public speaking

Show explicit respect for your audience

When you’re giving a presentation, it’s important to show explicit respect for your audience.

Good presentations are essentially a collaboration between the presenter and the audience. You try to teach in a way that they can understand — and they try to listen and understand.

It’s hard to get anywhere with a hostile audience. When an audience thinks that you have contempt for them, they’re not likely to put much effort into listening to you. They’re actually likely to actively avoid listening to you. Presentations go best when you can get a significant percentage of your audience on your side as soon as possible.

One way to do this is to show explicit respect for your audience as soon as possible. It’s very helpful to find a point of genuine connection, and to name it explicitly. It doesn’t go without saying — especially if you’re addressing an audience that is used to people like you showing contempt for them.

For instance, if you’re teaching educators, it’s often worth acknowledging that their job is hard. If you’re teaching marginalized people, it’s often worth acknowledging marginalization. If you’re teaching a group of people who have an attitude or accomplishments you respect, it’s often worth saying what they are explicitly. Showing this kind of respect tends to make for a much more productive conversation.

Tl;dr If you’re giving a presentation to a group, it’s very helpful to show explicit respect for the group in your introductory remarks.

“Can everybody hear me?”

Presenters often open by asking “Can everybody hear me?” or “Can everyone hear me without the microphone?”

This isn’t a very effective way to find out if everyone can hear you. It feels like asking, but it isn’t really — because it doesn’t usually give people the opportunity to say no.

If you want to know if everyone can hear you, this way of asking works better:

  • First, ask if everyone can hear you. This will get the attention of the people who can.
  • Next, ask everyone “Can the person next to you hear me?”
  • Wait 7 seconds for people to ask each other
  • Next, say, “Raise your hand if you or someone near you needs me to talk louder or use the microphone.”
  • Wait at least 7 seconds before moving on. 
  • (7 seconds feels really long as a presenter. It helps to literally count silently to yourself).

Asking this way solves two problems:

It makes it easier for people to hear the question:

  • If someone can’t hear you well, they may not hear “Can everybody hear me?”
  • This can give you the misleading impression that everyone can hear you.
  • When you ask, “Can everybody hear me?” the people who can, tend to respond “yes” immediately
  • The people who *can’t* hear you well, often don’t hear the question.
  • Or they may not understand what you’ve said until you’ve already moved on.
  • But they probably *can* hear people who are close to them talking to them directly.
  • Asking “can the person next to you hear me?” makes it more likely that people who can’t hear you will understand the question.

It makes it easier for people to respond to the question:

  • Saying “Can everybody hear me?” or “Can everyone hear me without the microphone?” *feels* like asking, but often it really isn’t. 
  • The problem is that asking that way doesn’t give people an obvious socially acceptable way to respond.
  • So in order for people to say “I can’t hear you” or “I need you to use the microphone”, they have to interrupt you.
  • Which feels like a conflict, and most people don’t want to go into a presentation and immediately have a conflict with the presenter.
  • It also makes them have to identify themselves as having an inconvenient impairment in front of the whole group.
  • That’s uncomfortable on a number of levels, and may be actively frightening. 
  • Not everyone is going to be willing or able to interrupt you or take risks. 
  • Even when people are willing, it’s still anxiety provoking in a way that’s likely to make your presentation less comfortable and effective
  • Giving people a clear way to respond gets you better information, and helps you to build a better rapport with your audience 
  • (And doing it in the specific way I suggest makes it possible for people to let you know they can’t hear you without having to interrupt you, identify themselves to you, or identify themselves to the whole group.)

Tl;dr If you’re giving a presentation, asking “Can everyone hear me?” probably won’t result in people who can’t hear you telling you so. Scroll up for more detailed information about a more effective approach and why it works better.

Disabled people go to disability conferences — and everywhere else, too.

I’ve been going to a lot of disability conferences recently.

Almost every presentation I’ve attended has been addressed solely or primarily to a nondisabled audience. This is odd, because there have also been very visibly disabled people at all of these conferences. (And since all the audiences contained me, they also always contained at least one disabled person.)

Even when there were very visibly disabled people in the room, people still did this. Even at conferences that have been running for a long time and *always* have multiple significantly disabled people present, people still addressed their presentations to a nondisabled audience.

For whatever reason, very few people prepare remarks with the assumption that disabled people also want to learn more about disability. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that it’s a pervasive problem.

I’ve observed this problem even in lectures on the importance of presuming competence and remembering that disabled people have things to say. Even in that context, I’ve heard “you and I can do x, but they…” or “you and I can assume that others will listen to us, but they…”. And this is even when there are multiple people in the room who are visibly disabled and unable to speak.

It’s very strange. There’s some kind of cultural bias that causes people to ignore the perspectives of disabled people so automatically and thoroughly that they forget that their perspectives even exist. It can be hard to notice that you’re doing this. It’s worth putting active effort into acknowledging disability perspectives. Having the right intentions isn’t usually enough.

