A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Lara Hogan's new book, Demystifying Public Speaking, available now from A Book Apart.
Before you near the stage, before you write the talk, before you even pick a topic, take time to get comfortable with the idea of giving a talk.
You’re reading this because something about public speaking makes your palms sweat. You aren’t alone; when I created an anonymous survey and asked, “What’s your biggest fear about public speaking?” I received over 300 replies. Though the fears all revolved around being vulnerable in front of a large group of people, I was surprised how widely the responses ranged.
See for yourself—I’ve grouped a handful of replies to illustrate the spectrum of fears.
People are worried about their voices:
- “The sound or pitch of my own voice.”
- “Voice cracking up—I forget to breathe from the diaphragm and come across sounding nervous and uninformed.”
- “Forgetting or skipping over what I want to say, heart racing (and getting out of breath quicker), getting tongue-tied.”
People are worried about their bodies:
- “Being judged for being fat, not on my presentation content.”
- “In middle school I got something in my eye during a class presentation, and my eyes would not stop watering. I’m terrified it will happen again.”
- “Needing to pee during the speech!”
- “Falling on stage.”
- “People judging my appearance, whether I’m dressed appropriately.”
People are worried about technical or wardrobe malfunctions:
- “Problems connecting laptop to projector.”
- “Making stupid coding mistakes during live coding.”
- “Open pants zipper (because it’s happened).”
People are worried about being wrong and being challenged:
- “Elegantly explaining something that is actually wrong.”
- “Showing that I’m ignorant about something I thought I was knowledgeable about.”
- “Getting a question I can’t even begin to answer.”
- “Being wrong and being called out on stage during Q&A.”
- “Getting heckled.”
- “Vocal skeptics or doubters.”
People are worried about their performance:
- “Not being impressive enough.”
- “That everything I say becomes so messy anyone can refute it.”
- “Since I’m not a native English speaker, my biggest fear is not making any sense when speaking.”
- “That no one learns anything, and the audience is starkly aware of it.”
- “Being exposed for the fraud I have always felt like.”
Phew. Given the potential for these moments of total—human—disaster, why should we even bother embarking on this journey toward the stage?
To start, public speaking (or put another way, broadcasting your abilities and knowledge) has definite career benefits. You grow your network by meeting attendees and other speakers, and you gain documented leadership experience in your subject area. People looking to hire, collaborate with, or fund someone with your topic expertise will be able to find you, see proof of your work, and have a sense of the new perspective you’ll bring to future projects.
Those professional benefits are huge—but in my experience, the personal benefits are even more substantial. Giving a talk grows so many skill sets: crafting a succinct way to share information, reading an audience, and eloquently handling an adrenaline-heavy moment. You’ll prove something to yourself by overcoming a major fear, and you should take pride in knowing you taught a large group of people something new that will hopefully make their work or lives easier. Public speaking experience boosts a lot of knock-on benefits too, like a stronger visa application or more confidence in your everyday spotlight moments, like a standup meeting, code review, design critique, or other project presentations.
No matter the impetus, trying your hand at public speaking is a brave act. While it’s a different challenge for everyone, we do have a few tools to help tackle our fears.
Flip that fear around
First, give yourself permission to be anxious. Even renowned speaker and industry veteran Eric Meyer still gets nervous giving talks, as detailed in his article “The Stages of Fear”:
Being nervous is totally normal. Consider what you’re juggling: sharing information, entertaining the audience, and guessing (or worrying over) how you’re being perceived. Keep in mind, though, being nervous is not a sign you’ll do poorly. Public speaking isn’t an everyday context, and you may still get butterflies even as you gain experience and improve your speaking game.
But if you can’t coolly eliminate all your fears and nerves like some stoic robot, what can you do? One tactic is to try reframing your anxiety in a positive or motivating way, as designer Lea Alcantara suggests:
Caring feels a lot more approachable than dreading failure, and it gives you a way through: use your body’s natural reaction to stress to improve your talk. Invest that energy into more research of your topic, more practice, and more feedback-gathering—all acts within your control. Let your nerves become part of the process—or try accepting that—and just maybe, in time, they’ll feel more useful than disastrous.
What makes you tick?
To flip your fears into motivations, let’s dip into what makes you tick. Understanding who you are will help you determine where to invest that extra energy as you make your way toward the stage. Once you begin to name what scares you, what comforts you, and what drives you, you’ll be able to home in on which talk format, topic, venue type, and preparation style will calm those fears and build your excitement.
To get you started, think through these:
- What makes you most excited when you think about public speaking? What do you want to get out of it?
- What makes you most nervous when you think about public speaking?
- What scenarios do you want to avoid?
- What size audience do you think you might be most comfortable speaking to? Why?
- Whose feedback matters most to you on your talk or presentation style?
- What would you want people to take away from your talk?
- What do you want to happen for you or your career after your talk? (Examples: someone offers you your dream project, someone you admire asks for your advice, people shower you with praise, you get right back to work, etc.)
That’s a lot of introspection, but it’s worth it. As we move through this book, we’ll go through the varied paths and aspects of public speaking, and your answers will guide you to the right fit for you. For instance, if you’re afraid of seeing a sea of strange faces before you, maybe a smaller meetup is the best venue to get in some practice. If you’re afraid of saying something patently false onstage, then pick a topic like a case study from your work that you know inside and out, and practice your Q&A session with friends who can help you fact-check your content. Or, if you’re excited to teach people skills they can immediately put into practice, opt for a workshop format and give hands-on help to folks. Whatever your goals and style, you can find a speaking opportunity that resonates with you.
Move beyond the “rules”
You’ve heard the adages: don’t say “um,” don’t say “uh.” Excise “like” with extreme prejudice. Don’t use bullets on your slides. Never, ever read from your notes. Some folks have an archetype of what a great speaker sounds like, or an audience size that feels real, or this idea you need to give a deeply technical or novel talk for it to count.
But you know what? If I can say one thing in this book about giving talks, it’s do what works for you. Truly.
Of course, it’s hard to move past the impulse to embrace rules—it’s reassuring to think we have a straightforward map to success. We try to mimic speakers who capture our attention or those whom our peers praise. We hold up examples of “ideal” presentation styles, and we instruct new speakers to follow suit. We see a lot of the same people, and we can’t help but absorb a lot of the same opinions on what a good speaker looks like or sounds like.
Just because we’ve built a system, it doesn’t mean it’s right. What we need to see represented onstage is a spectrum of speakers with different insights and ways to teach us about them. Your voice is valuable, and your own. If you choose to share it, we will all certainly be the better for it.
Public speaking is a journey that, like any other, involves practice and time to make you feel comfortable and successful. Take heart from Tiffani Jones Brown:
I don’t want to set out any rules in this book—forget them. What I do hope is to help you forge your own path, so you make your way to that talk that makes a difference. Let’s get started.