I often meet people who tell me they wish they could speak in front of a crowd, but they fear doing it because they know they are poor at public speaking. These people are both right and wrong.
Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for me to stand in front of a group of professionals and speak to them about how to do their job better. But these days, this is a frequent occurrence for me.
Thinking back on those days, I recall that the main thing keeping from even attempting public speaking was the sheer terror of being alone in front of a group. I knew this at the time, but I also recognized that public speaking was a deficiency in my skill set.
So I set out to address this deficiency.
I found opportunities to speak publicly - safe opportunities where the risk of failure was low. My children were in elementary school, so I volunteered to read aloud to their class. I volunteered to read aloud at church service. I put together technical presentations and delivered them at work.
As my confidence grew, I began to speak at local user groups.
Eventually, I was comfortable enough to take a job as a trainer, where I had to stand in front of a classroom full of strangers and pretend to be an expert on various topics.
Today, I seize every opportunity to speak to a technical group. In the past year, I’ve spoken at Day of .Net, DevCares, ArcReady, three different user groups, and at a number of different companies. I love the rush that comes with delivering a good presentation. I love when a talk is well received and people tell me so.
Along the way, I learned a few things.
The hardest part of public speaking is overcoming the fear of public speaking. But much of that fear is unfounded. We are afraid because we know that our presentation will be less than perfect. We're right about the imperfection but we're wrong about the importance of perfection.
Most audiences don't demand perfection. I've been on both sides of the stage and I think I understand what most people expect from the speaker.
- They expect the speaker to be familiar with the material he is presenting. He should do more than just read PowerPoint slides.
- They expect the speaker to communicate the main points of the presentation.
- They expect the speaker to be enthusiastic about his topic and convey that enthusiasm to the audience.
If a speaker does those three things, most people will be satisfied. Notice that perfection is not on the list. A speaker may have many flaws. If he uses poor grammar or stumbles over some points and needs to repeat them or shows that he is nervous, the audience will forgive him as long as he delivers some information enthusiastically.
I'm not suggesting that public speakers should ignore any flaws in their presentation style. If you present a lot, I recommend that you record yourself, critique your performance and strive to improve each time. But these things aren't catastrophic and shouldn't paralyze us into avoiding speaking.
If you want to get started in public speaking, start with something small and safe, such as a presentation to a group of co-workers. Choose a topic that you are passionate about. Allow yourself to make mistakes, but focus on the three main points above. Record at least the audio of your presentation and listen to it to determine how you can improve it.
Many technical user groups offer members the opportunity to speak for 5-10 minutes on a topic before or after their meeting. Check if your local group does this or is interested in starting. It's a good way to practice presenting in front of strangers.
As you gain more confidence, seek out larger groups to present to. Your initial nervousness should lessen and you can focus on improving other parts of the presentation.