What if they start laughing at me? 10 fears I face as a public speaker

Jun 5, 2016 · 17 min read

Warning: I don’t blog. I dissertation.

On stage, I press “play video” on my 5-minute jump PR stunt. I sit back down with the audience as I watch and laugh at myself base jump from a skyscraper. After the credits roll, I get back on stage and, slightly trembling, say my lead sentence,

“It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched that video. See I’m shaking. It’s not that I have a fear of public speaking — it’s that I’m reliving a near death experience!”

After saying that lead sentence, I welcome everyone to my talk and then provide my bio. I press “next slide,” take a deep breath (there’s always time to take a deep breath), and start speaking…

Between 2007–2010, I gave a lot of talks, but verbal communication does not come naturally to me at all.

Approximately 70 conference badges on the wall

Give me a laptop and I’ll write for days on end. Give me an audience of 100s (or better yet 1000s) and I’ll knock it out of the park with karate katas. But ask me to speak? Well, just sit back and watch me fall apart.

To pull off all these conferences meant *a lot* of public speaking training (approx 10 hours worth, much 1–1 coaching, etc). And it was just dumb luck that I was at the right place at the right time to get started. (Thanks Noah!)

Before my first big talk I had migraine-level headaches for 5 weeks. Nothing like trial by fire by giving your first ever conference talk at a conference that cost $2000 to attend, and you’re such the most requested speaker that showing the number of requests broke the CSS of the conference website! But I survived and since then have enjoyed every second of this public speaking challenge.

I wanted to share my 10 biggest fears of public speaking, in case it can help someone else.

  1. Fear #1 — How do I get started?
  2. Fear #2 — What if they start laughing at me?
  3. Fear #3 — What if they *REALLY* are laughing at me?
  4. Fear #4 — What if my demo isn’t technical or complex enough
  5. Fear #5 — What if I make a mistake? What if I forget what to say on a slide?
  6. Fear #6 — What if they realize I’m a fraud?
  7. Fear #7 — What if I’m caught not knowing the answer to a question?
  8. Fear #8 — What if I answer the question incorrectly?
  9. Fear #9 — What if they walk out?
  10. Fear #10 — What if I talk too fast?

I have to ask myself what was the point of going through all this pain if I don’t share my experiences? Even if it can help one person just a little bit, I’d say this blog post dissertation thingy was worth it!

Here we go!

Fear #1 — How do I get Started?

Small dog hiding behind sofa
  • Always practice your intro to the audience. Always.
  • Never try to wing it — you’ll be that much more nervous in front of everyone, making it harder to think, much less coming up with material.
  • My intro is showing that video, sitting with the audience, and then stating my lead word for word. I practice that lead sentence over and over, because all I need to remember is that one sentence. The rest can fall into place once the ice is broken.

First, take deep breath

Swimmer taking deep breath — http://yukon-news.com/sports/swimmer-mackenzie-downing-announces-retirement/

I’ve trained myself to take a deep breath every time I hit the right arrow for “Next Slide.” It breaks the “so” and “um” for me. It’s also a good practice to take a deep breath every now and then throughout your talk.

Second, realize that time is 10x faster on stage

Blur around a person standing still — https://texidorphoto.wordpress.com/tag/long-shutter-speed/

Yes, you have time to take a deep breath!

  • Time goes by much much much faster on stage in the presenter’s mind than in the audience. Probably by a factor of 10x.
  • You have time to take a deep breath and collect thoughts.
  • I promise no one will notice or even care.

Third, speak as loud as possible

Dog yawning into mic — http://cuteoverload.com/2014/09/18/how-do-you-do-jimmy-choo/
  • I have a voice quiver. My voice shakes too much to be heard. I must always tell myself to speak to the person at the back of the room to remind me to speak loudly.
  • I tighten my stomach and “punch through” my initial words of a sentence and the final word of a sentence. One of the (many) public speaking coaches I had also did karate, so he was able to map many techniques back to karate terms. I joke that I have a $400 sentence, “Intellectual property is work that is derived from an individual’s mind.” We went over this one sentence for 2 hours until I could articulate it correctly.
  • Listen to TV reporters how they end their sentences. They make their voices a bit louder on the last few words on each sentence, hence the “punching through.”

