A little over a year ago, I wrote “We need to talk” about my early forays into public speaking. Intersprinkled with the most usefully useless top tips it was possible to muster, it was a light-hearted look at my early days standing up on my hind legs addressing rooms of people.
Now a little older and a smidgen wiser, I’m going back to this subject to talk about the fear of what could go wrong in public speaking. This is something that those new to the madness of speaking have asked me a lot of questions about. During the course of this post, I will introduce you to some Gremlins I have met along the way and suggest some ways to deal with the little critters.
Also, there will be more chocolate teapot style tips. Numbers 1-5 are in the previous post.
From my perspective, my biggest worry used to be the audience. This is acting on the massive presumption that anyone turns up at all and they don’t all come armed with baskets of tomatoes to fling at the speakers. However, those are things out of my control so best not to brood on them. The things I was worried about were:
Will they like me?
Will they like my talk?
Will they learn something from what I’m about to share with them?
Will they cough, yawn, fall asleep or walk out?
The answer to the last question is yes (always), yes (sometimes), not yet (but it’s bound to happen sooner or later) and yes.
Over the last year, I have come up with an hypothesis-based answer to these worries which works for me and seems to have helped other folk who I’ve shared it with too. It goes like this;
The audience are there to hear your talk. They have taken the time out of their lives to hear your words and see your slides. Ok, they may want to hear the other woman who is speaking a whole lot more and it’s only the promise of pizza which is keeping them in the room but sod it, they are there – time to baptise their ears in the font of your words! (metaphorically speaking).
Top Tip on public speaking no.6 –– Please don’t spill water over your audience’s ears. Although I have never done it, I am pretty sure they won’t like it.
Anyone present who knows your subject to the level that you do will be glad to hear their bias and knowledge confirmed. In most cases, talk organisers like new ways of thinking, new tech, personal experiences and fresh perspectives so they are not likely to host talks that are just raking over old ground. This means that this group will be the minority grouping in the room.
For those new to the subject that you are sharing, you will open up a new way of thinking and may solve a problem for them. Solving a specific problem is less likely as there is a lot of parallel circumstances that would have to be in place for your talk be provide someone’s exact solution. Opening up a new way of thinking or approaching something is much more likely as the nuggets of knowledge can sit unmined for weeks and months before they are accessed and used to set someone on the right path.
Most people in the room will be in the middle - somewhat aware of your specialist subject but will not have the in-depth knowledge that you possess. Therefore, you’re teaching them something and confirming some of their biases all at the same time. Of all 3 possible outcomes, this has the highest probability of happening.
Therefore most people in the room will get something out of your talk - simple maths and common sense supports this.
Top Tip on public speaking no.7 –– The maths isn’t very often on your side, grab it while you can.
The horrors / stage fright / self-doubt
Before every talk, I get the whizzing butterflies in my stomach, ‘why do I do this to myself’ feeling. It’s a bit like the ‘being in labour with my 2nd child’ flashback but with less gas and air.
I have 2 approaches for coping with this – a long walk and a long talk with myself.
Top Tip on public speaking no.8 – If you are taking a walk to help with the nerves, don’t walk so far away, you can’t get back in time for your talk to start.
This may or may not be based on what was very nearly a true story.
When I have words with myself, I apply my version of self-comfort. It has been commented on more than once that I have a very strange idea of self-comfort, so be warned, this approach may not be for everyone.
Before a talk, I go through all the worst case scenarios that I can think of and ask myself how likely are they to happen. Here are my top 10:
1 The audience all arrive hungry and tired
2 All the audience are feeling competitive
3 The audience are all wearing “we hate Elizabeth” T-shirts
4 The microphone fails and I have to do the entire talk via a megaphone
5 The supporting slides won’t display on the big screen
6 When eventually the mic and the projector start to work, the audience hate the talk anyway
7 The speaker notes don’t display and I forget my words
8 The audience is full of mansplaining interrupters so I cannot maintain a train of thought
9 The venue goes on fire and the organisers blame me
10 The talk is SOOO bad, there is eternal social media shame and real life ostracisation by all my colleagues
If we look at those one by one how likely are any of them to happen? Of those that are likely to happen, how many of those are so far outside my control that there is no point in worrying about them?
That leaves me with the scenarios I can do something about. So the best thing I can do is to turn up early and test the host’s equipment. Learn my talk really well to the point where I can ad-lib it without notes/slides. Ask that questions are kept until the end and rock that megaphone!
I did a talk last year where I was relying on a radio microphone to give me the freedom to be able to walk around the room and be able to point to different parts of my slides. This mic failed. The only other working mic in the room was one fixed to a lectern that meant that I would be standing with my back to my slides.
