Notes on How To Speak

My notes for Patrick Winston’s course on how to speak.

Christian Mills


December 16, 2021


Here are some notes I took while watching Patrick Winston’s course on how to speak.


  • The Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies court martial for any officer who sends a soldier into battle without a weapon
  • Students should not go out into life without the ability to communicate.
  • Your success in life will largely be determined by your ability to speak, your ability to write, and the quality of your ideas
    • Your ability to speak is the most important
  • Quality of communication is a function of your knowledge, how much you practice with that knowledge, and your inherent talent
    • Knowledge is the most important factor
    • Inherent talent is the least important factor
  • You can get a lot better than people who have inherent talents when you have the right amount of knowledge

How To Start

  • Do not start with a joke
    • People are not ready for a joke at the beginning
  • Start with empowerment promise
    • The reason for being here
    • Example: Tell people what they are going to know by the end of the conversation that they did not know at the start

Four Sample Heuristics

  • Cycle on the subject
    • Go around it again and again
    • Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them again, and again (3 times total)
    • Helps increase the probability that your audience will absorb what you are trying to communicate
  • Build a fence around your idea so that it is not confused with someone else’s idea
    • Explain how your idea is different
  • Verbal Punctuation
    • Provide landmarks where you announce to people who lose focus that it is a good time to start paying attention again
    • Enumerate through what you have covered
    • Provide numbers
    • Give a sense that there is a seam in the talk and they can get back on
  • Ask a Question
    • You can wait for about seven seconds for an answer
    • The question has to be carefully chosen
      • Can’t be too obvious
      • Can’t be too hard

Build Up Your Personal Repertoire and Style

The Tools

  • Time and Place
    • Best time to have a lecture is often 11AM
      • Most people are awake and have not gone back to sleep
      • It’s not right after a meal
      • People are not fatigued
    • The place needs to be well lit
      • Low light tends to signal that it is time to go to sleep
    • The place should be “cased”
      • Go there before the talk and see what it is like
      • Make sure there are no surprises
      • Imagine the seats are filled with disinterested farm animals
    • The place should be reasonably populated
      • Get a an appropriately sized place for the expected audience size
      • More than half full
  • Boards, Props, and Slides
    • Chalk is a good tool when your purpose is informing
      • You can exploit the fact that you can use graphics in your presentation
      • Speed with which you write on the board is approximately the speed at which people can absorb ideas
      • Gives you something that you can do with your hands as either something to write on or point at.
    • Slides are good when your purpose is exposition
      • Example: job talks and conference talks
      • Use fewer slides and fewer words
      • Don’t read the words on your slides
      • Be in view when the audience is looking at the slides
        • Don’t force your audience to constantly shift their view from the slide to the speaker
      • Slides should be condiments to what you are saying
      • Keep images simple
      • Eliminate Clutter
        • remove logos
        • remove titles: tell them the title
        • remove the bullet points from lists
      • Reducing what what is on the slide allows the audience to pay more attention to what you say
      • Use a sample slide to determine the minimum font size that is easily ledgible
        • Probably font size of 40 - 50
      • Don’t use laser pointers or pointing sticks
        • When you are using these, you are not making eye contact with the audience
      • Use onscreen arrows to point to things on a slide
      • Print your presentation out and lay it out on a table
        • Makes it easy to see if there is too much in it
      • When you need to have text, give your audience time to read it
      • You can have at most one visually complex slide in a presentation
        • Example: to make a point of how incomprehensibly complex something is
    • Props
      • give the audience an idea of where the talk is going
      • helps to view a problem in a different way
      • helps emphasize a point
      • helps make the talk memorable
    • Chalk and props can help with empathetic mirroring
      • Your might feel like they are writing on the chalkboard
      • Can’t do that with slides

Special Cases

  • Informing
    • Start with a promise
      • Express how cool the topic is
    • Inspiration
      • Tell beginners they can do it
      • Help the experienced see a problem in a new way
      • Exhibit passion about what you are doing
    • Teaching people how to think
      • Provide audiences with the stories they need to know
      • Provide audiences with the questions they need to ask about those stories
      • Provide mechanisms for analyzing those stories
      • Provide ways of putting stories together
      • Provide ways of evaluating how reliable a story is
  • Persuading
    • Oral Exams
      • The most common reason for people failing an oral exam is a failure to situate and a failure to practice
      • situate
        • It is important to talk about your research in context
          • Example: This is a problem that is being pursued all over the world
          • Example: There has not been any progress on this before me in the past 30 years
          • Everyone is looking for a solution because it will have impact on so many other things
      • practice
        • practice does not mean sharing your slides with people you share an office with
          • If people know what you are doing, they will hallucinate that there is explanatory material in your presentation that is not there
        • a faculty supervisor is not a good person to help you debug a talk
        • you need to practice presenting with friends who do no know what you are doing
          • Start your practice session by saying if they can’t make you cry, you won’t value them as a friend anymore
        • It is better to have an examining committee that is much older
    • Job Talks
      • Show them that you have some kind of vision
        • a vision is in part a problem that somebody cares about and something new in your approach
      • Show them that you have done something
        • List the steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the solution to a problem (preferably the problem is the one expressed in the vision)
        • Enumerate your contributions
      • You have five minutes to express your vision and tell them what you have done
    • Getting Famous (How to ensure your work is recognized)
      • Why would you want to be famous?
        • You get used to being famous, you never get used to being ignored
        • Your ideas are like your children. You don’t want them to go into the world in rags
      • How to get remembered
        • Have a symbol associated with your work
        • Have a (simple) slogan that provides a handle on the work
        • Have a surprising attribute in your work
        • Have a salient idea (an idea that sticks out)
        • Have a story that tells how you did it, how it works, and why it’s important

How to Stop

  • What is the final slide?
    • Recognize collaborators on the first slide, not the last
    • Do not end with a slide saying “Questions?”
      • This is a wast of real estate as the last slide can be up there for 20 minutes
    • Do not end with a URL address
    • Do not end with a slide saying “THE END” or “Thank You”
    • The last slide is an opportunity to leave people with who you are
    • The last slide should end with your contributions
      • What you talked about
      • What you demonstrated
      • What the audience got out of it
  • What are the final words?
    • Can finish with a joke
      • The audience is ready for it by then
    • Don’t end with “Thank You”
      • It’s a weak move
    • Could say “It’s been great to be here and look forward to coming back”