If there’s one thing I can do, it is talk. All the time. Ask any of my friends. If there’s a topic I’m passionate about, I don’t stop talking about it. But I make sure to put my talking to good use.
I’ve spoken at a range of meetups from Talk UX to multiple Java Communities, and taught on behalf of organisations like CodeFirst:Girls and 23Code Street. I may not be an expert, but I have a few tips and tricks which I’ve shared with some, and now with you.
The first thing you should know about your audience is that they’re rooting for you. Think of the times you, yourself have been in an audience. Now think of the times where something has gone wrong and someone has panicked. It is one of the most awkward situations to sit there and witness. You can’t help. You probably wouldn’t know how, and sod’s law is that you’re miles away from the stage, surrounded by chairs and people. People want to see you succeed because it’s a great feeling.
Use the audience to your advantage. Pick out someone you know, or someone who looks friendly and speak to them. Choose someone who looks friendly. Someone who looks expressionate in their face, and will give you feedback throughout.
Don’t pick someone with a big beard though.
I did this once. And as we’ll look at presentation goals next, my bearded audience guy did not change his facial expression at all. He did not smile, laugh or stop staring. I swear he didn’t even blink.
Of course an overall goal of the presentation is just getting through it. Maybe with just nothing going wrong. However, presenting is a nerve wracking experience. By having mini goals along the way, helps boost your confidence in the moment.
My biggest goal in a presentation is to make people laugh, at least once. If people are laughing when you’ve made a joke that means they’re listening! If they’re listening, that means you’re doing a good job. You haven’t lost their attention. And if they laugh, it’s a sign that they’re enjoying what you’re saying.
Provoking reactions is a great way to engage people in an audience. Listening to people talk, especially at conferences when it’s a long day, can be quite tiresome. Getting real emotions and reactions is a great way to wake people up and get them engaging.
One of the best presenting talks I ever heard was at the CodeFirst:Girls conference 2015. Deborah Frances-White did a talk on the dynamic between a presenter and their audience. Who else comes face to face with something terrifying with that many eyes? Prey does. In that moment when you walk on stage you have a choice, of being the gazelle or the lion. You can choose to run away and be afraid, or take control of the situation, walk forwards and become the predator.
After all, you don’t fear what you choose to walk towards.
Walking on stage is also a good tactic to distract yourself from nerves, and not coming across as static. It means you’re not hiding behind a laptop, or podium; basically seeking shelter.
One of the first things I did for my first presentations was to have an energy drink beforehand. Logic being, if I was so excited and energised before going onstage, I would be too excited to be nervous. This has actually worked. But at times, it has also not worked.
I remember at the HackedIO hackathon, presenting our hack from the last 24 hours. It was tiring, I had been ill, but when there’s a free energy drink on offer, you can’t say no. Thing was, I drank the drink and had no idea what time I was presenting. By the time I got on stage, I was crashing. My team sent me a list of what not to demo, so pretty much everything. And so my talk was me shaking, err-ing and staring at the projector. It could not have ended a moment too soon.
If you’re going to drink an energy drink for this, remember there is a crash at the end of it. Get your timings right!
For the times this worked though, it calmed down the nerves and gave me the energy to be more expressionate. It helped me nail my introduction in Arabic and British Sign Language, for my first conference at TalkUX. I still had one leg shake the whole time, but the adrenaline was insane. Since then, I’ve done the introduction at other meetups, without being as nervous or shaky.
The key to anything is practicing. It’s pretty cliche, but the more you do a talk, the more you’re able to recall your points. The more you repeated something, the more you’re not ‘reading’ from the script in your head.
Where possible, for big conference talks, practice at smaller meetups. Feedback from yourself and audience members helps you improve the presentation. Leading to feeling more confidence in what you’re saying. Also practice at home. Get past the nerves, talking to even yourself at home alone. Practice being expressionate. Learn when and how to highlight and emphasise your important points. Work out when to just stand there and take a breath. Allow your audience or your couch to absorb the points you’re making.
Your audience is listening to you because they haven’t heard it before. While they have a presentation title and a tagline, they have no idea what you’re going to say. If they did know what you were going to say, why would they be there? This means if you do make a mistake, say something else they have no idea what you were supposed to say.
And if you do make a mistake and it makes your nerves worse, taking a drink and a pause to gather your thoughts is also fine. You’re still a human. Pausing is not just for you either. Your audience may look like a pack of lions, but they are human. Give them time to take notes and gather their thoughts on what you’re saying. If you don’t have water, breathing is just as fine!
At the London Java Community speaking on behalf of UX in front of a renowned hard-core techie community, I forgot my intro! I had already started talking, and actually went back and started my whole talk again within the first 2 minutes. In hindsight I should have kept going. They had no idea I was supposed to subject them to an introduction in Arabic.
Presenting can feel like the most nerve wracking thing in the world. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember it’s natural to feel nervous. You’re being stared at by hundreds of eyes. Just stare back, pick someone out, walk towards them and tell them your story.
Assert your dominance.
They’re there to hear what you have to say. Even though they have no idea exactly what you’re going to say.
Breathe, emphasise in the right places, crack a joke, and you’ve already nailed it.
You can find recordings of me talking a lot on my portfolio here.
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