Public Speaking : How not to shit yourself on stage

Photo provided by gcfairch

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 😦

More jobs for those that already have them

Silicon Republic had a great article recently reporting on the explosion of jobs in the tech sector. The IDA chief appears to be postively crowing about his success. Well that’s great, but it won’t move the unemployment needle one basis point.

Why? Because The tech in Ireland sector has virtually 100% employment, take a look at the indeed.ie search for software engineers to see the indigenous requirements.

It takes 4 years to make a new graduate engineer and the current intake of computer scientists and engineers is a fraction of what it was ten years ago. This means we get the same number of technical experts chasing a vastly expanded universe of technical employers.

The last time this happened was in the previous tech boom in 2000. Then, TCD was stamping out over 150 computer scientists a year from various different disciplines (Maths, Computer Science, Engineering). Today I think the total output each year is less than 50. Other colleges has experienced similar downturns.

The net effect of this is a spiralling wage inflation for technical staff, which is good if you are an engineer, but rotten news if you are an employer and an absolute disaster if you are a start-up competing for technical expertise.

Foreign Direct Investment companies (think Google, Oracle, Intel, IBM etc. etc.) who are moving here because it is a “low cost” development centre are in for the same surprise that companies who opened up in India got. Huge velocity of staff between jobs, sign on bonuses and rapidly inflating salaries.

In the noughties we could address shortages by importing expertise from overseas but who wants to move to a country that everyone in the world thinks is an economic basket case?

What to do? First of all understand that bringing in FDI companies that pay practically no tax revenue to the Irish government are of little utility to Ireland inc. from a balance of payments perspective. Second of all they create an unbalanced market as they can continue to afford to pay inflated salaries which squeezes the price up for indigenous companies competing for staff. Those companies are generally in worse shape financially and less able to withstand the stress of these salary increases.

Secondly we need to make more techologists and make them faster. In the 80’s companies like Nixdorf ran conversion courses for the thousands of arts graduates who couldn’t find jobs in our devastated  economy and the tech colleges provided a huge array of cross training. Their is a huge opportunity to retrain those that are capable of switching to a technology career (like most career choices its not for everyone).

Pity our training agency FAS is a such a busted flush, we could really do with them right now.