Advice for new and aspiring technical speakers

In a previous post I described the Front End Summit New Speaker Program that I organized while I was still at Yahoo. Since that time, I’ve received several e-mails and questions from people about how to get started speaking without the benefit of such a program. Obviously, it’s possible to become a really good speaker without a formal training program (most of your favorite speakers probably fall into that category) but it isn’t possible to become a really good speaker until you start speaking. The advice in this post echoes the advice that I gave to people who were in the program as well as people who have asked for advice personally.

Your Doubts {#your-doubts}

The first thing to do is ask yourself why you get that nervous feeling in your stomach when you think about speaking. If you’re reading this post, then you’re probably already over the hump and willing to give it a try, but there may still be doubts in your mind. The most common doubts and fears that new speakers have are:

  • I’m not an expert, why would anybody want to listen to me?
  • I’m going to sound stupid.
  • What if I mess up?
  • I don’t have anything interesting to say.

These little self-doubts prevent a lot of people from giving talks. I remember before my first talk at a conference I had the same doubts floating in my head. I felt out of place amongst the other speakers as they listed out their achievements. It was only after the conference that I realized they were just people with something to say and the guts to get up in front of a couple hundred people to say it.

All of the doubts that are circulating in your head, all the little negative comments, are all just an expression of fear. Fear is useful when it protects you from lions in the jungle but it’s not very useful in everyday situations like public speaking. Your minds typically reacts with fear to new situations because there might be danger. In terms of public speaking, there is absolutely no danger. Even if you give a horrible talk, there isn’t a lion waiting for you outside the door.

Anytime these thoughts start popping into your head, acknowledge them, don’t try to force them out (that usually just causes more stress). Just tell yourself that this is the result of fear of a new situation. Then tell yourself there are no lions waiting out there to eat you and that you can do this.

Pick a topic you don’t know {#pick-a-topic-you-dont-know}

This probably flies in the face of most advice out there regarding new speakers. A lot of people tell you to pick a topic that you’re familiar with so as to ease your nerves. I actually believe in doing the opposite. For your first talk, pick something that you don’t know very well as your topic. Doing so opens up a world of opportunity for you.

When you speak about something that you know very well, the tendency is to oversimplify because it’s so fresh in your mind. You fall into the trap of believing that other people know as you know and leave out important tips along the way. Once you become an experienced speaker, it’s a lot easier to avoid these traps with topics that you already know. But as a new speaker, the best way to make sure that that you’re covering the topic well is to pick a topic that you need to research.

The process of learning about a new topic is a magical one. It’s a process that you hope to compress into about 40 minutes on stage with your audience. It’s much easier to do that if you just recently learned the topic. Let your talk be an excuse to learn about something new. Pick an API that you’re unfamiliar with or technology that you’ve never used before and spend a month learning about it. Write down everything that you go through including mistakes that you made and pleasant discoveries. These are the things your audience will be going through as you present the topic. However, you’ll have a fresh insight into this because you just learned the topic yourself.

Speaking about a topic you don’t know well also avoids the common trap of thinking that you have to be an expert to give a talk. You don’t! An unfamiliar topic is a good subconscious trick to let yourself off the hook of being an expert. You don’t have to be an expert to give a talk, you just have to have an understanding of the topic and the way to present it.

So find a topic that you’re interested in but don’t understand very well yet. Spend some time researching it and create your talk around that topic. Now, instead of trying to figure out what to say about something, you can recount the story of how you learned about the topic. It’s the same thing you do with friends and family over dinner when people share their experiences of the day. A newly-learned topic will be much fresher in your mind when you go to give the talk.

Introduce yourself {#introduce-yourself}

Before starting to speak about the topic, take a minute and introduce yourself to the audience. Tell them who you are, where you work, and anything else that might be interesting about you. Basically, you want the audience to understand why they should be listening to you. Once again, you don’t have to be an expert to have people listen to you. The people in the audience might have the same job as you do at a different company and knowing that helps to put what you have to say into perspective.

Just make sure to keep this intro short, one minute max. I was once at a time where the presenter was fairly well known yet still felt the need to talk for about 7 minutes about the various things he had accomplished. Everyone in the room already knew who he was and why he was famous so the introduction felt very self-serving and made the audience uneasy.

Don’t do that. There’s no need to recite your entire resume. if you’ve ever seen me talk, I usually introduce myself with something like this: “Hi, my name is Nicholas Zakas, and I’m cofounder of a startup called WellFurnished. I’ve also written several books on JavaScript, of which you should buy many copies.” Then I move on.

Tell a story {#tell-a-story}

My favorite piece of advice that I give to new speakers is to tell a story. Don’t just go up in front of people and start rattling off facts and statistics. Storytelling is a great way to get a point across without losing the audience. There’s no special trick to storytelling, it’s something that you already do probably every day with your friends. A story is something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The mark of a good story is being able to look back from the end to the beginning and see the logical progression that got you to that point.

