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How to Succeed at Public Speaking

This article was first published at gooroo.io

I remember way back when I was about 14 years old and did what I remember as my first public speaking exercise. It was at my own confirmation dinner, and I had to address my entire family. It was a small room and not a huge crowd, but it scared me. I gave the brief thank you speech mostly looking at my feet or at the walls around us. It was a terrible speech.

Since then I have continually pushed myself to improve and to get better every time I am on stage. Here are some of the tips I have learned over the years.


How do you even get started?

This is probably the hardest part if I am honest. Taking that first step and putting your hand up to give a talk is scary. It doesn’t even matter if you are going to speak to people you know, a small number of people or even just to your significant other, it can be scary. You might be familiar with the old Jerry Seinfeld quote:

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

This isn’t entirely true, but it does have some relevancy. Why are we so scared to do public speaking? Part of it is this thought of what others might think of you if you mess up, if you are incorrect, if you stumble on words. Well, here is a tip for you: You can’t control what others think. It is there prerogative to think whatever they want, and the sooner you realise that, the more at ease you will be.

There are a couple of great ways to get started with public speaking. My favourite is joining at Toastmasters club near your home or your work.  Toastmasters clubs focuses on giving you the skills and experience necessary to becoming a confident and skillful speaker. You start out small and there is a number of manuals that teaches you certain types of public speaking such as monologues, humourous, toasts, argumentative and many more. Everything related to toastmasters is designed to be positive, supportive and encouraging.

If you want to do more technical talks about something you are passionate about or a new technology you think everybody should know about, presenting at user groups or meetups is a great way to start. The crowd can be a bit harder to engage, but generally user groups are always looking for speakers, and people that come to them are there to learn and to listen.

Submitting for CFPs

Once you have done some user groups, community events, perhaps even toastmaster competitions, I would imagine the next step is getting into a conference. Conferences are daunting at first, but they are a great way of expanding on your speaking skills and seeing many other great speakers in action.

A lot of conferences, big and small, will have a Call For Papers (CFP) phase, where they invite everyone to submit their best abstracts. I have been fortunate enough to be invited on the agenda committee for NDC Sydney twice and that experience of having to go through 700 abstracts in 8 hours makes you appreciate how crucial it is to get it right. If you don’t have a descriptive title and concise abstract, you will like be declined very fast. It isn’t that people don’t want to read your submission and analyse it; there simply isn’t enough time.

My good mate Niall Merrigan has written down some great pointers on how to get the best abstract for a conference. Read it. It is gold.

Chances are that most of your abstracts will be denied and that is okay. If possible, get some feedback from the event organisers as to why your talk didn’t get accepted. You then take the feedback, rinse, repeat. The more “no”s you get, the closer you are to a “yes”.

Network all the things!

It isn’t always about what you know, but rather who you know. If you know someone on the organising committee of a conference, then use that relationship to see if you can get to do a talk. There is nothing wrong with putting yourself forward and highlighting the benefits the event can get from having you on the schedule. By approaching and reaching out to members of the conference committee, you will not only improve your chances of getting accepted into the event, but you will also create new contacts, even if you don’t get in.

Having a “networking” approach to conferences, and not only a “speaking” approach, will also benefit you immensely in the future. The network you build up will get your more and more opportunities for further improving your public speaking skills.

Practice practice practice

I cannot emphasize this enough. You need to practice your talks over and over again. Some of the best speakers I know personally will generally practice a talk in full about three or four times before delivering it for the first time. Have a timer to make sure you are on time, create cue points to make your transitions smooth, avoid the speaker anti-patterns, and make sure you know the talk content by heart. You shouldn’t memorize everything word for word, but have the main story line clear in your head.

Thrive on Feedback

Your best talk is always ahead of you. You will get feedback from all sorts of people giving a broad range of opinions. It will range from “Awesome talk!” to “The presenter should ‘pop’ more” to “you suck!”. As with any feedback or advice, take what you can use and leave the rest. Thrive on getting good feedback from attendees that have your best interest at heart. Thrive on taking that feedback and incorporating it into your talks.

Also get feedback before you do the talk by practicing in front of colleagues, friends or family. Hell, even your cat will do (although the feedback may be limited). If the talk you are doing is recorded, watch the recording to see if you have too many filler words (“uhm”, “ah”, etc.), have strange mannerisms, don’t look enough at the audience etc. You can’t improve what you don’t know, and any kind of feedback will let you know what that is.

Further Steps

Once you get to a point where you are regularly being invited to present at events, be they conferences, user groups or something else, you want to think about where you want to take your public speaking journey. Set ambitious goals. Be bold. Challenge yourself.

Got some tips from your own experience? Share them below.