Reflections on public speaking

I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of opportunities to develop my public speaking skills, but also to have had great mentorship in the area. When my friend Vanamali, who had seen me speak in Fiji suggested that I’d be a good candidate for TEDxAuckland, I was really excited about the opportunity, and instantly sought to explore it.

The TEDx experience was very different to what I had imagined, but in a positive way. First of all, it was extremely collaborative and supportive. There was an eight week training programme for all speakers to help develop their talks. The speaker is the expert on their topic, but the TEDx team help produce and develop talks as their bread and butter. I unfortunately couldn’t justify coming to Auckland two months early, but Elliot Blade kindly helped develop my talk on the phone, and I then flew into Auckland a week in advance, where I practiced my talk twice a day to the TEDx team, chopping and changing it, developing and improving it, meaning that I could really ensure that the core message I wanted to come across was there. I also read the book “How to give a TED talk” by Chris Anderson, a great start to improving public speaking.

Having been through the process, I thought I’d share some of my core learning points on public speaking from the preparation:

  1. Core idea. Get your core idea in place as your first priority. What message do you want to get across more than anything else? Quiz people listening afterwards to find out what core idea came across, and ensure that it matches your aim.
  2. Agenda. Be absolutely clear and honest with yourself about what you want to achieve from giving your talk. Is it raising awareness of an issue? Is it opportunities to find collaborators/fundraisers for an idea you have? Is it to raise your own profile as an effective public speaker for important issues which you care about? Whatever your agenda is will affect not just how you give your talk, but also how you interact with the organisers and the attendees, so think about it honestly.
  3. Finish strong. Ensure that you know what your last sentence or few sentences are, and that they truly encapsulate your core message.
  4. Memorising a talk. I’ve learnt to give talks without notes, and generally find that when doing this, you have more room to gesticulate and to focus on interacting with the audience and appropriate emphasis. However, to do this effectively you need to invest a lot of time. How do you know you’ve truly memorised a talk? Make sure that you can speak it effortlessly. Try talking at double normal pace. Try talking with the TV on full volume, or while standing on one leg. Or all three! The larger the cognitive distraction the better! It’s also perfectly acceptable to use notes, or to read a script, if that’s what you feel able to do, but make sure you try out memorising a talk at least once, as if you get it right, it can be very effective.
  5. Reveal your authentic self. In an age where information is so easily gathered, it is important to remember what it is that makes a talk more powerful than written words. Part of this is the emotion and authenticity behind the words. Really try and connect with your purpose and the cause, and speak in a way that really matters to you, so that you genuinely mean everything you say. The audience can immediately feel this if it’s done right.
  6. Vary the audiences you practice to. Practice in front of people within your area of expertise and practice in front of people looking at the subject with fresh eyes. Practice in front of very critical friends, in front of those that think similarly to you, in front of those that think very differently. I did twenty practice run throughs for my TEDx talk, and you really can’t do too many!
  7. Watch and listen to yourself back. Although hearing yourself while you speak is helpful, listening to an audio recording or to a video recording will let you hear/see it like the audience would.
  8. Tech rehearsal. Familiarise yourself with the actual environment in which you are going to give the talk. Walk around the room, walk around the stage. Practice with a microphone, and be comfortable knowing what volume to speak at. As well as the slides behind you, there is often a large screen projecting the slides and notes in front of you as a prompt. Practice looking at these discretely. The more familiar you are with the environment in advance, the less nervous you will be on the day.
  9. On the day, think of the people you are trying to help rather than the audience. It can be very daunting when you have an audience of 800 strangers in front of you, almost all of whom have no idea who you are, waiting to form a judgement about you. What I’ve found is that thinking about the cause, and the people connected to the cause, is a much more powerful motivator. Before I went on stage, I thought about people I knew that had committed suicide, about those with mental illness, not currently being helped, and about how no matter what I said, there would be some comfort for them knowing that someone is being an advocate for them.
  10. Post-talk relaxation. After your talk, you can feel very drained, especially if you have spoken about a really emotive subject. The best thing for me was, after saying my thankyous, taking some time to forget about the talk, and just relax with friends and family.

Dr Zeshan Qureshi

About the author

Children's doctor. London. Mental health. Global health. Medical education. TEDx talk (doctor well being).

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