How To Not Hate Public Speaking (Part 1)

I hate public speaking! I HATE public speaking! I HATE PUBLIC SPEAKING!

That would have been my emphatic and unwavering response only eight or nine months ago if you had asked me about my thoughts on having to speak in public. The idea of speaking in front of even a small group of people whom I knew reasonably well would have sent shivers down my spine. It would have made my palms sweat.

So what if you asked me that same question today?… It turns out; I actually quite enjoy public speaking!

Fair warning: This is a long blog post. I have split it into two parts, but it’s very much story driven and the detail was needed to give the full picture and to share my personal progression to becoming a technical speaker. I plan to create short, more digestible posts that will follow this one to expand on the benefits of speaking and some tips and techniques I’ve used to date.

I’d love it if the result of this post was to inspire a few other developers to take the step towards presenting in public. If I can do it, you certainly can too! We’re in an ever changing industry where there are lots of possible solutions and approaches to solving problems. Sharing the wealth of knowledge and experience within our communities can only help bring up the overall level and help every developer to keep up and improve their skills. I have learned a huge amount from listening to many hundreds of hours of recorded talks and I decided it was time for me to try and give back. This is my story…

Chapter 1: Hating public speaking

I don’t have a specific reason why, but I’ve never enjoyed public speaking. I would actively avoid it in any environment and with any possible excuse. My first memories of this dislike were in school. If we ever had to give a speech or presentation in front of the class I would panic. The thought of everyone staring at me and judging me set my heart racing. It’s funny; I don’t really remember the actual moment of making speeches though, mostly I remember the fear leading up to it. I do know that I wasn’t ridiculed or made fun of afterwards. So why did I still hate it?

One factor contributing to my fear may be my introverted nature. I am okay talking within small groups of people that I know but put me around strangers and I do tend to close up. I like to listen but I find it harder to put myself out there into the discussion. I’m not particularly good at small talk, finding it hard to think of things to say or ask; usually until after the conversation, at which point I come up with a ton of questions! Generally I’m happier when I’m not the centre of attention and therefore, speaking in public is taking me out of my comfort zone.

My next memory of having to speak in public was some years later when I was asked to be a best man at my friend’s wedding. I was honoured to be asked, but not long after that I realised that I would need to speak… in front of people! Lots of people! I spent the weeks leading up to the wedding working on content for my speech. I’m not sure how many times I read out my script to myself, added bits, cut bits and then added them back again. By the time the big day arrived I had a few pages prepared.

All through the day, a level of dread built up in me. By the time we sat down for the meal and my moment approached I was at a pretty high state of fear. I wasn’t really hungry and decided a glass or two of alcohol would help. It didn’t! Let me stress; I didn’t get drunk or anything, but the edge certainly had not been taken off as I had hoped it might be. Soon the desert was cleared away and at that point I may have briefly considered making a run for it! There were two speeches before me but before long I was up, it was my time with the room. I stood, hands shaking a little, heart beating, pores sweating and surveyed my audience. I hated them! I hated the groom! Most of all I hated public speaking!

I began the speech. My voice was cracking and I hated it. I noticed my eyes were watering. Not crying, but definitely moist. Noticing those things only served to make it worse and I hated that too. I pushed on, speaking the lines I’d agonised over getting just right, trying to hit the necessary inflection and pauses to make the audience laugh. I don’t remember it all that clearly but I made it through. During the speech people laughed, not at me but with me. Later, friends and even some strangers would tell me what a good job I’d done. Personally, I was just extremely glad it was over.

A year or so later another close friend got married and this time I was happy not to be given the honour of best man, simply because I could enjoy the event without having to concern myself with speaking; or so I thought! As it turned out a friend and I were given a short slot during the best man speech to “say a few words”. We came up with a little script of funny stories that we could present almost as if conversing with one another. Again, I don’t remember too much about presenting the speech but I do remember feeling really apprehensive beforehand. Something I did learn at this point is that the fear of speaking is way worse than actually doing it. The guests seemed to enjoy our cameo and congratulated us afterwards. A job well done.