Instead of trying to continue with the talk twisting around to see the slides (the speaker view was not working on the hosts equipment) and then turning back to the audience I decided to give the engineer some time to try and fix the radio mic. I did this by telling the tale of my worst case scenario list and thanking the audience for not turning up in “We hate Elizabeth T-shirts”
Thinking about it in retrospective though, if they had, I probably would have just asked for one.
Top Tip on public speaking no.9 – It’s ok to tell a tale against yourself. You are not there to be a talk-delivering perfectionist robot. Let people see your humour and your humanity.
Talks can be good and bad for attendees and speakers alike but at the end of the day, we have to be able to adapt when stuff goes wrong because it does. Here are some of the fun with failures, “speaker Gremlins” that I’ve ecountered so far:
Fighting Gremlins. In one of my very first talks, there was a full-scale row between 2 attendees about the role of a particular capability within a delivery team. I stood there in horror listening to these 2 blokes go at each other way longer than I should have. That was my inexperience showing.
I finally suggested that maybe they should take their discussion out of the building and go for a cup of coffee together. (I was the one with the mic after all). If it ever happened again, I would intervene a lot sooner before it got as loud and angry as it did. I may even manage not to let my chin drop to the floor a second time.
Equipment Gremlins. The night before I was due to do a talk I went to the venue and set up all my equipment. I did some visual testing to see how the slides appeared from different parts of the room. I left, happy that everything was set up brilliantly. Came back the next morning to discover that the hub that I needed to connect to the projector had been taken out of the room.
There was a 20 minute delay as the hosts ran off to find another hub for me to use. It was a small room so I could start the talk by engaging with the audience and asking what they knew about the subject I was talking about. Luckily, this worked really well but it was an untried approach for me. The talk was an early morning techie brekkie and no coffee has ever started my heart the way this experience did.
Preperation Gremlins. I did a really serious tech talk with some quite in-depth levels of detail. The other person speaking on the same night did a very funny, engaging, entertaining talk. It was absolutely brilliant. All the conversation afterwards went to them. I wasn’t surprised because the way that they presented their subject was absolutely fantastic and really got opinions flowing.
It did teach me a valuable lesson about putting a little bit of humour into talks to keep the energy up in the room and get people’s attention. It’s also good to know who the other speaker is on a night to try and make sure as much as possible that your styles compliment each other. They don’t have to match but at least ensure they don’t clash.
More equipment Gremlins. Last October I did a talk where the mic would not work at all so I ended up coming down into the audience and doing the talk from the middle aisle where they were sitting.
It wasn’t the smallest room but the acoustics were good and I was in full voice so that was an achievable thing to be able to do. There have been larger spaces where that would have just not worked. Considering that being heard is kind of the point of public speaking, I am hoping this is not a trend is going to continue for the future.
Software Gremlins. There is a defect within Google slides which means on certain types of equipment the speaker notes will not display. I came across this at a couple of talks. There is only one way of preparing for this (and preparing for any kind of visual failure) is to over-prepare your talks.
Read them till your eyes bleed, know your content, be ready to do it without any notes or any slides being available. Practice your talks to your cat, to your kids toys, present them internally at your company and at local events to give you the confidence you can deliver on the day. If that stuff goes wrong and you don’t know your content without prompts - that is not going to inspire an audience that you have the knowledge that you’re there to speak about.
Phone Gremlins. People’s phone ringing during talks. This as distracting as people standing up and interrupting you or shouting an opposing view at you from their seat.
Many years ago, I went to see a comedian called Junior Simpson. The phone of someone a few rows from the front rang loudly. Worst still, they answered it. He jumped off the stage and took the phone off them. It was their mother on the phone and he told a massive tall tale about what their phone-answering off-spring were up to at that moment in time. I am not going into the details but it would have been an excellent cure for low pressure should one have been needed.
Now, I’m not saying that you should do this but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it either. All I know is that by the time a second phone has gone off during a talk, you will feel very much like doing it. You could simply threaten to do it just to plant the seed in people’s head.
Of course, a nicer a nicer way of dealing with this is making sure that the organisers remind people to turn off their phones or put them on silent before the talk starts. Your choice.
I now expect things to go wrong during talks but I do whatever is in my control to stop that. I pack spare cables, test the equipment as soon as I am given access, don’t bend the mic stand too much and practice, practice, practice.
In a weird kind of way, I’m kind of glad that this stuff went wrong because it has increased my ability to think on my feet (as well as pick my chin up quickly). I also have a wee bit more confidence in my ability to react to the unexpected too. That new confidence is a nice feeling.
Top Tip on public speaking no.10 – Gremlins aren’t only present in that film that you watched when you were 4 because your Dad fell asleep on the sofa and you were too petrified to move from beside him. They happen in real life too. Embrace them and roll with them. Just don’t feed them… at any time!