How I became an international public speaker as an introvert — and how you can too
There I was — on the stage, in Russia — about to begin my talk. The bright lights created a spotlight as close to 700 people in the audience gazed upwards in my direction.
Back-stage I’d had make up applied — supposedly for the cameras — but I’m sure it was to cover up the fact that I looked slightly like a zombie…
Less than a day earlier — back in Amsterdam — I wasn’t sure if I’d even make it to Russia for the talk I was supposed to be giving.
There’d been a delay in getting my travel visa processed. I’d had to cancel my original flight and rebook an alternative one for later that same day. All without really knowing when (or if) the visa would arrive.
After a lot of frantic back and forth conversation with the event organiser, that afternoon I finally got word that my passport with the visa was ready. I could pick it up at the airport later that evening and I’d make the new flight.
I ended up flying through the night, leaving Amsterdam not long after midnight and arriving at my hotel room at 5:15am.
The talk was the same day.
With a severe lack of sleep, but my make up applied and my presentation ready, I faced the crowd and gave it my best shot.
The whole travel visa saga meant I had a pretty great story to kickstart my talk and the excitement of actually being in Russia took over. The talk went well. I think.
After the conference was over and I’d been able to catch up on some much needed sleep, I had a chance to reflect…
In 2018, I travelled to Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland and Russia, as well as right here in Amsterdam, to speak to international audiences at various UX conferences and events.
But just a year or two earlier, the thought of ever standing up on stage in front of hundreds of people terrified me. It terrified me to the point that my heart would begin to race, beating faster and faster, causing my entire body to shake.
As a natural introvert, I’ve often struggled in many social situations, let alone presenting to large audiences.
Here are some of the things that have worked for me along this journey:
Unless you’re extremely confident, it’s unlikely that the best approach is to start in front of a huge audience.
During my early school years, I had to perform a song by myself, to a church full of people. I don’t really remember why I was chosen for it.
Imagine being around 9 or 10 years old standing on a stage, with hundreds of eyes starting up at you, expectantly waiting on your performance…
The large audience was terrifying.
I tried to take a sick day that day to get out of doing it, because the thought of it completely overwhelmed me with fear. I did everything that I could to not get up there and sing. I begged my parents not to go to school that day.
Once I was at school, I left a class to go and “throw up” in the toilet. You name an excuse: I probably tried it.
Somehow though, I managed. I got up there and I sang as best as I could. But the whole experience wasn’t fun.
Throughout the rest of my youth, the thought of being in front of any audience created that deep sinking, anxious feeling inside of me that came to the surface in the church that day.
So when I decided that I wanted to do public speaking for real, I decided that I was going to start small and work my way up.
Instead of jumping straight in at the deep end, I started with smaller audiences. I spoke at internal Booking.com design jams and at meet-ups. Eventually graduating to larger stages.
“Start small: give a lightning talk at a brown bag lunch with office friends. Grow that into a short talk at a local meetup. Get it on film. Extend your topic and length. Then you can start submitting!”
- Rachel Nabors
Find your spark and have fun with it
The first time I really thought about presenting at a conference, I was in Barcelona. A few friends and I had made the trip over there for a cool sounding conference (and of course, to escape the Dutch weather for some sunshine and tapas).
Whilst sat in the audience, I couldn’t stop thinking… why shouldn’t it be me up there? What is really stopping me from doing it?
After the conference, I went home and watched as many TED talks as possible. I bought and read as many books as I could find on how to give a good talk.
Tomasz had been doing some great things inside Booking.com. He’d been speaking at some of our “Design Jam” talks and I’d seen him head to Greece, back to the University he studied at, to talk to the students there about UX. From our conversations I knew he wanted to do more of it and that he wanted to help share the knowledge he’d built up with others.
Watching Erin talk was just something else.
The first time I saw her speak, I’d never seen someone look so comfortable up on a stage. It’s hard to describe exactly what that was like to see. But if I had to try, I’d say it was like the stage was her house and she had invited everybody in for coffee.
In one of our many conversations about public speaking, Erin once told me, “If you’re having fun, they’re having fun”.
I think that’s an amazing way of looking at presenting and I know she has given that advice to others too. Erin was clearly having fun and if she was nervous at all inside, it didn’t show.
“If you’re having fun, they’re having fun. Just get up there, have fun and talk about something you know and have passion for. You got it!”
Talk about something you care about
Think about what gets you excited to get up on that stage in the first place.
The first time I stepped on stage in front of a large international audience was at the Booking Annual Meeting. Our internal conference/event that was held each January in Amsterdam.
For that talk, I chose to talk about something other than design in its traditional sense. Instead, I spoke about something close and important to me personally: Battling depression and utilising a growth mindset.
Having suffered with depression for a large portion of my life, this was a topic that I really believed in talking about. I was passionate in spreading my message about how I was able to work through some of those issues and the things that helped me to do so.
“Reconnect with your passion. Look inside and see that thing that got you excited to be on stage.“
Speaking about something you have experience with and you’re passionate about immediately gives you a story to tell, which leads me to my next point…
Tell your audience a story
As humans, we’re pre-programmed to pay attention to stories.
In Russia, I was able to use the almost disaster to start my presentation off with a story (and a joke) about feeling/looking like a zombie and share the fact that I was super excited to have finally made it.
You also don’t have to tell your own stories. During my BAM presentation, I told a story about Jia Jiang: A man who had a fear of rejection.
Jia decided to complete “100 days of rejection”, where he deliberately went out and tried to get rejected in different situations. Jia is now a TED speaker and author and not at all afraid of rejection.
I also spoke about Musharaf (in the video below), who was a school student with a stammer that made it difficult for him to even speak. Let alone speak publicly to a large audience.
Think about the overall message you are trying to share with your audience and use stories to engage them, instead of just slides and bullet points. Having an underlying story can help to tie your whole talk together. Sprinkling stories throughout can keep people engaged.
Practice, practice, practice
There’s nothing that helps more than getting over some of the fear than knowing that you are prepared before you start.
Once you have a talk ready: practice. The more you practice, the better prepared you will be.
Record yourself. Play it back. Cringe at yourself (we all do). Record yourself doing it again. Practice out loud in the shower. Give your talk in front of people you trust to give you candid feedback.
Figure out what works best for you, but make sure you practice.
The more you practice, the more the realise that each time you give the talk it will be a new one. You will forget a few points you were going to make. You might add new ones. It will change and evolve.
Know that you won’t please everyone
In any audience, you won’t be able to please everyone.
Guess what? That’s normal. And it’s ok.
Some people will enjoy your talks, others won’t. Some talks will go well, others won’t. That’s just how it goes. Each talk you do gives you something to learn from and work on for next time.
There will be people who have heard what you’re talking about before and people who aren’t interested in your talk. But there will be people who haven’t heard what you’re speaking about before and those who are incredibly interested in your talk.
You’ll almost always come away from a talk thinking that there were parts of it you could have done better. That’s normal.
If you reach just a single person with your message, it’s worthwhile.
Step outside your comfort zone
If you’d told 9 or 10 year old me — after singing in the church that day — that I’d now be traveling the world to speak internationally at conferences, he would have probably tried to run away. The thought terrified me.
I’m still an introvert. Public speaking is still outside of my comfort zone. But now it’s a little less outside my comfort zone.
Through speaking, I’ve met some incredible people and made some amazing friends. I’ve been able to travel to new cities and explore them. And most importantly, I’ve been able to share the things I’ve learned with others.
No matter where you’re at, if you can just push yourself that little bit further you never know where you’ll end up. That’s super exciting.
Now it’s your turn.
Go out there and have fun.
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Thank you for reading!