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Microsoft Diversity and Tech Guest Blog Post.jpg

Do you want to start speaking, but feel nervous about getting on stage for the first time?

That was me a few years ago. Palms sweating. Hands shaking. Voice trembling. I could barely breathe and talked at what felt like a thousand words per second.

Now, public speaking is one of my favorite hobbies. I feel excited about and thankful for every opportunity I get to teach and help others. Sometimes, I even plan my vacations around events! What changed?

Practice, Learn, Repeat


I practiced. I challenged myself to speak publicly as often as I could. Did I mess up? Oh, definitely. Did I make mistakes? Yep, probably most of them by now. But did public speaking also become less terrifying? Yes!

Each time I presented, I learned something new that I could improve in my next session. Step by step, my skills improved, I felt more comfortable on stage, and my confidence grew.

There are no shortcuts to building confidence as a new speaker. However, there are many things you can do to make the journey a little easier for yourself. In this post, I share some of the things that I have learned over the years – the alternative, confidence-building tips that I wish someone had taught me when I was just getting started :)


1. Tell Your Story


If you had to choose between reciting a book or telling a story about something you have done, what would you choose?

Most people would not feel comfortable reciting a chapter, let alone a whole book. Our brains have evolved and been trained to share and remember stories. When you share your story, experiences, and lessons learned, you accomplish two things. First, you help your attendees understand and relate to you. Maybe they have experienced something similar or are currently facing the same challenge? Second, by taking your attendees on a journey with you, you are helping them see how they can be the hero in their own story.

Start with a challenge or a pain point that you faced. Explain how you worked your way through it and found a solution. End with what you learned from it, or how things improved because of it.

Telling stories immediately makes you more confident. Why? Because it's your story. You don't have to remember a list of facts and get nervous about getting something wrong. Instead, you are recalling memories of what you did and how you felt. You don't need an elaborate slide deck, the content doesn't have to be perfect, and your story doesn't even have to be completely accurate! It's your story. You own it.


2. Focus on the Key Takeaway


Think back to the last conference you attended. How many of the sessions do you remember? What was the key takeaway in each session?

Chances are high that you have forgotten some of the sessions, and that you struggle to summarize the key takeaways. That is completely normal! This means that you, the speaker, need to deliberately craft your presentation with one main goal: to help your attendees retain the information you are sharing. Because if they don't remember what you just presented, what's the point of either of you being there?

What is the one thing you want attendees to remember from your session? Can you summarize it in a single, concise sentence? Great! If not, keep working on it. Work on that key takeaway until it is simple enough for you to recite and for your attendees to remember.

Once you have defined your key takeaway, craft the rest of your presentation around it. Everything that you say or do in your session should support and reinforce that key takeaway.

Not only will this help your attendees, but it will help you stay focused as well. If you ever forget what to say, lose track of where you are during a demo, or if your computer dies, you can always fall back on your key takeaway. And the more time you spend on crafting your presentation around it, the better you will know your content. The better you know your content, the easier it will be to present. And the easier it is to present, the more confident you will feel! Win-win-win.


3. Group Content in Smaller Chunks


During a regular day, how often do you pick up your phone or switch between tasks because you get distracted or feel bored? How often do you do this while in a meeting or attending a session?

Our brains are extremely complex, but also amusingly simple. On average, it can only pay attention for around 20 minutes before needing a break. It also has a natural talent for chunking things into groups of 3. By being aware of these things, you can use them to your advantage while crafting your presentation.

Divide your presentation into 3 sections that last approximately 10-20 minutes each, depending on the length of your session. Each section should have its own, clear focus. Plan for a soft break between each section.

A soft break can be anything from switching between slides and demos, going from an overview to diving into details, to introducing a brand new concept.

By working with the brain instead of against the brain, you will do both yourself and your attendees a favor. You can use the soft break to take a deep breath, a sip of water, relax your shoulders, and prepare yourself for the next section. Meanwhile, your attendees get a few seconds to summarize what you just went through, either mentally or by finishing writing down their notes.