With technical topics, the beginning is usually a problem. You want to try to do something and you don’t know how to do it. The answer is the API or technique or technology that you’re speaking about. Start off the presentation with a description of the problem. Since software engineers are problem solvers at heart, presenting them with the problem at the beginning sets the proper context for the rest of the talk. For example, a problem statement for the HTML5 drag-and-drop API might be, “Don’t you wish there was a way to allow your users to upload files without using that ugly file input control on a form?” That instantly gets the audience thinking about the problem and if they’ve ever encountered it before. It also starts them thinking about how they’ve tried to solve that problem before and piques their interest about how you would solve the problem.

Then take the audience on a journey where the problem gets solved. Start with the basics and get more advanced as the talk goes on. Make sure that by the end of the talk you have illustrated how the topic solves the problem presented at the beginning.

The end of the story is where you summarize everything that was discussed. You can do that formally with a summary slide and bullet points or informally with a short discussion. The goal is to solidify what was just covered in the audience’s minds. Think of this as the proverbial, “the moral of the story is” from the fairy tales you were told when you were little.

Be enthusiastic {#be-enthusiastic}

How you speak and how you present yourself has a dramatic effect on how the talk is received. If you don’t remember any other piece of advice, let it be this: be enthusiastic about your talk. Show the audience that you enjoy the topic and enjoy explaining to them. Audiences tend to mirror the energy of the speaker. You’ve probably been in a talk where speaker was really nervous. Did you also start feeling a little bit nervous? That’s completely normal and happens all the time. If the speaker is relaxed and having good time, then the audience will too. If the speaker is nervous then the audience will be as well.

Choose a topic that you can get excited about. That’s the best way to make sure that you are enthusiastic in front of a crowd. Think about a story that you enjoyed telling to a friend and how enthusiastic you were telling it. When you enjoy the topic, it’s hard to contain your enthusiasm for it. When the audience sees that you’re enthusiastic, they relax and become enthusiastic about your talk. That, in turn, makes you more relaxed.

One of the speakers that I mentored in the past had a bad habit of assuming that the audience already knew everything he was going to talk about. He littered his speaking with phrases like, “…but you probably already know that” and “…and probably not telling you anything new here”. Consequently, he didn’t seem very enthusiastic about giving the talk and received low marks even though he presented good material. Why would you be enthusiastic about telling people things that they already know? Imagine if the description for talk said that the speaker would just recite facts that you already knew. You probably wouldn’t line up to get into that talk.

Always assume that what you’re telling people is completely new to them. Think about the enjoyment you get out of telling a story to a friend – it’s because they don’t already know the story and you delight in seeing their reaction. That’s exactly what makes going to a talk so interesting. I have sat and listened to speakers talk about topics that I knew very well and still enjoyed it simply because the speaker was enthusiastic and entertaining.

One of my favorite speakers is my friend and former colleague Nicole Sullivan. She is an incredibly eloquent speaker who speaks with a subdued passion that really resonates with people. I frequently joke with her that she could get on stage and read the phone book and people would be enthralled. Nicole gets on stage and starts speaking, and you instantly like her. She’s smart and she obviously cares about the topic she’s presenting.

Really good speakers are like that, the audience is there to listen to the speaker first and listen to the content second. It’s the same reason you can watch a favorite movie over and over again even though you know the story: the performance itself is enjoyable even when you know the content.

Don’t try to be funny {#dont-try-to-be-funny}

There is an old piece of advice about public speaking that you should start with a joke. Don’t do that. Humor is one of the most difficult things to do on stage. The famous standup comedians that you see on TV had to bomb a lot before they found their groove. I actually did standup comedy in college and to this day it’s still the most nerve-racking thing that I’ve ever done. There is nothing so deafening as an audience not laughing at you after joke. Don’t put that type of stress on yourself.

That isn’t to say that you should be completely serious, just don’t try to plan jokes ahead of time. When a joke fails to have the intended effect, it can sit in your mind for the rest of the talk. You’ve probably seen TV shows where nervous speakers include a bad joke that nobody laughs at and then after that they are incredibly nervous. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t spend time worrying about making jokes in your presentation.

As you get more experienced, and start to figure out how different audiences react to you, you get more comfortable with throwing in a few jokes here and there. You’ll also be able to brush it off after a joke bombs. But to start, I don’t recommend thinking about jokes at all. Just put your presentation together in the way that makes the most sense to you.

Be yourself {#be-yourself}

When I first started talking, I made a very rookie mistake. I created a speaker persona, Nicholas the speaker. Nicholas the speaker was different than Nicholas the front end engineer in that he spoke louder and sounded more like he was lecturing children than sharing information. I did this all subconsciously without even realizing that I had done it. Thankfully, an honest person who later viewed the talk on video pointed out that he didn’t like my speaking style. That forced me to go back and watch the video to see if I could figure out what was going on. It wasn’t until later that I actually figured it out.

