A Budding Speaker’s Thoughts on Speaking

I gave my first talk on November 2015 at CSSConf Asia in Singapore. And then a few documented and undocumented ones at small meetups and at work. And then another one at Rakuten Tech Conference in Tokyo a few months ago in October.

I didn’t actually plan on giving talks until my peers and mentors (and mom) started pushing me to give talks. So, I woke up one day and I decide to submit a talk proposal just so that I could get them off my back. But now I’m glad that they are persistent in their pestering since speaking skills is something that everyone should learn and acquire.

However, not everyone is comfortable with it and they always have the same concerns and the same excuses: that they don’t know enough, that they have stage frights or that speaking should only be done by the ‘pros’ (whatever that means). I am going to address some of these common concerns and as someone who is still new to the art of speaking, I had some of these concerns as well; you couldn’t have anyone better to address it for you. 😉

Isn’t Speaking Intimidating Though?

Well, yeah, it sort of is. But then again, what isn’t? A job interview is intimidating. A short presentation is intimidating. Performing on a stage in front of a large audience is intimidating. Submitting that pull request can be intimidating. Anything can be intimidating if you let it be and it has the potential to make you feel nervous on d-day.

This is an experience that is not unique to public speakers. Professional performance artists and MMA fighters experience nervousness as well. There is always that fear on the back of their heads that something might go wrong. It is a valid fear and I think it is rather necessary since the fear that you are experiencing can lead you to work harder to make sure everything goes as plan.

In my experience, I get the most nervous around a few days before d-day and it gets worse a few minutes before showtime to the point that I can’t sit still and I have to stand. But once I am on stage and once the first words are out of my mouth, the nervousness is gone since my attention is now shifted to the talk itself. At that point, I’m distracted by my own talk that I forgot to feel nervous and I just want to get it done.

But I’ll get stage frights! Don’t you get stage frights?

There are ways to get over stage frights and one of the ways to overcome this is by having pre-performance rituals. Some of my friends who are aerialists have their own rituals to help ease the nerves such as sitting in a quiet room for a few minutes or saying a little prayer. Having a pre-performance rituals isn’t just reserved for the ones in performance arts. It is very relevant to public speaking as well.

One of the best advice on pre-performance ritual for public speakers is given by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, in this Ted Talk about the power of body languages. She highlights the affects of doing high-power poses (like the Wonder Woman power pose) on your confidence levels. It is more of a ‘fake it till’ you make it’ technique where you are using your body to trick the mind to feel more powerful and confident. It is a pre-performance ritual I practice as well before every talk.

Another technique that is used in the performance arts is to adopt an alter ego on stage. Now, I don’t think so you have to go that far in public speaking but you can do whatever you want to make yourself feel comfortable. If you have to pretend that you are a queen/king addressing his or her subject, then go for it!

But I’m still a newb/beginner/I don’t think so I know enough…

I had this concern as well when my friends were pestering me to start speaking but after meeting one of my mentors and telling her my concerns, she told me that advance audience are rather welcoming to beginners because they want to see a beginner’s perspective since thinking like a beginner is somewhat of a privilege that they no longer have.

When you’re a beginner and when you have an idea, you tend to just execute it without worrying what’s going to go wrong. In your innocence as a beginner, you don’t really think much on the risks or the bugs that you might face once your project is done. You do not know what you do not know and that in itself is a bliss. Veteran software engineers do not have that sort of innocence though and so they tend to be more cautious when it comes to working on projects. Having the perspective of a beginner will give them somewhat of a new way to look at things.

But tech conferences isn’t just for the veteran or advance software engineers. A strong majority of audience are either beginners or people who are looking into perfecting their craft and you may know a thing or two that they don’t; if your talk cannot be valuable to all of them, at least it can be valuable to a handful of them and that still matters too.

The ‘Fluidity’ of Speech

In dance, we have this term called ‘fluidity’, which means the articulation of your movement is seamless without it being stiff or robotic (unless you’re doing the robot dance).

There is a form of fluidity in public speaking as well in order to make sure that you can deliver your message effectively to the audience. Without fluidity, (and I am speaking in my experience as an audience) they will tend to space out or just start doing something else all together without paying attention to you.

The only way to ensure you have that fluidity in speaking is by practicing. But practicing does not always make perfect; you need to be aware of what and how you are practicing since practicing bad techniques will only help you become an expert in sucking. There are a few things that I like to be aware of when I am practicing my speech.