Speak with conviction as if you don’t care that you’re going to interrupt everyone. Or just be plain rude! Whatever it takes to have your voice reach the back of the room as if you were talking directly to the back wall!

Fourth, always do a mic check

Microphone w blurred background — source
  • A great way to warm up (and get some free practice) is to do a mic check. Just say “Test 1 2 1 2 Test 1 2”
  • No one will ever make fun of someone doing a mic check.
  • I’m willing to bet that most people who are doing mic checks aren’t verifying the mic. They are warming up vocally.

Fear #2 — What if they start laughing at me?

“laughing” seal — http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2715877/The-laughing-seals-Chuckling-sea-mammals-love-laugh-bound-smile-face.html

Yep, I mentally go through all those tips above just to get started and I’m still afraid they’ll start laughing! Here’s one possible reason why. This is the first time I’ve ever really talked about this, so here we go…

  • I had (and might still have) a speech impediment as a kid. I had speech therapy throughout most of elementary and middle school.
  • I must concentrate on every word I say. Every single day. Every single time. Every single word.
  • Whenever anyone anytime asks me “what did you say?” it’s a bit painful, but I have to remind myself it’s okay now.

First, find “friends” in audience

Turtle smiling — http://cuteoverload.com/2012/07/28/when-youre-smiling-keep-on-smiling/
  • Take a deep breath. Seriously, you have the time.
  • Find the 1–2 people in the room who are engaged. Ignore the rest. And there is always at least 1 person in any sized room that is engaged.
  • As you start to gain confidence, you can start to make eye contact with others in the room, and if you get scared, go back to those 1–2 “friends”

Second, they are not really laughing at you

Cat looking sad in bath — http://cuteoverload.com/2013/01/04/top-ten-cutest-photos-of-2012/
  • One day it’ll click that they aren’t laughing at you. People are too caught up in their own little world to pay attention to you.
  • Once you make this revelation, it is smooth sailing from there on.

Of course, you’d say, “But Sara! I’ve given talks and they were laughing!” Yep, I’ve been there too. But trust in the fact that they aren’t laughing at you. They might have been laughing, but you were not the source of the laughter.

During my first ever MSFT team demo presentation, I yelled at my coworkers because I thought they were laughing at me. Turns out they were laughing at something with the content of the demo (and afterwards it was actually kinda funny), but I took it personally. I was told by management I should never give another talk, but fortunately, I don’t listen to authority. :wink:

Fear #3 — What if they *REALLY* are laughing at me?

Dog in seal costume — http://www.funnyjunk.com/funny_pictures/4212355/best+dog+costume+ever/

Yes, I’ve been there too. Ask me sometime about doing stand up comedy where you’re hoping they are laughing at your jokes and not at you :)

Back in 2008, I was so scared out of my mind the first time I spoke as a Microsoft employee at a large open source conference. I did karaoke with coworkers to get used to getting laughed at to overcome the “what’s the worst that could happen?”

Kitten vs Cat — http://cuteoverload.com/2010/10/23/impending-doom/

When the day came and I saw only 20 people at the open source talk (half of which were my own coworkers), I realize, “This is it? This is what I’ve been terrified of this entire time?” After that, something clicked in my head, and I’ve never been afraid of the “what if they laugh at me?” It was like the phobia of “I’m going to die” if they laugh finally went away.

Of course I’m still terrified of giving a poor talk. But I’m no longer terrified of giving a talk when I’m properly prepared. As an athlete you’ll hear people talk about how you can’t control the outcome. You can only control the preparation and process.

