Confessions of a nervous public speaker


James Thomas

James Thomas

Sooner or later, as a person working in developer relations, you’ll end up doing some public speaking. But what if public speaking isn’t your thing? Or, worse, what if you’re nervous about speaking?

IBM developer advocate, James Thomas, shared his experience at the DevRelCon London 2018 unconference.


James Thomas

James Thomas

I’m James Thomas, developer advocate, IBM cloud. And most of the time, I talk to developers about serverless and serverless cloud platforms. And I’m not gonna talk about any of that stuff today. And what I’m gonna talk about is this, right, confessions of a nervous public speaker which is me. That’s kind of a rip-off of the title of very popular book on public speaking which is awesome by Scott Burken. And it’s gonna be about tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years for managing your anxiety around public speaking. My journey from being super, super nervous to just being a little bit nervous as a public speaker.

And they’re kind of…the reason this talk came about is actually some kind of internal training that I got asked to do for some of the advocates a couple of months ago where they were doing some training for new advocates. And a colleague of mine said, “Hey, James. You are an experienced advocate, which means you’ve survived more than about 18 months, right. So can you come and talk to them?” And my colleague asked me…it was about like tips and tricks for being on stage. And so I was like, “Okay. That’s fine.”

I started to think about the tips and tricks that I had. And for me, I started to realize that all of them were related to the central theme of how to manage my nervousness, anxiety around being on stage. Everything I knew and kind of did was…all came back to a central theme. And so I decided to kind of ignore what they asked me to talk about and just talk about kind of nervous speaking and what to do as you kinda get into this stuff.

And to give you a bit of a background to my own kinda journey with these things, right, this was me at the beginning of my advocacy career. You know, I used to find public speaking literally absolutely terrifying, right? I would be nervous weeks before just thinking about having to do this talk when I was at home kinda doing rehearsals. The night before I wouldn’t be getting any sleep. The day of the talk would be a wreck and it was just an ordeal I had to get through, right? I had to get through those things and able to do my job.

And it wasn’t a particularly good experience, especially when I started four or five years ago. And I can remember all of the bad experiences. They’re kind of burned into my consciousness as the white heat of the audience is kinda looking at you and you’re stumbling around on stage. And I remember a particularly challenging experience where I had…I’d gone to America, I’d flown to California to do this talk. Sort of super jetlagged. The talk was at the end of the day, which for me is kinda not great for my kind of nervousness. When I got to the room to do my talk, they kind of…it was quite a small room and they kind of decided to cram it with chairs.

So the audience was like all around me almost. There was nowhere to go. And I had a podium mic and I was kinda stuck behind it. And I decided in my innocence to do a very complex demo of IoT where I was live-coding everything. There was the internet. It was my phone, it was Bluetooth. So loads of stuff to go wrong. I had to live code it from scratch. And I just remember doing this and when I started to talk and everyone kinda came in and it was quite busy in the room, people were like about two foot away. My kind of anxiety or my nervousness kinda kicked up. It was like a freight train hitting me, right. And for the entire duration of the talk it was just super challenging for me to kinda get through.

And I remember during the talk my brain just kept repeating this single message to me while I was doing which was just, “Run away.” Like literally just pick up your laptop and run away. Just pack up and leave and it will be less stressful than dealing with the shame of running out during a talk than dealing with the next 60 minutes. And then it was just repeating. It was just like, “Go on. Get out of there. Just go now. You could be at a hotel room in five minutes.”

And I was like, “No, I’m gonna do the talk.” So I did the talk. Actually it was really good. People really liked it. I didn’t forget anything. But I remember kind of going back to my hotel room at the end of that session. I was pretty exhausted from the anxiety and I felt like how can I keep doing this? Like why is this my job? Like I began to regret my life choices that had led me to being a…I was like, “Why is this my job? I have to keep doing this. This is ridiculous.” And I definitely started saying like, “Can I keep realistically doing this. So I wanna do this out of choice. Shall I just run away and go back into development and not have to talk to people anymore?”

