Some thoughts on public speaking

One of my friends over on Facebook asked me some basic interview/conversation questions. He asked how I know what to say and when to stop saying it. The answer was more than the one paragraph I can fit on Facebook, so I thought I'd post it here.

I learned the answer from one of the radio hosts that interviewed me when Look Me in the Eye first went on sale. Here’s what he said . . .

When you start talking, imagine a traffic light has just changed in your mind. Green means talk. The light stays green for 30 seconds. At that point, it turns yellow. At 60 seconds, the light turns red.

When you answer a question in conversation you want to be out of the conversational intersection before the light goes red.

At first, when I tried to apply that rule I actually looked at my watch. After a while, though, I was able to integrate the lights into my mind, and I can do a pretty good job without any chronometrical assistance.

That single piece of advice has helped me put a lid on my well-known Aspergian tendency to run on until their eyes glaze over. I’m not perfect . . . I still do that occasionally . . . but I am far better; the best I’ve ever done in that regard.

In addition, I always keep the basic social rules in mind. When someone asks a question about helicopters, I do not answer with a statement about gorillas. A helicopter question deserves a helicopter answer, unless I was talking about water power and some freak asked the helicopter question out of the blue, in which case I would say, “Let’s stick to the topic at hand, righto?”

I always make a genuine effort to understand people’s questions and answer them with something relevant and meaningful. But there are times when I don’t know the answer. It’s been a relief to discover that an occasional “I dunno” does not seem to diminish me too much in other people’s eyes.

The next thing I’ve figured out is how to eliminate useless words. I recorded myself in some early talks and listened carefully. I noted a lot of um, well, and aaah type words. I resolved to eliminate them from my speech, and through focus and concentration, I have been reasonably successful.

I don’t have any special tips for how to do that, but I can say from personal experience that it’s not too hard if you record yourself and listen critically.

I’d like to address one final point: stage fright. People often ask me why I don’t get scared speaking to groups. I think the answer is founded in Aspergian logic

The people in the audience always start with a favorable disposition toward me. So why should I be scared? Attendance at my talks is voluntary; indeed, people have to go out of their way to attend. Who but a friendly person would do that?

In addition, I’m sort of oblivious to the crowd’s disposition so even if they are half-nasty I probably won’t notice. So why be scared?

The final consideration is sheer size. I’m almost twice the size of many attendees. Who’s gonna menace who, I ask? I have yet to be threatened by an audience in modern times. I can think back to playing rockabilly shows behind chicken wire in Alabama roadhouses, but thankfully, those days are gone.

I hope a few people find these tips useful.



jess said…
John – you may remember about six months back I was scheduled to guest lecture at MIT – something far out of the realm of my typical experience. You very kindly checked in with me the night before I was to speak (no doubt knowing that I would be apprehensive) and asked how I was doing.

What you said to me that night not only allayed my fears, but helped me to reframe my approach and to really rethink the concept of public speaking as a whole.

Some of the advice that you gave me that night is already detailed in your post, but there’s an additional piece that I think bears mentioning.

You asked me a very simple question that unwittingly changed my entire perception of the experience and lightened the self imposed pressure of it almost immediately.

I wrote about it back then, and I thought it might be worth copying a piece of that post here. The question was ….

“What do you want them to know?”

Here's what I wrote about it ..

"I stared at the question on my screen. I let it sink in. What do I want them to know? Hmm. Not ‘What are their expectations of me and how do I meet them?’ but ‘What do I want them to know?’

This was no longer a challenge to overcome. It had just become an opportunity to influence a group of incredibly bright people who have signed on to learn about autism. A group of people that might very well contain the next fabulous and compassionate neuropsych or the researcher who finds that missing piece of the puzzle – who tells us why. And the question was, ‘What do I want them to know?’

I relaxed. I dug in. I hoisted my soapbox over my shoulder. I scanned my files and found the stories that mattered the most to me. The ones that I thought they should hear.

Your advice then made a HUGE difference for me, not just that day but when I was asked to speak thereafter as well. I will always be grateful for your incredibly valuable insights and guidance and I’m sure I’m not alone!
Michelle O'Neil said…
Love the traffic light analogy!
Kanani said…
I think you're a very considerate speaker. You listen to your audience, and you know when to break things up with a good anecdote.

Anyway, all very good points. I haven't been around much lately --as you'll see on my blog, I've been distracted by Army stuff.

Hooah, brother Robison!
Eric said…
Some very good advice. I do some speaking from time to time, and remember the first piece of advice that I was given as a kid when I had to stand up in front of a crowd, picture them in their underwear, helps to alleviate fear. What a thing to tell a kid! Imagine being 10-11 and imagining a crowd of parents and teachers in their underwear. I'm still trying to burn that mental image out of my cortex.

As an adult, I joined the Elks and slowly went up the ranks until I was Exalted Ruler (Grand Poobah to you Flintstone fans). The underwear plan went out the window real fast, instead, I realized the same thing that you did; they were generally amiable and wanted to be at those meetings, parties, etc. So why be afraid of them? I did get briefly into the State level of Elkdom in Massachusetts, and soon discovered that talking in front of several hundred slightly inebriated Elks was actually rather humerous. Made for an interesting time. Thanks again for what you do for us.
Anonymous said…
if i ever have the opportunity to talk in front of a large audience in this Q&A way, i am going to hire you to be my coach. SUCH sound advice!
Jacky said…
I just finished reading your book and want to thank you for the insight you've given me. I often work with children "on the spectrum"...and feel I act as a detective to find my way into their minds...and let them know how much I enjoy and appreciate them and their thoughts. I always try to communicate heart to heart....and that is what you've done with your book. thanks!
AsPlanet said…
I still rant on, but with age has become easier and now no longer a chaotic jumble of words... At my first radio interview I read straight from the page and the interviewer could hardly get a word in... But do find if over prepare makes so much easier... but definitely for me the over thinking, analyzing and worrying is worse than the doing.

A long story but in short my older son was just failed the speech part in English, in regards because of lack of "eye contact:" YES did have to read twice, the amount or should I say flood of comments and support I have received has been brilliant and I feel this is so wrong, what I wanted to ask is do you use eye contact!

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