Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan

The Talk

While I doubt you’re blazing through these pages the minute before you step into the spotlight, I hope this chapter can help reassure and prepare you for that moment. For me, that’s when the swell of nerves and butterflies and energy kicks in. No matter how many talks I’ve given, I still get that rush right before I start speaking.

In her excellent article on overcoming stage fright, designer and developer Emily Lewis writes:

Once I’m at the venue and attendees are starting to take their seats, my physical response often starts to override my “you are prepared” mantra. It is then that I try to shift focus away from me, because my presentation isn’t about me. It’s about my topic and the audience. [...] Focusing on my topic reminds me why I’m there: to share and educate, to inspire others to care, and to showcase an important area of a field that I love.

Let’s remember there is tremendous power in being nervous; it means you care deeply about this topic and presenting this information well. Being nervous is normal.

And if none of that relieves the sweat on your palms, know too: standing up onstage is a finite amount of time. You’re here to do this one job. Know that the anxiety will pass, whether it’s after you deliver your first line or when the last person applauds.

In the meantime, let’s walk through a rough timeline of getting onstage, delivering your talk, and celebrating afterward.

Is this thing on?

Find ways to cheer yourself on throughout your talk, for both your brain and your body. For example, I like to sneak a sticky note with a simple, happy phrase or the name of someone I love onto my laptop below my keyboard. Whenever I set up my screen or glance at my keyboard to advice a slide or read from my presenter notes, I get a glimpse of that reassuring reminder, smile, and feel a little more relaxed.

I bring these bursts of happiness to my slide deck too—a while ago, I started incorporating pictures of sloths, my go-to animal for total ridiculousness and joy. I sprinkle them throughout my presentation and grin every time I see them. Seeing something you love while onstage is a delightful way to pep yourself up as you speak.

Or try grounding yourself in your surroundings. As you step onto the stage, note to yourself how it feels to be in this light, or how sturdy the floor feels underneath your feet. Feel the weight of the remote in your hand. If it helps, look to the countdown timer during your talk—time is passing and you only have to stand here for a set amount of time. There’s a light at the end of this tunnel of nerves. If your conference doesn’t provide a timer, try the built-in timer in your presentation software or a stopwatch on your phone. (And if staring at a big clock counting down adds to your stress, avert your eyes.)

As you stand on the stage, remember: your audience is anticipating you’ll be successful at giving this talk. To them, everything has been well thought-out and prepared; they walk in assuming (rightly!) they’re going to learn something new or be inspired…and you’re the person who’ll show them how.

Our bodies, ourselves

As someone who gets tongue-tied during those initial moments onstage, I’m here to reassure you it’s totally fine if your first line flops. The audience is getting to know you and will forget about it in less than two minutes. They’re rooting for your success—they won’t remember a minor flub, no matter how awkward it sounds in your head.

A few survey respondents shared how anxiety seems to spring from their bodies, as in: “I have the type of anxiety that just happens—there is no one fear that cripples me, and mentally I am fine until I get up in front of everyone, and then my body takes over.”

It’s so hard to feel out of sync with one’s body. My number-one fear is tripping and falling on my way up the stage. Others worried about needing to use the bathroom during their talk, throwing up, getting a nosebleed, or contracting hiccups.

At the core of these is a concern the audience will assume we, as the speaker, are uncomfortable onstage. We want to look natural, like we have this under control, and we definitely don’t want our bodies to give away how we’re really feeling—or to operate independently of our mental state.

If any of these body-conscious nerves feel familiar, let me offer this advice: breathe, and remember all your preparation for this moment. If you stumble over your words, take a breath and give yourself a second to recover, then charge on. If you feel yourself blushing (and I’m a frequent stage blusher), breathe, and then refocus on the presentation. If you lose your train of thought, let yourself pause, and then reflect on your presenter notes. Pauses tend to feel longer to a presenter than to an audience; they’ll be listening like normal.

As you breathe, remember you have prepared for this talk. You’ve done the work! You’ve practiced and revised based on feedback. Now, it’s simply your time to perform the job you’ve come all this way to do.