And you can imagine that I didn’t do that, right, because I’m here four, five years later. So I started to read online about…okay. Like what is this thing? Why do I find it so terrifying? What can I do about it? And there was a couple of key insights that I had kinda early on that helped me kind of reframe how I thought about my kind of nervousness around public speaking. And those were things like that everyone gets it. It turns out this wasn’t just me that was super nervous about public speaking. It was a very, very kind of very, very common. So majority of people get this kind of stuff and actually those people you see on stage at conferences that seem super confident and relaxed, you can’t see inside that maybe they’re super terrified, right? So I understood. Okay. This is not just me.

And another big key insight for me that wasn’t about getting rid of my nervousness entirely, right? I didn’t have to become some kinda Zen monk who’s super chill out before going on stage. I could still get up there and do a good job and be engaging while kinda managing my kind of nervousness. It was about management, right, rather than becoming kinda some kinda Zen monk and running off to do meditation for a year. And then finally if I took myself kinda four or five years ago I would definitely say like it does get better, right? The level of nervousness I now feel around public speaking is like orders of magnitude less than it was when I first started when it was pretty awful. Like thankfully I don’t have to go through that anymore so much.

And so I kind of got some key insights and I kept reading to see kind of things I could do to help me. And I’ve kind of built a number of tips and tricks over the years that I’m gonna share. And for me, it starts before you even get to the conference, right, before you even do the talk. And it’s really, really important at least for me to be prepared, right? Being prepared for my talk is super important. Knowing the material, knowing the demos, making sure I practice everything at home.

For me, you know, if you’re gonna leave things till last minute, that’s not the kind of scenario that’s gonna lead you to feeling comfortable on stage. I’m not the kind of person who’s like madly tidying my slides just before I jump on, right? I like to have things way done way in advance. This is just me and what works for me and in terms of being prepared before I get to the conference, there’s a couple of things I like to do. And the first and the most important is to practice, right, to practice your sessions at home, practice your material. There’s nothing like running it through kind of out loud to help you understand like how it goes when you’ve been doing the talks.

And also if you have any kind of opportunity to do them internally, right? We have a weekly kind of advocate call in my division at IBM where people can present their conference talks and get critiques by other people. And I find this incredibly useful. If you’ve got some kind of lo-fi, relatively low-pressure environment to be able to just run through your talk to people, I always find that makes me feel much more comfortable before I get up the first time, especially if a talk is new.

Another thing that makes me feel comfortable, makes me feel confident when I go to do the talks is this thing of no surprises. I like to understand what kind of event I’m going to, what the conference is gonna be like, what the session’s gonna be like, maybe what the room setup is like on the day. And one of the easy ways to do this is just talk to the organizer. So sometimes they’ll send you this kinda stuff if they’re a good conference but often they won’t. And so you can just ask them, right? What is the display connection, right? Are we gonna have to create dongles to be able to connect? You know, what’s the wireless internet situation like in the room? Especially if you’ve got demos, right. Making sure I’ve got hardwire, is it wireless? You know, I’ve had bad experiences of going to a conference to do a big demo around the cloud and they put me in a room with no internet, right, which was pretty challenging for me to do that demo.

It doesn’t happen so much more but aspects ratio, right? You’re doing a lovely widescreen slides and then suddenly you get them sort of cropped down. It doesn’t look so good. Obviously things like microphone setup. And then again something I always wanna know is around a session. So when is it in the day? For me, I like to present in the morning, I like to kinda get there and get out of the way. And it’s completely legitimate to say to the organizers, “Can you move my session? I’m in the afternoon and I prefer to be in the morning.” And they’re normally happy to kind of accommodate you to go there and do a good job.

And another thing to ask them is around the length. So you normally can see in the schedule how long you’ve got but it’s important to know like how much of that time do I get to use? If it says 50 minutes, do I get 50 minutes or are you expecting to leave some time for Q&A? Again, I remember a particularly challenging experience of being at a conference, said 50 minutes in the schedule, I had 50 minutes worth of content and then after 40 minutes they’re waving that sign at me saying, “You’re finished. Get off.” When I had like 10 minutes. So I was building to my wonderful climax and…yes. And it’s not good, right. They didn’t tell me. That was bad on their part but I always ask them out, how much of the time have I got to use?