When you’re lecturing on disability, it’s worth thinking about questions like:
Am I saying “you and I” or “we” to mean “people who don’t have a particular impairment”?
If so, how can I use the example I want to use without making disabled audience members “they”?
Am I addressing the disabled people in the room, or am I assuming a nondisabled audience?
Am I saying anything that is relevant to or targeted to the disabled people in the room?
If not, why not?
Is there a way to fix that?

Actually, this is good practice even if you’re *not* addressing disability-related topics. Disabled people are everywhere. We have the same range of interests as anyone else. There’s likely a disabled person in your audience (especially if your remarks are recorded, but even if they are not.) It’s much better to assume that there are always disabled people in the audience, and to speak accordingly.

Tl;dr: Disabled people exist, and we go to disability conferences — and everywhere else, too. If you’re giving a talk, assume that disabled people will be in the audience, and prepare your remarks accordingly.

Thoughts on asking better panel questions

At panel discussions, there is usually a chance for members of the audience to ask questions. If you want to get good answers to your question, it helps to ask the question a certain way. These are not absolute rules, but these general principles often help:

Ask one question:

  • If the panelists are interesting, you will probably have a pile of questions you want to ask them
  • It can be tempting to try to ask all the questions together in one long paragraph
  • That never works, because the panelists don’t actually have time to answer all ten of your complicated questions
  • And if your question gets overly long and complicated, they quit paying attention and just talk about what they want to talk about
  • If you want them to answer a question, you have to pick one.

Make sure your question is actually a question:

  • The point of asking questions is to get the panelists to share their perspective on something you care about
  • The question you ask should be possible to answer, and you should be interested in what the panelists think of it
  • Otherwise it’s not really a question
  • Sometimes people who think they’re asking a question are actually presenting a long monologue about their views on something
  • That really annoys everyone.
  • The people in the audience came to hear the panelists, not you. If you monologue instead of asking a question, it will annoy them.
  • (There’s almost always at least one person who does this.)
  • (There are some exceptions to this: if you’re sufficiently popular in that group that people are likely to be just as interested in what you say, *and* the panelists hold you in high regard and won’t mind, sometimes it’s ok. That’s rare.)

Questions to panelists should be specific, and easy for the panelists to understand. They should also be at least somewhat open-ended, so that the panelists will be able to give substantive and nuances answers. A few possible scripts for forming good questions (there are many others):

Asking how something works, or how something will happen, eg:

  • “How will the new version of your app support VoiceOver?“
  • “How do you decide what to put in the parameters for casting calls?”
  • “How do you respond when the alarm goes off in the spaceship?“

This can also be a short statement, then a question, eg:

  • “A lot of comedians tell offensive jokes. When you’re working on a routine, how do you figure when a joke you’re considering is crossing a line?”

Asking them to expand on something interesting they referenced by starting with “Can you say more about…”, eg:

  • “Can you say more about the time you quit a job at the Very Highly Regarded Charity for ethical reasons?“
  • “Can you say more about your methods for attracting butterflies without also attracting wasps?”

“What do you think about..?” or “Here’s a statement. What do you think about that?“

  • This can be good, but it can also be hard to make it specific.
  • Example of an overly vague question: “What do you think about pie?”
  • A better question: “What do you think of replacing cakes with pie on ceremonial occasions?“
  • Another example of a question that would be overly vague in most contexts: “What do you think about progress?”
  • A question that’s more likely to be answerable: “What do you think about the role of People in Our Field in making the world better?”
  • another example: “Some people say that if we wait long enough, things will get better on their own. What do you think about that?“
  • “What do you think about Other Person’s Theory? Does that seem true in your work?”

“Do you think that…"

  • This can be a good way to ask stuff
  • The problem is that it’s prone to cause a question to be overly closed
  • Eg: “Do you think that you will enjoy your next job?” is very unlikely to get a good answer
  • This might get a good answer: “Do you think that other women are still facing obstacles in your field?“
  • Offering alternatives can sometimes make the question seem more open, eg:
  • “Do you think that standardized testing is a good approach to improving special education outcomes, or do you favor a different approach?”

Asking about a rumor:

  • Make it clear which rumor you’re talking about, then ask about it (Asking “So, are the rumors true?” will not generally get an interesting answer).
  • “Is there any truth to that?” will often get a better answer than “Is that true?”
  • Example: “I heard that you’re working on a book of poetry about cats from a laser pointer’s perspective. Is there any truth to that?“

Questions that start simple and also ask for an explanation. There’s sometimes another way to phrase these too:

  • Adding “why or why not?”
  • eg: “Did you enjoy being a voice actor on the Simpsons? Why or why not?“
  • you could also ask that question this way: “What were some things you liked and disliked about being a voice actor on The Simpsons?”
  • another example: “Do you think that there is life on other planets? Why or why not?“

There are also questions that are challenges. These are harder to pull off. They still should be real questions, that it is actually possible to answer in a substantive way.

