An amphitheatre
Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett

Public Speaking – Vidi

I got into speaking because I kept trying, in no small part thanks to the many user groups that litter our country with safe and fun environments to push our boundaries. I’m not sure if I progressed as a speaker, but I’ve learnt a bunch of tricks and practices over the years that I’ve found useful.

Know the why

It’s terribly important to ask “why”. Why are you on stage? Why do you want people there? Why do they come? Why is any of what you say important, relevant or useful to anyone? Why should anyone listen to you?

It may sound like a therapist’s notebook, but it’s much simpler than that. A talk is a moment for people to take something away. You want to focus on what people will take away, and to do that you need to target your content. If you stay focused on the key message, you can start editing irrelevant content out.

It’s ok to have a talk with only one key takeaway. It’s fine to go to a Kebab shop and get a Kebab. Kebabs are great, mostly healthy, and people go to a Kebab shop knowing exactly what they’ll get. As long as they get their Kebab, they’ll love the shop, enjoy the Kebab, and the rest of their night. Be a Kebab.

The stage is your best friend

The stage, or the desk, or the chair, or whatever is used to delimitate where you belong, can be frightening. Like most frightening things, the best way to get over it is to conquer it. Take a bit of time to look at where your laptop will be, where you will be able to see your screen, and where you can walk to.

Go and sit in the audience chairs at the beginning, on all corners. People are coming to see you, so you want them to see you. Putting yourself in their shoes is a good way of knowing what your stage presence will look like.

Test the projector first. See if your content is in the right format (4:3 vs 16:9 can ruin good slides). Check the sound system, if you use a mic. If going voice only, ask one of the organisers to sit at the back, and talk as you normally would. If they can’t hear you, adjust your voice to be louder.

Don’t be afraid of being afraid

Everyone gets stage fright at some point. I get very stressed the night before my talk, and the anxiety continues all the way to the talk. I arrive early, plug myself and the laptop in, put the screen on the first slide, and then proceed to pace up and down, ignoring the audience and absorbing myself in my own thoughts. I just think about conversations I could be having, food I had for lunch, or even just the colour of the wood on the stage. Nothing about the talk for a few minutes.

I need the time off before I start. I don’t look at people, I try to completely ignore them. I’m preparing myself by just being there and absorbing the environment, getting calm by pacing, walking on the stage to own it.

Start the delivery

When you’re on stage, you want to be focused on your delivery. Yet, so many things get in the way. My hands! My arms! My posture! My shirt! Oh, the stress, the incomprehension, the awkwardness of it all!

Most of us don’t realise how much work is involved for people on TV to look natural. Switch to a news TV channel, and look at how they sit, and where they place their hands. Now ask yourself this question: have I ever held the tip of the fingers of one hand in the other, while talking? Of course not!

We have been pre-programmed to find hands and arms hanging on the side as an unnatural, awkward sign that the person talking to us is just a bit weirder than we feel comfortable with.

The easiest way to avoid the zombie arms syndrome is the accessory. Find yourself a clicker, or a bottle of water, or a mobile phone you pretend to use as a clicker, even a pen. Keep it in your hands at all times. One hander, two hander, you have something to fiddle with, and suddenly the stress goes away and you look like a natural.

As you get more comfortable, you’ll be able to play with your hands in a way that looks natural. Hold your fingers from one hand in the other in front of your chest, cross your fingers together, and accentuate what you talk about by making some movements. If you reach that level of comfort, you’re good, you can lose the clicker.


Now you look fine. And you start talking. And. Then. You. Start. Losing. Your. Breath. This is a perfectly normal and common reaction. Your body feels fear, and reacts accordingly by hyperventilating, hence the O2 description of the title above. Your natural reaction is to get more and more air, so your body can prepare itself to flee or fight. Your natural instinct is to allow this to happen.

The counter-intuitive solution to fix this natural bug is to breath more slowly slowly. You have too much oxygen in your blood stream, you need to reduce that, and the only way is to get your breathing under control.

Remember the trick about having a bottle of water in your hands? It’s a double-whammy. When you start getting out of breath, leave a dramatic pause at the end of your sentence, and let the silence linger. As far as the audience is concerned, it’s part of the show. And for you, you get to open the bottle, breath all the way out, drink a couple of gulps, and breath back normally once, before picking up your discussion where you left it. This should allow you to recover from the chest pains described by [Todd][toddmoto], or any other form of anxiety attack.

The most powerful tool for managing stress however is the realisation that human beings came to hear you, a human being. You are not held to an unachievable standard: you’re just there to share what you said you would, nothing more, nothing less. And people are usually nice with it.

Know your content

People come to enjoy a show. You never see a TV program where people just stay silent as they fiddle with a remote control to show something to the public. Try not to do that, it’s a killer.

