The 10 things I learned from speaking in public 5 times over the last year
Public speaking is utterly terrifying, right? The fear starts the moment you take on the assignment. Your boss tells you it’s good for the company, or you’ve got to stand up in front of the board, or you’ve been approached and aaaargh don’t they understand that you know nothing?! * hyperventilates *
Strangely, I’ve never really felt those things. Ask me to memorise a script and pretend to be someone else, and yes, I’m running screaming off that stage. Ask me to go up there as myself and speak for 10 minutes plus about something I know? I’m there. Mic me up, please.
How? I guess I’ve always felt this to be true: the audience wants me to do well. They want you to do well, too, if you’re the one up there. They want to learn from you, they want to enjoy your bit, they want to applaud you at the end.
It’s a tricky, slippery thing to analyse knowledge that feels innate. I’ve tried to with this, though, as the same question kept coming up as I documented the speaking events on social media: “How do you have the confidence to do it?”
It isn’t really confidence in myself, but in the story I have to tell. The subjects I’ve been asked to talk about are diversity in journalism and the first podcast I made. Anything I know about the former subject — a huge area — is a theory that I’ve come up with through my own experience of not being completely reflected by the mainstream.
The kinds of diversity that apply to you — gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, please name more — each eventually becomes a lens that helps you see the world in more nuanced ways than someone who’s never really been othered. Tough formative experiences outweigh easy ones when you get to adulthood. Who wouldn’t want more people like that around?
As for the podcast? It’s a show I pitched, hosted, produced and collaborated on with a friend. It’s me talking about my favourite TV show and interviewing people from it. There were good stats. Like public speaking, podcasts are about the power of the voice to connect, to create the feeling of a conversation when, actually, only one side is speaking.
Why bother with all this? Public speaking lets you get your individuality across. It positions you as someone who knows a thing or two. Like podcasting (which I’d also encourage you to get into, when you have a moment), it helps strangers feel like they know you, and like you. It’s a great thing for your career (and self-worth?) to have that acknowledgement.
Still, getting up on stage or onto a panel five times managed to teach me a lot. Here they are:
- Love what you’re talking about
If you’re applying to speak at a thing, well that’s easy. If the subject is thrust upon you… less so. Find something within the topic that makes you feel warm. That’s probably an anecdote, a small tale of connection, something going well or even a bit of a failure that you can convey in a wry way. Does it make you smile a bit? Open with that to get your audience in the right mood.
2. Practise deep breathing
Muscle memory training that will stand you in good stead if the panic rises. Breathe in slowly through your nose, feel your shoulders rise, pause. Then out through your mouth shaped like a letterbox.
Empty your mind.
3. Investigate your fear(s)
Sorry, but yes, this. What is the actual, real worst thing that can happen? We fall out of our exalted position in the European Union? The alt-right marches in? Something to do with Russia?
All those things are already happening, so they’re not on the table. Try again.
Will you stumble over your words? Freeze up? Fall off the stage?
Okay, a bit more likely. So what’s your strategy? Stumbling over words or freezing is normal — you can laugh it off. The audience will understand. Physically falling is much worse, so it’s best avoided. Hold onto the lectern with both hands.
4. Don’t write it all out
No, it won’t sound right and you’ll miss out on making that vital eye contact with the audience. If you don’t have slides to prompt you, use some of those little lined cards that you crammed all your A-Level revision onto. Or phone notes. Remember: you know this story. It’s all yours. You can freestyle it a bit.
5. If it’s a panel, wear something that looks decent when sitting down
Being in a chair on a stage above an audience is not an angle that presents me at my most sleek or elegant, alas; your mileage might vary. The dress and belt that I wore to my first event (top left in the collage) was… not a good combo. My co-panellists wore black, draping, blazers — and looked fantastic. I learned some lessons that day.
I didn’t think about my appearance while on the panel, but the photos and video are really important proof that you did the thing, so you want to be happy with how you look in those.
Also — see if you can google the space beforehand and plan accordingly. I dread the day I’m asked to give good panel while perched on high bar stools. I’m 5' 3". I’ll need a ladder.
6. Don’t hide behind a huge scarf as I did in the second pic on the left of the collage
A giant flashing sign with ‘FEELING INSECURE TODAY’ works better. Hold it in your lap, facing the audience. That’s right.
7. If on a panel, address the audience too
It’s easier to only speak to your panel and moderator, but ensure you sweep your eyes across the audience at least once for each time you speak. Make eye contact with a few people in the front row. They’ll be thrilled.
7. Go for the whole event, or at least be one or two sessions early
This means you can check when and where you get mic’ed up, and what random nook and / or cranny they’re calling the green room, where you can leave your things safely before going onstage. It’s worth seeing a bit of the other speakers, what kind of tone they’re striking, how the audience is responding.
I can also understand how this could make the anxiety well up in a big way so, pay attention to how you feel. If it’s not working for you, skip the other sessions. Be early, ask questions about getting ready to go on, then tell them you’re taking your notes for a little walk outside.
8. Ask a “raise your hand if” question at the start
I love this, and find myself doing it pretty much every time. You’ve got an audience in front of you who work in your industry / want to break in / have broadly similar interests. Ask them a simple yes or no question that’s going to be yes for most of them. It’s very calming to see all those hands go up. You’re doing audience engagement IRL!
I started off with “Who’s watched Black Mirror?” every time I talked about my podcast, because that’s what it’s about, and I’d have to explain it anyway. Luckily, most people I’ve talked at love the bleak dystopian show. Asking them to tell me that breaks down the barrier between us. We’re all just fans here, together.
I did ask a question of the audience on the diversity panel, but I can’t remember what it was. Let’s say it was. “Do you feel like you hear the word ‘diversity’ more and more, but you find it harder and harder to define?” * raises hand * (I wish it was something that considered)
The audience will love this bit of interactivity, and feel really seen by you. In this scenario, you’re the big-time star onstage. They’re mega-keen to be seen by you.
Plus, you get a feel for the room — are they giggling a bit at the question, or timidly looking round before putting a hand up? The atmosphere becomes immediately apparent. You can modify your tone to work with that.
Don’t be afraid of the audience! They admire the guts it takes to be up there. They want you to look them in the eyes and connect with them.
9. Talk about a time you messed things up
Vulnerability is an inviting quality. The narrative of how you picked yourself up and gave it another go, or learned from the mistake and altered things — that’s pretty damn compelling. You’re helping the audience feel like they can follow in your footsteps. You started at square one, like they’ll have to. That gives them hope, and they’ll love you for it.
10. Summarise the experience you just talked about with enthusiasm
In that audience are powerful people, people with vacancies to fill, people who might be hiring you in 15 years’ time, people who will give you work when you lose your job and go freelance, people whose business cards will sit in your desk drawer for two years and then you’ll tweet them and you’ll end up making an award-winning thing together, people who felt empowered by your talk to make a huge leap in their lives and they’ll dedicate their Oscar / Emmy / Tony / Webby Award to you, one day.
What you’ve just done — speak on a raised platform or from a deeply uncomfortable chair in front of interested people — is impressive. Give them a nice takeaway of 5-ish tips to do the thing you’ve done, or deal with the thing you’ve dealt with, then say: I had a great experience. I enjoyed the thing I told you about. It was amazing. Or: it was awful, but I survived and here’s what I know now, I’ve had a great time telling you.
Then, leave the stage / slide off the bar stool on a high.
You’re about to get mobbed, Exciting Speaker Who’s Widely Admired! Your Twitter follower account is going to explode! You faced your fears and inspired others! Well done you. * exit to thundering applause *
Now go and sign up for another one…