Public speaking for the (formerly) terrified

I started to draft this post in a plane flying back from the brilliant Front Trends conference in Poland where I was presenting a talk entitled, “Pushing the Boundaries without Breaking the Web”. My slides can be found on Speaker Deck and a write-up of the event is here.

Often people assume that I have done a lot of conference speaking, I’ve certainly been writing about the web for a long time but as it happens it’s only fairly recently in my career that I’ve been a speaker. In fact I used to be terrified of public speaking. I mentioned this to a couple of fairly new speakers at the conference and said I’d write up the things that had helped me get into public speaking as anyone who knows me well will testify to the fact that I was very afraid of speaking in public at all.

I’m certainly no expert at speaking, however if you are scared of speaking and think you absolutely couldn’t do it, then my experience shows that yes, you probably can.

Making a decision not to be scared

I had done a couple of very small talks and been a complete nervous wreck, even standing up and introducing myself and my business at a networking meeting would make me tremble, so I’d decided I was no good at speaking and also too scared to ever be able to do it. Then I was reading a book entitled Stop Thinking, Start Living by Richard Carlson (also the author of the popular “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”), and he recounted how he also had been terrified of public speaking but one day just realised that there was “nothing to fear”. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could stop being scared or that it might even be a decision I could make. So I thought I would try making a conscious decision not to be afraid. I stopped telling people I was too scared to do public speaking, I stopped telling myself I was too scared to do public speaking and when the next offer came in I said yes.

I don’t know how well this works for anyone else, but this seemed to work. Nothing had changed, I just wasn’t defining myself as a person who was scared any more.

Learning to present

I also decided that, if I was going to do this, I was going to do it well. I don’t like doing things badly. So I bought a pile of books. The most useful book I have read about the business of public speaking was by Scott Berkun – Confessions of a Public Speaker. Scott is a great speaker and a nice chap – I’ve actually had the pleasure of speaking at a conference he was also speaking at – and explains everything you might want to know about speaking in an entertaining way. I would recommend any speaker to get a copy of this book.

I also enjoyed reading The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. That book deconstructs Steve Jobs’ presentations (all of which can be found online) and explains things about them that work really well.

I have also found the Presentation Zen blog and books really useful. As a non-designer Presentation Zen Design has been helpful when creating slides that will be shown to conferences full of designers.

Watch how other people present

Presentations aren’t really the best way for me to get info. I read very fast and have an excellent memory for things seen in print and very little memory for things I have heard. However I have been far more keen to watch other presentations since I started speaking as you can pick up lots of tips in terms of what works well and what doesn’t work from the other speakers.

It really does get easier

One thing people always tell you about public speaking is that it gets easier the more you do it. This really is true. The first few presentations I made after deciding I wasn’t going to be scared any more weren’t brilliant. The content was fine and I put a lot of work into them but I was still unsure of myself on stage and I feel as if I couldn’t get my personality across. That fact alone made me feel unhappy with the presentation. Being able to relax while presenting just seems to come with time.

Some assorted tips from a non-expert

These are some things that work for me.

If you are feeling nervous, getting some feedback from the audience early on really helps. At Front Trends I showed a slide with an ancient bit of JavaScript on it first of all and asked the audience if they knew what it was. I could have just told them straight away, but getting a response from the audience always breaks the ice. Once you realise they are just a nice bunch of folk who are interested in what you have to say it makes it far easier.

Timing is always hard, as a Geordie from the North-East of England my natural speech patterns are fast and I do tend to speed up. In my slide notes I put a note of time on certain key slides – so for the half hour Front Trends presentation I put a note in on the slide that should be at about halfway. Then if I hit that slide and I’m going too quickly or slowly I know I need to adjust a bit.

Experiment with different ways of creating a talk. I’m a writer first and foremost and have no problem writing an essay. I find it is easier to first write out my talks long form in essay format, once I’m happy with what I want to say I then start to create slides and work out how that essay translates to a presentation. I don’t ultimately read the essay, it just seems the best way for me to clarify my thoughts first. Other speakers create their talks on index cards, on sticky notes, as bullet points or mind maps. Play with various methods and see what works best for you.