Tip #1 — Remember the white blood cell theory

White blood cells — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SEM_blood_cells.jpg
  • “white blood cell theory” — Similar to “never feed the troll,” never, ever, ever fight back. Let the audience be your white blood cells and come to your rescue. If you fight back, your audience will turn on you and put you in the same group as the heckler, hence killing your “white blood cells.”
  • Think about all the other people there to enjoy your talk. You want to move on asap for the rest of the group. The audience will respect you more for staying cool.

Tip #2 — Be cool honey bunny

“Be cool honey bunny” — Pulp Fiction
  • Always play it cool — even if someone throws an entire bottle of water on your shirt and your laptop. True story. It turned out to be a complete accident (a squeeze bottle lid wasn’t on tight — still amazes me just how much water came out of that bottle!) Fortunately, I started trying to save my laptop before I was able to physically react to the “attack”; otherwise, I might have said a few words, making the audience no longer feel sorry for me for now becoming the aggressor, and hence killing my white blood cells. The guy in the front row was sincerely apologetic and I joked about doing interpreted dance in lieu of slides as my laptop dried off.
  • Always get their side of the story before making judgments
  • And take a deep breath! There’s time!!

Fear #4 — What if my demo isn’t technical or complex enough?

dog in AT-AT costume http://cuteoverload.com/2012/10/31/ladies-and-gentlemen-the-best-pet-halloween-costume-of-all-time-2/

The secret to any successful talk resides in your ability to entertain your audience. Let’s be honest. Sitting in an audience is rough. They are trapped for the next 10–60 minutes, perhaps longer! And the only person who can free them that they are staring at is you. Perhaps your audience is expecting a 300 lv talk but your content is at the 200 lv. Perhaps you are new to the subject matter yourself, but want to talk about a specific area you’ve learned at work or for work. There is a way to handle these situations — by entertaining your audience!

Tip #1 — Entertain your audience by storytelling

Public speaking is all about storytelling. Everyone has a story to tell. What was the situation that brought you here today? Why were you interested in this problem in the first place? What gotchas or close calls did you encounter? Tell a story, even for a team demo.

How to do storytelling in a team demo:

  • Pick something that’s popular right now: World cup, Olympics, Mission to Mars “7 minutes of terror,” something happening internally at your company (e.g. a hackathon), etc.
  • Find interesting stats. E.g. # of tweets during world cup. # of votes in your company’s hackathon. People love to pick up new bits of info, even if it has nothing to do with the talk. This is key! They walk away feeling like they learned something new, even if they already knew everything about your technical content.
  • Use that data for your demo. E.g. if you’re doing a technical demo, build a simple app that displays this demo. Or give a presentation about these stats. E.g. If Elon Musk sends folks to Mars, what would that colony’s population look over time? Make stuff up! Tell a story.
4.9 million total tweets during GHA vs USA world cup — https://blog.twitter.com/2014/seven-worldcup-data-takeaways-so-far

Some past examples I’ve used:

Fear # 5 — What if I make a mistake? What if I forget what to say on a slide?

Dog w sign “I eat the trash” http://cuteoverload.com/2011/01/30/ye-olde-puritan-punishemente/

Take a deep breath

  • Seriously, take a deep breath. You have time!

No one will know you forgot something or made a mistake. Your audience isn’t sitting there grading you on some magical rubric that they acquired from reading your mind. They have no idea what you’re going to say, and that gives you the advantage to entertain your audience! Roll with it. It’s your talk, so it is your rules, your game, your court.

Crazy story time…

Once in front of 300 people at a conference in England, Copy and Paste stopped working in the Visual Studio editor. How on Earth does Ctrl+c Ctrl+v stop working??? I said, “Wow, I would love to debug this, but in the interest of time, I need time to get to other parts of the talk. I have 3 options <x, y, z> to debug, but to move on, we’re going to go with option <z>” People came up to me afterwards asking me if I planned for that to happen. I said, “Are you kidding me? At my first international conference? I’m not that brave!”