We can’t control our bodies, but we can put in a strong delivery of our presentation, and that’s what people will remember.

Reading the audience

Many survey responses revolved around the fear of boring or losing the audience. Delivering a talk is an interactive experience; it makes sense that being able to read the audience is a source of anxiety.

Let’s acknowledge it can be difficult to see your audience when you’re onstage: the lights are bright, the first row of seats may be far from your laptop (where you’ll be directing your attention), and you’ll be so concentrated on delivering your content your brain might not have the focus available to read the people in front of you. In this case, give yourself a break and rely on your prep to keep you going strong.

If you are at an event where you can see and hear the audience, you may start to develop a sense for how well your talk is going over. This takes time. In my early talks, I didn’t hear laughter—not because the crowd was silent, but because I was too nervous and focused on my delivery to notice anything else. These days, I’m able to devote more brain space to reading the room (and registering laughs at my jokes). I can take stock of nods, “ahs” of understanding, and whether people are leaning toward me to listen intently.

Further, after giving the same talk a number of times, I'm able to compare audience reactions to major parts of a story, and use that information to decide if I should riff more or cut to the chase faster. I try to remember what the audience responded to and compare it with tweets and post-talk blog posts from attendees. (Again, this kind of data-gathering takes practice, and I definitely wasn’t equipped to clock this kind of peripheral feedback early on.)

But let’s back up and return to you. You’re onstage, and your audience is just…there. I’ll argue that typical audience cues for boredom, like being silent or burying their heads in their laptops or phones, aren’t always an indicator you’ve lost them. I’d go so far to say they could be great signs; quiet people are also focused people, and maybe they’re furiously note-taking or tweeting about your talk.

If people walk out of your talk, especially at a multi-track conference, don’t take it to heart. They could’ve simply ended up in the wrong room or needed to duck out to take care of something. Since many events record sessions for later, people might hop around and catch up on your talk afterward. Or maybe, for whatever reason, the audience member isn’t into it. And that’s okay!

Please hold yourself back from worrying about that audience member leaving while you’re onstage. Your goal is to deliver this talk to the people who are in the room. You have a finite amount of energy to help get you through; don’t spend it on the person who left! If you start spiraling, take a breath and try to pick out a face in the crowd. Focus on that face, glance at your presenter notes or the many other attentive people, and get back into the flow.

If you do lose an audience’s attention, you’ll learn you have more work to do to iterate on your presentation or delivery style for the next event, after you leave the stage. It won’t be that helpful to concern yourself with it while you’re speaking, unless you have a ton of mental capacity available to deliver your talk and read the audience and devise a way to get their attention back. More likely, you’ll want to prioritize the work of delivering your talk and visit potential ways to improve it after you’re done.

Handling Q&A

A question-and-answer session gives the audience a chance to follow up on or clarify points in your talk, ask for more nuanced info to help put your lessons into action, or, frankly, feel more connected to you, the speaker. Hopefully, the question applies to other audience members too, so more people can pick up extra tidbits. In addition to the practice suggestions in Chapter 5, tee up Q&A with clear directions for your audience.

As I transition into Q&A, I’ll explicitly say it’s time for questions and what the process is to ask one. Every event is different: some events don’t have microphones for audience members, some have a mic stand for people to walk up to, and some pass a mic around to people who raise their hands. I’ll say something like, “Now it’s time to ask questions! Raise your hand and someone will hand you a mic,” or “Now we’re going to do Q&A! I will repeat questions before answering them so everyone can hear.”

Trick(y) questions

Obviously, you want Q&A to be as helpful to as many people as possible. But the goal of Q&A is not to make everybody happy, nor is it to teach material irrelevant to the scope of your talk. You get to determine your Q&A and how it goes; you have a lot of power to reframe questions, move on from weird ones, and do whatever you can to help the audience continue to learn.

