From a very young age we are taught that speaking to large groups of people is terrifying. We’re taught that people are by default judgmental and will look for any and every flaw you have before you’ve even opened your mouth. In the same breath we learn that we should look for those flaws in others, scrutinize their body language for any hint of fear or nervousness and feel a sadistic pleasure when we find those weak spots. For some people, it takes a lifetime to un-learn these rules, and some never get there. But those who manage to unlock themselves and shed these fears can skyrocket professionally and become much more influential.
As a Technical Evangelist, a large portion of my job is to speak to audiences about Microsoft’s technologies. The audience sizes vary from one to a thousand, but I’ve found a way to feel confident and steady regardless of the audience size. When I was a teenager, I was so shy and afraid of judgement that I wouldn’t even sing in the car around my family for fear of them thinking I was awful. I went to an all-girls high school to which I attribute a lot of my early professional skill development, including finding my speaking and singing voices and learning how to calm the pre-stage jitters. Now I still get a few butterflies before stepping out into the spotlight, but there are three things I remember to settle the nerves and be able to talk confidently.
1. The audience wants you to succeed.
This was something my first drama teacher taught me when I was shaking in my uniform at the thought of auditioning on stage in front of a panel of judges. The judges want you to succeed – they’re looking for the person that fits the role, and when they’re watching you perform, they want you to be that person. They want you to succeed. The same goes for speeches and presentations – the audience wants you to do well and deliver a good presentation, so they are rooting for you every step of the way. Thinking of your audience as a group of supporters is one way to boost your confidence when speaking.
2. The larger the audience, the more efficiently you can spread your message.
Think about it – would you rather give a presentation a hundred times or once? What about 100 times to small audiences of 5, or once to an audience of 500? You reach the same number of people in the end, but a hundred presentations cost you a lot more time and effort than one. The larger your audience is, the fewer times you have to say your message – so instead of wasting your time saying the same thing over and over again, why not invest some time in preparing meticulously and deliver a single well-rehearsed presentation? The reach is bigger and the mental and physical drain on you are lessened dramatically. Save the dry-runs for your home office and deliver fewer, more impactful presentations.
3. Great talks are remembered, boring ones are forgotten.
If you give a great talk, chances are people will remember it. If you give a boring talk, chances are it won’t stick around in people’s brains – which gives you the opportunity to learn from it, tweak it, and improve for the next time. Every presentation is a learning experience. I’m sure my fellow TEs would agree with me when I say that we learn something and improve our presentation styles every time we take a speaking engagement. As cliché as it is, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to start out boring and work your way to being great.
The photo at the top of this post is of the speaker list from a session I did at the National Business and Technology Conference last year. It was one of the largest audiences I had had until that point, and I was excitedly nervous to be representing Microsoft at this conference as I was younger than some of the attendees. But when it comes down to that moment just before you step onto the stage, no matter how nervous you are you have to decide to push the butterflies down and just give it all you’ve got, remembering that your biggest and most important critic is yourself.