Pacing

One of the most important aspects of fluidity in speech is pacing. Sometimes, being nervous will cause some people to speak too fast. In my experience, speaking too fast will only make you run out of breath and this will burn energy unnecessarily. Plus, your articulation will suffer.

It is important to relax, breath, and be aware of your pacing. Remember, you’re not there to outdo Nicki Minaj. You’re there to make an argument or share your knowledge; so you want the best possible way to deliver your message to the audience. It is important to take your time and articulate those words clearly.

Be Aware of Pause Fillers

Again, I am speaking in my experience as an audience. Having one or two pause fillers is acceptable but if every sentence you say has ‘um’ or ‘uh’ in it, your speech is bound to be distracting and I am going to have a hard time paying attention to you and understanding your arguments.

Of course, not all of us can be flawless but when you’re practicing, record yourself and be aware of those pause fillers. One or two is fine but one time too many can bore the audience (at least it bores me as an audience).

Manage Eye Contact

No, do not imagine everyone as naked. That is not going to help you at all. I’m an advocate of making eye contact since it is a form of engagement in itself. When I am practicing, I like to get into the habit of scanning the room from left to right and vice versa from time to time.

During the actual talk itself, I would either scan my eyes across the room or I would focus on a person or two in the audience who are clearly engage: they are the ones who are always nodding profusely. I don’t focus on the ones who has a dead stare because I don’t know whether they are listening or spacing out but most of the time, they are listening because they do approach me at the end of the talk. People engage in different manners.

I’ve never experience this but there are going to be a few people who are going to move their heads left and right as if they are saying ‘no’ or disagreeing with you. But my advice is to embrace these types of audience as well since I believe that having someone who is clearly engaged but who disagrees with you is better than not being able to engage anyone at all. Don’t be distracted by them though. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion but they are not the ones on stage right now. You are.

Be Spontaneous & Improvise

Don’t feel like you have to be funny or that it is mandatory to come up with a joke or two in order to engage your audience. Being funny is not the only way to engage an audience and you’re not there as a standup comedian. Jokes that are forced are almost always not funny. At best, they can be cringeworthy (but forgettable) to the audience; at worst, it can personally be an unforgettable awkward moment for you.

What do I mean by that? Depending on the culture and nationality of the majority of the audience, they can either be fun-loving or subdued. The fun-loving ones are probably going to give you a polite laugh or two. But the subdued ones are just going to give you an awkward silent. An awkward silence to a joke that you force yourself to make will only disappoint yourself and it’ll just be forgettable to the subdued audience.

In my experience, I do get a laugh or two but I’ve never pressure myself to make jokes. Most of the funny things I said tend to be unrehearsed and they came at a moment of wittiness. Understand that on d-day itself, you do not need to say everything you had rehearsed verbatim. Allow yourself some room to improvise since it is also a form of fluidity.

Shit Happens

Brain farts happen and there will be moments where you said something wrong or you forgot what to say. In this case, I’ll leave you with part of a quote by Dr. Seuss:

Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

In the event of a brain fart, take a deep breath and continue speaking again and soldier on as if you didn’t do anything wrong. Speaking as an audience, I don’t remember a single mistake that a speaker made and even if I notice the mistake during the talk itself, I won’t remember who made it and what the actual mistake was when I woke up the next morning.

Final Thoughts

Most of the fluidity in your speech can be achieve by practicing. When I was invited to do my first talk, I remember pulling in a few mentors and colleagues in order to rehearse in front of them. Some of them were nice about it but I value the ones who can be brutally honest with me since they can tell me what I’m doing wrong and some tips and tricks I could use to improve.

I don’t rehearse in front of my friends and mentors anymore since I am much more confident in my speaking abilities now but I definitely urge first time speakers to rehearse in front of a few confidants at least once. Practicing in front of people will boost your confidence even more.

Now, whatever I said here is based on my personal experience. If you’re curious to know more and you’re serious about starting to speak, I would suggest checking out Speaking.io because it has a comprehensive guide that ranges from planning your talk to dealing with Q&A.

Go forth and spread your wisdom to the public! But if you think public speaking is not for you (just like dancing is not for everyone), you can stick with blogging instead. 😛 The might of the pen/keyboard still means something.