A beginner’s guide to public speaking (from a beginner)

The objective of this article is to help the audience on getting started with public speaking. The article is targeted to technical people (who rarely go through any formal course on public speaking) but might be useful for anyone who intends to start speaking on a topic of their domain.

Almost everyone has this inherent desire to discuss their work/thoughts on a public platform. But most of us are sh*t scared to start and hence give up thinking that it is insanely hard. I am one of those “highly scared of public speaking” people but I have worked on it and now I have some degree of control over my fear of speaking on a public platform.

I recently spoke at ApacheCon BigData Conference 2017 (https://apachebigdata2017.sched.com/event/A03h) and this should serve as a credential in my favor to blabber about public speaking (at-least on technical platforms). Even otherwise, I have developed a flair to regularly showcase interesting work/art/passion which I follow.

Below are some of the tips which are relevant for a complete beginner to get started:

Embarrass yourself : This is the most important thing to do when getting started. Pick a topic(of your interest), find a platform, go out there and speak. Most probably, it won’t go well and you will feel embarrassed. Too bad if you think you are a grown up and can’t face embarrassment in public. After a while, you will realize that its your fear which prevents you from making an impactful presentation even when you have good content to speak about. When you have embarrassed yourself a handful of times, your fear starts fading away and you start communicating your thoughts clearly. So don’t be afraid of embarrassment in the beginning. It is natural and part of the process of learning effective communication.

Good content : Find some topic in your domain which you enjoy working/following. Each one of us has some distinct skill which we are good at (or at-least we think we are). Start from this skill and hone it to a point where you are confident to teach it to another person. Once you are comfortable with teaching the basics of the skill to another person, its time to collect relevant content and speak about it in public. You won’t find good content unless you are genuinely interested or good in that particular skill. Copying content from different sources is the worst idea. Audience will immediately be able to gauge your own interest in the domain you are talking about. So work hard on getting good at the skill and good content will follow.

Flow : Once you have good content to talk about, put it down in a logical and easy to understand flow. Most of us assume that since we already know quite a bit about the topic, we can put the content in any order and the audience will make sense out of it when we speak. Well, guess what, its not the same as teaching yourself. You have a lot of context about the content and it is wrong to assume the same from audience. The objective of the presentation should be to teach your knowledge/insights to the audience rather than deriving self satisfaction that you are a master of the domain. So, don’t assume a lot of context and put content in an easy to follow flow.

Rehearse : Rehearse the presentation at-least a couple of times in front of the mirror or friends. You will be in for a surprise if you don’t unless you are already a seasoned speaker. Without rehearsal, there will be many moments when the brain will simply freeze and you will have to frequently look into screen to get context and figure out what to speak next. Needless to say that this doesn’t leave a good impression with the audience. Don’t memorize the sentences either. Rehearsing twice/thrice is usually enough to get the flow right in your mind so that you don’t get stuck and end up with lots of “umms” and “ahhs”.

Questions : Q&A is the toughest part of a presentation in my opinion. After a while, you realize it’s fairly easy to collect content and speak about it. The tough part is to get relevant questions and handle them to the satisfaction of the questioner. Even if the question sounds stupid to you, it is important to respect the questioner and give the best possible answer. The amount of questions is a fine indicator of how good was your presentation. If there are no or very few questions, it generally indicates that audience didn’t learn/grasp the material you presented. It is a good idea to take multiple pauses during your talk and probe for any questions from the audience. Many times, a potential questioner has something in mind but keeps quiet and reserves the question for the Q&A session at the end. But, the context might get lost or the questioner may forget to ask the question. Encourage questions from the audience and give your best possible answer.

Hopefully, these tips are helpful to potential speakers. Happy presenting!