Public Speaking for Nerds

Jul 21, 2015 DjangoCon Personal PyCon

I was not born with an abundance of natural self-confidence.

I barely spoke to anyone at the first few conferences I attended. Hallway track? Nah.

Naturally, I was an avowed non-presenter for years. I swore that I was too nervous, too shy. I could never do it. I'd leave it to the professionals. (Except that, technically, I am one of those professionals.)

And then, a few years into my involvement with the Python community, I started teaching again (I was a primary school teacher long before I entered the programming world).

Then I gave my first talk at PyCon. And nothing bad happened.

I repeat: Nothing bad happened.

I've still only done one full-fledged conference talk, plus a handful of lightning talks, and I'm about to give my second conference talk at DjangoCon this fall.

So take my advice with a handful of salt. I'm still not an expert speaker. But I no longer fear the possibility. I'm not afraid to submit a proposal if I have a good idea, and I'm actually looking forward to being onstage again.

Why it's scary terrifying

There's nothing wrong with being afraid of public speaking. Appearing before a group of people of any size triggers our fight-or-flight response, and that's natural, normal, and everyone - even the most seasoned speakers - experiences it.

A part of our human brains has evolved over millions of years to respond to being confronted with predators. Our adrenal glands kick into high gear and our heart rate increases, leaving us prepared to fight, or flee if we need to.

That same brain just hasn't realized yet that you'll be standing up in front of a bunch of supportive fellow humans, not a pack of hyenas.

Why it's good for you

Conference speaking has some obvious career benefits - it increases your visibility and helps with networking. When you speak about a topic you know, people with common interests are going to want to get to know you.

But public speaking also gives you a sense of accomplishment. You've faced a challenge that lots of people never attempt. You've conquered a fear. And that can boost your confidence in ways you never imagined.

On to the advice:

So maybe some of the advice I have here will help you, whether you're a first-time speaker or just contemplating becoming one.

  1. Use your crutches, whatever they are.
  2. A slide deck with notes is great, but I also love using hand-written notes on index cards. I glance at them occasionally, enough to keep me on track but not so much that they become a distraction. And it feels good to have something in my hands.

    If you have glasses, wear them - they create a small psychological barrier between you and the audience, without actually being a barrier between you and the audience. (And if it helps you to keep some imaginary distance, remember that it will probably be difficult to see everyone out there anyway.)

    Want to keep a teddy bear with you on stage? Squeeze a stress toy (as long as it doesn't make noise)? Whatever works for you and makes you feel safe. You do you - no one's going to care. In fact, they're all going to be rooting for you.

  3. Know your topic.
  4. It's true that some people can submit a proposal on almost any random thing, then immerse themselves in their topic as they prepare the talk. And maybe someday you and I will be able to do that too. But I wouldn't recommend it until you've got a few speaking experiences under your belt.

    How do you know if you know your subject well enough? If you've been teaching it to other people. If you've been having discussions about it with friends. If you get excited when people ask for your advice about it, or you find yourself answering questions about it in everyday conversation.

    You don't necessarily need to take questions when you give a conference talk, but if you feel like you could, then you've probably got the confidence you need to give the talk in the first place.

  5. Know your community.
  6. If you're feeling nervous, your first conference shouldn't also be your first public speaking experience.

    Participate in a few community events. Get involved with your local user group. (A user group can be a great place to practice a first talk, by the way, and most of them are clamoring for new speakers!)

    Get to know people. When you eventually give a talk, it will feel less terrifying, more like you're just hanging out and telling a story to a group of friends.

And finally ...

In spite of all your preparation, you'll still feel a few moments of anxiety when you hit that stage. Everyone does. Just take a few deep breaths - count them, in fact. Your brain's perception of the threat level will drop, and your body will respond by relaxing and calming.

And keep in mind my two criteria for a successful talk:

  1. I didn't throw up
  2. I didn't die

Anything after that is just icing.