So definitely, like if they don’t send you this stuff, just go and ask them. It’s gonna make you feel like when you get there, there’s gonna be no surprises. And again, if you’re feeling particularly anxious about a conference, one of the things you can do…I find this useful is to basically go to the conference website, look at last year’s edition which has already happened, and just go and look at social media or go and look at YouTube videos. And you get a really good understanding of what the sessions are like, right? You’re gonna see is it all on keynote stages, are they all small rooms, what’s the setup? And just kind of familiarize yourself with the events. And for me, if you’re kinda anxious about an event, maybe it’s a big talk, it’s always a really, really way to understand what it’s gonna be like.

Now in terms of preparation, right, as well as preparing your talk, it’s also important to prepare for things going wrong. And so for me, with my material and my slides and my demos, I like to use the approach from climbing where in climbing, we talk about having three points of contact to the rock at all times. And I like to have three points of backup for my demo, my slides, and my material, right? So for me, that is on my laptop which is gonna be with me when I’m traveling around, it’s gonna be hopefully on removable USB that I carry in my backpack so if I can give that to someone. And then finally there’s a backup on the cloud, right?

So even if your laptop dies, your bag gets stolen with your USB stick in it, hopefully someone will be able to, you know, give you the laptop and you can present off that because you don’t wanna go all that way and find out just because you can’t get connected or there’s no internet in the venue you’re not able to present anymore. So again, feeling like whatever happens with my equipment or my bag, that kinda stuff, I will be able to go there and present. It means I’m not stressing out and thinking am I gonna have to do in those slides, which is not something I really want to do.

And then finally once you’re prepared, right, you do this work at home, you’re actually gonna get to the conference, right? You’re gonna get to the conference and now you’ve actually gotta do the talk, unfortunately. And for me, like again in terms of like being nervous about speaking, it’ll kind of start to build up on the day of my talk, depending when my talk is. So there’s a couple of things I like to do in that run-up to the talk to kind of help me calm down a little bit, chill out so I can be good when I go on stage.

And I think one of the things I like to do is go check out the room you’re speaking early so you can kind of familiarize yourself with the layout a little bit. And also do your connection check as early as possible, right? See if you can talk to organizers, get your laptop plugged in, make sure everything works so…because you don’t wanna…in that interval between you…the previous speaker and you, you don’t wanna be like struggling with your connection and worried about getting online and stuff. So try and get that stuff out of the way and it’s done and it’s something you don’t have to worry about.

So as the day goes on, let’s say your talk’s in the afternoon. You’ve got some time to kill. I think there’s a number of things to do to kind of help me out. And the first thing is…I found works really well is distraction, right? If you’ve got hours and hours to your talk, what I might do is go to the conference a little bit, go and do my thing and then just basically get out of there. Go back to the hotel if that’s possible, if that’s close by and just take a break. Take a mental break. Do some work. Kinda distract yourself. Don’t sit there, especially if you don’t know anyone, kind of stewing and being anxious about a talk waiting to go on.

So use distraction. That works really well for me going back to the hotel for a little bit. Or if you can’t back to the hotel…maybe it’s far away. I’ve just done before…I’ve gone for a little walk, right. Use some kind of nervous energy by going for a walk around and just taking a break and then coming back. Like an hour or two ready for your session. Kinda calms you down. And then for me personally I like to get to the…if I’m speaking, I like to go to the session before my talk so I’m just in the room and I’m available.

And if you’re having to sit down and watch someone and probably you’re kinda stressing out a bit, there’s something really easy you can do called mindfulness, right, breathing exercises which can help you kind of focusing on your breath. You can just start to calm your nervous system down, kind of break that link between your thoughts that are making you nervous and the physical sensation.

So you can go and read about this online. There’s tons of apps to doing this kinda stuff. You don’t have to cross your legs or close your eyes or anything like that. You can just kinda zone out, look into the distance a little bit, and start focusing on your breathing, counting the breaths in and out. And when your thoughts come along you just kind of acknowledge them and go back to breathing. And, you know, there’s lots of science. This does work. And that helps to kind of chill you out. You can do it anywhere you are.