Tip #1 — Practice for recovery

Kitten blindsiding Cat http://cuteoverload.com/2012/07/25/this-ones-gonna-go-all-kinds-of-wrong/
  • Practicing a presentation isn’t for practicing for everything to go well. Practicing a presentation is all about how to recover when something goes wrong. The more you rehearse, the more comfortable you become. And you’ll be calmer to think clearly how to get out of trouble when it emerges.
  • It’s all about recovering from “action slips” — the errors of action. E.g. trying to drive to the grocery store Saturday morning and you end up driving to work because you started daydreaming and autonomous motor programs kicked in.
  • Have you ever noticed how speakers remove quick access to their email or other work-related links? It’s to mitigate these “action slips” of accidentally opening their email on stage since these motor patterns are so strong. FWIW, I wrote a couple of research papers on this very topic (habits and human errors) in grad school. It’s really fascinating to trace back to the root causes of human error.

Tip #2 — Never, ever apologize

baby monkey with face in hands — http://cuteoverload.com/2009/08/17/oh-great-and-terrible-monkey-god/
  • First, you have nothing to apologize for because audience doesn’t know any better. It’s your talk.
  • Even if projector doesn’t work, say something like “it’s unfortunate that the presentation gods are not with us today…” but you should not take the hit for something that you didn’t have control over.
  • If you are doing customer service, e.g. replying to support emails, this is different. But for a presentation, no, don’t apologize for things that you have no control over.

I was giving a talk in Australia to a packed room, well over the max occupancy limit. It was so hot. People were sweating in the chairs in front of me. About half-way through the talk, I knew I needed to acknowledge the discomfort. I said, “I see a bunch of you sweating. Trust me, with these lights on me, I feel it too. It’s unfortunate we’re not in a bigger room. I had no control over the logistics and there were no other rooms available when I asked earlier about moving. But what I can control is how soon we get out of here. So I promise I will end 5 minutes early, and I’ll stay up here afterwards. I’ll also stick around for 20 minutes in the hallway. I’m physically here all week till Saturday, so just reach out and we’ll do a 1–1 session. And as I said before, all materials are on my blog so you won’t be missing anything. I want you all to leave with the best experience possible given these logistics. Sounds good?” People were relieved that I acknowledged the discomfort and suggested a plan.

Fear #6 — What if they realize I’m a fraud?

dog dressed up as lion — http://cuteoverload.com/2011/07/18/with-a-bod-like-this-who-needs-hair/5711863241_6466d6eb20_o/

I am the last person to be giving advice on imposture syndrome. All I can offer is to acknowledge the fear of feeling like you’re not qualified and one day they’ll discover you’re a fraud. And to ask for help, whether it is technical, soft skills, learning to shoot pool… otherwise nothing changes.

Tip #1 — You are an interface

t-shirt “404 costume not found” — http://www.xtium.com/blog/8-tech-inspired-diy-halloween-costumes/
  • The presentation isn’t about you. The presentation is about the content. You are just the audience’s UI to the content.
  • It is about getting the content to the audience.
  • Think about how you’d design a UI. Approach your presentation in the same manner.
  • However, if you take stand up comedy classes (like I did last year), you’ll learn that your stand up is all about you and how well you can be vulnerable to your audience. Taking stand up classes made me appreciate how much you can hide behind your content as a public speaker.

Fear #7 — What if I’m caught not knowing the answer to a question?

money surprised in pumpkin bowl

Take a deep breath.

  • It’s not about you being right. This isn’t a quiz that’s being graded.
  • It’s about the audience getting the right answer.
  • You can always ask the room, “does anyone know the answer to this?” Trust the wisdom of the crowds!

