How to be a nervous public speaker (from personal experience)

*Loud applause for speaker on before me*

I can’t do this, I can’t do this, they’re all going to realise I don’t know what I’m talking about

*ok thank you everyone, and for our next talk tonight we’re going to hand over to Drew*

Ok it’s too late now, I’m just going to have to deal with being the stupidest person here, I don’t think I can do this

*friendly applause, as smiling host hands me a microphone*

Ok deep breath — I can do this…..

Last summer I decided I needed to be a better public speaker. When I looked around at the people in my field who I respect, they’re all confident and interesting speakers, talking at meetups and conferences. I wanted to be like that. Since then I’ve reached double figures of the talks I’ve done about my chosen subjects — software testing and self learning — to a number of different meetups and communities. Every single time, I feel like this one…..this is the one where they all realise I don’t deserve to be there.

Me panicking at the QE Roundabout meetup

*Next speaker is talking*

Wow his slides are really good. Mine were rubbish

*loud audience applause*

I can sneak out the back now, and then I won’t have to face any awkward questions

*thanks everyone for coming out tonight, we’re all going to the pub for a drink so if you fancy catching up with our speakers come join us*

Ok, maybe just a quick drink, no one’s going to want to talk about mine anyway…

I think it’s personally very cruel when our internal demons make us hate the things we want to love. Even now, when people come up to me and thank me for my talk and ask where can they find more information about a topic they were interested in, I find myself apologising repeatedly that I hadn’t done a better job giving them enough detail. When someone says 'well done you did really well’, it’s only because they saw how nervous, stuttering and sweating I was and they’re only humouring me to make me feel better.

I’m finally doing the things I want to do, and I can’t let myself enjoy it. It just isn’t fair.

Clearly, I’m yet to deal with these issues so take the following advice with a generous pinch of salt. In fact, I would recommend Claire Reckless and an excellent talk she did on Imposter Syndrome at TestBash Manchester last year for doing a much better job than I am right now. Even so, I wanted to share a few points that are currently helping me deal with my own insecurities.

Be proud of yourself

In fact, do more than just feel proud of yourself — tell yourself out loud that you are proud of what you’ve done. Unless you’ve rescued someone from a burning building, for most of us the last time someone said they were proud of you was when we were children. As an adult, pride is a relatively ugly word — people fail as they are too proud or stubborn to accept help. People who are proud of the car they drive are shallow. We can’t have people round without 14 hours of deep cleaning, all because we’re too houseproud. Pride comes before a fall. I could go on.

The fact is as adults we are almost subconsciously conditioned to not feel pride. This is wrong.

Consider this — you’re presenting at a meetup or conference. You’re running a workshop. You might even be presenting to your team at work. The fact is, at a bare minimum people have stopped what they’re doing to come and see you do your thing. At the more extreme end people will have traveled, sometimes even planned a couple of days away from home, just because they want to hear what you have to say. Chances are people and businesses have spent their hard earned money to come and be part of your ideas. Isn’t that amazing? Whatever it is you’re doing, whatever it is you’re about to say — you really should be proud of yourself for doing it.

Don’t try and remember everything

I’m fairly certain that you could click on any given link to anywhere on the internet, and find better advice on how to give a good presentation than anything that I could give you — even on a good day. A good place to start in fact would be on the #publicspeaking channel on the Ministry of Testing Slack group. Even so, I’m assuming you’re reading this as you’re also a nervous speaker/here to have a good laugh, so I will give it a go. My personal approach is this — accept that I wont remember everything I want to say, as I will be so nervous I’ll forget everything if I try. Instead, wherever practically possible I remember word for word my first slide only, and then just practice the rest of my talk so I can wander through my content depending on how it flows. The reason I do this is because I’m so desperately nervous to start with, if I balls up the first few lines my head will have gone and before you know it I’ll be at the border with plane tickets to Paraguay ready to start my life anew. As long as I get the FIRST bit right I calm down, I can accept that no one is going to boo or throw a brick or walk out (although that has happened before); I’m much more relaxed and once I’ve got into my rhythm I realise that actually I remember everything I want to say after all.

My being terrified at my first ever talk at a Meetup — Digital People in Peterborough

Do you REALLY care if it goes badly?

As mentioned earlier, I do public speaking because I saw people I respected doing it and I thought hi diddly dee, thats the life for me. I like influencing people and helping them learn something new, but I can do that sitting side by side on a one to one basis, I don’t have to do that in a crowd. When you actually think about it public speaking isn’t a particularly fair deal — when you pair with someone/review side by side/mob/showcase/literally any other method of influencing, you get something out of it. You get to understand the individual (s) you’re working with better, and know their ideas and their values. You can be challenged, and improve your own knowledge set by either explaining your own point further or by learning something you didn’t before from the other person. When you’re standing at the front with a set of slides and a rehearsed set of your own points and ideas, you don’t really get anything back. Unless you enjoy it. Which you don’t.

So the question is this — if it goes badly, have you really lost anything?

I’ve done talks which have gone quite badly. Some where I’ve come away feeling like I’ve not said the things I wanted to say, I’ve rushed and babbled through my content too quickly, that someone asked me a question that I didn’t know the answer to, or I made a joke that no one laughed at. It happens. The point is, that I’ve come away from those talks and realised ‘yep…don’t want to be doing that again next time’. When you’ve missed something important, you know your preparation has let you down and you need to try something different next time. When you babble, you know its because you’re nervous and look up breathing techniques to help slow your pace. If you get mugged off with a dodgy question, practice a stock answer that you can reel off in a moment of panic saying how ‘that’s a really good point you’ve raised, I’ll be honest that’s not something I’ve come across before but would love to hear more about your experiences with it after…’

Unless you’re being paid, you’re doing this to satisfy your own goals/development/ambitions. You’re not doing it for anyone else. If it goes wrong, so what — we don’t beat ourselves up if we make a mistake in the day to day, why should this be any different? You learn from it, and you know you can do it better next time. Don’t worry if it all goes wrong, it’ll make a great anecdote one day!

Despite my own nerves and worries, I think talking about my chosen subject in front of a group of people gives me so much more confidence to deal with challenges in other areas. I actively encourage others to do the same, and I make the effort to work with them to get their content in a position they feel comfortable with, to manage their nerves and, most importantly, try to help them take stock after the event to get even better at the next one.

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reader of books, follower of Formula One, eater of pistachios

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Drew Pontikis

Drew Pontikis

reader of books, follower of Formula One, eater of pistachios

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