Find your technical voice

I’d like to share some of the tips I learned to get me started with public speaking, including overcoming my overwhelming fear of it. I hope I can inspire others, particularly women, to give technical presentations, so we and other underrepresented groups in the tech community have a voice.

I started my career in a consultancy and would frequently talk to boardrooms full of people selling my ideas. I had no problem standing up and talking. Then I went into product companies where I was no longer required to speak. Somewhere along the line, without the constant practice, my confidence to present dwindled until I would suffer physical panic attacks at the mere thought of even doing a Brown Bag at work.

I also attended a lot of conferences and industry events. I saw audience behaviours at these events that scared me. It seemed technical speakers always get heckled by that one know-it-all guy who wants everyone else to see how smart he is. The thought of dealing with that was so far out of my comfort zone I did all I could to avoid it, including not even wanting to ask a question as an audience member, lest I be judged. I would get dizzy and my heart would hammer in my chest if I considered raising my hand.

A few years ago I realised I was frequently frustrated at the lack of female presenters at these conferences I attended. But how could I criticise my fellow tech sisters for not having a voice when I wouldn’t consider getting up myself? So, I attended public speaker training. It was a really good place to start and gave me the tools to deal with some of my confidence issues. I also read various online help articles, grasping at any lifeline I could to help me get to my goal. The coaching I received from PublicSpeakingForLife was invaluable.

Today I’d like to discuss some ideas that have helped me the most to get started.

Nerves are good!

What I didn’t initially realise was that my fear of public speaking did not make me special. No matter how natural some people look up on stage, not many actually like public speaking. Our natural fight or flight response kicks in when we are in threatening situations, and most people get an adrenaline surge before they speak in public.

Early on I considered my anxiety to be a really bad thing that would make me fail. I knew I would get out there and go blank, or worse, faint or throw up. The training I did spoke about overcoming nerves physically by squeezing your fists and glutes to release the excess adrenaline. This did give me a tool that helped me get up in front of an audience the first few times.

Then I learned about positive mindsets and positive self-talk. That adrenaline is good! It provides an energy to your talk that can be very engaging. Being nervous means you are passionate about what you are saying. Your audience will notice your passion.

Say to yourself “I’m getting nervous — that means I’m passionate about what I am saying.”

Don’t do negative talk. This is something I did often. If someone asked if I was ready for my upcoming talk or how my prep was coming along I would bang on about how nervous I was. It is my belief we tend to do this as a self-deprecating deflection. For example, I don’t want to brag about the fact I am going to be the center of attention so I will let everyone know I am uncomfortable with it. When I started to respond to these inquiries with, “It’s going well! I am really looking forward to it,” I started to believe it myself, and feel it.

Your audience wants to hear what you have to say

It is a common fear that everyone in the audience is judging you harshly when really they want to hear your ideas. Why else would people be there? If they are giving up their time then they are interested in your topic and opinion. Quite often technical talks are about something you have tried and perhaps even failed at. People often just want to hear about your experience; which you are the expert in.

How do you deal with that one guy who thinks he knows it all and throws you the hard questions? Realise that just as you have noticed it before, everyone in the audience has him figured out. The best thing you can do is say, “That’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure off the top of my head. How about we chat after the presentation.” You can practice that response if this is something that worries you. The audience will appreciate you giving them back the five minutes that guy would have kept your attention for.

How do you get started

Start small. First, present to a friend. Then, try a lightning talk to half a dozen people. Extend your material to give a Brown Bag to around 20. Present over hangouts to 50 or more, like at the fortnightly senior developer meeting. Each time you present you gain a little more confidence to do it again. Soon you will be comfortable and even excited about talking at meetups and conferences.

Take a friend to your first few gigs to smile at you from the audience. This can make you feel safe and give you an anchor.

Get prepared

When writing your speech start by considering your overall message. Find one sentence that pulls your message together. One message you want the audience to leave with. If you can’t say it in one sentence, you can’t present it in an hour. I like to write it down and refer back to it while writing. For example, my one sentence here is, “Anyone can be a confident public speaker with positivity, practice and preparation”.

When you have your one sentence, ask, “What is the purpose?” Is my purpose to inform, to persuade, or maybe even to entertain. This really helps you formulate your content.

Your speech will be clearer if you have one message. It should focus only on one of What Why When How Who or Where. For example, my focus here is How.

