Increase public speaking confidence: 3 ways I've trained myself to not get nervous

I have been public speaking for several years now, and consider it a core skill. I regularly receive positive feedback from conference and event organizers, and a mere 3 months into a new data science role, I won a “favorite presenter” award that was voted by new team members from all over the company (not just engineering).

I’ll share 3 of my favorite self-reminders before a talk, to make sure that I can perform at my best and help the attendees enjoy and understand the content. As always, my skills are a work in progress, but I believe with my systematic way of figuring out what works best and what doesn’t, I will continue to grow year over year in my speaking abilities.

Public speaking tips that are useful for remote conference speaking or for in-person talks How does one increase confidence and reduce nervousness during public speaking? I share my favorite tips in this article. (Photo: Unsplash)

The audience wants to learn from you, not criticize you

When I first started public speaking, a common source of nervousness was impostor syndrome. Thoughts such as What if I sound silly? Is the content too [complex/basic]? would surface, especially right before getting on stage. These thoughts are unproductive as it would have been too late to change the content at that point anyway.

I have improved at avoiding self-sabotaging thoughts like the above, after slowly learning and realizing that whether the audience is consisted of the most seasoned professionals, or of complete newcomers to the topic one is presenting, everyone can learn something new.

When I myself attend talks about a topic I am extremely familiar with, I still learn: for example the speaker is sharing their experience applying [x] algorithm to [y] use case that was in a different company or tech stack. No one’s experience will overlap 100%, so even if the audience is familiar with what I am speaking about, I am now certain I don’t need to worry about them not learning anything at all.

That irrational worry being out of the way, it is still important to optimize the content to take the talk to the next level. I found this to be the “next level” when I was improving in my public speaking, and learning to communicate well to any type of audience.

A practical way to go about this is really to understand the audience and tailor the presentation. If you know beforehand that the audience is on the business side, then tailor the language to that group. If the audience is more interested in learning about mathematical derivations of an algorithm, then include more of that. I’ve done talks on all ends of the spectrum, and for the latter I relish in adding more detail with \(\LaTeX\). (Get \(\LaTeX\) on your blog)

I have learned to ask event organizers about the expected audience, which makes a big difference. Once, I had thought a talk was geared toward the technical end and thus wanted to add more details on matrix factorization in the talk.

However, it was later clarified with the organizers, who were very thoughtful to provide details on the audience’s point of view, that the talk would be better structured as helping the business side see benefits of machine learning. Hence, I tailored the talk to be much more example and result oriented, which was vastly helpful to connecting with the audience and getting great feedback.

The conclusion: if impostor syndrome strikes, remember that no matter what, the audience can learn from your experience. That worry out of the way, one can focus less on the nervousness and more on executing a talk well.

No one knows if you made a mistake

I have seen nervousness caused by this second point happen during presentations - sometimes a speaker gets flustered when they fumble a slide, or an unexpected question raised by the audience, and it visibly throws off the talk flow. Maybe you can recall a moment when you have seen this happen to a speaker, as well.

I used to obsessively replay any verbal fumbles I made, even days after I had given a talk. While I no longer “obsess” over mistakes, I still try to replay these moments, if they happen, for learning purposes. What’s important is that I’ve learned to do this replaying at a productive level that reduces any lingering anxiety over a past talk.

What do I mean by this? Let’s say I had planned to mention something during a talk, but forgot to. Does the audience know that? Nope. So, I learned to stop dwelling on it or allowing the “accident” to make me freeze up during a talk. Really, if it’s a minor detail, no one will know.

I used to do music performances, and the same logic applies. Sometimes I would be sweating on stage from a missed note, but when it’s the other way around and I’m part of the audience, I will probably barely notice the missed note. The purpose of a talk or performance is the overall takeaway of an audience, not minute details. I’ve learned to not let minor “imperfections” throw me off.

And let’s say a speaker does make a noticeable mistake - it’s for the best to just make it into fuel for future talks, instead of letting embarrassment stop one from public speaking.

To use a personal example: one time in a rock band performance I was using a wireless receiver for my electric guitar. My performance ended and I left the stage, forgetting to take off the wireless receiver and hand it to the next set of performers. I remember even checking my phone and starting to relax after the performance, when an organizer came rushing over asking if I had seen the receiver.

My blood turned cold at that moment, recalling that the receiver was still plugged into my guitar. I had caused a delay in the overall performance, even if it was 3 minutes long, but unforgivable to me since I feared that folks would blame me. I was horrified at the thought of the 700 attendees waiting in awkward silence… caused by me. I dwelled on that incident for months, and would get red-faced just thinking about it.

But now, when I face other types of public performing or speaking, if I have a bout of nerves, sometimes I think about that incident and how nothing turned out catastrophically. The truth is, I doubt the audience even noticed. The same goes with minor “mistakes” you could make during your talk.

In my example, I had survived such a huge “mistake”, even though I had wanted to disappear in embarrassment at the time. “The show must go on!” We can live and learn, and forgive ourselves for making mistakes, even if they are in front of an audience of hundreds.

Don’t let the public talk be your first time “practicing”

The best way I reduce nervousness is simply to practice with dry runs. Sometimes, I do get lazy and find myself actively avoiding dry runs: “Oh, I’ll just wing it”… But, it’s really bad for myself as the speaker if I’m trying to compute what I’m trying to say for the first time, as I deliver it to a large audience. To use the words from this article on more of my public speaking tips:

I liken it to if I were preparing for a violin performance, and for weeks, I only stare at the violin and think about the notes I will play. Then, on the day of the performance, I finally pick up the violin for the first time and play the notes out loud.

This is basically the same as going into a public speaking engagement without having done dry runs. A skilled violinist could probably sight read a song (like reading content from slides) without making a “mistake”, but it won’t be as good a performance if they haven’t already practiced on the actual violin prior to the performance.

Sometimes, during dry runs, I stumble merely seconds in while I am introducing myself. “Did I mean to say I’m a data scientist and game developer, or game developer and data scientist?” I then make a mental note, and this mental note is “cached”, so to speak, by the time I get to deliver the real public talk, instead of all computed in real time.

Isn’t it much better to have stumbled during a dry run, than in front of others? This is why I always prefer to do a dry run - it is the best way to eliminate nervousness, since the nerves would have been emulated during a dry run.

But to be real, sometimes if I’ve procrastinated and am running out of time, or if the talk is more casual and doesn’t warrant a large amount of preparation time, I at least try to practice the first 5 minutes as if it were live. With just 5 minutes, I can go into the talk so many times more confidently. It’s a guaranteed high ROI!

How to set up a budget friendly recording studio at home for remote work How my home office speaking set up looks like, with microphone stand and 2 webcams. Budget friendly!

Since most of my talks have been given virtually during the pandemic, I have also written in detail about my audio equipment for a home office speaking setup in this post.

Conclusion

This year I have given a lot of talks, and I’ve shared above in this post the ways I help myself be confident and not let nervousness prevent me from giving a great talk.

I hope that whether you are a seasoned speaker or new to public speaking, that any of these points can resonate and help you. As usual, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or hello@susanshu.com about this article.

As a future post on public speaking, I will write a follow up to last year’s talk circuit retrospective “5 talks in 10 days” post, which I encourage you to check out, for more tips on public speaking!

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