So far this blog seems to be a story of weddings, but as it turns out, those are the main times I really had to speak to a large audience previously. During that same timeframe I’d led meetings on the phone and in person for my job. I was generally okay with those since the audience was small and it was less one sided. I do recall some cases where it was mostly up to me to present a set of slides or content at a meeting and before those I would often feel a little stressed beforehand.

Okay, back to weddings, this is the last one, I promise! The next wedding I attended was my own and I certainly couldn’t avoid speaking at that one! This was the speech which I worked most hard on; preparing, refining and rehearsing over many weeks. Speaking as the groom, it’s a little harder as you can be less reliant on using jokes as a mechanism to engage the audience. My one advantage was knowing all of the guests which I think that did make it slightly less intimidating. In this instance, with everything else going on, I only really had time to be nervous just before speaking. I think it was during my father-in-law’s speech that I realised that I was next and started to panic a little. However, I do remember with this time speaking felt much more natural. Perhaps I was starting to get conditioned to speaking for an audience?

Chapter 2: Starting out with technical speaking

In late 2016 I made the decision that I wanted to develop my public speaking skills and I decided to start by giving some technical talks at work. This was a very conscious decision on my part. I had admired and was indebted to the many fantastic and varied speakers who, over the years of watching recorded talks or attending conferences, had helped me learn so much. They made it look effortless and in only 60 minutes could take me many paces forward in my self-development. I recognised that public speaking is a very valuable skill. To be able to stand before a group of people and teach, inspire and inform is incredibly powerful. At a smaller level it can help in both one’s career and personal life. My wife is a teacher and I am awed at her ability to educate her students and to help set them towards success in life.

Whilst not in any way ready to stand in front of a class of 30 teenagers, I really did want to share my experience of and passion for ASP.NET Core with my colleagues. I decided to try and put together a one hour talk on the topic. It seemed like a great idea when I first came up with it and scheduled a date for just over a month in the future. I’ve become a big fan of blogging as a mechanism to share content within the developer community. By speaking I hoped I could build on this by communicating my content in a different form, including demos and emphasising my points to hopefully inspire people to try it out. A main difference between speaking and blogging is that you gain feedback from the audience as you speak and can adapt where necessary. If their faces imply they might not have understood something, you can reword it and try a different tact. If they have questions you can respond to those in a two way conversation. I was inspired by great technical speakers, like Scott Hanselman for example, who make presenting technical content while remaining entertaining look so effortless.

I spent a lot of time over that next month developing content for the talk. The first thing I learned was that it was a lot of work; far more than I had imagined. I started with a bit of an outline in my mind and from their began to pencil in some slides and bullet points to cover. I found myself regularly researching things to validate that I had understood them fully and could accurately speak about the technology. Once I had a reasonable outline, I started working on the demos. I planned to show the process of building up a basic MVC project, starting with “dotnet new” at the command line. I would demonstrate the concept of middleware and the Startup class along the way. Building the code itself wasn’t too complex, but working out how to explain it and build up in small steps was harder. I didn’t want to go too deep too quickly and loose anyone along the way. I was also conscious of needing to type code whilst also speaking so I tried to work out how to avoid long pauses while typing. In the end I prepared a set of snippets that meant I could copy and past a lot of the code into the project as I demoed the features.

I spent many hours refining the content and practicing the slides and demos to myself at home. I went over and over and over everything until it was pretty much burned into my mind. I have quite a bad memory so I was worried that the content would be forgotten by the time I came to present it. I even put my wife through one of my final rehearsals, despite her lack of programming experience. She very kindly listened and gave me some feedback after I had finished. Even presenting it to just my wife at home, I realised I felt nervous and quite self-conscious standing and speaking in front of her. I was starting to regret the idea!