A good structure can help you stay on track. Start with an introduction. Introduce yourself, and tell the audience what you are going to talk about. After the main content, wrap up your speech with a conclusion. The conclusion should not introduce any new information. Recap what was said, and add a clear call to action. For example, I hope you book your first lightning talk by the end of the week.

See if you can find a place to interject humour to make your talk personable. Tell a story, a real life experience. Walk your audience through an everyday struggle. People will get behind you, laugh in recognition, and come along for your journey.

Be careful not to deflect authority. Don’t pass the credit for your content along to others; you are the one up there talking about your perspective and experience — own it, sister! Some women unconsciously deflect authority to live up to societal expectations of us displaying humility and deference. An example of this may be referring authority back to a book you read or a course you took, i.e., “in this course they said…” Have confidence that your experiences are enough of an authority. If not, you may come across as insecure, hesitant, diffident, and non-authoritative.

Practice

Knowing your material can reduce the fear of getting stuck and freezing up during your presentation. Say your speech aloud over and over again. Talk to yourself in the mirror. I like to practice in the car on the way to work. Practice to a friend. The more you say it before you present, the less nervous you will be. Take notice of filler words you go to often like “um” or “ah” and practice not saying them. Pauses in talking are better than filling the silence.

Delivering your speech

Just before your speech, have a big drink of water, and take a drink up with you for longer presentations. It is much easier to stay calm and project your voice when you are hydrated. Even better, have hot water with lemon if its available to you. I get a frog in my throat when the nerves kick in, and this stops the need to cough and clear it repeatedly.

If you feel faint or your heart hammers while you are waiting to go up, take long slow breaths. Clench your fists and glutes to release some adrenaline. Start positive self-talk:

These nerves are because I am excited to be here.

This audience is here to be supportive of me and my ideas.

I am passionate and I know my material.

When you get out in front of the audience pause before you start and settle in. Take a breath. Smile! Smiling gives you energy on stage.

When you are talking, slow down. Pause between sentences. Stop talking if you lose your place. It should sound slow to you, but it will sound well paced to your audience. Give the technical content time to sink in.

Let go of perfection. If you make a mistake you are probably the only one that noticed.

You can use your body language to make you look and feel more confident. Keep your feet planted, and don’t adjust your hair or clothes once on stage. Become aware of your hands and make sure they are not distracting. Avoid clasping, clapping or crossing arms. Smile whenever you remember to.

Wrap up with your conclusion and call to action. If you do not feel comfortable taking questions, then don’t take questions! Let the audience know they can either email you or come and talk later if they have any questions.

Don’t apologise. This can be another symptom of our learned deference. During your speech or the questions that follow, don’t apologise for not having all the answers. In the same vein, if you get there late, are tired from a long flight, or are dealing with any personal mishaps which may mean you are not at your best, don’t tell the audience you are sorry. Making an excuse or an apology sets a negative tone and gives people a reason to think your presentation was underwhelming. Instead, take any personal mishaps in stride and let it go.

Leveling Up

Once you have had a few goes and have alleviated most of your pre-speech anxiety attacks, you can have a crack at polishing your delivery. These are some tips to help you come across as a seasoned speaker:

  • Pre-record your live coding demos and practice talking to the recording
  • Splurge on a clicker, and take all the adapters with you
  • When talking, aim your conversational level voice to those at the back
  • Know the content well enough so you don’t have to look at your notes or read off a slide deck. Really helpful when the tech doesn’t play nice and you can’t see your presenter’s notes.
  • Make eye contact with everyone in the room once, and acknowledge people in the “cheap seats”
  • Interject humour
  • Move around the stage with purpose. Introduce and conclude in the center
  • Repeat questions from the audience before answering.

That is my journey from stage fright to where I am now, which is being slightly more comfortable to stand up in a room full of people and give a technical talk. I hope my story has shown you that you are not alone if you have a fear or public speaking. And maybe some of the tips I have shared will help you write and present your first technical talk.

Remember, your nerves demonstrate passion and give your presentation energy. Anxiety can be reduced with preparation. Start small, and the more you practice the more confident you will become.

Final thoughts

As women in tech move from being fairly non-existent to participating in industry leadership and having a higher profile and representation, we need to support each other on our journeys. One way we can do this is by being a good audience member. Encourage women who are brave enough to stand up, with smiles and nods. Put away your phones or laptops so you don’t appear distracted. Take notes in a notebook. Be present. Thank them afterward. Let them know one thing you will take away from their talk.