A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a conference, and I’ve had various invites to speak at similar events since then. It’s made me reflect on what I’ve learned, and try to pinpoint the concepts (and the approach) that’ll help me become a better public speaker.

I’ve always wanted the confidence to speak in public. My last foray into public speaking was a disaster (to me, at least). Punctuated with 800 “erm”s, my time on stage was really uncomfortable and my confidence was really shaken by some of the banter afterwards: from “I’ve never heard so many erms in my life” to “errrrm, how did you find that? Errrm”.

I’ve avoided large audiences ever since and become acutely aware that my filler word is “erm”. It’s not that I don’t know the content; it’s just that my mouth works faster than my brain. While my brain’s still searching for my next word, my mouth opens on autopilot… and an “erm” pops out.

Practice…

As agile coaches at BookingGo, we’re naturally expected speak in front of rooms full of people, so we decided to take our internal Presentation Skills Course. Prior to kick-off, we were asked to prepare a short presentation: something to deliver to our course mates (and to have filmed!).

In turn, we each stood at the front of the room and gave our presentation. When I was up, disaster struck within seconds. To my immense mortification, I turned around to grab something, forgetting that I was not only miked up, but attached to the camera. BANG! The video camera hit the ground with a bump, I flushed puce and that was it: my confidence hit the floor along with the camera.

I laughed it off and did my piece to camera, making sure to avoid any arm movements that might pull it over again. I succeeded in giving the camera its personal space, but the resulting ‘arms nailed to the side’ stance really stunted my presentation, as I’d planned on using my hands to emphasise some of the recipe I was walking through for the presentation.

…however painful…

Like so many others, I hate seeing (and hearing) myself, so I knew in advance that watching the clip would be awful. But the reality was nothing short of excruciating.

I hid under my hoodie as everyone watched the playback with no sound and we were asked to talk everyone through what we were doing with our body language. As body language accounts for 55% of communication, this was a great place to start (check out the ‘Mehrabian Concept’).

WHAT. WAS. I. DOING?? My posture was terrible. Just watching my stance made me feel really uncomfortable and as I talked through it I could see myself through the audience’s eyes. My arms were lifeless and I was stuck to the spot. Watching the way I held myself made me uncomfortable… had I made the audience feel the same way?

Fully 38% of our communication is taken from use of voice, such as tone, intonation and volume – so next, we moved to voice, listening to the audio.

I tallied up my “erm”s but lost the will to continue once I reached ten. I’d only spoken for four minutes! I also noted my stilted speech, my tutting and the way I corrected myself whenever I didn’t get my words out properly. All ways up, it was quite uncomfortable because I didn’t look comfortable.

For anyone wanting to join up the maths on the Mehrabian Concept, Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that the missing 7% was made up of the words used. Most people focus heavily on their slides and what they’re going to say when they present, but this concept really shows that we’re spending our prep time in the wrong places.

…makes perfect

The rest of the presentation course focused on external factors that can impact how your presentation goes and how body language is perceived, as well as the use of voice. At the end of the course, we were given time to reflect on what we’d learned and amend our presentations so we could give them again.
My second run-through was so much better. Learning from the first run, I:

  • left the mic on the floor so I had the freedom to move,
  • zipped up my hoody to give myself a sense of security, and
  • decided to hold an open body position.

Out in the Real World

At the start of the year, I was invited through LinkedIn to present at an event for Sky Bet. It was a chance to talk about the tool my team had created to help us spot where we, as agile coaches, should be spending our time (agile coaching is new to BookingGo, so the tool was created to provide us with some direction).

It was also the perfect opportunity to use my new, enhanced presentation skills…

I asked my line manager to come with me to present, since he had played a big part in creating the tool, and we went to Leeds to present. I use a Fitbit (other activity trackers also available ) and could see my heart rate sat in fat burn as we got closer and closer to presenting. Col and I did several run-throughs to make sure we weren’t stalling and to get slicker, but as we got close I could feel my stomach flipping and I declined lunch because my nerves had kicked in.

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We had the 2.30 slot and by 3pm we were done. I have NO recollection of the time spent presenting at all. Even when my colleague Col was presenting, I only recall looking at my notes and making sure I knew what my next bit was – Col asked for feedback but I was too engrossed in my bit to be able to offer him anything at all.

As we left the stage, a few people approached me to ask questions, which was nice – no-one had asked any straight after our presentation, which didn’t feel like a good sign.

I found out that no-one was actually filming our presentation, which was a shame, as I’d been looking forward to seeing if I’d improved. On the bright side, there were various photos published, and my posture and body language convinced me that our performance hadn’t been too shabby.

Lessons learned:

  • I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how well I know the content – if I have words on the screen, I’ll try to read them. I’ve started to put pictures on my presentations to stop myself doing this.
  • My hand movements are much calmer and more purposeful if I have a handheld mic. I much prefer handhelds to headsets (and I prefer anything to a mic attached to a video camera!).
  • Clickers are evil things, designed to make us look stupid. When I presented at an internal Engineering All Hands recently, I clicked the wrong button several times and ended up running backwards through the slides already presented. In the afternoon session, I was much more confident that I’d nailed it… but hadn’t noticed the clicker had been swapped and the button was different. Instead of running through the slides backwards, I (very confidently) turned the presentation off.
  • The actual words spoken make up a really small proportion of what people notice when someone is presenting. For me, this means that when I mispronounce something, I need to let it go instead of drawing attention to my mistake by correcting myself and interrupting my flow.

Next steps:

  • I’ve got a few more presentations lined up. My aim for those presentations is to be relaxed enough to remember some parts – and maybe even enjoy myself.
  • I’d also like to have a friendly face in the crowd discreetly filming, so I can watch it back and really see what’s happening, and how I come across.
  • The number of women getting into technology is pitiful and we’re trying to correct a legacy issue where women weren’t allowed to study certain STEM subjects in the pretty recent past. I’d really like to go into schools and universities to talk about what a career in technology looks like and use my presentation skills and industry experience to try to inspire more women to get into technology.