Public speaking (in & out of China)

By: Magda Walczak

Speaking in front of people can be a daunting task. You can be very confident, knowledgeable and a great speaker in general but if you have a less than ideal audience, your speech can still fail. Having just completed my first speaking engagement in China, I feel that I did very well overall, but there are definitely things I would do differently if I am invited to speak in China again.

What follows are tips specific to the Chinese market that I encourage speakers to try, some general tips for public speaking as well as a debrief of my speaking experience at ad:tech Beijing.

Public speaking tips for a Chinese audience

The conference experience in China was much different than what I’m used to in the western world. For example, the audience doesn’t necessarily look at the speaker when he or she is talking. In the sessions I went to, people were texting, browsing the Internet and even talking on their mobiles during presentations. In a few of the less exciting sessions, people were sleeping in obvious view of the speaker. I’m told that these behaviors are quite common in China.

Based on these and other cultural differences between China and Australia or the US, here are some things that I will do differently the next time I speak in China.

  • Have a handout. In the western world, you wouldn’t give a handout before the speech because then people will focus on it, and not on you. In China, since people look down anyway, I think a handout would be quite helpful. It would give the audience another means to follow your presentation and if language is a barrier, it would let them understand what you’re saying better. It would also be very helpful to the translator working with you.
  • Be very animated so people don’t fall asleep. This is true for any presentation, but since I actually saw people fall asleep at adtech (the speakers weren’t even boring!), I think being a bit more animated and entertaining is especially important here.
  • Try to engage the audience. Chinese are shy around strangers by nature (or so I was told by locals). In all sessions, including mine, it was quite hard to get people to ask questions. Most times it was the expats that asked the first (if not the most) question. If you have some sort of an icebreaker, or activity to loosen them up, you might get a better response from the audience, thus making your presentation a better experience for everyone.
  • Have backup slides. If none of the above motivate the audience to ask more questions, you might as well have some back up slides ready to fill the time you set aside for Q&A.
  • Avoid the graveyard shift. Sometimes you can’t control that, but if you’re given the choice, ask to speak early in the day. I guess not speaking last is a preferable regardless of country, but given the cultural differences I described above, it’s especially daunting to go last in China. Many people left early and the people who stay have a much shorter attention span than during morning sessions.

Advice on public speaking in general, regardless of country and language

There are basic tips that I think are useful, regardless of what country you’re speaking in or what language you’re using.

  • Speak slowly. This is essential no matter what language you’re speaking. It means the audience can follow you more easily, the translator has an easier time working with you and it gives you a chance to really emphasize the important points. I struggle with this the most because I naturally speak very fast.
  • Speak up, especially if you’re not comfortable with microphones. Often the speaker doesn’t realize how he sounds to the audience. Do a mike check if you have the opportunity. If not, err on the side of speaking too loud. At least that way people won’t miss what you’re saying.
  • Engage the audience. Ask them questions, do a straw poll, get them on their feet. Do something to wake them up, loosen them up a little, make them laugh.
  • Don’t do a sales pitch. I really hate it when a speaker finds a way to do a shameless plug for their product, even if doesn’t relate to the topic. What’s even worse is if they try to be self-deprecating about it. No it’s not funny. It’s actually embarrassing. If you were asked to speak about what your company does, boast all you want. Otherwise, stick to the topic.
  • Don’t speak to other panelists while on stage. If you’re part of a panel, don’t speak to other panelists, even if there’s a moment of silence because the next panelist is pulling up his presentation. All that does is it encourages the audience to start talking too. It’s disrespectful.
  • Prepare. Even if you didn’t get paid to speak, your audience likely did pay money, or at least sacrificed their time, to see you. Prepare as much as you can to give them a good experience. If you don’t think it’s worthwhile to prepare, then you should think twice about accepting the speaking engagement.
  • Be careful when you use jargon. Use your judgment as to what the audience knows and what items you may have to clarify. If you’re not sure, explain the jargon as you use it.
  • Use real examples, not just theoretical ones. People like to hear what happens in practice, not just in theory. It illustrates that what you’re talking about really can be done and empowers them to take action.
  • Be respectful and a good participant when you’re in the audience yourself. If you’re at a conference with multiple speakers, treat the other speakers like you would like to be treated. If no one is asking questions, ask the first one and help them get the discussion going.
  • Check the background you’ll be standing/sitting against. This may sound silly but I blended in with the background at my presentation. What’s even worse is that I knew what background I’ll be standing against and I still wore the same colour – I just didn’t think about it until I was on stage and realized I blend in. Be smarter than I was. If the background is orange, wear a color that stands out against it.

How I performed in China

Overall, I think I did pretty well, but I have a lot of room for improvement. I spoke clearly, I was organized and I used real examples that are relevant to the audience. I didn’t show any nerves that I had. The audience feedback rated me “excellent” in general, with a few “good”. The comments said I was animated and enjoyable to watch.

If I were to give myself a grade, I’d give me a B. First of all, I cut my speech in half. That is, I spent only half the time I meant to on each slide. I did this on purpose because I was the last speaker of the day and the audience didn’t look too happy even before I got on stage, so I decided to get my point across in less time. In retrospect, I would have preferred if people who were tired or bored walked out and I did the full speech. Second of all, I didn’t engage the audience. I should have done something to get them on their feet, or found a way to make my presentation interactive. Third, I should have practiced more. I spent too much time feeling anxious before the event (first time in China!), rather than practicing my speech over and over.

I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to speak at ad:tech China. I learned some interesting things (watch out for a few blogs later this week) and met some nice people. I also got to see Beijing, buy lots of things I don’t need at the fabulous markets, and eat more Peking duck then I care to admit. Next time I’m invited to speak in China, I’ll be even better.

Btw, here’s an article written up on my speech. I used Google Translate to get it in English (you have to have it enabled in Google Toolbar to use it). Not sure if it’s Google Translate or the original author, but there seem to be a couple mistakes in it. For example, I’m not the CEO of Real (watch out Roger!) :).

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Always hungry. Nuts for dogs. Love to travel. I write about marketing, food, web, travel and whatever else strikes my fancy.

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