"Duck and Cover" won't help

Bert the Turtle said to duck and cover but that won't help your public speaking

In the years following World War 2, the threat of nuclear war hung over the world. As the United States and its allies faced the Soviet Union and its allies, a Third World War was a distinct possibility.

Given the looming threat, in the 1950s, the American Government produced a civil defence film entitled Duck and Cover. It featured an animated turtle named Bert who would always retreat into his shell whenever there was a danger of an explosion.

You can see the entire 9-minute film here, but below is a shorter, edited version is below. You’ll get the idea.

Most experts agree that ducking and covering can offer some protection, depending on where one is in relation to ground zero of the blast. Nonetheless, I find the upbeat mood of the film chilling, given everything we know about the power of nuclear weapons. (Also, why would a monkey (lemur?) lie in wait to ambush a turtle with a stick of dynamite?)

While the duck-and-cover technique might offer you some protection in a nuclear war, it is counterproductive when you are on stage. And yet, people do it all the time.

Behind slides

How often do speakers just read slide after slide full of text? You might not have experienced this monstrosity, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve sat through at least one presentation when each slide felt like another wave pounding against your sanity.

When you fill your slides full of text or data, you force your audience to make a choice. Either they will listen to you and skip the slide or worse, they will read the slide and not focus on you. They cannot do both at the same time. And if all you do is read your slides, you will almost certainly bore your audience to tears.

Slides are a support for you. Keep them as clean as possible; use a simple animation to bring different points in one at a time so that your audience stays with you; cut out whatever you don’t need. In 2013, I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with the late, great Hans Rosling. I asked him for his biggest piece of advice for people who use slides. This is what he said:

  • Once you have created your slides, put them up on the screen, go to the back of the room and make sure you can read them.
  • If you can’t do that beforehand, display the slides on your computer screen and then take five or six paces back and make sure you can read them.
  • Once you can read the slides from a distance, cut out whatever you can.

And every now and then, have the screen go to black so that the audience refocuses on you.
Don’t duck and cover behind your slides!

Behind a lectern

Without questions, there are some occasions when it is appropriate to speak from behind a lectern. Examples include after-dinner speeches from a head table; speaking at a religious service such as a funeral; graduation speeches; or when you need to use a microphone and the only one available is fixed to the lectern.

But for the majority of speeches and presentations, speakers will usually have the option to wear a lapel or headset microphone and move about on stage. In such cases, I always recommend doing so. Otherwise, you are stuck behind the lectern, which becomes a barrier between you and your audience.

Yes, it takes confidence to leave the shelter of a lectern and yes, it means more work on your part to know what you are going to say. But it allows you to connect in a more meaningful way with your audience by using the stage to get closer to them. And, you can always leave notes on the lectern and check them if necessary. (For more on how to use notes, see this post and this post.)
Don’t duck and cover behind a lectern!

Behind nerves

Too often, I see speakers who are intelligent, motivated and who have something to say. And yet, once on stage, they become a diminished version of themselves. They speak softly, almost hesitantly, like they don’t want to offend anyone. And the tone of their voice often rises at the end of each sentence, effectively turning each declarative statement into a question.

I recognize that public speaking can be a frightening experience for many people, but you have to remember that it is not about you; it is about the audience. You have put in the effort to prepare a speech or presentation. Now is the time to deliver a message that will make an impact. So you have to speak with conviction.

You have to sound like you believe in what you are saying. If you don’t, the chances that your audience will believe you are diminished. So don’t focus on yourself and don’t worry if someone in the audience might not agree with everything you say. If you are never criticized, you probably are not making much of an impact. 
Don’t duck and cover behind your nerves!

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    1. Hi Lonnie,

      In principle, I agree and usually stick to one point per slide. However, I am not against an occasional slide with three or four bullet points. However, the points must be simple – a few words, not long sentences. In such cases, bringing them in one by one has the advantage of letting the audience see the entire list at the end.

      As well, animation can be used for other things as well, such as a business process flow with different steps. Again, though, the details should be kept to a minimum. And that takes an effort on the part of the speaker.

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