The turning point for me came when I saw my former colleague Bill Scott give a talk. If you’ve ever met Bill, he’s one of the nicest people in the world to talk to. He’s very calm and very articulate and has a warmth about him that’s very reassuring. What I saw in his talk was that he was the same Bill I had just talked to 5 minutes before he went on stage. The tone of his voice, the mannerisms, everything was exactly as if he was talking one-on-one with someone. At that moment, Nicholas the speaker died. I didn’t need him, I just needed to let my own personality shine through.

The more you’re able to be yourself while speaking, the more comfortable you’ll be. You may even find that jokes and other amusing quips make it into your talk without you planning for it. One of the funniest speakers I’ve ever seen is Jake Archibald. He’s incredibly funny and also incredibly smart. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever seen give a talk where I was both laughing incredibly hard and learning very important information. And if you talk to Jake in person, you realize that it’s not a show, that’s his actual personality.

So relax and be yourself. That’s the person that the crowd is going to relate to or better than some persona you create when on stage.

Speak slowly {#speak-slowly}

The one piece of advice I end up giving every new speaker I work with is to speak slowly. When you get nervous, the tendency is to speak faster in order to get the experience over and done with as quickly as possible. That has the unfortunate side effect of making you harder to understand, which in turn means that the audience may decide they don’t like your talk just because they can’t get the information from you in an accessible way.

The solution to this problem is simple: speak slowly. Speak slower than you would in normal conversation with friends (which tends to be quite fast). Speak slow enough that you feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable and fight the feeling to speed up. This does a few positive things for you.

First and foremost, by slowing your speech you also slow your breathing. Slowing your breathing is a time-tested way to reduce anxiety. So by slowing your speech you are not only helping the audience to understand you better but also helping yourself to calm down as you speak.

Second, you are reducing the likelihood of introducing a filler sound such as, “um”. The tendency is to want to fill in silence with a sound when you’re speaking quickly. If you notice yourself using the sound “um” or any other filler sound or word (“so…”, “eh”, etc.) that typically means you’re speaking too quickly. Just slow down and relax and those filler sounds tend to go away.

Last, speaking slowly teaches you that it’s okay for you to be silent in front of an audience. The audience actually cannot digest everything that you say as you say it and a little bit of silence gives them time to process the information. By speaking slowly, you are automatically introducing split seconds of silence that wouldn’t ordinarily be there. You can add additional moments of silence when you make important points. I usually recommend people wait 3 seconds after they’ve made a very important point just to make sure the audience has had time to digest it.

Speaking slowly is the best tool that you have in your arsenal as a new speaker.

Rehearse {#rehearse}

Whether you like it or not, giving a talk is a performance just like a play, or standup comedy, or concert. Imagine someone asked you to be in their play. They would give you the scripts on Sunday and you would go on stage on Saturday in front of your first audience without any rehearsal. Sound crazy? Of course it is, but that’s the mistake that a lot of new speakers make. It’s the exact same thing only with your own material which, believe it or not, makes it that much harder to get right the first time.

Once you have your talk together, make sure to rehearse it two or three times before actually presenting to the real audience. You don’t necessarily have to rehearse in front of other people (although that can certainly help), all that matters is that you go through your talk from start to finish saying everything that you plan to say. You’ll be surprised at how often you get tripped up and aren’t quite sure what you meant to say.

Practice at least once on your own with no one else in the room. Then, try to find a friend or loved one or a colleague who is willing to hear you give the talk and provide feedback. While it’s great if the person you are rehearsing in front of actually knows about the topic, it’s not necessary. The thing that’s most important is that you are going to the process of giving the talk and learning as you go along.

The ideal situation is to rehearse in front of several colleagues at work. Those are the people who can give you the best feedback about the information you’re presenting. But don’t skip rehearsal if you can’t find the perfect audience, anyone will do.

Once you get to be a more experienced speaker, you will need less rehearsal time to get things right. I still rehearse new talks on my own two or three times before giving them publicly. I’ll sit at my desk and narrate to my monitor, or find a conference room and present to an empty room if I can’t find anybody to sit in.

The whole rehearsal process might seem like a lot of extra work, but it’s vital preparation before getting in front of an audience. The whole point of rehearsal is to do it enough times so that you don’t need to think too hard about what you want to do once you get in front of an audience. The performance should just flow once you get in front of an audience, and that can only happen if you’ve rehearsed a few times beforehand.

Conclusion {#conclusion}

If you’re a new or aspiring technical speaker and all this information seems overwhelming, don’t worry. Every new endeavor seems overwhelming at first but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I know a lot of really great engineers that I’m sure would give really great talks if they could just get over that initial hump of self-doubt. If you’re even thinking about potentially giving a talk someday, then you already have what it takes to become a really great speaker. Don’t let fear stop you from doing something that you want to do, and seek out the advice of others who have done it before to help you along the way. The advice I offered in this post is advice that I give in to many aspiring speakers over the years, but it is by no means a complete list of everything you will eventually need to know as a speaker. Other speakers will probably give slightly different advice. Listen to what everyone has to say and figure out what works best for you. Above all, go out and speak. It is, in my opinion, one of the most important things that you can do for your career.

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