Larry Price

And The Endless Cup Of Coffee

Demystifying Public Speaking

| Comments

The Gist

Public speaking makes me nervous, and I’m not alone. A crowd of people is listening to your stutters, nit-picking your errors, and judging your clothing. No one is immune from the fear of public speaking. What can you do about it? Armed with Lara Hogan’s Demystifying Public Speaking, we can learn how to make public speaking a bit less stressful. There is no complete answer, but this book is full of tips and guidance for speaking engagements of any size and gravitas.


Need ideas for public speaking? Take advantage of the work you do every day. Prepare a presentation for the tough code you wrote last week, the library you found, the Agile processes you use, or how you set up your workstation, favorite tool, or cloud service.

Start small. Run the topic by your coworkers with a rough outline. Run it by your spouse to get an outside perspective. You can tweak your ideas based on the feedback, and then move on to bigger venues. Do a lunch and learn, a lightning talk, or a local meetup.

Your end goal does not have to be a conference. Conferences can be huge events with many attendees, and can be extremely daunting. Many people only go to conferences for the big names, and your talk might be more easily forgotten amongst all the ultra-hyped celebrity talks.

Then again, if that’s what you’re into, you could become the celebrity after doing a few conference talks. If you do well at one or two conferences, there’s a good chance you’ll start getting invited to more conferences. These conferences might want you to rehash your past talk (score! minimal effort!), give you a topic, or hand you the reigns to get creative.

Your audience wants you to do well. It’s a common misconception that your audience is rooting against you. They want to learn, and they want to believe that what you’re telling them is worthwhile. If you make a mistake, you don’t need to be embarrassed: everyone knows it’s hard to go on-stage in front of a group of people. Just try to correct yourself and move on.

Always include some levity in your presentation. A joke or a cat picture can help reengage an audience that may be succumbing to fatigue. Ask a silly or surprising question, maybe even going so far as to ask for some audience participation.

Presentations with lots of imagery are great, but your presentation style doesn’t have to follow any conventions. Some people are comfortable getting their cues from their notes and images, but others may prefer more traditional header and bullet point slides.

If there’s going to be a Q&A section, have your coworkers or peers hit you with some potential questions. Maybe you can beef up parts of your presentation that were misinterpreted or underrepresented.

It’s okay to say “I don’t know” during a Q&A session. You just laid down a lot of knowledge on your audience, but that doesn’t mean you have to know all the answers. Furthermore, if someone “stumps” you during a Q&A section, just admit it and move on. There’s always that one guy who asks a “question” that he already knows the answer to to make himself appear intelligent. Ignore that guy. He’s got issues. Just say “OK” and move on to the next question.

Do what’s comfortable for you. Read directly from your notes. Put comforting reminders in your slides, like pictures of your cats or Superman squashing fascism. Use “wizard hands” or other embarrassing hand gestures. Let your personality come out, or invent a completely separate stage persona to assume while you’re presenting. All that matters is that you accomplish your task of dropping some knowledge bombs on your intended audience.

Remember: you’re the expert on this topic. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to put together that presentation to begin with. Your presentation was chosen because the organizer(s) had confidence in you, your ability, and your knowledge. The audience members are there because they find meaning in your topic and believe you’re the right person to transfer that information. You’re in control.

Action Items

I really only have one action item from this book:

  • Do some public speaking!

I’ve moved to a new city this summer, and I’m starting to actively seek out local meetup groups. My goal is to find the right opportunity and the courage to participate in some lightning talks or possibly longer presentations.