And then finally the previous speaker is gonna finish, right, and it’s time for you to go on stage. And this kind of interval between, you know…you have to kind of stand there and get mic’d up again, is a time where you start to feel more anxious because you’re about to start. And I don’t know why I read this. I don’t know where I found out about this trick. I’ve told it to other people and it works for them, so I’m gonna share it with you today. That’s one of the things that…almost like magic for me when I’m kinda waiting to go on stage is just to essentially talk to someone, right?

Talk to someone, whether it’s the MC or it’s like…you could just harass someone in the front row and make them talk to you. And if you just have a friendly conversation, like it completely takes your mind off of what you’re about to do. And I think it kinda breaks that thing where rather than being stood in silence looking at your shoes getting super nervous, you are just kind of…it feels like it’s a natural continuation of the conversation you were having where you’ve been talking to someone and you go and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” It doesn’t feel like such a jarring thing where now everyone is looking at you.

So I found this works super well for me. And sometimes, if I was feeling anxious I wouldn’t wanna do this. I wanna keep staring at my shoes. But just go and talk to someone. And then you’ve also got a friendly face in the audience, right? If you don’t know anyone who is…you can start to look at and it will help you. It kinda feels like you’ve got a bit of a friend in the audience. So yeah. Try it out. It works for me almost every time and I’ve told this to the people and they said it works for them as well.

And then you’re gonna have to do it. Right, here we go. Time for you to actually start doing the speaking and the demoing and all that kinda stuff. And this is probably for me, you know…again, you are gonna get a bit of uptick in anxiety and it’s really important. Those first 5 or 10 minutes when I go on stage, it’s important to kind of ride through that and get through that and you can start to hopefully calm down. And so for me, the number of things I do. The first is that I find it really important to, what I call start strong, right? If you can start your presentation well, you can relax. Think people are having a good time. They’re kind of engaged and you start to kind of settle down. If you, you know, if you were struggling to get connected and you start late and you fumble over the first couple of slides, it’s just gonna make you start to be super self-critical and anxious and kind of doubt what you’re doing and wanna get off stage and run away.

So, you know, important…in terms of starting strong, for me that means that really knowing the start of my presentation, right? And that means if I was particularly nervous about a talk, it might remembering rote those first couple of minutes so I can just kinda reel them off and concentrate on my symptoms and not really be thinking about the content so much. So really making sure that you know the start, you know how you’re gonna introduce yourself and all that kinda stuff will help you start strong. And then hopefully you can settle down relatively quickly.

And then another thing I kind of realized is when you’re watching, you know, when you’re watching speakers, I never think anyone is nervous except when I know I’m speaking I feel internally nervous. It’s that people don’t know your inner state. They can’t see into you, right? It’s only if you show them or you tell them about your nerves that they can kinda realize this. So for me, that means thinking about how those…that nervous energy manifests itself in your body and really focusing consciously on managing those symptoms during the first start of your talk.

So, you know, maybe you know that you speak fast. You kinda speed up, that’s a natural thing. And making a conscious effort to like slow down, take some breaths, take some brakes or maybe, you know, you fidget with your hands and thinking about where they are. And it helps me to think that then people don’t see that I’m nervous. They don’t perceive it and it helps me to feel more comfortable, they feel more comfortable, and you kinda chill out.

And then finally when I’m kind of doing a talk, I find this concept of finding the nodders really important. Does anyone who what I’m talking about, right? Yeah, that guy’s like, “Yes.” Right? All right. So when you’re doing a talk, you’re kind of looking out across the audience and you will see something like this, right? And a good tip that I always give you is to like…oh, you know, find a person in each quarter of the room and just kind of go look at them for a bit, look at them. It looks like that you’re looking at everyone and you wanna find the people like this dude in the front row, he’s having a great time at my talk. And this guy at the back here that’s like … this…not so much. This lady’s looking at her phone. Get out.

