Nobody Is A Good Speaker When they Start

From guest poster brian d foy:

I speak at many Perl events, from casual Perl mongers meetings to the big conferences. I’ve even been in front of a big room at Comdex and WWDC. That’s over a long career of speaking that built up to those big events. As conference season approaches, you have a chance to stand in front of a bunch of people and say whatever you like. You’re probably nervous about that, maybe even terrified. I want to you to tame that terror. It’s not going to disappear, but you can learn to control it.

You might think that you’re not a good speaker. Well, you aren’t now, but Muhammad Ali, a great boxer and a better speaker, wasn’t the world champion boxer league he started either. Darth Vader was a lowly slave boy before he almost ruled the galaxy. Shakespeare was a short order cook in high school. Chuck Norris was probably always Chuck Norris, though.

Do you think you’re a good programmer? Were you a good programmer five years ago? Are you embarrassed to look at your first CPAN uploads? I’m embarrassed to look at mine. Speaking is the same thing. You jump in and do it, and the more you do it the better you’ll get. You think about the next talk, not the last one.

One very notable Perl speaker I know has stage fright so bad he doesn’t come out of his room until he has to give his talk, but you wouldn’t know it from being at his talk, which appears effortless. Another popular speaker, Damian Conway, was actually yanked off stage by a big hook on his first try, and now look at him at the top of the list of Perl speaking talent. Okay, the part about the hook isn’t true, but it could be. I like to think it’s true because even though I’m not in his league as a speaker, I want to remember he’s a real person who has achieved that level of performance through experience and hard work. Despite what anyone told you, he really is from this planet. Australia exists. It’s a real place, and it’s right here on Earth. Damian spends quite a bit of time before a talk isolating himself in his room to rehearse, and it doesn’t show, which is the ironic point of it all. It looks like he’s just naturally fantastic.

People deal with the attention and isolation of being on stage in different ways, and one person might have a variety of ways of dealing with different situations. A user group meeting can be much more informal with significant audience participation, but a huge event might have you standing 50 feet away from the front row which you can’t see because of the spotlights. Shorter talks are tougher than longer ones because you have less time to waste. Each of us can cope with our personal insecurities about speaking because we’ve spoke a lot. I know that I’m going to be nervous directly up the point where I literally make the first sound, which is almost always “Ok, let’s get started”, the throw away phrase I use to give people the chance to STFU before I really start speaking. I know that all that anxiety is going to disappear the second I make that first sound.

Your fear is mostly about the consequences of your talk. People might hate you, realize you’re a fraud, tweet negative reviews, or stop contributing to your module. You might say something stupid, and people will know it’s stupid. Here’s the deal: you are going to say something stupid. That’s just the way it goes. I’ve never counted—maybe the audience has—but I figure I say one incredibly stupid thing every five minutes. I’ve said incredibly incorrect things about a module when the author was in the room. I once gave a three hour Learning Perl tutorial where Larry Wall, Randal Schwartz, and Allison Randal were a third of the audience. Imagine lecturing the Pope on Catholicism. They were very nice about it. I forgot what the -w switch did during one Perl tutorial while I was explaining -a and -F, which I did remember. During one of my earlier talks on Perl 6, Audrey Tang asked to look at my slides 10 minutes before I was to start speaking, and she started changing them right on the spot. Damian and Larry were in that talk which Audrey should have received an author half-credit. The other half I needed to correct on stage as Damian would call out “We just changed that this morning”. Almost nothing I had said was currently right, even if most of it was right when I wrote the talk. I’ve spoken in rooms where only a couple of people spoke english, and it was still terrifying even though almost no one would have known if I said something stupid. But, here you are reading what I’ve written and maybe even planning to go to my Zero to Perl class, CPAN See One, Do One, Teach One workshop, or Advanced Modulinos talk. For all the stupid things I’ve said and done, people still show up for my talks. Some of them even like them.

So, how can you go from where you are now, a potential YAPC speaker, to being an experienced YAPC speaker, and eventually a decent speaker? Start small. If you talk to actors, comics, musicians, and other people who have to overcome the same fears, you’ll probably find out that not only did they start off small—school plays, community theater, small clubs—but they still start start out small. They go small in a couple of ways—time on stage and audience size. No matter how poorly you might perform, if you only have to do five minutes, you know the embarrassment won’t last for long. It might seem forever when things are going poorly, but you probably can’t fathom 55 minutes. Along with that, you risk less if you make a fool of yourself in front of a room of 10 people. Even top-shelf comics work out new bits in small sets in front of small crowds.

