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The Art of Speaking: “There is a special circle in hell for those who use laser pointers,” this and other advice from a master speaker.

How to SpeakWinston Speaks

Every January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period, Computer Science Professor Patrick Henry Winston gives a famed lecture titled: How to Speak. During this perennially popular event, Professor Winston walks his audience through a series of tips and strategies, developed and honed over decades, for mastering the art of speaking. I attended his lecture for the first time this year, and was not disappointed.

The crowd was literally at capacity. Every seat filled. Every step filled. The ground surrounding the podium filled. And a crowd spilling out into the hallway straining to hear. Having arrived early, I was able to snag a desk an thus take copious notes. In this post, I draw from these notes to present to you, in detail, the secrets behind the Patrick Winston Method.

The Formula

I = f(K,P,T)

Your Impact is a function of your Knowledge about speaking, Practice, and Talent — in decreasing order of importance. Winston’s advice focuses on your knowledge about speaking. This is the easiest way to gain the biggest increases in your impact.

How to Start

Some advice for starting your talk.

  1. Don’t start with a joke. The audience is not accustomed to you or your speaking style yet. Humor will be difficult at this point.
  2. Do start with a menu. Tell them exactly what you’ll be speaking about and in what order.
  3. Do provide an empowerment promise. Explain why your audience will come away from the talk better than when they entered.

The Big Four

A collection of four heuristics that make a talk work.

  1. Cycling. Deliver ideas first in brief, then in detail, then in summary. To use the lingo of artificial intelligence: let your audience load the schema, then fill in the details, then let them know what’s worth indexing for future reference.
  2. Verbal Punctuation. Provide a mechanism to help people who “fogged out” to easily rejoin the talk. For example: “We have just finished talking about the first heuristic, cycling, I am now going to talk about the second heuristic for helping to make your talks more interesting…”
  3. Near Miss. When explaining an idea, also describe other ideas that are close but not quite the same. This will help people understand what the important points are that define your idea.
  4. Ask Rhetorical Questions. Don’t make them too easy. Don’t make them too hard. Wait 6 seconds for an answer.

The Tools

Four tools that can make or break your presentation.

  1. Time and Place. If it’s in your control: mid-morning is the best time. Choose a location that will look full with your expected audience size. Make sure it is well-lit. Don’t let them turn down the lights. (“It’s easier to see slides in a light room then to seem them through closed eyelids.”)
  2. The Board. A blackboard lets you draw natural graphics that highlight your points. It also paces you. The speed of writing matches the speed with which people process information. Use a logo that captures the main point and that you can return to. (“I once saw a Sloan professor lecture for a whole hour about a triangle; it was amazing!”) It also provides a target. The best thing to do with your hands? Point at things on the board.
  3. Slides. Don’t use anything less than 24-point type. If you can’t fit the information at this font size then you have too much. Follow these four rules:
    1. Don’t read the slides! “A special circle in hell for those who…”
    2. Don’t stand far away from the screen. This requires divided attention from your audience.
    3. Have one meaningful picture per slide. If it’s found in Microsoft’s clip art gallery, it’s not meaningful.
    4. No pointers. Laser or otherwise. These are distractions. You’ll play with them. They’re annoying. Stand by the screen and point with your hand or refer to visual anchors on the slide.
  4. Props. When possible, use a prop to illustrate an idea.

Special Cases

Three specific types of talks. (Notice, the first two are specific to academia, but the advice is none-the-less generalizable to other arenas).

