Many people ask me about how to become a better speaker. Below are some tips that I have for all of you. I hope they help!
Spoiler alert: my advice is not very exciting. I do not have a secret recipe, it’s mostly just a lot of hard work and practice.
My first suggestion is that you practice in front of your friends, colleagues, and anyone else that you trust. Practice many times. Ask for feedback each time. Take the feedback seriously, and change your talk accordingly.
When you feel ready, speak at a meetup. Then another one. Then another one. Speak at work if you are allowed. Speaking to smaller groups will give you more confidence, and people will begin to know who you are in your city. I also speak at work as much as they will tolerate. 🙂 The more practice you get, the better speaker you will be.
One you feel that you have mastered speaking at a meetup, you can try to move on to bigger things, like conferences.
When you apply for a conference, have someone you trust review your abstract and your talk outline. I usually write the entire talk before I apply, but I know many others do not do this and still do very well at it. Get feedback from as many people who work in your field as possible, you want to make sure it is interesting and will make the conference organizers interested in what you have to say. Include as much research and reference material as possible in your outline. This is your chance to prove that you know what you are talking about.
When you are accepted to a conference, practice even more than before! You want to ensure that you impress the people who invited you to speak, so put as much work into practicing as you can. I practice many hours for every conference, and it really pays off. When I am up there I am much less nervous, because I have done it so many times before, in front of so many people.
That’s right. When I speak, I am usually nervous too.
Super secret trick that I do: I practice all of my new talks in front of the Ladies Code Meetup in Ottawa. They are a very small, incredibly supportive and warm audience. They are so very, very lovely, and forgiving when I make errors or something does not go well. If you have a very small audience that you trust to do a “test run” on, this is ideal. I’m extremely grateful that they let me “practice on them” regularly. 😀
- If you get bad feedback about a joke, perhaps don’t use it. Especially when speaking in your second or third language. It’s much better to not be funny, then to have it backfire; I have learned that I am not good at being funny in French…. The hard way. It’s best to not offend.
- When you put a bunch of words on the screen the audience will read the words. We can’t help it! So try to have a picture, talk about your idea, then have words. This is a personal preference, but I find it helps.
- Consider including a diverse set of people in your slides. Most Meme Generators (if you use those) only have white people, and mostly men for technology images. Why not have all ages, races, shapes and sizes? Because that’s what people actually look like.
- Try to speak a bit slower than normal. Many people speak very quickly when they are nervous, so if you try to pronounce a little better and speak slightly slower, you will probably be very easy for everyone to understand. Drink water if that helps you remember to slow down. This is especially important if 1) you are giving a talk that is not in your first language and 2) if you are speaking to an audience that does have the first first same language as you are speaking in (for instance, if you are giving a talk in English, in Japan). Being understood is more important that anything else.
- Don’t be afraid to apply or be rejected. My submissions are rejected ALL THE TIME. Don’t get let down. It’s okay. Just apply again. Because eventually, they will say YES! And each time you do this process you will improve.
- Always listen to feedback and consider it, but you don’t have to “take” all of the feedback. If three times you hear “You talk too fast”, you should probably talk slower. But if you hear one time “Maybe you should do X” and “X” doesn’t make any sense to you, just say thank you and feel free to not follow that advice.
- Be open to feeback. Constructive feedback is a gift that someone is giving to you to help you improve. Try not to act defensive. Try to be open.
- If someone asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, don’t make something up. You are allowed to say “I don’t know, that’s not my area of expertise” or “I’m not sure, I’ve never thought of that before, does any else have any thoughts on this?”. You don’t have to know everything in the universe, although you should definitely know as much as possible about your topic.
- If someone is arguing with you or giving you a hard time during question period tell them you would like to continue the discussion after, and in the meantime you want to have give other people a chance to ask questions. Then meet them after and let them argue. You still have to talk to them (unless they are extremely rude, it is not your duty to be abused). I find that quite often people like that are just having trouble forming the question properly to express what they want to say, and when there is no spotlight on them it goes better. Also: I often learn something.
- Please don’t be afraid to try. Believe it or not the first time someone suggested that I do a talk I said “Oh no, not ME!”. And look at me now. You can do this, it will just take a lot of hard work.
I hope these suggestions help you!