A problem like public speaking

Public speaking is a scary experience. But it’s also a great experience.

With Droidcon UK 2017 I’ve done my second talk and I’d like to talk a bit about the experience and give some tips for public speaking. I’m by means no expert in public speaking, but I’m definitely an expert at being scared of it.

People’s number one fear is public speaking — more than death

It all started 2 1/2 years ago when Natasha emailed me and asked me if I wanted to speak at Droidcon UK. I didn’t apply for the call for paper — and never would’ve. I was always terrified of any kind of public speaking. At one point in school a fellow student said my talk sounded like a chicken about to be slaughtered (whatever that means).

So when Natasha emailed me I was scared instantly. But still — I wanted to share some of my experience of writing an Android Wear app and agreed to it. This wasn’t school anymore — it wasn’t just a quick assignment on a topic I didn’t really care about, or knew nothing about. I actually cared about the topic!

My talk was accepted — scary! So I had to actually go ahead and do this talk. Natasha was very helpful and invited me to participate in a small public speaking training at Novoda, which was great to get over the fear of speaking in front of people — even if just a little bit.

But I made a big mistake in the preparation. I prepared my slides and my talk — I went through it a few times alone in my bedroom and thought that was enough. Other speakers didn’t seem to prepare a lot for their talk, work on the slides up until the last minute, so that seems to work, right?

Well — the talk came and I got incredibly nervous, didn’t know how to deal with my nerves and spoke way too fast. But still — I did it! I got quite a few really good questions after the talk — people seemed to have enjoyed it. But I wasn’t very proud of myself, and I wasn’t excited about speaking again due to my nerves.

But still — I wasn’t quite done with public speaking yet. I really enjoyed being able to tell people about what I’ve learnt. When somebody comes up to you after a talk and thanks you for it — that’s the best reward!

So when Grace started public speaking sessions at Deliveroo I was super excited and joined them. Grace gave us some great tips on how to come up with ideas for a talk, write a call for paper, and do the actual talk. In this Amal and I came up with our idea for our talk about converting our app to Kotlin. And when the call for paper for Droidcon UK came up we actually submitted it. That was a risky move, because at the time we’ve just started converting the app to Kotlin. We had no idea how it would actually go. But it worked out great.

Our talk was accepted and Skills Matter provided a free two day public speaking training for first time speakers. I wasn’t a first time speaker, but asked to participate, as I really wanted to learn more about it. Thankfully Skills Matter allowed me to participate and so we both joined the course.

This course was led by Jenny Martin and was mainly participated by Droidcon UK speakers. It was a great group — we were all encouraging and supporting each other. The course was extremely useful for me. We learned about everything you need for doing a talk — preparation, slides, talk structure, presentation style and many more.

Amal and I used a lot of those tips for our talk. When preparing for it we wrote an actual script before even starting with the slides. This was useful for two reasons: we could think about what we would actually talk about and could get a feel about how long the talk would be. We wrote everything in a shared document and met up a couple times a week to sync and give feedback to each other. Once that was done we started with the slides. Jenny made us swear to never use bullet points ever again in a presentation — and we followed that.

I went through my script a few times, reading it out loud. Then transferred some of it into speaker notes onto the slides. And went through it again. I read the script on my commute (obviously not out loud :)), downloaded the slides onto my phone and went through it without speaker notes to see if I could remember everything without being nervous — I just had to get confident with it. We also practised the talk together and finally presented it in front of the Android team. This was probably the most important part. It gave us the chance to present in front of an actual (albeit a little biased) audience and get feedback.

So when the actual conference came I felt like I was prepared. I did the talk already. I was still very nervous, but nowhere near as nervous as last time. I even got to practice being on stage a little by giving some bad advice on day one.

Then the room was announced — Gate 1 — the biggest room in the conference! This was seriously scary, but also very exciting! A lot of people wanted to hear about our journey.

As the day progressed I got more and more nervous. But when the talk actually I got weirdly calmer. I was still nervous but it was very manageable. The Deliveroo team and some friends sat in the first row — ready to show us pictures of kittens in case we needed support. But we didn’t need it. The talk went without any major hickups — I think we actually did a pretty good job! We both went off stage wanting to do it again.

So what’s the verdict?

  • Your first talk probably won’t be great. But that’s fine! Nobody is born a great public speaker. Even the best ones started off somewhere.
  • Practise. A lot. The better prepared you are the better it’ll go. *
  • You will be nervous. Everybody is! If you notice you get very nervous or speak too fast take a big breath — it’ll calm you down.
  • Do a run-through of the talk in front of an audience. Doing the talk alone at home is VERY different to doing it in front of an audience.
  • Making mistakes is fine. Try not to panic if you do! Making mistakes is normal and most people probably won’t notice or won’t mind.
  • Have some friends sitting in the front row for support. It’s good to see some friendly faces during the talk.
  • Be yourself. Everybody has a different style — don’t try to be somebody who you’re not.

Public speaking is all about getting out of your comfort zone. We don’t like being in the spot light. But once you’re done you’ll be glad to have done it!

So thank you to everybody that got me here:

  • Natasha for reaching out to me.
  • Droidcon UK for giving me the opportunity to speak twice.
  • Skills Matter for letting me join the speaker training.
  • Jenny for doing the speaker training and all the participants for being supportive.
  • Amal for being a great co-speaker.
  • The Deliveroo Android team for watching our talk twice.
  • Everybody for supporting me along the way.
  • Everybody for watching my talks.
  • Everybody for tweeting at me, thanking me or encouraging me for my talks.

A big thank you to you all! I couldn’t have done it without you.

*Edit: Thanks for all the feedback, everybody! There was one part that came up a few times — practising:

I think this is something very personal. For me it can take a long time to think about the best (or any) way to say something. So not practising makes it really hard for me to give a speech. Now I didn’t necessarily remember my speech word for word — there were actually a lot of bits I edited on the spot. But having the script in the back of my mind was very helpful, if only for staying calm and knowing that I was prepared. The first few sentences of your speech are probably going to be the hardest as you’ll be most nervous. Once you managed to get through these it’ll get easier. So if there’s one thing to practise it’s those.

And yes, make sure you don’t sound like a robot :) most people had that one professor who would just read out their script in a monotone voice and make you all fall asleep. Don’t be them! HOW you say something is more important than WHAT you say. You can have the best script in the world, but if it’s not presented well it’ll be bad.