Yeah, I know Apple products are superior and all, but there isn't a speaking facility anywhere that offers tech support for them. So A: Make sure your presentation is saved in a conventional Powerpoint format, and B: Have a fully thought out Plan B. I have turned up to speak at places where the power had gone out, where all the IT had just crashed and wouldn't be up again till Tuesday, where the only technical facilities on offer were a lectern and a glass of water, despite my instructions. You must be prepared and able to give a reasonably interesting talk no matter what. And, to be on the safe side, never have a presentation that hinges on a video or a piece of audio, or being online. These things are always the first to go wrong, so I make sure that, if I have them, they are only additional bells and whistles and not the focus of the entire presentation.

So there you go. I hope you find all of the above helpful, particularly if you are just about to give a talk and feel a little nervous. If you avoid all of the above, you should be ok.

I would also point you  towards the work of Michael Port and, if you live in Sydney, go and see the work of an expert public speaker like Susannah Fullerton.

Oh, and one more thing. I'd love to know if there are some points I have missed here. I am sure I have more to learn, and audience expectations are always changing. Leave a comment and tell me about something horrible you've noticed recently during a public talk.

Here are two more good points that have been raised by readers of this piece:

Go over time: The audience will hate you, no matter how good you are. This hatred will increase by a factor of 100 for every 10 seconds you go over time. In two minutes you will have undone all your good work. Always, always stick to the time  - in fact, finish up a couple of minutes early. Doesn't matter if you started late - everyone just has their eye on that clock. This is your contract with the audience - don't break it. And for God's sake don't ask "Is everyone ok if I keep going a little?" Everyone will be polite and nod while they poke pins into your eyes in their imagination. 

Say "I'll talk about that later" and then don't talk about it: I do this all the time! And I didn't realise how annoying it was till a reader pointed it out. You can foreshadow topics, people and points without telegraphing it. This is related to Point 9, I think. Give yourself some space, and don't promise when it is not clear you can deliver later on. 


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