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Guest Editorial by KT Meaney

To err, to ahh, to umm, to sputter and stammer, to flounder and fum(ble) — is human. I forgive the public speaker of any one of these oratorical infringements. My reason: you don’t have to be a good speaker to make a good presentation, so long as it is well designed. Unfortunately, well-designed presentations are rare, even in our field. It seems that designers are educated to communicate in one setting but fail to transfer those skills to another: the lecture hall. Why? Perhaps there is not enough public speaking attention in our curriculum (unlike the offerings in business school). In its absence, therefore, I offer this Dale Carnegie derivative, because presentations are flourishing while performances are faltering. Such a visual and verbal arena is our domain, where designers should excel, not merely exist.

Oratory comes from the Latin, orare, to pray. I pray that lectures of late end early. My aversion usually stems from an unwelcome case of listener’s block, often triggered by a bad speaker. Lack of consideration for the audience is the usual culprit. But sub par presentations can be avoided. It will take study and strategy to achieve. Study suggests that 75% of all people have glossophobia (fear of speaking in public) and with deductive reasoning, one can assume that 75% of the audience will empathize — a fact that may settle nerves. Strategy dictates how to design tactically to arouse an audience, not incite them.

To the untrained speaker, I offer these ten guidelines to help design a better presentation. In the end, let public speaking enhance, not undermine, public learning.



The audience needs to follow your outline.

We consult a roadmap before taking a trip. We read a program before watching a play. We browse the table of contents before reading a book. Doesn’t the public listener deserve that same kind of up-front framework?

One characteristic of cognitive schema theory is that “conceptual structures …help us understand, interpret, and remember incoming information”. Given this, the orator should “show invisibles”. Start the lecture by stating or showing an outline. The order should be simple, logical, and categorical. Audience engagement will likely increase.


Don’t set yourself up for failure.

Design a presentation that plays down your weaknesses. If talking in public is too hard, don’t do it. Meaning: let the visuals communicate more. Circumvent any personal pitfalls. Then implant a brilliant design moment (perhaps a red herring to divert attention). Subvert the predictable. Turn “orate” into “ornate”. Look forward to sharing this part. You’re speaking about something you’ve earned the right to talk about, says Carnegie. Confidence will be gained through an excitement in offering your know-how.


Keep the audience guessing.

Don’t stand behind the podium because of protocol. Be unpredictable in voice, motion, gesture, graphics, etc. Navigate the space (and your slides). Levitate.


Gain attention with extempore speaking.

Digress from your thesis through parenthetical thoughts. (Know what I mean?) Combine academic language with conversational dialogue.

“The audience are more sure that the thoughts that they hear expressed are the genuine emanation of the speaker’s mind at the moment; their attention and interest are excited by their sympathy with one whom they perceive to be carried forward solely by his own unaided and unremitted efforts…”
— Archbishop Whateley’s Rhetoric


Find the right balance of content and length.

Too much information shuts down a brain; too little is ineffectual. Treat your presentation like a fine meal. A strange loss of appetite occurs with family-style portions. A gourmet smattering is well-designed, profound, and leaving you hungry for more.


Realize the profound effect of humor on learning.

Forthcoming laughter motivates people to listen. You don’t skim David Sedaris for fear of missing a punch line. Instill humor through visuals if your joke-telling skills are weak. Or trip over your words, if delivered well.


“Now I shouldn’t tell you this but…”

In Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Mr. Peggoty frequents a pub called The Willing Mind. Contrary to the notion that we are in control of our own thoughts, maybe there are outside forces that can govern our will. Drinking beer, perhaps, is one of them. But how can you motivate an audience’s “spirit” without using “libations”? Can an orator speak in such a way as to increase curiosity? Yes, literary devices work. Allude to items forthcoming to create suspense. Use visual foreshadowing. Contrive metaphors to explain broad concepts.


A mind sleeps when sitting too long.

Through inquiry, keep the mind engaged. Ask questions, refutable or rhetorical. Try walking near someone. This will create the fear of being called upon, which will, amazingly, alert the collective group. And, for longer talks, perform a seventh-inning stretch.


Speak, never read. But if you do, be tactical.