Slide notes can help a great deal but try not to read them out. I always have notes in my Presenter View on Keynote for each slide. I often barely look at them, but if I lose my thread I know they are there. Just their presence really helps with nerves as you can always quite naturally stroll to your laptop – take a drink of water perhaps, and look at what you want to say next. If you feel as if you are speeding up it’s also a good way to reset your pace and looks totally natural to an audience. I noticed after watching the talks of experienced speakers how happy and comfortable they seemed to be with taking a few seconds to have a sip of water and pause before moving onto the next section.

Remember that you never look as nervous as you feel. You will notice that your hands are shaking, that you stumble over a word or two, or that you feel like the audience can hear your heart beating, just ignore it. The audience probably won’t notice at all and the more you think about being nervous, the more nervous you get!

Practice and practice and practice. Then practice a bit more. You will be more nervous if you feel unprepared.

Something that I worry about and that other people have said to me that they worry about is, “what if the audience have heard it all before?” When presenting at a technical conference it is easy to feel the pressure to have something new to say. Firstly, find out who the audience are from the organisers, and what sort of level of knowledge they are likely to have in the subject of your presentation. That way you can avoid beginner level introductions for an experienced audience or being over the head of an audience comprising of mainly beginners. For many web design and development conferences the audience will be very mixed, and in that case you really have to accept that some people may well have heard it all before, and that’s ok. The person next to them in the row may find your talk the most useful of the day.

Think of the audience as your peers, and that you are just sharing something interesting with them. Just as you might in conversation. If you think of yourself as THE EXPERT with something Very Important to Say that’s a lot of pressure to put yourself under! The most successful presentations I have given and also that I have listened to, have been those that shared something of the presenter’s working practices and experiences. What we do is interesting to other people who do similar things. Share your stories. Share problems and how you solved them.

You start a conversation when you do your presentation. The best thing for me is when afterwards, people come and chat, they tell me if what I said was helpful and sometimes they disagree with something I said. Those conversations often carry on into the after party or into future collaborations. Those conversations are a big part of what makes speaking enjoyable for me.

Further reading

I’m not an expert on speaking and my aim with this post is just to give some hope to anyone else who finds public speaking terrifying. It is possible to get to the point where you actually really enjoy it!

For some practical tips from very experienced speakers then I suggest you have a look at Seize the Room from Derek Featherstone, and also the chapter on Delivering Presentations from Chris Heilmann’s Developer Evangelism handbook.

If you have any tips and resources then please share them in the comments.


Chuck May 2, 2012 Reply

I enjoyed your presentation at Front Trends very much and this article is a great companion to it. After a couple years of watching others I’m about to make the scary jump into speaking and nod in agreement — it’s all about making the decision to get out of my comfort zone and just do it already. Thanks much for all the tips! Especially about talking too fast! Still working on that one.

john dawson May 3, 2012 Reply

I really really agree about making it a conversation but there is a problem with that. I teach 40 public speaking courses a year and there seems to be a secret about public speaking that shouldn’t be a secret. It is understanding blank faces. As a speaker if we are not careful we carry on using normal conversational skills when we are speaking to a group.
When you have a standard conversation – you normally get nods, smiles, agreements back from the listener however when we speak to a group ALL that changes. All you see is blank faces.
So we start speaking to blank faces and they don’t usually smile (at least not very often) or nod their heads (some people will but again not a lot) so we are left struggling with critical thoughts about our performance. But blank faces are normal in audience – they are just listening faces.
So try not to read people’s faces when you speak publicly because your brain will interpret any sign as negative.
Of course there is more to getting your head around public speaking but when I teach public speaking this is the point that helps a lot of people.

Andy Davies May 5, 2012 Reply

Just finished read Scott’s book and thoroughly enjoyed it…

As well as the Presentation Zen books (first one is good, second is Meh), I quite like Nancy Duarte’s Slideology

Aaron Layton May 28, 2012 Reply

Great write up Rachel. I get very nervous when thinking about doing talks but it is something I would like to get into. I havn’t even attended a talk about anything in my field but would love to start.

Are there any talks you are going to in the UK? Attending or speaking at.

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