How to Speak; the quick and dirty version

By reading this article, you will be exposed to better speaking heuristics. These simple suggestions and tools are a a condensation of Patrick Winston’s “How to Speak” lecture, a remarkably witty meta-lecture on how to give better presentations.

Starting with how to start, we will move onto some tips for delivery, setting the time and place, an overview of the tools you will use, and finishing strong.

“Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.”
Dionysius Of Halicarnassus

Silence is a commodity, nowadays. Given that everyone is being bombarded with noise, how do we go about not intruding upon our listeners? The answer lies in honesty.

Clearly state what you will give to your audience (in exchange for their attention). Now that they understand what it is they are to look out for, all that is left is delivery.

It’s not DiGiorno


How do you go about delivering your message while staying connected to your audience?

Firstly, repeat yourself. By cycling around your topic, returning to various points along the way, you give the audience the opportunity to make multiple points of connection.

Secondly, build a fence around your idea; understanding what you’re not saying can help contextualize what you are saying. (Courtesy of Professor Winston) The concept of an arch only makes sense when you understand that a building consisting of two pillars, without a connection on top, is not an arch. It’s through the comparison of two things that we can classify both.

The third method for retaining your audience’s understanding is by re-grounding them in the purpose of what is being said. See what I did there?

Lastly, encouraging active participation from your audience can do wonders in improving retention and investment. Ask them a question, and guide them through the answer. Positivity is crucial here, you want to encourage participation, not stifle it.

Set the scene

The preconditions (time and place) of your speech can be easy to overlook.

Alive, awake, alert, enthusiastic (woo!)

Put simply, choose a time for your talk that sets them up to be able to pay attention.

Consider a sport psychology talk given to a university Ultimate Frisbee team (shoehorned that in, didn’t I). When would be the ideal time to schedule on a Saturday, when they have a 9-11AM practice?
1. 8:00 AM
2. 11:30 AM
3. 1:00 PM

Option 3 reigns supreme. Put yourself in the shoes of a player: You’re already expected to be waking up at 8:30 AM on a Saturday as a college student, you’ll be stinky afterward, and you’ve likely skipped breakfast. Everyone will benefit from those players having lunch and taking a shower...

As an organizer, you have to think about the habits of your audience when scheduling. You want them to show up, after all.

Choose the right venue

What is the worst possible venue for a speech you could think of?

Odds are, it commits one of these three faults:
1. It’s not well lit. While your slides my shine brightly,

“It’s impossible to see through closed eyelids.”
Professor Winston

  1. It’s inaccessible. Both you and your audience benefit from having easy access to the space, without confusing directions and obstacles. The speaker benefits even more, as you want to case the space before hand, as to not be surprised during your talk.

  2. It’s improperly sized. Your room should be at least half full, while still allowing your audience a comfortable viewing experience.

Tools of the trade

What is your intention in your talk?

People learn slowly, so be slow

If it is to teach, use a whiteboard or chalk. Writing on a board allows your audience to follow along, encourages them to actively take notes, and it give you, the presenter, something to do with your hands besides awkward flailing/shoving them in your pockets.

Your slides suck. So do mine.

If it to introduce ideas, slides are good. However, most presentations are horrendous. A general rule of thumb from professor Winston:

“You have too many slides, and those slides have too many words”

Isn’t it awesome, that this is somehow always true? It’s like magic.

When using your now reduced slides, do not use a pointing device. Turning your back on your audience is a surefire way to disconnect. If you’re turning to your slides to read from them, you
1. probably have too many words on your slides
2. don’t know your material well enough

Here’s how you should use the yardstick your professor has been hitting the board or projector screen with

Yardstick destruction

For a more detailed account of making better slides, watch this excerpt from Winston’s talk.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Use props. By creating a dynamic physical or visual representation of your idea, you give the audience the opportunity to guess for themselves what will happen. In a way, a prop is performative question to the audience.

Thaw your sponges before trying to use them

If you are hoping to inform your audience, you best be sure they are ready to absorb the information you are presenting them with.

Luckily, the first step to doing this is the empowerment promise mentioned earlier in this post. After this, it’s your responsibility to inspire your audience’s curiousity.


When asked what inspired them students mentioned their teachers believing in them, professors mentioned someone shedding new light on a subject, but everyone mentioned the speaker’s passion for the subject.

Hopefully you’re passionate about what it is you would like to present, because it’s difficult to fake. If you’re looking for passion in your work, ask yourself “what do I find cool about this project?” and present that. At the end of the day, we’re just here to do cool stuff.

How to finish

Don’t: say thank you. You don’t need to tell your audience they stayed to be polite. Some of them already know that.

Telling a joke is a good option, as it may fool your audience into believing they had fun the whole time!

If you’re in US politics, you can end with “God bless you, and Bless America.”

The best way is to conclude with your contribution.

A Recap

This article has provided tips for giving better presentations by summarizing the “How to Speak” lecture by Patrick Winston. Hopefully, it has taken you less time to read than it would have taken you to watch the lecture. Still, if you want to learn the material, I suggest you watch.