Before I knew it, the big day had arrived. I was very nervous and for most of the morning I couldn’t stop thinking about the stupid decision I’d made. I wondered if I could reschedule to give me more time to get used to the idea. However, I realised that I was as prepared as I could be and that I should just get it over with. 10 minutes before the start I headed into the meeting room to prepare. I wanted to make sure my personal laptop would connect to the TV in our board room and that all of the demo content was at the correct font sizes to be seen clearly. I was super anxious by this stage and found myself hoping that no one would turn up at all. That would at least give me a way out. However, to my disappointment, people started to arrive. I’d sent the invite to all developers so was unsure exactly how many would turn up. In the end I think I had about 12 people in the board room with me. It’s a reasonably small number but surprisingly intimidating at that moment.

Time slowly ticked down until the scheduled start time arrived. I took a big breath, stood up and launched into my talk. I worked my way through my introductory content from my slides just as I’d rehearsed. After the first few minutes as I hit my flow I do recall that it got easier to present. My colleagues seemed engaged in what I was sharing with them. I got through my slides a little quicker than I’d expected. I realised that I had been talking faster than in my much calmer rehearsals to an empty room.

With my slides complete, it was onto the demos. This generated an added level of anxiety since there was the possibility of things not working at expected. Despite having practiced it many times, I had watched enough technical demos fail during presentations in the past. I didn’t have much of a plan B if things started to go south. I found that the hardest part was definitely smoothly typing and working the screen, whilst also talking and trying to make eye contact with the audience. The demo went well and everything worked as I’d planned and practiced it. All that was left was to wrap up my summary slides and to take questions. I think I only had two questions, so either I’d covered everything, I’d lost some people along the way or people were shy. However, once it was all over, quite a few people approached me privately to offer their thanks and to say that they’d enjoyed it. I got one piece of written feedback via an online recognition tool that particularly made me smile…

“Gave an outstanding talk on a complex technical subject: thoroughly researched, clearly explained. One of the best prepared and delivered technical talks I’ve attended at Madgex.”

This was very encouraging to read and I thank that person for his very kind and valuable feedback. I’d found it very hard to judge how well the content had gone across so seeing this made me realise that I’d done a pretty reasonable job. It was encouragement that I very much needed at the time and I urge you, if you ever attend a talk, do let the speaker know if you enjoyed it. All feedback is valuable but for new speakers especially I think hearing encouragement or positive feedback is so important. For me personally that comment gave me the confidence boost to consider future talks.

After I had time to reflect on the experience I decided that although I’d been very nervous before I started, I had actually enjoyed sharing the content and teaching people about ASP.NET Core. The fact that I’d been able to introduce people to it and get them interested to learn more was very satisfying. I made the decision to plan another talk to develop my speaking skills and face my public speaking fear once again.

It was some months later in early 2017 when my next opportunity presented itself. I happened to mention to Mike Hadlow who runs the Brighton ALT.NET group that I was thinking about trying to do some external talks in the future. I wanted to step it up a level and move further out of my comfort zone. Speaking to colleagues internally was a great step, but I wanted to push myself more. It was great timing as he was in the process of planning an evening of four 20 minute lightning talks. He asked if I would like to be put on the list to speak and before I knew it, I had agreed!

I decided fairly early on that I wanted to develop a talk around my experience of contributing to the allReady open source project run by the Humanitarian Toolbox. This is a charity focused on providing sustainable software for use by disaster relief charities that I’m passionate about being a part of. Richard Campbell, one of the co-founders of the charity had recently given a keynote at NDC London, speaking about the project. I got in contact with Richard and asked if I could re-use some of his content and slides since he’d given a great introduction to the motivations and history behind the formation of Humanitarian Toolbox.

With Richard’s slides in hand I went about crafting content for the talk. Originally 20 minutes had felt like a long time to fill, but during rehearsals I soon realised that I had over 30 minutes’ worth. I worked on cutting it down and refining it until I had around 22 minutes. I knew from my previous talk that I speak quicker when presenting for real vs. rehearsal so this seemed like a sensible idea. I was aiming for around 16 minutes of speaking, with 4 minutes for questions at the end.

