I love speaking at tech events. The two things that stop me from doing it more often are time constraints and, ironically, anxiety about speaking in front of people.
I have been working to overcome the latter problem for many years so I wanted to share some of the techniques that have helped me. I will also share a smattering of other things that I've learned about public speaking in this article.
First, preparation is key. The best way to prevent anxiety is to prepare well. It's hard to do though because my anxiety keeps me from being able to get in the right mental space to actually prepare my material without procrastinating.
I actually have to plan before I prepare. I like to have a kickoff meeting with myself and take the end goal and break down the talk into the smallest possible steps and just set a goal of doing one step at a time. My first steps always have to do with research, outlining, and writing any demo code that I need. Slides and finishing touches come at the end.
I "give" the talk to friends or acquaintances incrementally as I work on it. One of the hardest things is actually starting to give the talk so I force myself to just start running through it with anyone who will listen. Just going through it in front of someone forces me to go in order - all the way through - and I also end up realizing so many things I can make better when I do this. These run throughs also help with finding my cadence so I can tell if I have too much or too little material. By the way, I almost always think I don't have enough material and then I realize I actually have too much.
Sometimes, I've used local meetings to practice for conference talks. That way I can feel comfortable in a lower stakes environment before I go in front of a bigger crowd 😅.
Scheduling & Check-Ins
Another similar technique I've used in the past is asking a friend to check in on me every week and hold me accountable for working on it. This worked ok for me but isn't always consistent as people seem to forget if it's not a priority for them.
I have found that digital reminders with apps on my phone are much more consistent than relying on a human to check in. One exception to this is scheduled practice times that are marked on my calendar. I invite one of my friends to listen to a run-through of my talk at a certain day/time and I send them a calendar invite so we both have it on our calendars and neither of us can forget :)
I've taken some speaking classes over the last seven-ish years to improve my speaking skills and they have taught me various techniques to overcome the pre-talk anxiety and help me stay calm during the talk as well. I want to share some of those things that I've found most helpful.
- Nerves: Being nervous means you care.
- Fear of judgment: The audience is there to see you. They are on your side. They want you to do well.
- Imposter syndrome: You know enough. You are an expert. You have done more research than almost anyone else here.
- Perfectionism: You don't have to be the most perfect speaker with the most perfect presentation.
Remember that giving a talk is a great opportunity for you to learn! You learn as you do the the research to create the talk and also from questions you receive and the discussions you have afterward. Thinking about that can help you feel exciting about giving the talk instead of dreading it.
I try to continuously hone my speaking skill with education and practice.
In the past, I've taken some professional classes like the ones from Dale Carnegie and O'Reilly Media. I definitely learned a lot from them and would recommend them to you if you have the budget.
I also find it really helpful to watch other people's talks who are very good at speaking and take notes about how they present. Sometimes these are Ted talks and sometimes conference keynotes. There are thousands of these on YouTube and on the TedX website.
I also watch a lot of conference talks in general given by speakers with varying levels of speaking ability. Doing this makes me realize that other speakers are not magical people who are way better than me. They are other humans. They have good days and bad days. I'm not the worst speaker ever :) I'm just like the rest of them.
I have also been considering hiring a speaking coach one day but it isn't a priority for me. Maybe when I need to give more high profile talks or get a job as an actual developer evangelist where I need to represent companies at conferences.
I still get anxiety when I speak, but at least it's mostly manageable and doesn't feel as crippling anymore.
I recently gave this talk at a local freeCodeCamp meetup if you want to check it out :)
I'm planning my next talk on understanding CI/CD pipelines and feature flag development!