In session three last week, we covered the following:

Topic: Grooving and Improving

  • o Handling Q&A
  • o Techniques for self-improvment
  • o Critiquing your own performance
  • o Finding your honest feedback crowd

Here are some notes that might be useful for everyone:


Handling Q&A

First the important decisions:

  • Will you save time for questions?  Sometimes taking questions aren’t an option
  • Will you allow questions during the talk?  For some people or for unfamiliar topics, it can throw you off.
  • Will you pause during the talk at sensible points in the talk to ask for questions?
  • What will you say if there aren’t any questions?  Do you have a filler or do you just say thanks, bye?

ALWAYS repeat the question.  ALWAYS.

Handling “I don’t know”:

  • Admit when you don’t know!
  • Respond with, “I don’t know, but I can find out / will post answers on my blog / will e-mail you the answer / etc.”
  • Rephrase the question, maybe you misunderstood
  • Redirect the question: “Does anyone here know?” “Ooh, we’re out of time – lets answer that next time!”
  • Stall for time using water, note rustling, and obvious pauses to give yourself some more time to think through.

Some dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t get defensive.  Don’t even bristle – people can smell it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for more details – lots of speakers answer questions they weren’t even asked because they didn’t clarify.  And the question asker is too polite to stop you in the middle, so they let you finish and then say, “Okay thanks but actually my question was…”
  • Do compliment good and thoughtful questions.
  • Don’t compliment every question though!
  • Do give prizes for good questions – this sometimes helps with shy audiences.
  • Do go find people who asked tough questions in the bar later to discuss further.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy time by drinking water or flipping through your notes.
  • Do beware of hypothetical questions – they are often weak attempts at disguising an agenda.
  • Do ask for examples if you don’t understand the question
  • Do acknowledge comments and move on.


Some excellent responses to hecklers:

“You seem to know a lot about this topic.  Would you have a few minutes after this to chat & compare notes?”

“You’ve asked a lot of great questions.  I need to move on and answer a few other audience members, but would you come chat with me afterwards please?”

“I value/respect/appreciate your opinion, but I respectfully disagree.  And you know what?  That’s okay!”

“Is your concern around X?” (good for someone who seems to have a hidden issue/agenda)

If all else fails, you can fake the “Oh, sorry, the guys in the back are giving me the time signal, gotta run.  Thanks!”


There aren’t a lot of resources around answering tough questions.  One book is In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions When It Counts by Jerry Weissman.


Techniques for Self-Improvement

1) When you’re watching other speakers, pretend you’re critiquing yourself.  Notice which words they repeat over and over, which phrases they repeat over and over.  Write them down & see if you do that too.

Common culprits include:

  • Um
  • Like
  • So
  • Or something like that
  • There you go
  • You see

2) Try changing your voice pitch and tone.  Do this to get rid of monotonous speech or to just try altering your sound.  This can add interesting dramatic effects or can make your speech more impactful.  But you must try this at home first, try it in front of a camera or voice recorder.  If this sounds faked it will not work.

3) Try using storytelling techniques such as giving different characters different voices or using background sounds.  This is normally not appropriate for describing code or demoing an application, but may lend a unique touch to a keynote or high-level talk.  Again if you don’t practice this first, you’ll sound silly and forced.

4) Try injecting dramatic pauses to create anticipation, create drama, and give interesting effects.  Pausing can be incredibly effective for helping people to refocus on your subject and building an audience’s interest.


Critiquing Your Own Performance:

My number one technique for critiquing is to keep a journal.  Nothing extravagant.  In fact it’s best if it’s small and can fit in your purse or laptop bag, like a small moleskine.

Write down things like:

  • How you feel before a talk
  • How you think the talk went
  • Feedback you received from attendees
  • Followups you need to do with attendees or things you said you’d post on your blog
  • Impressions you have of other speakers when you watch them
  • Anything else that springs to mind

Another great exercise is “Pick a word.”  Pick a word, any word, preferably one you use too much.  Get a rubberband or a board game buzzer.  Practice your talk, and any time you say the word or phrase, snap the rubber band around your wrist or hit the game buzzer hard.  This will draw your attention to how often you use it and allow you to be more conscious of using the word/phrase.


Finding Your Honest Feedback Crowd:

There are a lot of great ways to find people to help you obtain useful and honest feedback for your talks.  Some suggestions are:

  • Websites like or other “birds of a feather” group meeting websites
  • Friends but be careful: your friends love you and sometimes don’t want to hurt your feelings.  Be really cautious about using friends to get feedback.  Also if they’re non-technical friends, they may not be able to give you reasonable feedback on the technical parts of your presentation.
  • Colleagues at work
  • Your immediate manager – this can be a great option if you approach it the right way.  Good managers are often very open to their employees wanting to improve professional skills.  You can phrase this something like, “I noticed our team could use some education around X.  I’d love to deliver that material to them, but it would be great if we could have some 1:1 coaching sessions so that I do a great job.” 
  • Professional speaking groups like Toastmasters
  • Groups of peers, such as groups like this speaking series
  • Other speakers or wannabe speakers you’ve met at community events.  It’s really easy to go up to someone at a BarCamp and say, “These talks have been great today.  Do you ever talk at events like these?  I’m working on my own speaking skills, let me know if you would be interested in meeting up some time and practicing?”

The last thing that came up was a question around good presentation websites and other resources.  Here are a few: (Garr Reynolds, also the title of his excellent book) (Nancy Duarte’s corporate site) (Slideology workshops, Silicon Valley only) (Slideshare application’s blog) (The public speaking blog) (Another public speaking blog) (Bert Decker on public communications) (Seth Godin’s Blog) (Creating Passionate Users) (Guy Kawasaki – How to Change the World)


Any other resources you’d add?  Please leave them in the comments below:

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6 Responses

  1. Charlie on 22 Mar 2009

    Super post, Need to mark it on Digg

    Thank you

  2. Charlie on 22 Mar 2009

    Super post, Need to mark it on Digg

    Thank you

  3. Melissa on 20 Mar 2009

    I’m a member of Toastmasters here in Toronto. It’s helped my presentation skills exponentially.

  4. Melissa on 20 Mar 2009

    I’m a member of Toastmasters here in Toronto. It’s helped my presentation skills exponentially.

  5. Pett on 20 Mar 2009

    Hi there,
    Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.

    Thank you

  6. Pett on 20 Mar 2009

    Hi there,
    Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.

    Thank you