Historically, lecture referred to public readings (the word coming from the Latin, legere, to read). I’ve watched too many presentations whereby an academic paper was read. I tried to follow along, but after the first paragraph, lost all interest. J.H. Halcombe, in his 1859 book The Speaker at Home; Chapters on Extempore and Memoriter Speaking, states the problem with this: “The fault we are all apt to commit in reading is to ignore the suspensions of the voice natural in speaking, and attend only to the grammatical pauses.” Few people, Victor Borge excluded, can read in such a way as to maintain attention. Rather than thought, the only thing reading provokes is daydreaming.

So, if you must read — to quote, perhaps — keep it short. If the quote is lengthy, spread your text across frames. You can give an audience a long attention span if you recognize that they have a short one per slide.

Lastly, when there is heavy text on screen, pause. Force the awkward silence, like this:

Participatory reading increases audience engagement. Besides, reading atop the listener’s inner voice is distracting. Take it from Harold Crick who, little did he know, died due to confounding narration.


Let the audience know how long they have to sit.

As the designer for the New-York Journal of American History, I read many Word-formatted essays. Some historical essays are grueling, especially when page numbers are missing. Folios let me know how fast I’m reading, which enhances my willing mind. I’m most appreciative when the article has fraction folios, 1/10, for page 1 out of 10. Not only does this system tell me what page I’m on, but how many pages are left. Similarly, let your audience know how long your presentation is and how far they have to go. Anger comes with over-extending expectations. Plus, as every speechwriter knows: “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.”


Mistakes are made when presentations are designed without an audience in mind. Employ any one of these ten tactics, visually or verbally, and comprehension will rise. Don’t worry about tripping over your words. You don’t have to be a smooth talker to be a good speaker. Elocution comes with time. Through study, strategy and practice, all things are possible.

To err is human, but not to err, divine.


KT Meaney runs the design studio Terms & Conditions and is an adjunct professor at the College of Design, North Carolina State University. She realizes the risk in writing this guide will manifest during her next sub-par presentation.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Oct.21.2008 BY Speak Up
Anthony Scerri’s comment is:

I can't wait for my first lecture so I can take off my pants for comic relief. That should activate the audience.

On Oct.21.2008 at 11:57 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Anthony, for pants-off inspiration: Jeff Fisher at the 2004 HOW Conference.

On Oct.21.2008 at 12:08 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I think being a good speaker is like driving a car. Most people are functional drivers, and just mindlessly follow one lane from start to finish. It's just a necessary means to an end.

But good speakers are like race car drivers. They are aggressive, reactive, fearless, take calculated risks and are master tacticians.

> you don’t have to be a good speaker to make a good presentation, so long as it is well designed

I couldn't disagree more. Good oratory skills are crucial to good presentations. Being well-designed won't save mumbled delivery or monotone death.

Practice is crucial, but it cannot be done in isolation. You have to speak to an audience that can give you feedback -- even if it's just one other person.

Toastmaster is a great place to practice oratory skills. The content of the presentation is secondary to the delivery.

On Oct.21.2008 at 07:47 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Outstanding. Designers should learn these skills, since most of our work happens in front of the client, selling the design. Moreover, too many design lectures (at conferences or AIGA events), are the stock in trade "look at my work as I advance to the next slide and tell you how it happened." Many lecturers would benefit from MT's Carnegiesque piece here. Well played, my friend.

On Oct.21.2008 at 09:12 PM
Jason Tselentis [whoops]’s comment is:

That's KT not MT (sorry, I was thinking about some work sitting in moveable type: MT).

On Oct.21.2008 at 09:13 PM
Armin’s comment is:

No. 6 is the area of my expertise! I like to give the same presentation a few times in a row, in part because it's hard work to put together presentations and in part because it's a little bit like stand-up comedians who test out their jokes to make sure they are working. I revise the same presentation over and over, so that the timing, both visual and spoken, of the joke is right on cue.

For example, I have nearly perfected my bit about branding and a chocolate chip cookie tragedy. The next audience will be ROTFL.

And No. 3 is my next frontier. I stand a lot behind the podium. Usually it's because that's where the microphone is, so there aren't many places where I can go. But I gesture, so that's a start.

On Oct.21.2008 at 09:29 PM
Reda’s comment is:

I have to agree with Tan - being a good speaker is critical.