If you’re doing live coding demos, describe what you do and why you’re doing it when you are on the keyboard, even, and especially, when it all goes wrong. Explain: “Oh, we have an exception, of type blah, does anyone know why? Let’s just open the window for exception handling, which you can get through CTRL+ALT+E, and click catch on throw, and press F5 to re-run, this is going to allow us to know where the exception was actually raised, rather than where it was not caught.” It takes a bit of practice, but once you realise that talking nonsense and describing exactly what is visible on the screen is better than silence, it starts coming up naturally.

Speaking of demos, things go wrong. It’s OK. People are developers in your audience, they know stuff happens. Relax, try to fix it if you know what it is, otherwise revert back to a known state, git is your friend, or explain the expected outcome. Don’t stall on trying to fix a problem. I once had an MVC talk at DDD reading where my machine blue-screened at the beginning of the talk, and .net got corrupted, meaning I had no way of showing any code. I calmly explained the situation, opened notepad, wrote the code live from memory, and played the role of a hunan compiler: “in this instance, the code would result in X, trust me, for I am the compiler.”

To allow your slides and presentation to flow, discuss with yourself what you’re going to say. It’s ok to forget stuff, it’s ok to improvise. It’s not ok to have speaker notes that make you focus on your screen. No one came to see someone reading! Imagine the audience is just a bunch of people you’re hanging out with at the pub. Have a chat.

You may miss a thing or two you wanted to say, and that’s ok. It is better to flow the content and move on than to achieve all your key points while reading from notes. Leave cards at home. Design your slide so you can remember what you wanted to say based on what the slide is.

Some people advise rehearsing in front of a mirror, or even going through the slides. I’ve never done that, it does not work for me. I do have a lot of conversations with myself about each of the slides, and I hope that all this will be re-triggered whenever they show up on the screen.

Finally, when presenting, make sure you use a dual-screen and use the presenter mode. Knowing what slide comes next allows you to spit out the content for the current slide, and remind yourself of how to transition to the next slide.

Language is important

“You are live on UberConference 2016, please do not swear.” It took me a very long time to adapt my language to various audiences. Swearing is ok in controlled and measured fashions, in some audiences, and so are double-entendres. Be careful of not over-doing it, upsetting people, or allowing the jokes to overtake the content.

Once upon a time, Charles De Gaulle told the french Canadians, “Vive le Quebec libre!” When asked about it by his advisor Alain Peyrefitte, his explanation was that he got a bit excited. It’s natural in a high stress environment to want to push the boundary, and sometimes we do it so mindlessly that our words can go much further than we intended. Control yourself by going back to the basics I already described: what and why. And if you do it wrong, apologise, and move on.

Dress to impress

You don’t have to impress anyone else with your attire, the content should be king. But I dress to impress. It’s not about the audience, it’s about feeling good. Dress yourself in a way that you feel absolutely comfortable. It is your stage, it is your moment, and you need to think of nothing but your talk. Dress in a way that makes you feel good, empowered and comfortable. If you hate suits or dresses, don’t wear them!

Stereotypes of what is professional or not, what is commercial or not, can make us forget that our comfort is the main priority on a stage. If you’re comfortable, you will project comfort on the audience, and they will love you for that. After all, didn’t Don Box present a talk from a bath tub? Well, maybe do wear some clothes.

Experience over preparation

I’ll finish by agreeing with Todd. I don’t prepare much. I write my slides based on a story I want to tell. I go through many iterations, and eventually I settle on something that I feel excited enough to talk about. And that’s usually a few minutes before I’m due to present.

Don’t be fooled by the appearance of perfection some speakers can pretend. No amount of prep on your own can compete in any way with the overbearing experience of having presented.

Do your talk the best you can the first time. Present it at a user group. Take feedback from yourself, change the talk, present it again. Rinse, wash, repeat, until you fell it’s of acceptable quality.

Be it the nuggets of knowledge your provide, the jokes, the slides themselves, or the flow of the story, reading an audience when giving a talk is the most important feedback loop you have in getting your talk from horse meat to Irish beef.

Great speakers can pretend all they want, their good talks are due to having presented them countless times. That’s why they look like they’ve not prepared. The rest of us, we work on the slides until the last minute.

Ignore the audience, a little

The last bit is purely about stage presence. I can’t advise much on this, because I’ve not formalised it in my head yet. I’ll attempt a description of what I do.

I look at the audience as a whole, in a dazed fashion, until I find, in the first few minutes, the couple of faces that look friendly and reactive. I tend to hang on them for the rest of the talk. I call them anchors.

Every time you make a point, you ought to give that point to the audience. You want to show them that you care about them, and remind them that it’s all bout them.

To do that, I use my hands to focus the discussion, and I give my eye sight to an attendee. It’ll probably be one of the anchors I found. It’s good to talk to people that enjoy the talk, it fills me with confidence in my delivery, and it fills the whole audience with the warm feeling that everyone is getting my attention.

Looking back

It’s already a lot to take in, but those are the basic things I learnt over the years. They’re not for everyone, they’re just what works for me. Take one of each at a time, and try to find your own way to apply them. Don’t be a stranger, be yourself, learn and grow.