Again I spent many hours rehearsing the talk to myself (and sometimes the cats) at home. I find that the best process for me is to present to a fake audience. I stand up and practice not only the content but presenting it clearly and with good vocal projection. It feels strange but it really does help me to find a rhythm. I time each run through, sometimes pausing to make notes or revisions to the slides when something doesn’t sound or feel right. I also focus on looking up and out into the imaginary audience. It’s important for this to feel natural and it also forces me to ensure I’m not simply reading from the slides or my notes. The preparation was a little easier since I didn’t have a demo to build or rehearse this time around. The downside however was that this talk would be all about what I was saying. Technical demos have the advantage of taking the direct focus off you for a little while.

Before I knew it, the evening of the talks was upon me. I was starting to have serious doubts if this had been a good idea. In fact I was fairly sure it was a crazy idea. I had no idea how many people to expect and the thought of standing in front of a group of strangers was filling me with a strong and steady dread. I couldn’t back out now… could I? No, I couldn’t let anyone down. I was committed and I just needed to step up and do this.

At 6pm I met some of the ALT.NET attendees, along with Mike (the organiser) and some of the other speakers at a local restaurant for a quick dinner. I didn’t feel much like eating but knew I needed something to see me through the evening. From there we all walked to the venue and got the space setup. Before long, the talks where due to begin. I was third to present of the four speakers that evening which left me with 40 minutes to slowly sweat and worry about having to speak. The build up is definitely one of the worst bits for me. Five minutes before my talk I went off to have a nervous pee and to compose myself in private. This has now become a sort of ritual for me, not having a pee (although I do recommend speaking on an empty bladder), but to take five minutes just before speaking to clear my head, take a few deep breaths and try to relax.

At the allotted time I stepped onto the “stage” and got started. I find the first few minutes of a talk the hardest. It’s the time when you first have to engage with the audience and take the centre of attention. My voice, along with my hands was a little shaky to begin with. After a couple of minutes I started to relax and the flow from my rehearsals took over. I was reasonably comfortable with all of the eyes on me. Everyone was listening intently and even laughed at a couple of small jokes I included along the way. The time flew past and before I knew it I was on my final slide. I’d finished in about 15 minutes, so still faster than practice but about what I had been expecting.

During questions at the end I got a lot of engagement and I was pleased that people had been taking in what I’d been saying. With the questions answered, I could relax and accept my round of applause. I spoke to a few people after the event and the feedback was great. Everyone I spoke to was either being polite or had enjoyed the talk. One of the speakers that evening was Dylan Beattie, a name I knew, but whom I had never met. Dylan is a more experienced speaker and has presented at a number of large conferences. I managed to ask Dylan for his thoughts about my talk and his feedback was very encouraging. A few people I spoke to seemed surprised that this had been my first external talk. I took that as a really good sign of how the presentation had gone.

A few weeks later, buoyed by the success of the evening the next thing I did seems pretty crazy to me, even now. I submitted to speak at a conference… What!!? Yeah, I’m still not sure exactly what possessed me!

On that nail-biting cliff-hanger I’ll wrap up this post. Join me in Part 2 to find out what happened next.

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Steve Gordon

Steve Gordon is a Pluralsight author, 6x Microsoft MVP, and a .NET engineer at Elastic where he maintains the .NET APM agent and related libraries. Steve is passionate about community and all things .NET related, having worked with ASP.NET for over 21 years. Steve enjoys sharing his knowledge through his blog, in videos and by presenting talks at user groups and conferences. Steve is excited to participate in the active .NET community and founded .NET South East, a .NET Meetup group based in Brighton. He enjoys contributing to and maintaining OSS projects. You can find Steve on most social media platforms as @stevejgordon

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