Advice on Public Speaking

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Public Speaking Bullhorn Megaphone Communication Ideas Advice

Although a career in programming may not require a great deal of public speaking, the chances are that at some point a programmer will need to speak in front of a group of people for one reason or another. Maybe you will be demonstrating a new product or feature, perhaps you will be proposing a new internal process, or you may even be responsible for a sales pitch. Whatever the context, the thought of public speaking is quite frightening for most people, and as many of us programmers are natural introverts, we are as liable to panic as anyone.

I am not a natural when it comes to public speaking, nor is it an art which I have mastered, so I’m not the best person to speak with authority on how to do it well. This post is a good example of me writing for myself – I am going to outline a few thoughts on what has and has not worked for me in the past, and finish by focussing on three key ideas for future reference.

What has worked for me?

My experience in public speaking is mixed.  Sometimes it has gone well, sometimes it has gone badly, mostly it has been okay. Looking back on the times when it has gone well, if I had to pick three key observations, they would be these:

  • I have spoken with confidence
  • I have prepared well
  • I have not faced difficult questions

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

My first and most striking observation is that when I have spoken well, I have spoken with confidence. The difficulty we have with public speaking is fear. I’m not sure of the exact psychological reasons why so many people struggle with public speaking, but I guess it is something to do with a weird human fear of rejection, ridicule or humiliation. These ideas cause anxiety, and you could say the opposite of anxiety is confidence. If you are speaking with genuine confidence, there is little room for anxiety.

The problem is that confidence is difficult to fake, which is one reason why my second observation – adequate preparation – is important. If you fail to prepare, this will affect your confidence, so not only will the quality of your content be affected, but your lack of confidence will make matters worse still. Planning and thinking through what you will say is really a form of visualization, even though you may be looking at a Word or PowerPoint document rather than sitting with your eyes closed.

My final observation from my best public speaking performances is that I have not faced any really difficult questions. This shows that difficult questions can be a real problem. What do you do if you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, or even worse a question which you just don’t understand? The truth is that this may happen, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. All you can do is prepare for the possibility, which is something which I perhaps have not done in the past. The best response is to be honest. Don’t waffle, just say that in all honesty you don’t know the answer to that question, but don’t end things there, offer to look into it or to speak to the person afterwards to explore the issue further, and thank them for the interesting question.

What has not worked for me?

Again acknowledging the power of three, here are my key observations from public speaking experiences which didn’t go well:

  • Avoiding the issue
  • Faking enthusiasm
  • Waffling and speaking quickly

If you are nervous about an upcoming requirement to speak, it can be tempting to ignore the problem and just see what happens. From my experience this just doesn’t work. Distracting yourself from the issue may seem to work well leading up to the big day, until the time comes when you actually have to stand up and face the music. The truth is that if you feel averse to preparing for a speech, then you probably are anxious about it deep down, and you don’t want to face this truth. Sitting down to prepare for your speech is pro-actively facing and overcoming your fears, in the safety of your home or office, rather than the more difficult alternative of facing them in front of your audience.

Although enthusiasm can certainly add to a speech, and is probably a desirable quality in a speaker, the truth is that there may be times when you are just not feeling particularly enthusiastic about your subject matter. It may be that you have been asked to speak about something which you are unfamiliar with, or not interested in. It may be that you have a young child who kept you awake last night, or you have had a headache all day. These things happen. If this is the case, don’t try to fake enthusiasm, just focus on speaking clearly and getting your message across. Perhaps the best public speaking tip I have come across in recent years is to think of yourself as the messenger. People aren’t here to see you, they are here to learn something. If you can think of yourself as merely the messenger, then you will feel less pressured to act a certain way. You can speak clearly and in an engaging manner without necessarily feeling enthusiastic.

There have been times that I have been intensely aware of myself waffling and speaking quickly during a talk. This is a classic sign of nervousness in a speaker. It reduces the impact of your message, wastes everyone’s time, and can make the audience feel almost as uncomfortable as the speaker. Once you start doing this, it can be difficult to stop, therefore the best antidote is to remind yourself beforehand not to do it. Speak slowly and clearly. Pause frequently. This will not only help you to stay relaxed, but you will feel more in control and will give the audience time to absorb what you are saying.

Three things to remember moving forward

Having recalled good and bad public speaking experiences from my own past and noted observations from them, which of these or other principles do I want to remember moving forward? I have decided upon on the following:

  • Prepare meticulously
  • Remember – you are the messenger
  • Speak slowly and clearly

I don’t know when I will next be required to speak for others, but when the time comes these will be the three principles I will focus on.

From my experience, you can’t prepare too much when it comes to public speaking. The Natural Planning Model is a great framework for planning speeches which I have used in the past, and will use in the future. The idea of being merely a messenger delivering information to the audience has more recently helped me to stay relaxed and focus on the content rather than myself, and this is a principle I intend to take forward in my career. Finally, speaking slowly and clearly is a technique which is all too easy to overlook in the midst of an important speech. Remember this beforehand, and you are less likely to succumb to waffling and speaking quickly during your talk.

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