4. Rehearse Offline


What would you do if you were about to deliver a session, and your computer died? Would you be able to get through your content if the power went out or the projector exploded in the middle of your presentation?

That may sound extreme, but I have seen all of these things happen. Most speakers would get flustered, of course, and some would not be able to continue at all without their slides and notes. Confident speakers, however, can gracefully handle these situations by switching to a different style of delivery. It could be talking through the rest of their content from memory, or drawing on a whiteboard instead of using slides.

Practice this by turning off all your devices, then sit down or go for a walk. Rehearse your session in your head. Does the flow of your content make sense even without slides? Are you comfortable talking without using notes? Can you draw the most important concepts on paper?

If you have a story to tell, know what your key takeaway is, and have divided your presentation into logical sections, you should be able to share your information without having to rely on anything but your memory. And once you are confident enough to do that, you know that you can handle anything.


5. Start Strong


Have you ever attended a session that started like this?

“Wow, I didn't expect to see so many of you here. What are you all doing in my session? You know that Famous Speaker is in the room next door, right? Hehehe. This is Introduction to Cool Technology. It's really basic, so I'm sorry if you know most of it already. Just leave if it gets too boring! Anyway. I'm Cathrine from Norway, as you can probably hear from my weird accent. My English isn't perfect, but I hope you can still understand me. I only have an hour, so I apologize in advance if I rush through some of this…”

New speakers often talk themselves down at the beginning of their session, usually without realizing it. (I have done this many times myself!) Joking about yourself and your skills seems like a good way to break the ice, and lowering attendees' expectations upfront feels easier than having to deal with any feelings of disappointment afterward.

Never talk yourself down. You were selected to speak because you have a story to tell and something you can teach others. Attendees have chosen to show up and learn from you. When you are on that stage, you are the expert.

If you get nervous before speaking, script the first five minutes of your session and memorize it. Practice delivering it over and over and over again until it almost feels mechanical. This helps you start strong – with confidence.


6. End on Your Terms


Have you ever attended a session that ended like this?

“Ok, so we have about five minutes left… Any questions? … … … No? … OK, let's wrap up… Oh, wait, we do have a question! Yes?”

And then spent the next five minutes listening to what is essentially a one-to-one conversation, while watching your fellow attendees start packing up their bags and sneaking out the back of the room?

Many speakers, both new and experienced, end with the dreaded “Questions?” slide. It feels like the right thing to do because of course you want to be helpful! But what happens is that you hand over the controls to someone else. You let them dictate how and when your session ends.

Even if you have a few minutes left, tell your attendees that you will be around to answer questions outside the room. Then wrap up your session, thank everyone for their time, and end with applause.

This helps everyone. Attendees with questions will come up and talk with you, which can spark wonderful discussions with both you and the other attendees that would never have happened while they were sitting down. Attendees who need to leave are free to do so, without having to sneak out. The next speaker can start preparing for their session. And you, the speaker? You got your confidence-building applause. Congratulations, you did it!


You got this!


Practice, learn, repeat.

If you do something wrong, it does not mean that you are a failure. It just means that you were able to manage the other 999 things you had to remember that day.

And remember, there is only one you. Go out there and tell your story :)


4 Comments
Deleted
Not applicable

Thank you, Cathrine.  The article is insightful and easy-to-understand.

New Contributor

Love this post Catherine! I see myself in lot of these scenarios!

 

Just that you are chosen to speak wherever it is, means someone thinks you are interesting and want to hear what you have to say! 

New Contributor

I've caught myself in the questions trap before, and I am definitely going to try the wrap up and then ask about questions to approach in the future and see how it works for the audience. Thanks for the great info!

Regular Visitor

Very strong and insightful.

This should help many of us.

Thanks for sharing.