However, content is also important for technical subjects.

Basically - a good speaker with poor content may keep people amused but they are left empty handed.

Good content with a poor speaker is like bad marketing for a good product.

Anyhow - the point i wanted to make was that good preparation can help make a mediocre speaker better...(the worst combination being a mediocre speaker and poor content)

On Oct.22.2008 at 07:25 AM
Tan ’s comment is:

Some of the worst speakers I've ever seen have been speakers at AIGA conferences. I could list 10 or more right now. That includes people you think would just rock it, like the editor of Metropolis, or Jessica Helfand, or David Byrne.

Mind you, that's in comparison to business/client conferences I've attended too, like Medical conferences, Comdex, etc. You'd think designers could do a better job than software developers, but that's not necessarily the case. Software geeks probably know they have to practice. And they rarely have technical difficulties.

On Oct.22.2008 at 05:22 PM
KT’s comment is:

Tan, yes, often the content of the presentation is secondary to the delivery. But sometimes the content can deliver itself, with little moderation. Let's give some hope to the timid speaker with good design skills.

Armin, of course you can remain behind the podium. That's not a faux pas. Some of the greatest speakers stand there. #3 is mostly talking about subverting the predictable. Any moment of surprise, whatever that may be, is all that is required.

On Oct.23.2008 at 10:45 AM
Tan’s comment is:

> But sometimes the content can deliver itself, with little moderation.

But that's not a presentation -- it's a movie or a slideshow. It's passive. A presentation, the type we're talking about here, requires a presenter to do something.

At the national AIGA conferences, they always start with an ice-breaker thing they call 20/20. Twenty designers have a minute each to give a presentation based on a particular theme. There are no rules or performance limit to the presentations. I had to do it one year.

The best presentations are usually given by designers who actually attempt to speak, perform, or sing in some cases. The lamest presenters just walk on stage and cue a movie or crappy slideshow. It doesn't matter how well-designed the movie or slideshow is, the presentation itself is a failure if someone doesn't speak live, and speak well.

So, no -- with all due respect, content cannot deliver by themselves. Moderation is not presentation. If that's what you're teaching, then you are short-changing your students.

I've learned through the years that the best presentations to clients are little performances. It takes savvy oratory and presentation skills to sell an idea or pitch capabilities. If well-designed content alone was sufficient, the design industry could function with just pdfs and email. But thankfully, that's not the case.

On Oct.23.2008 at 02:37 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Sorry, one additional thing.

I'm sure you're all aware of the TED conference presentation site, right?

Most, if not quite all, of the presentations here are terrific. Engaging, informative, active, and other good adjectives. To much extent, they embody all of the best practice rules advocated above. None of them are just moderated content.

If you've never been to the site, a warning -- it can be addicting and suck an enormous amount of your time if you're not careful.

On Oct.23.2008 at 02:48 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

I don't speak much in public. I think my formerly stray cat is my outlet for most of my conversation. But in front of a crowd at a conference? No, not me. I'm an artist recluse. I type to clients and my persuasive power might be typing. Knowing full well that they're going to expect an expert, engaging speaker.

On Oct.23.2008 at 04:17 PM
Lisa B. Marshall’s comment is:

I am a communication specialist and have been asked to give a presentation on public speaking skills to University of Pennsylvania School of Design. The school includes architecture, landscape architecture, graphic designers, fine artists, and others. I stumbled onto your site and would love to talk to a few people in your community to better understand the presentations you make as designers. The presentation is in Jan 2009 and I can be reached at lisa [AT] lisabmarshall [DOT] com. KT, I'd love to start with you. Any chance we could set something up?

On Oct.27.2008 at 10:34 PM
Andy Malhan’s comment is:

I was pleasantly surprised to see this piece - designers all too often ARE poor presenters/speakers and I've often thought this surprising as we're supposed to be masters of presentation and communication.

I've often blessed the curriculum at my college that required us to take a course in persuasive speaking (a misnomer of sorts, it should actually have been called Public Speaking). The skills and techniques I learned in that class are what I draw upon more than anything else from my time at college.

And, I have to agree with Tan - a poor speaker is not compensated for, at all, by a brilliantly designed presentation. If anything, I think the opposite is true.

On Oct.28.2008 at 01:33 AM