The most productive questions are open ones, where you can answer in a multitude of ways (and adapt your response to your current audience). Closed questions, on the other hand, require only a “yes” or “no.” These tend to be less helpful (and likely easily settled with an online search). Answer these simply. If you can, connect it to an idea or tool that might interest the rest of the crowd. Otherwise, move on.

Sometimes, audience members ask questions that aren’t actually questions—which isn’t always bad! I’ve had people say, “Everybody in this audience should read Lara’s post on XYZ, because it is great!” (Thanks, buddy!) Other times (oh boy), an audience member might be trying to appear smart. Or start an argument. Or dismiss you based on their experience. This can feel awkward! But recognize this peacocking isn’t about you. This person’s actions and words are purely a reflection of them and whatever they have going on. Who knows why they feel the need to raise their hand and say words out loud to a large group of people. The important thing is remembering their non-question has little to do with you or the quality of your presentation. Know too the audience is rooting for you, and they want this audience member to stop talking as much as you do. They’d rather go back to learning!

Further, there’s no rule you need to accept the premise of a question. You can ask the person to reword (“I’m not sure I understand. Could you clarify?”), or you can reflect what you heard and ask, “Is that what you mean?” I’ve also flat-out rephrased questions to ones I’d rather answer, something I think would better benefit the audience to hear. Feel free to reframe questions to make them more digestible or relevant to your topic. When I reframe a question, I’ll acknowledge doing so: “I know I answered a slightly different question than the one you asked.” And then I smile before moving on.

It’s your job to keep the program on track, because you’re the one with the microphone and spotlight. You get to set the tone. By reminding yourself the work in a Q&A is to continue to help the audience learn something new and relevant, hopefully you can give yourself permission to circumvent awkward, aggressive, or unhelpful audience responses.

Impostor syndrome

Raise your hand if you’ve ever calmly conducted a conversation (with a boss, a client, or a coworker) while internally chanting, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” If so, you’re not alone. Many of us—and many survey respondents—have felt like imposters at some point in our careers. We worry we don’t know as much as we think we do or we don’t really deserve to be onstage sharing our expertise.

This feeling is hard to shake. Some doubt is normal, and can even be a good sign—see the Dunning-Kruger effect (PDF). More important, remember why you have airtime at this event: you are passionate about this subject, and the event organizers wanted folks to hear about it from you. No one knows all there is to know on any topic; if someone asks a question you don’t know the answer to, it doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. (You might revisit the tips in Chapter 5.)

If an audience member points out something you have no clue about, great! You just learned something new, and given this is a topic you’re excited about, you’re probably eager to pick up that new skill. One time during Q&A, an audience member ran an impromptu experiment based on an idea he’d had during my presentation, and raised his hand to share the results with everyone. His approach was super cool and gave us something different to try that totally worked. I was delighted, thanked him, and asked him to tweet about it. This moment wasn’t about revealing a gap in my knowledge. In fact, it’s a fast-forward to what you hope your audience does after the talk: take what you give them, and build something awesome.

On harassment

For some, thinking about unruly or antagonistic audience members escalates into a much bigger (and valid) concern. A number of survey respondents mentioned fears of harassment during or after giving a talk:

In the wake of events like GamerGate, those expressed fears (with which I identify) are very real. If you’re concerned about being harassed as a public speaker, you might consider a few mitigation tactics to hopefully make you feel more comfortable. For instance, choose events with a Code of Conduct that organizers are prepared to enforce. Ask them how they plan to deal with harassers. These conversations will also help you feel out who on staff you can talk to about any issues during or after the event. Another resource is Feminist Frequency’s “Speak Up & Stay Safe(r): A Guide to Protecting Yourself From Online Harassment”. The website suggests harassment-prevention measures, like improving the security of your passwords and removing your personally identifiable information from public view.

If you experience harassment while at the event, follow the steps in the Code of Conduct (if it exists), such as contacting the designated person to help. Be sure to prioritize your safety and health; remember that being in shock, or feeling unable to directly address harassment yourself, is perfectly normal. As possible, lean on the event staff and those around you, and consult resources like the Geek Feminism Wiki, which lists strategies to consider when reporting harassment.

