How Speaking at Conferences Helped Me Conquer My Fear of Public Speaking
Public speaking was a phobia of mine pretty much my entire life until I began to face it by presenting at my industry’s Microsoft SharePoint events. In the past attempts at public speaking, my voice would shake and/or I’d break into sweats all while losing my place and forgetting what I was talking about.
Despite classes I took in college on public speaking, it was and still is not easy for me. I wasn’t forced into the SharePoint speaking circle, however; successfully delivering a technical training session to a room of strangers was an important goal of mine which I figured could only help my career, and I definitely feel that it has. As a speaker you are set apart as an authority on a subject as well as someone who wants to help others understand that subject.
In preparing for my first SharePoint Saturday session (a wonderful, free conference series open to the entire SharePoint community) I read a lot about how to get over the fear of speaking as well as the tricks you can implement to limit fidgeting. I wanted my presentation to be valuable to the audience, not just showcase my nerves. That’s why I researched public speaking so extensively. There are a lot of books/ideas out there, but here are a few tips which I use:
Seven Tips to Deliver a Successful Presentation
1. Thoroughly research your topic and prepare
Knowing the material is paramount to delivering a session that is worthwhile for the attendee. If people are getting up and leaving in masses because you don’t know what you’re talking about that is very bad and even more embarrassing. Don’t let that even be an option by studying up and knowing the topic forwards and backwards. And on a side note, some people will likely leave in the middle of your session, but don’t take it personally. It’s not necessarily that they think you’re a bad speaker, they might just have to take a call or maybe they found another session topic which interests them more.
2. Practice the presentation
Practice, practice, practice. Practicing the presentation helps you work on timing, transitions and the general flow. I try to run through the complete presentation at least twice to make sure the amount of content along with my planned dialog will fill the appropriate allotted time. This also makes sure that the points flow well in the order in which you deliver them.
3. Lay off the caffeine before the session
This was a big one for me. I am generally a soda and coffee addict and laying off these an hour before the presentation helped calm the nerves. This also helped me to speak slower and stay focused.
4. Drink water during the presentation
Drinking water during the presentation will help with dry mouth and allows for short breaks between slides. This is another tip which helps me speak slower and collect my thoughts for the next slides.
5. Don’t stand behind the podium/computer the whole time
I am still trying to get better at this. If you are a fast talker and flip through slides quickly it is easy to get stuck behind the computer talking into it. It is best practice, unless you’re doing a demo, to get out and walk around, looking and speaking directly to the audience. It adds a visual effect to your delivery besides the slides behind you.
You can purchase a remote control to hold or even just use a mouse to help you switch slides so that you don’t need to stand at your computer to do so. (I still need to buy one of these myself!)
6. Engage the Audience
We’ve all seen good and bad presentations. Good presentations generally involve the speaker communicating directly with the audience and asking questions or taking polls. The answers posed by the audience might help the direction of the talk and make it more valuable. Keep in mind though that sometimes the audience will not participate so you must come prepared with answers to your own questions to avoid that awkward silence…
Another point to think about with regards to engaging the audience is your design of the presentation slides. Less words and more images generally makes the presentation more interesting. I like to think of the slides as a way to backup or highlight what you are saying. I struggle with this still because I use the text on the slides to remind myself about the points I want to get across. Having separate notes for the dialog might be a better option. More text may the better approach however if you plan on sharing the slide deck with your audience or uploading it to Slideshare for SEO value after the presentation.
7. Don’t assume your audience knows too little or too much about your topic
At SharePoint Saturdays and conferences, a level (100, 200, 300, etc) is assigned to the session indicating the depth at which the topic will be covered. Being that I’m pretty technical I like to over analyze things and get in depth with my sessions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you know your audience, assign a proper level number, and stick to that level of in-depth analysis and discussion.
The Value of Public Speaking
Attending and presenting at SharePoint training and networking events such as a SharePoint Saturday has introduced me to the SharePoint community in new and interesting ways, as any industry gathering can do for any business. I have a new-found appreciation for the amount of work and preparation it takes to deliver an interesting and engaging SharePoint session, as well as how much effort it takes to organize one of these events.
I’ve also learned that most of these events are free to attend and the presenters often have to travel to speak on their own dime. The past few years while speaking and exhibiting as a sponsor I have had the pleasure to meet fellow speakers and “famous” individuals who regularly speak and educate the SharePoint-using masses at events across the world.
If you are interested in speaking at a SharePoint event, it sometimes takes some creativity and timing to get selected by the event committee for one or more speaking slots. One idea is to keep your eye on social media. When you see a call for speakers come across Twitter for one of these events, quickly submitting your completed session form will probably help. I have never been on an organizing committee for a SharePoint Saturday, but I figure sooner rather than later is always better when submitting for anything with a limited number of available slots.
The other recommendation is to really take some time when thinking of your topic title, overview description, and depth level. Like many other SharePoint speakers out there, I have had multiple submissions rejected because the topic was already taken or just didn’t sound as interesting as someone else’s. If your session doesn’t get chosen, don’t take this personally – it just comes down to which presentations the organizers think attendees would like the most. There may be some preferential treatment, but generally the session selection is anonymous and based on the topic. Most of the attendees at SharePoint Saturdays are relatively new to SharePoint so a high-level 100 session may be more appealing.
I hope my tips and overview of my journey of overcoming my public speaking demons will help you in your pursuit of technical speaking excellence. Thank you for reading and good luck out there!