Radek Vokal • January 5, 2022
I still remember my first time speaking at a conference. I was extremely nervous, I skipped a few things I wanted to mention and at the end of it, I wasn’t sure if the audience even got what I wanted to share. But then I was approached by my colleagues and even by random folks from the audience asking me questions about the talk. It felt great that I was heard and I got someone else interested.
Over the years, I spoke at many other events and conferences. I still feel nervous when presenting, but I learned a few techniques and habits that make me feel more confident and comfortable in speaking. Before I share these, there’s one important thing to mention first. Practice makes perfect and there’s no better way to gain credibility and authority in the project or your expertise than by speaking at conferences. By giving talks at various conferences, you position yourself as a trusted person who understands the topic, is able to research existing and new things, and adds value and his personal experience to the subject. This is the way you’ll gain trust, respect, and authority in your field of expertise.
Well, despite these benefits of speaking at a conference, there’s still the main problem - the fear and uncertainty that you’ll be able to deliver a great talk. Speaking publicly in front of a large audience or even virtually makes us vulnerable. We’re on the spot, visible to a large number of people, some of them have better knowledge about the subject than we have, you are the center of attention but you also need to maintain that attention and make sure you don’t lose the audience. Many of us don’t present in our native language, to an audience that is international and diverse. This all adds up to a fear that stops from stepping up and presenting.
Here are some of my tips that help me be prepared and less nervous.
Most people don’t like this one. Watching yourself on video, listening to your own voice or even seeing yourself in a mirror while talking feels awkward. But it’s important to see how you appear in front of your audience. Your body language shows a lot about your confidence and often we don’t notice our bad habits until we observe ourselves. You’ll get used to the sound of your voice and you’ll experience how others hear you. You might have a filler word you use way too often or something in your body language that is disrupting and watching yourself will allow you to spot it and avoid it. It will help you to realize what your pace is and if you should slow down.
The best way to practice your speaking is to rehearse with a smaller group. This can be your colleagues at work, friends or family, or even local Toastmasters groups. The only way to get better with your talk is to present often and preferably in an environment where you’ll be able to get a lot of feedback. Toastmasters are great since their main focus is on how you speak and how you use your body language. Also, you’ll be able to get feedback on the structure of your talk, its ordering and content. What helps is to have a script for your session and speaker notes. Do not ever read your notes while speaking! This is a path to disaster. Update your speaker's notes based on feedback received and review them before the session starts to remember the important points you wanted to highlight.
I have to confess that with this one I don’t have a good experience with virtual events. Getting feedback in the virtual presentation is much harder and I’ll mention it later. Knowing your audience is important to better position your talk but also it gets the audience more engaged. To connect with your audience, you should ask the room what they want to hear. Ask the audience about their background, expertise in the subject, biggest challenges, and listen to what they have to say. This will make your session more dynamic, tailored to your audience and the audience will have the bonding with you that you talk about what they want to hear. It’s absolutely fine to make adjustments to your speech based on the comments you hear. Skip slides if you have to, prepare backup slides that you can use for a more technical audience. This will make your presentation less disconnected and more fun.
Especially with virtual events, it’s important to make sure your setup works - this includes microphone, camera but also an ability to switch displays if needed while screen sharing, switch from slides to your demo, etc. In the case of the live event, take advantage of things like a clicker and practice running your talk with it, make sure your computer works well and avoid any unfortunate surprises during the live event. Whenever possible, practice using the equipment and setup in which you’ll be giving the talk. In the case of virtual talk, record your session and check the quality of your microphone from the recording. A quality microphone for a few $$$ might be a significant improvement to your talk. If you decide to have your camera on (which I can recommend for a more engaging presentation), check your background (your light, your camera pointing in the right direction, and not to the ceiling, etc.). Those small changes can make a big difference.
Always record your demos! I’ve been bitten many times by issues with the internet, a weird conference setup, or other circumstances that forced me to use my pre-recorded session. Anything can happen and having a backup available can save you from unnecessary stress. Also, pre-recorded demos and slides can be shared and used for marketing purposes. Either for marketing your project in other media and channels or even when you apply for a talk at a different conference. Sharing slides and your demos also adds to your credibility and allows the audience to come back to your examples, links and other content.
You’ve seen many talks about Subject X on the internet already. Feels like everybody is talking about the same and your talk is just yet another one of the subjects? Then think about how to differentiate from others - provide examples based on your personal experience, focus on a specific area and topic where you’re strongest, focus on feedback you’ve received from other users, customers and colleagues. What worked for me was to give the audience content that they could use the very same day. Give the audience something they can try and see results immediately, let them experience the impact of what you’re talking about. When you do so, your audience will trust you and come back to you in the future for more since they’ve been able to reproduce easily what you’ve shown them.
Keep the audience engaged and either offer the audience to ask questions during your session or let them know about a dedicated time for questions at the end of your session. The questions part is important as it also offers your feedback on your session. Did the audience get the point of your talk? Did they understand your examples? Do they know how to follow up? With virtual conferences, you use polls. Some questions might require more time and deeper analysis, so make sure you give them a way to connect with you even after the conference. Offer the audience a way to get detailed answers (over a chat, in a booth or even by sharing your email) while keeping your response brief and very specific to the question asked. If helps to provide evidence with facts, examples to support your answers. And it’s absolutely OK to be honest when you don’t know the answer rather than to bluff. You can offer to find the answer and post it on your social media to create further engagement.
Lot of people will never do any public speaking due to lack of confidence and fear. But like many other things, public speaking is a skill that can be trained, developed and eventually mastered with enough practice. My first (few) talks were very nervous and I can’t say I was proud about how I handled them, but I definitely learned from them. Over the years, I gained more confidence but I still invest a lot of time into getting myself prepared for the talk and do all the tips mentioned above. As you speak more, you’ll improve and your first time experience can’t stop you from getting better. Good luck with your talk, and don’t forget: Practice makes perfect!