So yeah. And then…and my trick is, you know, look…find those people who are naturally enthusiastic, right? Find those…it’s not like they’re having a good time. They’re not just looking at Twitter or like, you know, there’s people that think, you know…some people would like to express that they fundamentally disagree with the premise of your talk throughout it. Don’t look at those people. Look at the nice people and again, if you just look at those people, it would just kind of chill you out. And you just think, “Yeah, they’re having a good time. I’m doing a good job. Nothing to worry about.”

So find the nodders in the audience and conversely, if you are in an audience, be the nodder. Right? I do make a conscious effort when I’m in talks to be enthusiastic and look at a speaker and show that I’m appreciating it, even if I don’t like the content and I’m not having a good time. You know, they’ve done the work, they’re getting up there. It’s kinda scary. Be the nodder in the audience, right. I think that’s really important.

So you’ve got to this point, right? You started strong, things are going well, you’re prepared. Now he’s like shaking his head. I’m not gonna look at you anymore. You’re on my naughty list, right. I was thinking, “What? What have I done? Is my fly open? Jeez.” Okay. Where was I? So you started strong, you found the nodders, all this kinda stuff. And then you think you’re kind of playing it well then uh-oh. Demo time. This is where things can go super wrong. And this could be like all kinds of stuff, right? It can be that the internet suddenly stops working. You forget the commands if you’re live coding. It’s amazing how hard it is to type when you’re live coding and whilst people are watching you. You’re like…if you’re…maybe your particular platform has production issues. This never happens with IBM cloud. I don’t know why. IBM is just…we should not be laughing at this point. Yeah, so all this kinda stuff, right. This is…and there’s a bit for me when I press that enter key and I’m kinda like praying internally like, “Please work, please work.” And then it does. It’s okay.

So again, in terms of demonstrations, there’s things I’ve kind of picked up to make this a bit easier. And it’s things like number one rule, right? Always, always, always, always record a video backup. I have learned through painful personal experience that this can save you again and again. So again, for all of my demos I always have a video backup and it’s my three points of contact, in the cloud and all that kinda stuff. So I know that if there is an issue with the cloud or something like…I give myself like minimum amount of time like 10 seconds or 15 seconds trying to fix it. If not, boom. Let’s go to the video and just kinda narrate over it.

And that could be a…I think that’s often better for the audience because you can kinda narrate what’s going on. You’re not trying to remember commands and all of that kinda stuff. So always just do this. This is easy to do and it’s gonna make you much calmer that you’re not gonna have to like…everything doesn’t always have to work and just swap to video backup.

And then, you know, in terms of the demos, right. I talked about the start. It’s kind of a challenging experience this crazy live coding IoT thing with like Bluetooth and internet like…and I thought in the beginning when I was kinda demoing to developers, I had to show them like all the nuts and bolts, all the crannies. Make it as realistic as possible, you know, production environments. And I’ve…my thinking on this has kind of shifted somewhat that to me…for me now, if I do demos in my talks, it’s about what I call minimum viable demo, right?

It’s about stripping out as many moving parts as possible to really just emphasize a point or highlight a particular thing or show off something in your platform or your product. It’s not about doing a super realistic example with all the nooks and crannies and installing tools and the CLI and that kinda stuff. I have all that stuff set up and just focus on minimum viable demo, right? And they can read all that stuff online later. And that comes about by just minimizing moving parts, right. I try not to live code anymore. I just copy and paste because people…they’re not there to see you live code. They’re there to see something about your talk. So I kind of try and strip out anything that can go wrong because essentially will go wrong.

So if the demo finishes, I hope the demo’s gone well and you think this is it. I’m kind of…I’m home and dry and just gonna cruise out and people are gonna clap and I can go and collapse. And then you get to the end of the talk and people start clapping and they organize a spring on you that it’s time for Q&A and you’re like, “Oh, no. Not Q&A. I thought I’d survived.” And talking to other speakers…I know there’s lots of people out there that just don’t like Q&A. they think…and I think generally it’s because they think they’re gonna get caught out. People are gonna ask them questions and they’re supposed to be this knowledgeable expert on stage and then they’re gonna be like, “I don’t know.” And it’s not gonna make them look good.