The act of public speaking is incredibly courageous. You are choosing to go and be vulnerable onstage, under a spotlight, in front of a group of people. But you’re choosing to do so because your voice and your topic are important to share.

After the talk

Let out that breath, give a cheer—and ride that adrenaline high! Your primary work is done: you delivered your talk, maybe you answered some questions, and now it’s time to applaud yourself.

Do what you please: some people enjoy celebrating with others, some want to be alone for a while and decompress. I personally love holing up in a quiet place where no one can find me for an hour or so after a talk; it gives me time to think on how it went and see if people shared their impressions online yet.

Collect feedback

Gather external sources of feedback to check how well your content resonated with the audience and how you might improve your presentation for next time.

I like to start with Twitter to see which parts of the talk were quoted—it gives me a sense of what appealed most to folks, and I’ll consider going deeper into those aspects if I give the presentation again. I also note which parts people didn’t talk about or link to, and I’ll consider if I should try a different tack or discard it, or (if it’s fundamental to the talk) keep it as is.

I also check:

Public feedback can be exhilarating and daunting. As you log people’s reactions, try to focus on the constructive pieces (Chapter 5’s diamonds and spades!)—the notes that’ll make your talk even stronger for the future. Bask in all the praise. If you see feedback criticizing you as a person, policing your tone, or otherwise providing unhelpful advice, chuck it in the garbage. As engineering manager Raquel Vélez reminds us, “Talks don’t define you; you define you. Talks come and go, but every single one will make you a better you”.

Check in with yourself

Complement others’ feedback with your own assessment. Ask yourself: How did that go? What did I notice most during the talk? How do I feel? What would I want to do next time?

Tracking these questions will help you hone your instincts as a speaker. For starters, try stacking your answers against audience responses, and see where they differ or overlap. Maybe your brain is still stuck on a mistake you made, but no one has made a fuss about it. Or perhaps you spent extra time going deep into a technical detail in Q&A, based on a gut-check of audience interest—and your explanation is repeatedly quoted.

Your answers will help you weigh the feedback you receive, but more crucial, they give you the chance to express how well your talk worked for you. (You might revisit your initial goals for speaking, from way back in Chapter 1.) If you can stomach it, watch the recording of your presentation to see how you did. Or give the same talk again, in a different venue, and start to learn how different events and audiences respond to you. Each talk is a chance to shape your content, your delivery, your persona into whatever makes you excited to take the stage; this exercise of checking in with yourself is a springboard for you to decide what you’d like to practice next.

When it comes to improving, remember we can’t get better at everything all at once. So what’s the one thing you want to work on for next time? Maybe when you watch the video, you notice you’d like to take more pauses or do something else with your hands. Or maybe you feel you didn’t have a good read on the audience, so you brainstorm ways to build in more interactions, like asking attendees more questions or simply reminding yourself to look up from your presenter notes.

We can all improve our game by practicing, reflecting, and learning from others—and ourselves.

Celebrate your achievement

After my talk is done, after I’ve answered questions, checked the data, and thanked people, I’ll go find a donut.

Years ago, whenever I achieved something—like giving a talk—I wouldn’t take the time to celebrate it, because the feeling of success was so intangible. It’s not like you’re sauntering from the venue, boosting a trophy; it’s all too easy to keep zooming forward, never acknowledging to yourself the big-deal thing you did. And because I skipped out on noting each real and hard-earned (how much of this book is about preparation?) achievement, I felt like I wasn’t moving toward my goals.

To combat this feeling, I decided to be deliberate about marking accomplishments by eating one donut—sitting down, savoring it, and spending a few minutes thinking about the work I put in. Carving out a moment to celebrate lets me really feel like I did something; it’s a delicious and tangible reminder I’ve accomplished an otherwise-intangible career goal.

Throughout this book, I hope you’ve been able to identify your fears about public speaking and address them in ways that feel comfortable to you. Wrestling with worries, making plans forward—these deserve whatever your version of a donut is. Mark down this moment. You’ve put in time and tremendous effort. Revel in it.