First of all let me start by giving you a little background to me and how I started to become a speaker. First thing to take note is do not compare yourself to others cause it is most likely not a fair comparison. Many people ask me how I have such good stage presence and the answer is pretty simple.
I spent many years in drama school and theatre groups. As a teenager I was on the stage giving performances in front of hundreds of people. I learnt how to act, how to use my voice, how to read the audience and how to own the stage. This experience I take with me to all my talks.
Acting and Speaking is not the same
However being an actress in the theatre and being a tech speaker are two totally different worlds. Let me take you back to my secondary school where I was asked to stand up in front of the class and read out my homework, a review of a tv program. I refused.
I told the teacher I had not done my homework. Thing is I was the kinda student who always did their homework so he didn't believe me. But he couldn't make me stand up in front of the class. So at the end of the class he held me back and I will never forget his words. He said I know you have done your homework. What I don't understand is why you won't come and read it out in front of 30 people. I was at the theatre last night and saw you on the stage in front of hundreds of people and you were amazing. So what's happening here.
My answer was simply. When I am on stage I am someone else. I am comfortable on the stage being a character cause it doesn't matter if people like or dislike me or if people judge me for who I am because it is not me. But when I get up in front of the class to read my homework, now they are judging me. I am exposed. I have no one to hide behind and I don't want people to dislike me. Basically I was terrified of being me.
My First Conference
Now fast forward many few years and I am at a conference and I see some talks on Imposter syndrome. It really resonates with me and I go up afterwards to speak to one of the speakers and I tell her how much I love the stage but I am terrified of giving a tech talk to a room of experts.
I said it felt like I would be teaching a Taekwondo class to a room of masters and that wouldn't make sense. They all know more than me.
Now this is where my first mistake comes from. Who said the room was full of experts. Who decided that everyone had more knowledge than me. That's the imposter syndrome kicking in.
Truth is we have no idea of what level everyone in the audience is but when they come to watch a talk they have decided to sit in the room and watch that talk and everyone will have a different knowledge range and more than likely everyone will learn something from your talk because the way I tell a story and the way someone else tells a story is completely different and we need people to tell things in different ways.
But what about all those people sitting judging you? Well at a conference people are not there to judge. People want you to succeed. If its your first talk and you are nervous just tell them, you will be surprised at the level of support you will get because everyone in the audience knows how hard it is to get up on a stage and give a talk and most of them won't ever dare try.
Overcoming the Imposter
So really the only thing that is stopping you from giving a talk is your own fears and imposter syndrome. When it comes to fear the best way to look at it is, if it's scary then you should totally be doing it. Doing scary stuff helps you grow, you step outside of your comfort zone. So really you should walk with fear not against it. As for imposter syndrome we all suffer from it one way or another.
A few tips I have to overcome it. I hang signs all over my wall saying things like "Believe in yourself", "you are amazing just the way you are" etc. and anytime I feel like I can't do something I read these signs.
I also programmed Alexa so that when I say good morning she tells me Debbie you are amazing. Before a talk I literally coach myself and say, Debbie you got this, you are going to do amazing, you are going to walk out there and above all you are going to enjoy every second of being on that stage.
I get mega nervous before any talk. No matter how many years of experience or talks I have done. My body just gets nervous and I need to use the bathroom so many times before they wire me up. But talking to myself and telling myself I can do this really helps me and then I use those nerves as energy once I get on the stage.
On the Stage
Now the first thing I do when I get on the stage is I talk about me. My first slide is about me. I have a picture of me doing sport and I tell people what sports I do and I spend a good few minutes on who I am. I do this for various reasons. The audience get to know who I am helping to connect with me better. And I don't need to rehearse anything to talk about me, I know this material so it helps stabilize my nerves so when I do go into the tech stuff I feel more in control and more comfortable with myself and the audience.
Connecting with the Audience
So how do you connect with the audience? This can take time and practice but I asked a good speaker friend, Kevlin Henney, to one day watch my talk and give me feedback on how I can improve as a speaker. He took notes and it was super useful and one thing he said was you need to connect with the audience more.
I guess its like the difference between the cinema and the theatre. In the cinema the audience might laugh but there is no real connection to the characters, they are very far away. Whereas in the theatre the actors can interact with the audience and it creates a whole different experience. Kevlin suggested that I watch a specific speaker as he was very good at delivering talks. That speaker is Vitaly Friedman from Smashing Magazine incase you want to watch any of his talks.
