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Public Speaking : How not to shit yourself on stage

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Okay, the bad news is there is no way to stop shitting yourself on-stage.

Public speaking is one of the great fears and everyone shits a brick for about their first 50 or so public speaking engagements. I was lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view), I did my first public speaking engagement about a year out of college. While working at Generics Software I wrote a paper for an Ada Conference and was invited to present it in front of the great and good of the Ada community.

I was so dumb I wasn’t even nervous until exactly 2 seconds after I stood up in front of the audience. I actually couldn’t speak, I tried, but nothing came out but a small squeaking noise. Eventually somebody got me a glass of water and I managed to open the top button of my shirt, once I got started I delivered a complete 20 minute presentation on “Why Ada is not an Object Oriented Programming Language” in exactly 5 minutes, start to finish.

Thank fuck for Q&A. I managed to salvage the disaster a little bit with a reasonable Q&A session. I sat down afterwards and as the droplets of icy sweat rolled down my back I made an immediate decision to never, ever, ever submit another paper to a conference.

Fast forward a year (Generics was an Irish Startup so therefore was honour bound to implode like all Irish startups in the 80’s) and I was punching the clock at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in Reading UK, then the number two computer company in the world after IBM. I had been in the company about a month when my boss Mark Ryland came to me and said ‘Joe, prepare a one day course for the new Decstation 3100, you’ll be presenting it to a group fo 30 pre-sales guys in one month’. I remember the feeling to this day, It’s how I imagine your guts might feel if someone slowly slid bayonet into them, immediately cold, nauseous, sweaty and painful. With the added certainty that its only going to get worse.

So I prepared the course and presented it. A complete disaster. It was an official DEC training course so I had to hand out official course review paperwork. My class were generous in their feedback and I was feeling ok until a helpful colleague “interpreted” my scores. I was shit.

I was now officially “the guy who shits himself” before a public speaking engagement. But worse was to come. I then had to prepare two day course for the pre-sales teams from all over Europe and deliver it in the Munich centre. I remember lying in bed the night before I was due to fly making a serious plan to go the airport, get on a plane to Dublin and just never return to the UK. Instead, I flew to Munich, delivered the first day of the the course and ran out of material by about 3pm. I sent everyone home but not before some furious german pre-sales woman publically upbraided me for dragging her halfway across Europe to deliver such a shitty course.

For the second day, I had actually done more preparation but I worked through the night to add a bunch of class exercises to pad out the day. The second day was better as a result and I think I only lost about half a stone to flop sweat. I finished the course, jumped on a plane and about then decided to get the fuck out of the training business. I did two things when I got back, registered for a 2 day presentation training course and applied for a transfer to the Ultrix Engineering Team where all I needed to do was code.

A couple of themes emerge that often don’t get mentioned on presentation training courses:

  • The fear melted my brain: I was so scared I couldn’t think straight enough to even register for a training course. Even though I knew in an abstract way about DEC training facilities I didn’t make the mental leap that they were for people like me. When you are new at presenting everything you think you will remember gets frozen out once you stand up. You are left wondering if you can even remember your own name. So all your adlibs disappear and you end up reading your slides at break neck speed. Not a good look.
  • Preparation: The only preparation that works for public speaking is … public speaking. Even though I shit myself mentally all through the last day I was infinitely better on day two than day one.
  • Passion: Passion covers up a lot of cracks. The second day was a training course on using the optimising compiler. I had done a bunch of work on this and I really knew the subject and I loved the stuff I was teaching. So even though I was all over the map the passion helped enthuse my audience.

Since then I have probably done at least one public speaking engagement a month as part of my job. Audiences have ranged from a handful of people to full auditoriums. So 20 years x 12 months makes for about 240 public presentations. If you roll up internal stuff that might easily double that number. For important stuff I still do a mountain of preparation, but I now have the luxury of being able to speak off the cuff for many events.

So if you want to become a good public speaker do these things repeatedly :

  • Embrace your fear, name it (“I am shitting myself about this speaking engagement”) and then turn that fear into passion by immersing yourself in your topic
  • Speak about things that you love and let the love of your subject carry you over the horror while you are getting over the 50 talk hump
  • Try and work with small audiences initially (team talks, internal groups)
  • Prepare by actually giving your whole talk out loud in an empty room at least once before you do it in public
  • Don’t try and memorise word for word, memorise the sense and structure and some key phrases/sound bites
  • Remember the ending so you don’t trail off with a lame “thats it”
  • Do every piece of presentation training that you can

Accept that its horrific, do it anyway and eventually one day you wil realise that your greatest fear is now actually spiders/flying/rejection again.

There are no short cuts 😦

Written by Joe

August 2, 2012 at 7:53 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I wholeheartedly recommend The Presenttion Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo – the 2 standout points for me: 1. Tell a story. 2. Prepare & rehearse until it hurts.

    Martin Peacock

    August 4, 2012 at 9:16 am

  2. Nice one, Joe. Public speaking is a confidence trick – you need confidence, and this comes from a combination of 1) experience in public speaking, 2) thorough preparation, 3) very, very strong domain knowledge. If you have two of those you are in a good spot.

    But the advice I give to first time speakers is always – slow down. Speak…like…this. And…then…repeat…it…if…you…feel…like…it. If you don’t feel you are moving like a sloth, then you are speeding through the material. It’s a combination of adrenaline and an enormous desire to get to the end of things and have it all *over*.

    I’d like to echo the “give the talk to an empty room” advice – this is my top tip. Speak the whole talk so you can feel the flow. I usually do this in the hotel room the night before the talk. Also, no drinking beforehand 🙂

    oisin (@oisin)

    August 4, 2012 at 6:26 pm


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