  • For instance “Isn’t it true that you’re an ableist and only care about yourself?” isn’t a good question because there’s no good way to answer it.
  • Asking that way makes you look like a jerk, even if you’re completely right in your assessment
  • It’s much more effective to challenge them on something specific, and to ask a question that it is possible to answer
  • (This can sometimes force them to consider the issue, or to reveal publicly that they’re getting it wrong.)
  • Example of a better question: “Why doesn’t the board of your Disability Organization About Disability have any openly disabled members?”
  • Or, you can push harder and say something like: “There are no openly disabled members on your board. What are you doing to address this problem?“
  • How far it’s useful to push depends a lot on context.
  • (The rule of only asking one clear question at a time is particularly important with challenges. If you ask a complicated or ambiguous challenge question, it makes it easy for them to evade it.)

If possible, keep your question short:

  • Most people don’t like to pay attention to long complicated questions
  • If your question is short and easy to understand quickly, you’re likely to get a better answer
  • Short questions are easier to understand
  • They’re also harder to evade
  • If your question is 1-3 sentences long, you will probably get a better answer than if it is substantially longer.

Think about your question before you start talking:

  • You will probably have to wait your turn to ask
  • While you’re waiting to be called on, it’s worth planning what you want to say and how you want to say it
  • If you wait and don’t figure out what you’re going to say until you start talking, it will probably be more verbose and less clear
  • If you can, it’s worth planning
  • (For some people, writing the question down first helps) 

None of these things are absolute rules, but all of them are potentially helpful. If you can’t communicate this way, you still have the right to ask questions. These are suggestions, not rules.

tl;dr If you’re at a panel discussion and want the panelists to give interesting answers to your question, there are things that make that more likely. Scroll up for some general principles and some scripts.


Use the microphone

Microphones are important. 


Not everyone can hear and understand lectures without amplification. Microphones and sound systems allow many people to listen to talks they would otherwise be unable to understand.


For some reason, many people who have loud voices try to avoid using the microphones. They will say that their ability to project makes the microphone unnecessary. Often, they refuse to use the microphone, and many members of the audience can’t hear what they are saying.


Do not be that guy. The sound system is there for a reason. The event organizers decided that it was needed in order to make the lecture accessible to others. Don’t unilaterally undo that. Use the microphone, unless you’ve agreed in advance on an alternative way to make the lecture accessible.


Some concrete reasons that people who refuse to use microphones make their talks inaccessible:

  • No matter how loud your voice is, it only comes from one point in the room. Speakers can distribute it and make it more understandable in other parts of the room
  • Loop systems project sounds from the microphone into people’s hearing aides, and they only work if you speak into the microphone. No matter how good you are at projecting, people who need the sound to be right by their ear will not be able to understand you if you don’t use the microphone.
  • Your voice may not be as loud as you think it is; that’s hard to judge from the inside, and it’s very easy to overestimate your skill at projecting.

In particular, do not start your talk without a microphone and ask if everyone can hear you:

  • People who can’t hear you without the microphone probably can’t hear you and react quickly when you ask a question like that.
  • Asking if everyone can hear you as a way to check whether you need a microphone is like saying “raise your hand if you don’t understand English”. It’s not going to get you a useful response
  • It’s also really uncomfortable to contradict a speaker at the beginning of their talk. No one is likely to want to say “actually, no, I can’t hear you and you need to use the microphone even though you obviously don’t want to”.
  • Similarly, many people with disabilities don’t like drawing attention to their access needs. If you refuse to use a microphone, you’re effectively saying that some people have to choose between their right to access your lecture and their right to privacy. Don’t do that to people.
  • Your audience probably contains people who need you to use the microphone.
  • That’s why it’s there.
  • Use the microphone.


If there is a good reason that using a microphone is a problem for you, talk to the organizers ahead of time. Sometimes there are competing access needs, and that’s not your fault. People who have an access need that makes microphone use complicated or impossible also have the right to speak publicly. (Eg: If you can’t hold a microphone; it hurts to hold it; it makes you unable to speak coherently; etc) It’s just not ok to decide to ignore other people’s access needs on the spur of the moment. It’s important to either work out another solution with the organizers (eg: maybe a wireless clip-on microphone would work?), or else warn people ahead of time so that people won’t come to a lecture that they won’t be able to understand.


