Picturing yourself as a silly animal, and other public speaking tips for the timid

Overcome your fears to deliver your best


Congrats! A conference organizer asked you to speak at their upcoming event. But your palms sweat just thinking about that audience of 500 attendees staring back at you. Where do you even start? How does anyone ever get used to this?

Relax. You’re going to do great and everyone will love it. Let’s try to understand what’s going on, plot ways to assemble your talk, and finish with ideas on how best to deliver it.


“I’m a pretty monkey and I know where all the best bananas are.”


There are biological reasons for your fears

Humans are social animals, used to working together in groups. Any time we are singled out from a group is uncomfortable, but in the course of human history, a hundred pairs of eyes looking at you usually meant you’re about to become a larger animal’s lunch, and that causes a biological response. First, recognize and acknowledge nature is working against you — sweaty palms and stomach butterflies are to be expected.

Next, I suggest embracing this curse of biology. When I prepare myself to take a stage, I remind myself the audience isn’t there to cheer my demise, but to learn something. They’re not lions and I’m not a zebra separated from the pack — we’re all monkeys and I’m the prettiest monkey and they are desperately waiting for me to tell them where the best bananas are located that will turn them into pretty monkeys as well.

I’m a pretty monkey and I know where all the best bananas are.

That’s what I tell myself before I go on stage. It makes me laugh and calms me down. If that sounds too ridiculous, repeat something more realistic like: “I’m here because everyone wants to listen to my story. I’m sharing lessons with others. That’s all it is, and it’s going to be wonderful.


Get used to speaking

Veterans of the stage are able to defy their own biology through lots of deliberate practice. But they all started somewhere, and so will you.

Look for venues dedicated to workshopping talks and helping you get more comfortable on a stage. Groups like Toastmasters are famous for gathering people to learn, practice, and hone their skills at public speaking. There are also Meetup groups in many cities focused on specific subjects or speaking in general. If you’re giving a talk in programming, look for local developer groups where you can preview your presentation well before the big show. Lastly, running your own podcast or being an interview guest is good practice talking to a large audience in a safe way, describing your point of view in a short bit of time, and thinking on your feet when you get questioned.


Craft a story

Often speakers are asked to talk about their expertise, and they deliver a comprehensive outline, filled with bullet points, that may or may not be organized from start to finish. Don’t make the audience organize your viewpoints, instead lay out the story for them using obvious story elements.

A story structure is a great framework for persuasive talks. There are many approaches to this, well covered by Nancy Duarte in her TEDx talk on structures of famous speeches, but a simple 3-act one is a good start, where you go from Point A to Point B in a predictable, easy-to-follow way.


three-act speech structure


Act 1 helps you connect with your audience from the very start. Describe the current situation (Point A) and why it’s sub-optimal. Next, give your audience a preview of your destination (Point B). Act 2 gives guideposts on the journey between points A and B. Act 3 closes your talk by restating your premise, then emphasizing how you got to your conclusion.


Over prep is impossible

I can’t recall any time in my life when I felt like I over prepared for something important. What I can say with certainty is the flip side: when I’ve underprepared, I underperformed almost every single time. Most of the time you’ll have plenty of advance notice that you’ll be speaking, but it’s pretty easy to put off getting ready.

If you have ample time before a big talk, set calendar reminders for chunks of work to do, ideally starting several months in advance. Yes, that is an aspirationally long time to work on a presentation but the times I’ve followed this schedule were the least stressful talks of my career. Three months out, spend a few days on research, a first outline, and track down sources you’ll be using for the talk. With two months to go, write and edit a deep outline and make sure it flows well within a structure. A month before, put together your slides, if you have any. In the final weeks, give test versions of your talk, editing and re-editing the slide deck.

The best way to give a great presentation is to deliver it multiple times first. Each and every time you give your talk as a test, take a moment afterwards to sit down and write notes on what went well and what could be better.


Trade bullet points for images

People can’t help reading words in front of them, even if they’d rather be listening. Most of my slides are full-screen photos or figures, and if they have any words, there are only a few — a single sentence at most — at very large font sizes (60pt+, on the top third of each slide). You can always use the presenter’s notes feature of your software to remind yourself what to say without showing the crowd.


Get your timing right

Whenever you make major transitions between sections or themes, give people a break in the form of an all-black slide with a simple title of the next section. It’ll re-sync everyone in the room and get them snapped to attention. It also helps nail your major points that follow.

And of course, know how long your talk will take. Practice runs are critical, and aim for just under your time limit, to make sure you don’t bump into the next session or throw off anyone else.


And finally…

Let’s think back to the day you were asked to give a big talk — it’s ok for you to feel nervous about it because it’s natural. You’re equipped with the knowledge and a few tools to deal with it. You’re going to plan everything out well ahead of time and follow a predictable approach to explain your viewpoint. Finally, you’ll lay out beautiful slides, practice the heck out of your talk, edit based on self-reflection and feedback, and finish the whole thing on time.

Matt Haughey finds attending parties where he only knows one person more nerve-wracking than public speaking

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