So in terms of Q&A, some of the things that speaking to the people I think can be helpful to make this a bit less stressful. And the first thing I would say is that like just say no, kids. Just say no. Like you’re the speaker. You’ve gone all the way to do this hard work. Like if you don’t wanna do Q&A just say, “Look. I’m gonna use all the time for my presentation. You know, I’m not really comfortable. People can come and talk to me afterwards, right.” Personally I don’t like Q&A anyway. Most tech conferences don’t handle them particularly well. So I try to get out of it. Just say, “Look. I prefer to have one on one conversations. Let’s do that.” I know other people use this so just say no, kids. You don’t have to do it.

But if they do force you to do it, or you do wanna do it and you wanna be on a panel, you’re probably worried about dealing with difficult questions. And there’s a couple of techniques that I’ve used and people have used to manage this stuff. And the first is that it’s okay to say…as Christiana said, “I don’t know.” You don’t have to be the oracle who knows everything about your thing, all right? So if someone asks you a question, a legitimate question that you don’t know say, “Hey. That’s a good question. I don’t actually know that. I can find out afterwards or I’d love to follow up and find out but I don’t know.” And I think by understanding that it’s okay to say like, “I don’t know,” there’s a less risk of thinking, “Well, I have to know everything. What if they ask me something?” And it kind of chills you, right, a little bit.

And then we’re going to the questions that are a bit more kind of maybe inappropriate or necessary or slightly nasty. I think there’s a couple of things you can do. And the first is use the what I call the politician’s approach where, you know, you get asked a question you think is slightly like offhand and you say, “Oh, that’s a good question. What I think you mean to say was…” And you kinda bridge over to something you do want to be able to talk about and you kinda find a way to deflect over it. Yeah, you know, that’s interesting. I was thinking about this the other day. And you kinda go off on a tangent. Like I wouldn’t use this for normal questions. You just answer them. But like I think again this is just dealing with kind of difficult unnecessary questions that maybe they’re just trying to trip you up. Just kind of push back at them.

And then finally, you know, if you do get asked something…I’ve had this. it’s completely either inappropriate or like just outside of your realm of control, it’s trying to trip you up and make you look bad and you’re worried about being on Twitter. Like just be very forthright. Say, “I’m not here to talk about that, so I’m not gonna answer that. Let’s move on to the next question.” Just be super forthright and just kinda own it because…don’t try and get locked into saying, “Well, that’s what my company…I’m not sure what I’m supposed to…” So just like get out, right? Don’t. Because you don’t wanna end up on Twitter as Christiana said.

So hopefully if you can get through all that, right, now you can relax, right? You’ve done the preparation, you got to the conference, you’ve chilled out, you’ve done the talk, you’ve done the demo, you’ve done the Q&A and then hopefully people are just gonna clap at you and you kinda have the rush…the post presenter rush that you get if you’re super nervous.

And there’s loads of stuff that I learned but it took me a long time to kinda get here. But I think if I was talking to myself sort of four or five years ago, I would kinda make the points that one, like being nervous about public speaking is normal, right. All these people you don’t know are looking at you, your peers, your colleagues, people you respect. It’s normal to feel anxious about that kinda stuff but it’s not…at least for me and I think for many people, it’s not about becoming some Zen monk, right, who’s super chill all the time about doing this stuff. It’s about management or finding techniques that work to manage your symptoms, which means that you know that no matter how internally anxious or nervous you feel, outside you’re gonna be super chill and everyone’s gonna have a good time.

And then finally I would say again if I was speaking about myself in the start of my like advocacy career or public speaking career, it’s just like…just hang in there, right, because it does get better. The experiences that I had four or five years ago around doing this kinda stuff is not the experience I have now, thankfully. Although it does take a long time, right. For the first year or two I really didn’t see much difference. It’s only been more recently that things have kind of chilled out a bit. And it’s definitely not a linear line, right? Lots of variables in there for me about how nervous I am for a particular talk but it does get better.

So I thank you for listening. Hopefully there’s been some useful tips and tricks in there if you do get kind of nervous about public speaking and I’d love to speak to you afterwards about other stuff that you’ve learned. So thank you very much.

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