At the beginning of the month, I gave my first ever conference talk. Being a natural introvert and dealing with social anxiety for a big part of my life, that had a big impact on me, but not only for the bad.
In this post, I’ll hit rewind to a few monthes ago, when the question to give a talk first arose, and give you some tips and tricks I learned along the way. I hope my experience will inspire people like me around the world, who believe they are not cut out for public speaking, to take that step too and let their stories be heard.
First of all, it’s important to know that I’m not completely new to being on stage. I’ve been in a band for a while now, and have done some gigs with them over the years. Every gig has felt like a major accomplishement for me though, because I’m still having difficulties believing it’s in my nature to have all eyes on me. Having already been on stage before definitely helped me for my talk a while ago, but performing in front of a lot people, and just being the center of attention still feels uncomfortable for me.
When I first got the question to travel to Tallinn, Estonia, for a cool new web conference called Refresh, I didn’t know what I should do. I was stunned, thrilled, scared, exited. But I felt like I just HAD to go, because it was an amazing chance to tell a whole lot of new people about what we do at neoScores - which is in fact pretty awesome.
I decided, after trying to decipher the mass of emotions inside me, to give it a go. To just try my very best to give an interesting talk, to tell people about my work, and then decide if this is something I would be willing to do a few times over. Now, I’m really glad I made that decision, and I think it was a pretty brave thing to do, considering the fact that I prefer to keep away from the unknown most of the time.
So I said yes
And now I had to go through with it. The preparation part was not the part I was really worried about. I’ve always been able to do good presentations, despite being very anxious, simply because I always try to tell a story rather than learn a text by heart - that feels so impersonal, don’t you think?
As the always-prepared-drama-queen I can be, I started trying to figure out what to talk about immediately. I also sorted through a lot of interesting blogposts on ‘how to speak in public’, and I started to watch a lot of TED talks for inspiration. Being an introvert means, in my case, that I have a whole world inside my head, and while preparing for something like a public presentation, that can come in quite handy; I’m used to working independently, and am able to create quite extensive conversations in my head. I thus had the whole talk figured out in my head, now I just had to get it out there.
How I did it
I’ll give you a few tips and tricks on preparing yourself for this experience. It will probably still feel like an emotional rollecoaster, but it will be worth it. I promise.
I cannot focus enough on this part. You’ll feel a little more at ease in the days and hours before your presentation when you feel prepared. How you prepare is up to you, but don’t be scared to overdo some of the preparations. Everything that works for you is fine!
You should definitely practise on your own, or in front of a mirror, but I suggest you also take a spin in front of others. Rehearse your talk in front of coworkers, friends, your signigicant other, your children, your parents, … even though you don’t want to. Even in things that frighten you, practise makes perfect. There’s only one proven way to beat fear, and that is to push through it, accept the anxiety - terrified thoughts, fearful feelings and all - and repeat it until you start feeling less anxious.
Try rehearsing in front of people for every night a week in the weeks before your presentation. After 20 or 30 times, you will feel less scared, or your fear might even have disappeared.
When my coworkers wanted to hear the talk upfront because they couldn’t all come to the conference, I was actually more scared to practise in front of them than I was of the real deal. I got over it though, and was suprised by how enthousiastically they reacted. Even if they have some small remarks, you should take their well-meant criticism and do something with it.
Don’t mirror yourself on extravert speakers
The people in my company that are most familiar with public presentations, are all extraverts. Our CEO, who does almost all of our talks, really LOVES standing in front of a crowd and just telling them his story. Though it might seem that extraverted speakers seem so natural at what they do, don’t forget that introverted people can also be very passionate about things they really care about. Make sure you prepare yourself in the way that feels good for you, and to kindle the passion about your topic.
It’s okay not to open with a joke if you don’t feel like it
Really, it is. People will value you for who you are and what you’re telling them. If joking doesn’t feel natural for you, don’t focus on it, just try to be yourself.
If you’re courageous enough, make sure to have a tape of your performance, or record yourself while practising. That way you can see how you come across. Don’t be intimidated if at first it’s not what you’d like; everyone feels that way about seeing himself, it just doesn’t feel natural. Keep practising, both alone and in front of other people.
Listen to your body
If you need some time alone before getting on that stage, take it. Prepare your mind; meditate, or just focus on breathing in and out very slowly. Take all the time you need, and then get on stage.
Don’t EVER stop
Never, ever, ever, EVER stop your presentation. Unless there’s a real emergency ofcourse, like when you drop your laptop, or the curtain catches on fire or something. Forgetting a line or accidently showing the wrong slide is no emergency though; people will understand, it’s best to just get done with it. You’ll focus less on your mistakes afterwards if you pulled through.
Don’t focus on particular people in the audience
Look just above their heads, they won’t notice ;)
Don’t care what others think
Or at least try to do so during your talk. Hang around for a while after going off stage, even though you may feel strung out from the stress; the immediate feedback you receive will give you less reason to start mulling everything over in your head afterwards.
… or try enjoying ;) You’re telling a valuable story, and people are here to listen to you. Make sure you believe in what you’re saying.