If you are an event organizer - be aware that some speakers will probably try to refuse to use the microphone. It’s important to insist that they use it anyway. It helps to have an explicit microphone policy and explain it to speakers, but some people will still probably try to give their talks without microphones. It’s possible, and important, to be firm about this and insist that everyone use the microphone unless they’ve made an alternative arrangement ahead of time.


tl;dr Microphones are important even if you have a loud voice and know how to project. If you refuse to use the microphone, it makes the talk inaccessible to some people who want to listen to you. Asking a room full of people if everyone can hear you without the microphone doesn’t solve this problem. (If you have an access need that complicates microphone use, it’s important to either find a solution or warn people that a microphone will not be used. This should not be decided on the spur of the moment.) If you’re running an event, it’s important to be assertive about insisting that speakers use the microphone.

"Does everyone understand?"

hobbiten:

realsocialskills:

When you are making a presentation or giving a speech, it can be really helpful to check in with your audience about whether they’re understanding.

It’s also helpful to think carefully in advance about who your audience is and what it’s likely that they will already know, and what it’s likely that they will understand easily. But no presenter gets that right 100% of the time, so it’s also good to check in with your audience about what they are understanding.

Not every strategy for checking in works well. In particular: questions like “Does everyone know what this is?” or “Does everybody understand?” are usually not helpful. The problem is that these kinds of questions have an apparent right answer, along the lines of “yes, of course, please go on.” 

These questions are often heard as “Do you understand, or are you too stupid to follow what I’m saying?” or “Do you know about this, or are you shamefully ignorant?” It’s not comfortable to say “No, I don’t know” or “No, I don’t understand.”

It is much more helpful to ask questions in a way that makes it clear that it’s ok not to understand.

Some examples:

Saying “Who knows what this is?” or “Would anyone like me to explain this?” or “Are there any questions so far?”

When you check understanding, it’s also important to pause to give people a chance to form questions. People can’t usually react immediately, so if you go on too fast, it can sound like “I don’t really want you to ask questions, I just feel like I should pretend to.”

tl;dr Checking in with your audience is great; asking “does everyone understand?” isn’t an effective way to check in because people are unlikely to feel comfortable saying “I don’t understand”.

hobbiten said:

I really like it when people don’t just ask if the others have questions, but say something along the lines of “Are there any questions, comments or thoughts on this?”

It helps me to bring up things where I think I know what is meant / how it works / what the connection is, but am not entirely sure. For some people, having questions equals “I don’t understand it, ergo I’m stupid”, whereas the other phrases give me more room to give myself credit on what I do understand.

ruairidhohboy:

realsocialskills:

mathionalist:

“Does everyone understand?”

realsocialskills:

When you are making a presentation or giving a speech, it can be really helpful to check in with your audience about whether they’re understanding.

It’s also helpful to think carefully in advance about who your audience is and what it’s likely that they will already know,…

mathionalist said:

As a teacher, very much yes. In addition, I like to ask “What questions do people have?”, because it assumes there will be questions, and I ask “How do people feel about this? Confused? Ok? Totally got it?” and then scan the room making eye contact. This gives people time, it gives them scripts for saying they’re confused, and the eye contact sometimes makes people speak up.

realsocialskills said:

I really like that script.

Does this also work with the students who never make eye contact?

ruairidhohboy said

I really like this because “Does anyone have any questions?” puts the students who do into the position of feeling like this is a bad thing. “What questions do you have?” makes me at least feel as though my questions are expected and welcome.

Time after time I’ve had teachers frame having questions as somehow unwanted and looked down on, and subsequently half my study group is too scared of humiliation to actually learn much from the lesson…

I had a couple professors in college who used “Who has questions!” with a big excited grin, and then treated every question as relevant and exciting, which worked pretty well when the class wasn’t half asleep. 

My best high-school teacher was fond of “Let’s talk about what I’ve just said. *Opens with a brief restatement of facts*”

realsocialskills said:

Wow, those are great scripts.

culturestress:

Planning decisions and activities when you are presenting

realsocialskills:

If you’re asking a group you’re presenting to do an activity, it’s important to decide in advance how the activity will work.

If you want your group’s input about the activity, plan in advance how you will solicit it. If you want them to choose a topic, plan in advance how that choice will…

culturestress said:

I often give a presentation where there’s a choice to be made by the audience that most people in it don’t care strongly about. (“Which one of these types of systemic oppression would you like to examine closely?”)

In these situations, I ask, “of these choices (written on board), is there any particular one anyone would like to investigate in-depth for our next exercise?”

I then wait for five seconds. This is usually enough time that someone will pick something. If not, I propose a topic. I then ask:

“Would anyone like to advocate for another choice?” and wait five seconds. Repeat process as necessary to accumulate options, and then allow each chooser space to advocate for their choice. Then call a vote.

Usually, everyone is okay with whatever the first choice is. This is a good way to pick an option from a large slate of choices, IMHO

realsocialskills said:

Do people ever advocate for a particular choice when you do that?