The art of public speaking – an interview with Paul McElvaney

Learning Pool co-founder, Paul McElvaney, is known as a bit of a whiz when it comes to public speaking.  I asked him for some top tips and here’s what he had to say.

What age were you when you did your first presentation and what was that like?

Its a bit embarrassing actually!  I was part of the debating team in my school.  The competition rules meant that there had to be a 1st year on the team so a 12 year old me was drafted in.

Turns out I had a bit of a knack for it and we ended up winning the regional final and I won an award for the best presentation.  I turned into a bit of a celebrity… unfortunately it didn’t last for long.

Who’s been the most challenging audience?

I’ve had a fairly mixed bag of experience to be fair and have presented to a really wide range of people, especially over the last five years.

Councillors are generally a tricky bunch and of course school kids can be a complete nightmare.  Presenting to investors is also an experience!

Ever had any disastrous presentations?

I’ve had a few sleepers in my day which is never great.  I remember one event in Plymouth where I had to withstand an old lady sleeping (and snoring) in the front row and Mary McKenna cackling in the background the whole way through quite a long presentation.

The worst experience of all though was presenting to a panel of would be investors in a dragons den style pitch.  I had presented to probably six customers that week and I delivered what was quite a polished performance.

The ‘dragons’ were quick to remind me that I had completely misunderstood what they were interested in and one by one they took their turn to score points against me.

The 20 minute feedback session was the most humiliating experience of my life but I learned some valuable lessons!

How to you know if your speech has gone down well? 

The quality of the Q&A is always a good guide.  I did a talk to a group of secondary school students recently about being an entrepreneur. My talk was only about 30 seconds followed by 30 minutes of questions. They were certainly engaged!

Sometimes people follow up with you either at the end of the talk of by email later – that’s pretty cool too because it shows that you made a connection of some sort.

What top tips would you give to other public speakers?

The best advice I ever had was ‘don’t overpower the powerpoint’. It’s really easy to get too animated when you are presenting about something you are passionate about.

It’s better, though, to build rhythm into your presentation and leave ‘white space’ so that people can take in what you are saying.

Other advice would be:

  1. Do your prep but don’t over prepare. Someone standing at the front of a room reading from a card is neither cool nor memorable. It’s also really stressful if you lose your way and can’t remember what you were supposed to say!
  2. Tell a story – people always remember stories, especially stories where good triumphs over bad, where the good guys win despite all the odds. If you are passionate about the subject you’re talking about, you can tell it as a story that people will remember.
  3. Think about your audience and what they’re interested in. Then craft your speech around that.
  4. Take your time – if you rush you’ll shout and the audience will switch off.
  5. Less is more – think about the 3 or 4 things you want to cover and cover them well.  The audience can only remember so much so covering too many areas is a waste of your time and theirs.

Great stuff there from Paul. 

What advice do you have for delivering cracking presentations?  And what horror stories can you share about your own presentation disasters?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s