Writing by Peter Hilton

Six fears of public speaking

How to opt out of things that stop you proposing talks - 22 December 2020 #speaking

Presenting at a meet-up

unsplash-logoCharles Deluvio

To overcome your fear of public speaking by presenting, you need to figure out how to stop it blocking you. First, identify individual blockers, so you can opt out of the situations that create them. Then you can work on giving a successful presentation without worrying about those problems. After all, if presenting becomes a habit, you can address your fears later, one at a time.

Fear of public speaking How to opt out of the situation Mitigation
1. Bad presentation Low-stakes casual meet-up Do a trial run to get trusted feedback
2. No potential topic Choose your favourite topic Ask your friends what you know about
3. Boring topic Let the event organiser choose Brainstorm ideas with the organisers
4. Too little to say Limit presentation length Discuss the topic and make notes
5. Level too basic Let event organisers choose Introduce it as a refresher
6. Unpredictable length Allow for 15-30 minutes Practice a fixed duration per slide

Fear 1: giving a bad presentation

If you’ve never presented before, you might worry about giving a bad presentation. To avoid the right-first-time trap, pick a venue where a bad presentation wouldn’t really matter: a small meet-up, instead of a big conference or an important meeting at work. Meanwhile, you can make a bad presentation less likely by doing a trial run for someone whose feedback you trust.

Fear 2: no potential topic

I once talked to a junior developer at a conference in Poland, who assumed that juniors don’t have anything to present. It only took me a minute to discover that she’d switched from astrophysics a year earlier. Personally, I’d want to hear any software presentation with ‘astrophysics’ in the title, and anyone with a year’s software development experience has learned something interesting or useful that most other people don’t know yet.

Everyone has a unique story to tell, and everyone can teach you something you didn’t already know, especially in diverse technology communities. Novice presenters fear that they don’t have anything to say, but fail to recognise their own background’s uniqueness. You probably know which topic you would love to talk about if someone asked you to, so make that your first presentation. And if you don’t trust your instinct, your friends will happily tell you what you love to go on about.

Fear 3: boring topic

Maybe your friends only tell you to stop going on about your favourite topic because they’ve heard about it enough times, not because they didn’t find it interesting the first time. Fortunately, you don’t need to know whether people will find your topic interesting, because someone else already has that particular responsibility.

Don’t decide what other people will find interesting: let the event organisers decide. If they accept your presentation topic, they share responsibility for its success with their audience, who they probably know better than you do. Besides, maybe struggle with repetitive events and want something off-topic. Either way, if they brainstorm ideas with you, you all get to know both you and the audience better.

Fear 4: too little to say

Inexperienced presenters who haven’t tried to write a presentation may assume that they won’t have enough content to fill more than a couple of slides. In practice, presenters tend to transition quickly from I have nothing to say to OMG I have 400 slides!

Only having two slides might not matter, though. Many events accommodate short talks, so start by aiming to write a ten-minute presentation, and in the unlikely even that you don’t end up with more than that, tell the organisers that you only have a lightning talk.

Meanwhile, to find out whether you can elaborate on your chosen topic, practice in one-on-one conversations and make a note of the questions people ask. The three to five most interesting questions can become the presentation outline. You only get to do a lightning talk instead of a 30-45 minute presentation if you only discover one question.

Fear 5: level too basic

Inexperienced speakers wrongly assume that only experts give presentations, and that they shouldn’t present introductory content. Again, event organisers know that most communities include more beginners than experts, and that new joiners want to learn the basics, so tell them that you have a presentation for beginners, and let them choose.

Meanwhile, experts welcome a refresher on topics adjacent to their expertise that they should probably know more about than they do. Whatever your topic, most experts specialise in something else. And any experts in your exact topic will love seeing a beginner promoting their favourite topic, and will encourage anyone who shows any kind of interest in it. Besides, they probably already gave plenty of introductory talks on the subject, and would much rather someone else do them now.

Fear 6: unpredictable length

Sadly, the fear of having too much to say deters too few presenters, who then go on to lecture tired evening audiences for over an hour. Audiences hate presentations that overrun, however much they loved the first half. Start with a short presentation, and check that the meet-up organiser is happy with anything from fifteen to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, practice with a fixed duration per slide, so you get used to a constant pace that keeps the length relatively predictable as you add slides. If you don’t know where to start, assume one minute per slide if you use bullet points, or half that if your slides don’t include any text.

Conclusion: lean on the organisers

Fear of public speaking partly comes from what you don’t know and can’t control. Fortunately, as a beginner, you can focus on your first presentation and let someone else worry about organising a good event.