Overcoming Stage Panic: First Steps in Public Speaking


I was invited to give a workshop on remote work in Milan as part of the annual Junction event. Although I find this topic easy to talk about, I have to admit that this was the first time that I spoke to more than 10 people and I was very nervous about it. I have been working fully remotely for over 6 years now and all our employees since day one, 12 years ago, have been remote.

When we used to film and edit conferences in the European Parliament about 10 years ago, I used to attend at least one per week and I was amazed at how unprepared many speakers were and how they kept reading through endless documents and seemed to not care about the audience whatsoever.

So out of stage fright I read articles about it, I took one-third of on online course on Udemy and I asked people around me with experience on tips and tricks how to do it.

This is me trying to not look nervous before it all started. ©https://www.bokehgraphik.com

Knowing the topic that you are talking about is a huge help, as it gives you the confidence and the freedom to improvise if needed.

I decided to approach this as if I were the audience. If I were to go to a workshop about remote work, what would be interesting for me?

So I started writing questions first:

- Who am I and why do I do this? [aka introduction]

- Why work remotely? [benefits]

- When working remotely, what challenges will I be facing? [difficulties]

- Why would you let your employees work remotely? [benefits from a company point of view]

- What are the tools that we use to bridge the lack of a physical office and boost collaboration? [practical advice]

- How can you earn the trust of your remote: boss/employee/client/customer/potential company to hire?

- How can you improve your own productivity?

[I will try and write a series of blog posts about those separately.]

I had my own answers but I also decided to interview everyone in Evermore as well.

I collected their answers and merged all of this information into one very long text file. I felt satisfied with it and let it be for a few days, thinking that the most difficult part was over.

I had a skeleton. Or so I thought.

I did the first rehearsal at home and I timed myself. I spoke for 15 minutes straight and I was still addressing the first question. I decided to finish the entire thing before making modifications. I ended up talking for almost 50 minutes and I had a one-hour slot, and I really wanted to make this into a conversation rather than a lecture. As such, I started removing entire sections after every rehearsal to finally get to something that I thought was interesting.

Initially, I had my text written as if it was a speech. Word for word in a sequential order, but I found that I don’t need that and kept reducing it all the way to bullet points with the sole purpose of having something to look at in case I lost my train of thought.

I then tested it on a few different people. After a few tries, I noticed how my brain tends to modify the content slightly looking for anchors based on whoever my audience was.

The conference room was for about 400 people seated theater style with a stage and a lectern. The entire event was about 120 people and there were two other workshops happening at the same time, so I assumed I would get anywhere between 10 to 30 people depending on their interest. There turned out to be about 40.

I thought that speaking from the stage would create a separation between me and them so I came down and asked everyone to sit in some sort of circle closer to me.

Being close to everyone made it easer. ©https://www.bokehgraphik.com

When the time to speak came I started by asking a question — “How many of you have experience with remote work?” About 5 people raised their hands. I then told them that I was curious to hear from them at the end of the talk if they learned something new. Asking a question to start made me feel a lot more at ease with them.

I then started telling my story and after the first 2 minutes, I felt fine. There were a lot of questions and an interesting conversation was generated which I really enjoyed.

The most important piece of advice that I got and used was that for a presentation to work you have to be yourself. When you are authentic people empathize with you. Therefore, you should dress in the clothes that make you feel comfortable and just speak as if you were speaking to your close friends. That seemed to work very well for me.

There are plenty of things I would do differently next time, but the main one is to reduce the number of topics and instead of trying to cover so many of them, just focus on a few specific ones and dig deeper.

As a result of that talk, I was asked to speak to a law firm in Serbia that needed consulting with optimizing the tools for office communication, exploring the idea of working partially remotely and how to integrate some of their colleagues who are working from neighboring countries. I will write about that in a separate post.