Ten tips for talks

Activists frequently get invitation to deliver talks. With a bit of forethought, it can go really well and take Green ideas to new audiences. So here are some ground rules.

First check and recheck when and especially where the event is to take place. For example, I’ve had letters giving the address of a college’s main site but the contact person forgot to point out the actual room was at another annexe. It does not help to arrive feeling flustered: far better to be too early than late.

Second, do not make apologies. It sells yourself short. If something goes wrong, do not blame yourself or anyone else. Make a joke of it. But beware humour, however. It can backfire. Certainly don’t be too intense. On the other hand, do not trivialise important matters by being too jokey. Your audience may just think you are a fool.

Third, do not rely on technology. I do use Powerpoint but I never depend on it. Promises that there will be a projector ready may not necessarily produce the equipment on the day. Sometimes it is indeed there but it has not set up properly. You could always ask beforehand whether a technician will be setting up a projector and screen. I often take an extension cable. The lead provided may not allow for the projector to be sited in a position to create a big enough image. Beware Mac-PC incompatibilities. Also check whether there are dark curtains. I’ve had everything provided as requested but found myself in a room filled with bright sunshine, thereby making it impossible to see the images properly.

In any case, remember Murphy’s Law and be prepared to just rely on your good self.Tools such as Powerpoint can become a bore. But, if nothing else, they help to direct the attention of the audience away from you. If used carefully, they can powerfully reinforce what you are saying. A search around websites such as Slideshare (http://www.slideshare.net) might provide some inspiration as well as some indication of what does not work. Really prune what you prepare and run through the show a number of times so you are really familiar with the running order. Don’t go overboard with fancy backgrounds, boxes and other effects. They become tedious very quickly: be sparing

Fourth, always stand and frequently change position. Speak clearly and loud enough so the most distant person can hear you. Beware little things like trailing cables. Youngsters in particular will really enjoy watching you trip up and drop things.

Fifth, challenge people playing with mobile phones or chatting to neighbours. By just going silent and waiting, whilst looking straight at the ‘offender’, you can usually restore due attention. If not, don’t get too heavy but point out that you’ve bothered to prepare the session and so it is only fair that they join in.

Sixth, in the case of schools and colleges, don’t assume that every teacher will help you out with classroom management. I’ve had some teachers just lounge around at the back, (understandably!) enjoying a free lesson. But you could try to involve star members by asking them directly what they think at certain points. Their students will probably like that.

Seventh, It is usually best to start with a ‘bang’, perhaps some controversial statement or a startling statistic. Think of your presentation as a narrative, just like a joke. It needs a punch line (perhaps a suggestion what people might do next if they agree with you). But you’ve got to build to that finale via clear signposts and with sufficient internal evidence and argument to validate your conclusion.

Every now and again, summarise what you’ve said. Do not give them the whole plot however. Saying that you’ve got 10 points to cover might encourage the audience to start thinking at, say, point 3, “oh no, another seven to go!”. Cue cards, with your main points in a big typeface, will help you keep on track. There is nothing wrong with reading out a set of difficult statistics but, as much as you can, look at all sections off your audience (not just one or two people), not at your notes.

End on a high note. At the very least, make it clear that you’ve finished. Summarise what’ve said and invite comments.

Eight, If things are flagging, pose a question and ask for a show of hands to test opinion. You can even ask members of the audience at any point to say why they agree or disagree with what you’ve just said. But do not get distracted from the thread of what you want to say. If you do forget what comes next, have a drink from a glass of water or blow your nose in tower yo buy yourself time to gather your thoughts. You are in charge of the show but be flexible rather than stick to the script, come what may. The aim is to win support, not unnecessarily alienate potential sympathisers.

Ninth, if being properly introduced by the event organiser, take that as an opportunity to assess your audience. You may get some clues about who might need watching. You can quickly spot cliques. If people are all sitting in a back row, you must ask them to come to the front. Do it pleasantly, just saying that you want them to be able to join in or “do me a favour and…” Most members of an audience are, deep down, cooperative and would prefer the event to be a success than a flop.

But often there may be silence when you finish. People can be reluctant to speak out. Do not assume you’ll get a flood of questions and comments. Be prepared to direct questions to certain members of the audience who look as if, when prompted, might say something. Try to finish the whole event on a high note, if only an expression of thanks for listening.

Finally, remember that you are a fresh face. You possess a certain curiosity value. You are a break from routine. So some things are already on your side. You may even be pleasantly surprised. A couple of years ago I was invited to lead an assembly of an entire primary school (5-11) on the subject of climate change. After I’d shown a picture of a car exhaust and said something about “bad gases” that they emit (a very technical talk!), I asked if anyone could guess what the next slide would show. Seven youngsters put their hands up and said “a cow”. My next slide was indeed a picture of a cow with, seemingly, fire belching forth from its posterior.

When that kind of thing happens, be sure to give due praise. But do not be afraid to say that you disagree if members of the audience say demonstrably false things. Otherwise there is not much point doing the talk. We want support but not at the price of selling short our ideas.