  1. Oral Exams. Some strategies:
    1. Show your hand early on. Within five minutes have explained what you did and why it’s important.
    2. Situate your results in time, space, and field. That is, explain the trajectory over time of your area of concentration, where else people are working on the same problem, and the consequence of your result for the field.
    3. Practice. Ask your friends to listen to your talk. Tell them to try to make you cry.
  2. Job Talk. Here is what they want to see in a candidate:
    1. Has a vision.
    2. Has done something about that vision.
    3. Don’t finish with a conclusion slide. Instead have a contributions slides. Something that spells out clearly what you did.
  3. Getting Famous. If you want to become a world class speaker, try to deploy Winston’s Star. A five-point checklist of things to make your talk extra memorable:
    1. Symbol. Some icon that makes your ideas easy to hold on to.
    2. Slogan. A simple linguistic handle for your ideas.
    3. Surprise. Make people say: “did you see that talk…”
    4. Salient. Have an idea that really sticks out.
    5. Story. Tell stories that engage the audience.

How to Stop

Some things to keep in mind about concluding a talk:

  1. Deliver on your promise made at the beginning. Remind them what it was and summarize how you satisfied it.
  2. Tell a joke. They know you now. And if they leave happy they will assume the entire talk made them happy.
  3. Call for questions.
  4. Don’t thank the audience. It makes it seem like they did you a favor by listening to your boring babble.
  5. End with a salute. Compliment without thanking. (i.e., “You’ve been a great audience, I hope you learned a lot about how to give a great talk.”)

38 thoughts on “The Art of Speaking: “There is a special circle in hell for those who use laser pointers,” this and other advice from a master speaker.”

  1. What do you mean by this: “Ask your friends to listen to your talk. Tell them to try to make you cry.” How so? By asking rude questions. What’s the purpose of this?

  2. @David:

    Have them ask tough questions. Trying to trap you or prove that you don’t understand something. The idea is once you can handle them you’ll have no trouble handling a rowdy professor in a technical talk. This isn’t relevant, probably, for non-technical presentations…

  3. What a brilliant discussion on public speaking! I’m going to be giving a lecture on blogging and online social networking in a few months – and this provides me with plenty of ways to focus my presentation. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. I agree with almost everything except the comment about not thanking the audience.

    Saying “thank you” is a good way to tell your audience that the talk is over, at least for special talks (and not class lectures).

    I have witnessed countless talks at the Ivy where I went for graduate school, and a number of speakers did not know how to end the talk. They would just stand there, looking uncomfortable, and say something like “Um, that’s it” or “Any questions?”

    Saying thank you shows that the talk is over. You can also use that phrase in combination with a comment that you’re opening up the floor for questions, and that can make the transition to the second part of the talk more clear.

  5. @Disagree:

    If your only problem with not saying “thank you” is that the crowd doesn’t know the talk is over, then that’s easily solved: “That concludes my talk, I would like to now open the floor to questions.”

    If you disagree that saying “thank you” makes you look weak, then that’s a different thing. Something I agree is debatable…

  6. I’ve heard conflicting advice on thanking the audience: some people say you should, some say you shouldn’t. I usually do, but I don’t really have any feedback on whether this is the right thing to do.

  7. Good article, but I have to disagree with the blanket statement about laser pointers. First of all, the room where I give most of my lectures has a projection screen that is 12 feet wide by 12 feet high, the bottom edge of which is six feet off the ground. I’m 5′ 9″; There’s no pointing with my hands there. Second, in my lectures (which are in mathematics) I often find it handy to use the laser pointer to represent a single mathematical point, either stationary or in motion in some kind of geometric construction I have pictured on my slides.

    I can see how laser pointers get played with and abused, but they can be very useful when used responsibly and in context.

  8. @Robert:

    I hear you. Something I didn’t put in the notes that Professor Winston mentioned was how to make good use of visual anchors. He was talking more about pictures, but for math, even something like line numbers could play the same role? (“Now let’s look at line 5.”)

    Not sure if that helps in your situation, but thought I would throw in that extra dash of advice from the talk.

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  11. Oh that makes me laugh, I believe the “thank you” is a debate across the nation. It is what you are comfortable with, I personally prefer to say “thank you”, because I am thanking them. They did not have to be here to listen to me, and if they do “have” to be hear then I will thank them anyway (mandatory is no fun).
    However I liked everything else he said… and yes there is a special place in hell for people who read off of powerpoint slides.


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