So what was he doing that I was not doing? He was talking to the audience. He was asking them questions. He was entertaining them. He was asking them what they expected to see or happen. He was making them laugh. He was connecting with the audience and he had them in his hands. I highly encourage you to watch one of his talks.
Ok lets take it back a step to the stage presence. I personally like to walk the stage. That is mainly cause I am no good at keeping still but also because sometimes you are on one side of a big stage and the audience that is on the other side can feel very left out and disconnected. Eye contact is fine but I am going to tell you how I do it. I literally walk the stage from one end to the other and stop and say a few things then go to the middle then to the other end.
I visualize a triangle and tend to look at those points of the triangle as I deliver my talk. This makes it feel like I am looking at everyone or at least trying to connect with the whole audience. The next step would be to pick a few people in the audience and make eye contact with them and really play off of their reactions. This takes a bit more practice of course and can be really scary at first but you can always start off my looking and connecting with the other speakers.
So how do you connect with the audience? First of all say hello to them. Ask them how they are doing. Then ask them questions. The audience love to be interacted with and they will always answer you whether it be putting up your hand or shouting out yes or no. It can be simple questions such as "are you testing your applications" or are you using xyz in production. This also gives you a better idea of who your audience is or what level they have, making it easier to tailor your talk ever so slightly to cover or not cover certain aspects.
Once you start presenting your slides it is so easy to go into slide mode and just talk for 30 minutes without breathing and forgetting completely that you have a few hundred people looking at you. This is where it is important to think of how you can connect back to the audience. It can be as simple as adding a funny gif to make them laugh and get a reaction from them or asking them if they liked the demo or what they thought about a feature which will encourage them to clap and that always gives you more energy.
As you get more confident you can start to ask questions such as what do you think is going to happen next or why is something working a certain way. People will always shout out an answer, and they love it when they are right, so use that to your advantage. The more you engage the audience during the talk the more they will enjoy it and remember it.
As for the technical content you don't want it to be too technical. You want people to learn something and walk away with some new found knowledge but you don't want to wreck their heads and make them feel like they have just sat through an extensive exam. Even high level technical talks can have funny moments in them so try to bring some fun into your talks as much as possible.
When it comes to giving a talk online it is a little different indeed. You can't walk around and most of the time you have no audience in front of you. Sometimes it really can feel like you are talking to a brick wall. A couple of things that can help:
If it is a pre-recorded talk ask someone to turn on their camera so that you feel like you are actually talking to someone and can see their reactions.
If you have to record it yourself and send it in then you can either ask some friends to join the call while you record or leave your camera visible showing you so then you are talking to yourself which is kinda weird but can help you keep looking at the camera if you place the video of yourself right under the camera.
Online talks take up so much more energy than in person talks. It is much more like acting as you can't use the audience to bounce that energy off of and you can't ask questions either so you just have to put lots of energy into it.
Make sure your slides have some nice visuals or funny gifs and you can still talk to the audience, pretend they are there. Ask things like what do you think, cool eh, Yeh I knew you would love that. Pure acting I know. But it works.
If you do get to give a talk to a live online audience then I like to leave the chat open and tell people to throw things in the chat so I can see that they are there. It can also help but it can also be distracting so depends on you, how lively the chat is and the type of talk you are doing. Demo heavy or not for example. And make sure some of them turn cameras on so you can see some reactions.
That really is about it. Giving talks can be scary but really it is so much fun. Sharing your knowledge with others and helping them learn something new is so rewarding. Remember everyone is different and has a different story to tell so don't be afraid to get up on that stage and tell your story of how you learnt something or how you solved a problem.
Few things to remember
- everyone is different and will deliver talks differently be yourself, learn from others but dont try to be them connect with the audience
- coach yourself before you go on stage
- kick imposter syndrome in the but
- remember the audience want you to succeed
- nothing is perfect first time
- ask others for feedback and how can you improve for next time
- watch conference talks and see what you like about how speakers deliver their talks
- always practice your talk before going on stage either to an audience, recording yourself and watching it back or just on your own
- learn how to control your timings, have extra slides at the end that you can use if you have extra time but don't need to cover if you don't
- don't let fear stop you from doing something you want to do