Public Speaking for the Terrified



Red Badger were pleased to welcome the Ladies Who Code group to Badger HQ for their March meetup - a public speaking clinic aimed at novices (and the generally petrified). It was presented by Trisha Gee who was aided by her self-proclaimed 'controversial' friend Mazz Mosley. Trisha and Mazz both have very different styles of presenting and preparation (hence the 'controversy'), so it was great to get both their perspectives on things and really drive home the main message of the evening: Be Yourself.

The evening started as every good public speaking workshop should - by subjecting the participants to abject terror, and forcing them to stand up in front of everyone and say a few words. Most people were pretty terrified at the prospect, (my heart rate went through the roof), but all gave it a good go and made it through their allocated 20 seconds. After that the audience was able to relax, and take in some tips that will help combat those feelings in future.

Be yourself

The biggest thing I took away from the workshop is to just be yourself. The best speakers are the ones who are comfortable on stage. The audience doesn't want to be worried for you - they need to feel they're in good hands. If you're relaxed, they will be too.

So stick to your strengths, and what you're comfortable with. Wear clothes that you're happy in, and stick to a style of delivery that suits you. If you're naturally funny, keep things light-hearted and get people laughing. If you find it difficult to raise a laugh, don't even try. Stick to a more matter-of-fact delivery. Both approaches are fine - don't try to be something you're not.

Don't worry about the 'rules', or advice you've been given. You don't have to eliminate all your natural mannerisms and filler words. If you try to change too many things it will feel and sound unnatural. You'll be stressing about remembering what you should or shouldn't be doing, and are more likely to mess up.


Trisha went through a number of questions, (if you get the chance to attend one of her workshops - do!) but I've just picked out a few:

What should I talk about?

People are often under the false impression that they will need to talk about something super-technical. Actually people will often want more of an introduction to something, than a really in-depth analysis.

Some potential topics are something ...
... you struggle(d) with
... you're new to
... only you know
... people are always asking you
... that people find hard
... that interests you

Talking about your own personal experiences is often a good way to get started in public speaking - nobody can ask you difficult questions or contradict you!

What do I do if my mind goes blank?

Don't be afraid of silence. You don't have to talk constantly and fill every single second. A pause will often actually generate interest, as people wait to hear what you're going to say next.

Don't panic - remember that the audience have no idea what's happening in your head. Take a drink of water to give yourself a bit more thinking time, maybe check your notes. Find another way to say the same thing, or just move on. People won't even realise if you skip some of what you'd planned to talk about.

How do I deal with difficult questions?

Remember that the audience is on your side. They're (usually) not out to get you or trip you up. They either have a genuine question, or are wanting validation.

Set expectations at the beginning - are you happy to take questions during the talk as they occur to people? Or would you rather they save them until the end? If you don't want to take questions, that's ok too - maybe provide an alternative way of contacting you, either in person later, or online.

Always repeat the question back to them. This means that everyone hears what the question is and allows you to check you've understood it.

Validate the person who asked the question - "That's a great question", "That's a really good point", "Does that answer your question?"

Answering questions is nowhere near as scary as you think it's going to be. If you don't know the answer, that's fine. Just say that - and maybe refer them to someone else who will know.

Don't wait to be perfect

Don't overthink things - you just need to get out there and give it a go.

The standard for public speaking isn't as high as you think it is. The audience is rooting for you - they want to hear you talk about what you've come to say, and go away having learnt a few things that they didn't know before. That's pretty much all they're hoping for.

There are a lot of benefits to developing this skill. Not only getting to share things that you think are important, and potentially getting paid to travel and attend conferences. You'll also be developing your communication skills, and the ability to concisely and efficiently articulate your thoughts and decisions. This is an essential skill for developers who need to justify technical choices to colleagues and clients.

There's a huge amount of advice about public speaking. As with so much in life - just do what works for you, and don't get caught up worrying about the 'correct' way of doing things.

If it helps - do it.
If it doesn't - don't.

At the end of the day, it's just standing up and saying some things.
What's the worst that could happen?

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