I’m not an extrovert. I don’t like crowds. I’d rather be the trusted adviser than the guy in the spotlight. In high school, speech class gave me such anxiety that I was physically sick and needed to give the presentation over my lunch hour directly to the teacher.
So, how did I move from someone who couldn’t make eye contact or speak up to someone whose job actually involves presenting internally to a team of developers? How did I get to the point where I’m anxious to find out if I was accepted to speak at a 2,500 person conference?
I’m not a great speaker, but I’m rapidly becoming better, and as I become better, my level of impact rapidly grows and I become more excited about speaking and the good it can do.
Here’s a list of some tips that have worked well for me.
I think, in a word, the thing that has made the greatest impact for me is care.
I’ve come to care about the messages I can convey as well as the people I can convey them to. I care about getting a message across, whether that’s making people aware of technologies or techniques, motivating them to reach some new level of success, teaching them something in depth, or challenging a preconception.
In re-framing the speaking experience from something to dread or get through, focusing that anxiety and discomfort on a desire to do good and make the most impact possible for my audience allows me to focus my nervousness on productive things like researching, practicing, or looking at a wide variety of audience member types and ensuring each one has something to benefit from in the presentation.
Caring about the people and the message actually gets me, a formerly shy introvert, excited to get up in front of people and talk. It’s my magic bullet.
Competency and Confidence
In my earliest presentations, I tended towards show and tell style presentations where I presented a few projects I’d done and talked about the softer sides of development such as the design process. While there’s a place for these presentations and they can be awesome and invaluable, for me it was a crutch for avoiding the areas where I could give the most benefit.
For example, last year I presented on Angular application development and I focused on architectural strategies for minimizing risk in using third party code. It was useful and valuable to the audience, but drilling into more technical details in building Angular applications would have been more useful to those wanting to get started with Angular.
In retrospect, I think I avoided it out of confidence. I didn’t want to present on a topic I wasn’t world class in for fear of letting people down in the questions. What’s infuriating in retrospect is that I was at a very high level of competency in Angular at the time having built 4 single page applications for work and for fun.
Once I realized that although I don’t have all the answers, I can still help others, I started delving into more of the technical weeds in my presentations. The hard questions rarely came and, when they did, I was able to admit what I knew, didn’t know, and even farm out some questions outside of my levels of mastery to those in the audience more skilled than I (or in work settings, to do some research and follow up later).
This courage to get into areas of potential weakness effectively removed the training wheels from my presentations and allowed me to make a deeper and wider impact.
This is really important and so I want to restate it: You do not need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room to speak. That’s not what speaking is about. It’s about sharing the value you have to offer to the audience and helping them get better. It also can be about learning from their own distinct knowledge.
Speaking as a Growth Opportunity
As I’ve moved from a senior developer to a lead developer and then to a manager, I’ve realized that speaking is a vital aspect of growing some of the softer skills invaluable to a leader and I’ve come to welcome those growth opportunities.
Additionally, by committing to present on a topic, you challenge yourself to grow deeper in various topics for presenting and often delve into areas you don’t get to work with frequently.
For example, I presented recently on libraries to amplify unit tests in .NET. Because of the breadth of the topic and many potential specialties of audience members, I included Selenium testing in my presentation, despite not having experience with it coming from an API development, Desktop, and Single Page Application background. Including that forced me to grow in my skills while not disappointing ASP .NET developers who were hoping to learn more of testing.
Re-framing the Speaking Experience
I mentioned earlier the concept of re-framing speaking into an opportunity for impact and re-interpreting that anxiety as a trigger to be better, but come speaking day that anxiety is still there and you have no more time to prepare.
What do you do with those same-day jitters?
What I do is keep my mind busy — whether immersing myself in work the day of the event or listening to an interesting audio book on the way over. If your attention wavers and you can’t focus, some good confident music is nice as well — I still swear by I am The Doctor and The Sun’s Gone Wibbly from Doctor Who, but everyone’s tastes and backgrounds are different. Find something meaningful and inspiring to you that brings out the best version of you and inspires confidence.
I just finished reading Originals by Adam Grant, and in the closing chapters he discusses an experiment involving groups of individuals required to sing songs on a stage into a system that automatically scored them on accuracy to the original.
In this experiment the control group simply sang, while the two experimental groups had to say “I’m so nervous” or “I’m so excited” before singing. The numbers were clearly different with the group that framed their experience as one inducing anxiety performing worse than the control group and the group framing their experience around excitement scoring better.
There’s some truth to that. When it’s time to take the stage, framing your experience as one of excitement instead of anxiety will literally help you do better overall.
Speaking of taking the stage, for me the most crucial aspect of the presentation is the first few slides. I practice those the most. If I can take the stage and take control of my anxiety and launch into the presentation, the topic and my care will carry me to the end.
Practice the beginning and introducing yourself and rolling into the presentation more than any other segment. While you’re at it, practice the wording of your conclusion and ending on a strong note. Everything else should take care of itself.
What has worked best for you?