Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Speaker Tip: An Easy Way to Become a Better Speaker

As many of you know, I recently returned from four days at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference.  Over the course of three days I got to listen to some of the best genealogical speakers in the United States.

While watching Craig Roberts Scott give a talk called "The Impact of Bounty Land on Migration Within and Out of New England," I realized that I could learn a thing or two from watching his style.  Craig uses a very interactive technique with his audience.  In a way it's almost like a teacher presenting to students except more fun.  Craig asks the audience loads of questions during his talk.  Sometimes he's looking for real answers and sometimes he's just being silly and having fun. But the effect is to keep the audience engaged and participating.

Craig and keynote speaker, Paul Milner, shared a different interactive trait in common.  Both speakers engaged the audience in a fifteen minute question and answer session BEFORE the sessions started.  This allowed the speakers to build a rapport with the audience, get them engaged in the topic that was about to be discussed and allowed them to gage the audience's knowledge of the topic.  I had never seen a speaker do a Q&A before a talk but I really liked it.

I quickly realized that one of the best ways to become a better speaker yourself is to watch other speakers, especially very experienced ones.  From then on my attendance at talks was more focused on watching the speakers' presentation styles that it was on the content.

For instance, Lucie Lewis showed skills as a seasoned story teller while interweaving the tale of a family history.  I don't think I could become that kind of story teller but I can appreciate the technique and try to weave a little more storytelling into my talks.

Pamela Boyer Sayre, on the other hand displayed an energetic, content filled presentation on writing that was engaging yet approachable and not overpowering.  Intermixed with her very technical content were the occasional humorous examples.  She did a great job balancing between providing important content and keeping the audience engaged.

In the opening session D. Joshua Taylor did an amazing job of captivating, enlightening and engaging the audience.  He makes public speaking look effortless.  I'm just going to have to attribute his speaking ability to a natural gift.  No one makes it look quite so easy as he does.

During his talk on Federal Court Records, John Philip Coletta used repetition to help teach the audience exactly how to request the records themselves.  With such a complicated topic, I found the technique to be very helpful.

The Keynote speakers during their banquet talks really demonstrated their abilities to captivate an audience.  Paul Milner displayed a flair for the dramatic that was unexpected and powerful.  John Philip Coletta,  meanwhile, educated his audience while being humorous and engaging in a good-natured banter with an otherwise potentially tough audience.

The best place to watch other speakers is at a large regional or national conference.  The speakers are providing their best performances at the larger venues. And the advantage for you is that you have the chance to see many different styles and techniques all in one place.

So the next time you go to a conference, don't just listen to the content, learn from how the speakers are presenting.  It will do wonders for your own speaking ability.

Photo captions:

Top: John Philip Colletta giving the Saturday night banquet talk at the 11th New England Regional Genealogical Conference.

Bottom: Speakers Paul Milner and Pamela Boyer Sayre.

Photos by Marian Pierre-Louis


  1. Great post. Spot on, too. Some great speakers to model on. It seems to be a combination of content, flow, interaction with audience, and humor. Each of these speakers excels in all of these areas. A pleasure to watch them work.

  2. Marian,

    Great posting. I had similar experiences during the presentations that I attended. As a "newbee" speaking, some things were confirmed, one or two point out what not to do, but I was aware of presentation styles.

    The best, for me, was Cinderella and "you know you are a genealogist when ...." talk.


  3. Marian,

    Excellent discussion of presenter styles - yes, it is like a journal article! We can all learn from each new experience. Thanks for this one! ;-)