The secret sauce of great public speaking

Public speaking event

I recently went to a fantastic Artist Talk at the Portland Art Museum (PAM) by my good friend Avantika Bawa. In addition to being an active contemporary artist and curator, Avantika’s CV boasts an exhaustive list of residencies and shows spanning the continental US, Canada and Asia. She is also Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Washington State University Vancouver (WSUV), commissioner of the Oregon Arts Commission and co-founder of Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture. Ambitious and humble, creative yet grounded, she is a constant source of inspiration and mentorship. It’s no surprise she was invited to lead an Artist Talk at PAM.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with PAM public programs, the Artist Talks Series is a monthly opportunity for artists to lecture on exhibited works and relate them back to their own practice. Avantika’s talk centered around Richard Artschwager, whose work was on display at PAM. In fact, her talk actually took place in the gallery displaying a collection of his pieces.

An American painter, illustrator and sculptor, Artschwager is well-known for his “blps”—lozenge shaped marks that he installed in subways, galleries, and other architectural features and facades. These simple shapes interrupt patterns of disengaged looking and inspire attention to architecture and space.

Up to this point, we had all been seated amidst examples of Artschwager’s work, facing both Avantika and the screen on which she loaded a digital presentation of key text and images from her speech.

The introduction of architecture and space however signaled a shift in the presentation towards that of the Portland Art Museum itself.  Avantika introduced Pietro Belluschi, the Portland architect who designed the main PAM building. Just as architecture and space played a role in Artschwager’s artistic statement, so too did they influence our experience of that Artist Talk; Avantika led us out of our chairs and the comfort of Artschwager’s work, and onto an interactive walking tour of the building’s galleries. We experienced firsthand the interplay of architecture and art, noticing the relevance of “typical” museum features, like the benches we so often see throughout our meandering visits.

What’s in the secret sauce?

After Avantika’s talk concluded at the entrance of PAM, I was truly impressed. The fluid marriage of style and form in her lecture and the creative use of space and movement really joined us all together in a temporary but engaged community of art smart listeners.

How did she do it? What’s in the secret sauce of great lectures, presentations and public speaking events in general?


I was delighted to be one of under twenty attendees at this Artist Talk. The more intimate settings made it easier for us to make eye contact with Avantika (and vice versa), and in effect, to gently guide ourselves away from distractions, whether physical (the temptation to text), or mental (nagging questions like, “Did I put that wool sweater in the dryer?”). Purposefully limiting attendance to a public speaking event can also generate a sense of exclusivity, which can in turn set the stage for greater audience engagement.


“Put a blp on it.” A play on Beyonce’s hit song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” this was just one of many witty recommendations that punctuated Avantika’s presentation. This sprinkling of humor kept our attention fresh and focused, frequently drawing us back to the event at hand through a spontaneous and collective laugh. It levelled the playing ground, making the talk about a community of people interested in the same thing, rather than one person talking at a bunch of people.


Preaching the importance of visuals in contemporary pedagogy seems like old news, but a good thing can never be said too many times. Some of us learn best visually, or with a combination of auditory and visual cues. Visuals are also vital to dissolving any sense of knowledge hierarchy amongst audiences. In the case of Avantika’s talk, they served to familiarize the newbie art listenership to the works in question, while providing more advanced art connoisseurs with a sense of satisfaction as they reconnected with imagery of the art that they had so eagerly anticipated.


By leading us out into a walking gallery tour underscoring the themes of her talk, Avantika once more kept us engaged. Some people (myself included) cringe at the idea of a long seated lecture; between the discomfort of my seat and the dancing of my fidgeting feet, I am often challenged to keep my focus under these conditions. Incorporating movement and hands-on experience in this way was not only reinvigorating, but it added to my understanding of the concepts at play.


Being surrounded by the very art that we were discussing really grounded this talk, making it relatable to a wide range of people. Now, a gallery is not the most appropriate context for every speech, so it’s important for presenters to ask themselves, What physical space will help engage my listeners in the intellectual, emotional, and psychological space of my presentation?

Who’s got schwager?

In this day and age, public speaking is almost a guarantee in our professional lives. And while it might give many of us the chills, it doesn’t have to be that way. Success in presentations and lectures of this nature lies in a basic understanding of humanity: connection. We want to feel like we’re special, like we’re part of a community of equals, where our differences are considered and embraced. When that is achieved, education and action are imminent, for in the end, what are public speaking opportunities if not moments to inspire change?

Try your hand at incorporating a sense of intimacy, humor, visuals, movement and context in your next speaking gig, and we’ll see who’s got schwager.