advice on public talks

zach lieberman
4 min readOct 26, 2015

One of my former students (@andrewbadr) from The School for Poetic Computation wrote me earlier this year to ask some advice about public speaking:

Hey Zach, hope you’ve been well since SFPC. I’m writing to get your advice on presenting a project. I’ll be speaking at WordHack this month about Your World of Text. I’ve never spoken about it before, or any other project really. I’ve only done technical talks. I know you’ve done a lot of creative project presentations, and watched even more, and thought a lot about how they could be better. Do you have any advice for me on how to make it interesting? I was thinking about talking about ways people have used the site, how I launched it and how it’s developed since then, maybe technical details, but I don’t know how to fit it together.

Recently, he reminded me to publish what I wrote him. Also, I saw Jer Thorp’s great post about the topic, so it seemed fitting to put up my notes as well. So here’s what I wrote back:

a) People love stories — they walk away with stories.

b) What do people get from hearing you talk that they don’t get from just seeing a project on a website or blog? context maybe and a bit of the emotional story behind the project. Also, behind the scenes / work in progress / etc

c) I like to bring in a lot of references — people like to hear about books, talks, other projects, especially stuff that’s old school and not necessarily on the internet. For me, when I am working on a talk, I am thinking, can I play a movie from 1900–1930 or show something that no one will have seen before? Can I be maximal with footnotes? Can I be generous with showing other people’s works, or in talking about work that moves me or that I’m inspired with?

d) I like sequences of images that work as a storytelling mechanism. they can help you remember to emphasize certain things, for me, images are the slide notes. beware of gifs and cheap humor, they work, but I try to push myself away from cheap humor. (Also, usually those humorous gif images in talks are also where I’ve seen the most clear examples of sexism or racism)

trying to show the “open mouth phenomenon” in my artwork, I show these 4 images one at a time.

e) I love to be maximal with slide decks and show a lot of shots, for me that is the only way. but it’s mostly because I refuse to write.

I see public speaking as a very visual medium, with its roots in things like Magic Lantern presentations.

f) people like to see who you are, allowing yourself to be vulnerable on stage is really useful. For me the worst talks are too self confident and vague, “let’s go build great experiences!” or too advertising like, it’s important to show humility, talk about what went wrong, etc. I also really worry about things like TED, which promote a sort of hyper-confident way of speaking (I think in the videos they even edit out the um’s and ah’s, which enhance that) that feels a little impersonal to me.

g) The best lines I’ve ever gotten for my projects have come from other people. I find it useful to talk to people about my work and then try to incorporate their words / descriptions in my talk.

h) Twitter has kind of ruined talks but also helped people too with feedback— getting phrases that are tweet worthy is both useful and dangerous. It’s useful in that you can see what resonates. For me, it’s stuff like “art is r&d for humanity” or “diwo do it with others vs diy” etc. But it’s dangerous too. People love this stuff, it’s like catnip, it’s worth being careful about. It feels like it’s become a trap, you can think you are putting points on the board, but in reality you are simplifying your message into 140 character prepackaged chunks. I think it’s better to let the audience distill.

i) Have a very very strong last image, what this project meant to you, what do they walk away with. always always always end with something strong. like an airplane I think good talks are about the takeoff and the landing. The middle is autopilot (or can be turbulent), but the ending is when you can spike the ball or steal home. it’s everything. I usually find pics of kids from my projects and work them into my talk at the end. Children show wonder on their face which is good for what I want to promote.

Last slide…

j) Don’t be afraid to interact with the audience, people love questions or even activities. not enough speakers do interactive things with an audience, my father did crazy stuff like have people make rain with their hands, etc. I love asking people to stand up and do things. I find it helps to put the focus back on the audience and in the center of the room.

At this talk for the AIGA I asked the audience to put their hands on the shoulder of someone they don’t know.

Also, thanks to Andrew for reminding me to put this up!