October 16, 2013

Preparation is the key to public speaking.

I Just got back from speaking in Paris and Munich for MongoDBDays. I’ve been to Europe a number of times before. I was in Spain in 1992 and Greece in 2000 for the Olypmics. In addition, I spent a long period of time in Slovakia, Poland, and England travelling with the Book of Hope(now called OneHope) where I met and got to know my wife, who is from California. We really enjoy travelling and we love Europe, so when MongoDB needed a speaker for the two events in Paris and Munich, I jumped all over it and brought my wife, Heather, along for the ride.

I’m an introvert. It happens to be a rather common trait for programmers. However, introversion just means I get energy from being alone. When my friends and family find out I enjoy speaking to large audiences, it is total surprise and they don’t believe me, mostly because they know I like to be alone. Apparently, on people’s list of fears, public speaking is second only to death. I guess I’ve overcome both of those already, so I’m ready to attempt something else. But until then, some insights related to speaking. I’m not an expert, but I’ve done enough public speaking to come up with a recipe that works for me.

  • Prepare.
    • Even if you’ve given your talk a thousand times, run through it again.
    • Time yourself. When you know how much time it takes to get through, you’ll feel free to take sips of water, pause to think about what you are about to say, or take questions from the audience.
    • Know your slides. You shouldn’t need to look at the screen to know what’s next. Knowing what’s next means you can lead your audience into it.
  • Relax.
    • You are the expert. People came to hear you. They attended your session. You know exactly what you want to say and how to say it (and how long it takes to do so). Nothing to be worried about.
    • If you are relaxed, it makes the audience relaxed. Nothing is worse than watching a nervous speaker. Nervousness inevitably leads to forgetting or making a mistake, which just makes you more nervous. And then it all falls apart.
    • If you are relaxed, you appear confident, and confidence breeds acceptance. If you are confident, then the audience will accept that you know what you are talking about. (It also helps to know what you are talking about for those skeptics in the room).
  • Find some humor.
    • No one comes to a conference to be lectured at. They come to enjoy their time and hopefully get something out of the talks.
    • If you can introduce some humor into your talks, your audience will have a better time. People having a good time are awake and paying attention. And people paying attention means they’ll hear what you really want them to hear.

These notes probably aren’t helpful because the hardest one is related to not being nervous. Not being nervous is incredibly difficult if you are a nervous person. I’m a rather laid back person to being with, but I do remember getting nervous when I first started talking. I remember my heart beating quickly and sweating a little. But once I started, talking about things I was passionate about, I remember myself calming down. Hopefully that happens to you, but you won’t know until you try.

These days, now that I’ve realized I’m a pretty good speaker, I really don’t get nervous anymore as long as I’m prepared. Humor comes naturally and is usually unplanned during a presentation. Sometimes people laugh, sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t matter, cause I think I’m funny and they are laughing one way or another, either with me or at me, and either way is fine with me.

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