Tip #1 — Always repeat the question in your own words

Owl singing http://cuteoverload.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/9683148494_43afc9144f_z.jpg?w=560&h=841

There are two reasons why to always repeat the question:

  1. For everyone to hear the question. The audience member is speaking to you, not to the audience. The others behind him or her asking the question might not be able to hear. This is especially true if you are wearing a mic and are being recorded.
  2. Put the question into your own words. Perhaps you don’t have the answer to that exact question, but you can answer similar questions that others might be wondering. Again, you are just the interface. It’s about getting the content to the audience.

Fear #8 — What if I answer the question incorrectly?

Otter with hands over eyes. http://cuteoverload.com/2013/03/17/i-otter-not-look/

Years ago, I was speaking in front of 300 people in The Netherlands on the Visual Studio IDE, something I was a subject matter expert in at the time. Someone asked a question about setting the default project via keyboard shortcut, and I said it wasn’t possible. Someone in the audience said it was. And I said, “No, you can’t.” But the look on his face seemed so upset that I knew I had to be missing something. So I said, “well, um, okay let’s take some time to try it out, but I really don’t think it would work.” And of course, it did work. And I look up out over these 300 people and the conference chair himself is watching from the back. I felt so humbled, but I wasn’t sure what to do since there was all this tension of “what’s Sara going to do?” because I had to address that the audience member had it right and I had it wrong. This feeling mapped directly to what I would do if a grand master had corrected my kata in karate. I walked in front of the podium and bowed to the guy (using the widely accepted hands over my head gesture). The audience erupted in applause.

It’s about the audience, not you.

  • It’s okay not to know the answer to a question. Get the SMEs in the room to help you out. Always be honest. It’s about the audience getting the content — you are just the mediator.
  • You can also use the “sit down” technique at the beginning of the talk to figure out who is the SME in the room, that is, ask “Okay how many of you know this <basic feature>. Remain standing. Okay how many of you know this <more advanced feature>? Remain standing…” Until you only have 1–2 people standing. Then talk to them from time to time if they have any experiences to add. People love to be called upon to share their experiences.

Fear #9 — What if they walk out?

baby elephant walking out w parent — http://cuteoverload.com/2013/10/28/cute-tocks/

If they are going to leave, you want them to leave at the very beginning, especially when conference evals are at stake. Here’s a trick:

“Welcome to <name of talk>. Thank you for being here. <conf name> has many excellent talks. Your time is extremely valuable, and if at any time you feel you’re not getting value out of my session, feel free to attend another session. I won’t be bothered. But if you decide to stay, here’s what you can expect. <agenda slide>”

You must say “I won’t be bothered.” This frees them from any judgement from the audience to get up and leave.

Fear #10 — What if I talk too fast?

I talk way too fast because I’m worried I don’t have enough time to get my points across, even in causal conversations.

For me to slow down, I have to remember to take a deep breath (you have time!). And to provide a handout

  • You can work around this “but I have so much to explain” by writing out a handout of the material you want them to learn (like this blog post if I were to give this content as a presentation). By giving them this document during or after the talk, you are freeing yourself to focus on the storying telling at a relaxed, comfortable pace, while freeing the audience to enjoy your presentation.
  • If you forget something or make a mistake, it doesn’t matter. They have the content on paper! You are free to entertain the audience.

Sometimes you shouldn’t fight your nature…

  • I did a “101 Visual Studio tips in 55 minutes” challenge as a conference talk. If I did all 101 demos, the 200 people in the audience would receive a signed copy of my Visual Studio book. I was purposefully racing against the clock. I didn’t care if they followed along or not. I gave them a handout cheatsheet with all 101 tips and where to look for more info. I told them at the beginning this would be different style of presentation, and to sit back and enjoy themselves. People loved it! But signing your name 200 times as fast as possible will destory your signature for all time.

The End!

Wow, you’ve read all the way to the bottom! You must really like public speaking and that’s super cool. I bet you have other fears, tips, and stories to share as well. And I hope you continue to speak. Once you stop, it’s hard to get going again.

As I mentioned, if anything here helps even one person just a bit, I’d say this blog post was worth publicly sharing my secret fears!

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