Write out a talk that you don’t plan on giving. The very act of preparing your talk is more important than giving it, at this stage. Thinking about you had to explain everything makes you think about those things. You wire up different groups of neurons by using different parts of your brain to think about things the rest of your brain might already know. It’s one of the reasons we have exercises in Learning Perl. You think you understand what we write until you actually have to use it. It’s the same with communication. You think you understand it until you have to explain it to someone else.

Move on to work colleagues at lunch time talks. Public (well, private for your company) speaking is a good skill to have and that your manager should be encouraging. Your ability to effectively communicate makes you a better team worker. Your co-workers already know how much of an idiot you are, so there’s not much to lose. Start with a 5 minute talk about what your team is doing. Do that several times over several months. Each time should be less scary.

When you are almost comfortable with the short internal talks, move on to the local Perl mongers group, or a similar user group with short talks. It’s a slightly larger crowd, mixes in some people who don’t know you, but is still casual and low stakes. But, don’t wait until you think you’re ready to move on. You don’t need to be completely comfortable speaking in front of your work colleagues to move on; you just have to not be terrified. The next step is always going to be terrifying.

From there, you can work on lengthening your talks. It actually gets a bit easier to do longer talks because you are less concerned with finishing on time. You have a lot more wiggle room. You have some skill and experience now, so the things that you thought were difficult before shouldn’t terrify you now. Different things will scare you. Don’t worry. There’s always a new set of scary things.

Once you are almost comfortable with your local user group and longer talks, you have a progression events from the small Perl workshops to the large YAPC. When I was talking with Nat Torkington about this as we hiked in Colorado, he called this “failing at bigger and bigger things”. You’re always moving on to the next level of failure. It’s not that you’re going to fail, but that you are always on to the next challenge. The stuff that you think you failed at before become the things that you can do much easier now.

There it is. YAPC::NA is in June. There’s plenty of time to start small and show up at YAPC with a lightning talk or a short, 20 minute session. Give yourself the end goal right away though; submit your talk today.

[From the YAPC::NA Blog.]


The most horrible time for me is being the next one in a row of lightning talks.
Nervousness usually starts in the morning of the day I'll do the talk, but directly before it it increases immensely =)

But lightning talks are indeed easier because you don't have to remember so much. If you get stuck, you can finish and nobody of the typical YAPC audience will boo ;-)

It helps a lot if you manage to add some little jokes. Nervousness will go away, even if only one person in the audience finds it funny.
Even if you're not the standup comedian type or can't find any funny things to add, showing a bit of enthusiasm helps. Typically if you program in perl you do it because you like it, so show that.

Don't take it too seriously if a live demo goes wrong, it happens to all of us. Laugh about yourself, then others will laugh with you and not at you.

There's one book I can recommend:
"Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"
Because it's typical for introverts that we have problems with giving talks, and the book explains very well why and what you can do to minimize stress. It's also a good read for extraverted persons though - to understand the others.

In school I wasn't even able to talk in front of the class without reading the whole text from a paper. Having now survived lightning talks in english, a foreign language, in front of about 200 people, makes it much easier to prepare new talks.

I can highly recommend Toastmasters.

From : "Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.

Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organization has more than 270,000 members in more than 13,000 clubs in 116 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience."

"A Toastmasters meeting is a learn-by-doing workshop in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere."

I have a great local club that meets twice a month. I've been going for years and have seen many members start out tongue-tied and gradually blossom into capable and confident speakers in the course of a few months.

Just wanted to say... I've been hemming and hawing over whether or not to actually submit the talk I want to do. While my presentations have gone well in previous years, my YAPC talk on AnyEvent last year was, um... well, it left me wondering if publicly presenting and teaching was really my 'thing'.

However, I don't get many chances to actually *do* it outside of work and the occasional local user-group. I continually worry that I need to do these sorts of presentations more often so I can make the ones that count *perfect*... And that's the wrong way for me to think about it. It's not about "practice makes perfect", it's that *there is no perfect, only practice*.

So, if you're like me, somebody who may now be a bit gun-shy after a misfire, just do what any good programmer would do: Review and learn from your mistakes, practice for next time, and when the chance comes, give it your all! After all - it'll never be *perfect* but it will certainly help you know how far you've come!

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About JT Smith

user-pic My little part in the greater Perl world.