How to speak at conferences when you’re scared of public speaking

How to speak at conferences when you’re scared of public speaking

In 2022, I did something I never thought I would do – stand on a stage and speak to a large audience. Most notably, I delivered part of the keynote at GitHub Universe, GitHub's annual conference. Prior to that, I delivered four in-person presentations and a myriad of virtual talks. The keynote was different. Thousands of people would watch, and I was announcing one of GitHub's most innovative products – "Hey, GitHub," a voice-activated AI pair programmer.

When my skip manager asked me to join the keynote, he assured me that I would only have to speak for a few minutes and I would share the stage with other Hubbers, including the CEO, so I hesitantly agreed. I could challenge myself to speak for a few minutes, right?

The day came, and I took the stage. The lights were blinding, my mouth was dry even though I had drank water earlier, and I went on autopilot – mindlessly repeating the words I had practiced. Although I was nervous, everything was going well. Until I made a mistake and suddenly became very aware of my existence. I ruined it, and lots of people saw me ruin it – or so I thought. Once my segment was over, I walked off the stage with one of the production team members as directed. "I messed up," I whispered to the team member. I continued to tell everyone backstage that I did a bad job, but oddly everyone fervently disagreed. I went on Twitter to see friends and mutuals cheering me on. I favorited a few of their tweets and then closed the app. I concluded that folks were lying to make me feel better or that maybe I did a good job. I re-watched my segment days later, and honestly, they were right. I did an excellent job.

I almost couldn't believe the person in the recorded video was me. The person in the video had traits I've always wanted but felt I couldn't achieve. The person in the video seemed calm, knowledgeable, confident, and fun. They had great command of the stage. And that person was me. I was proud of myself in hindsight. This experience helped me to see that I can speak on stage in front of many people and do it well. So, I'm writing this blog post not to brag but to share tips on speaking in front of people, even if you're scared. This isn't your average "imagine people in their underwear" advice because that's never worked for me. This is practical advice from the perspective of someone with actual stage fright. This is advice I wish I had found in an article years ago.

I actually DO have stage fright

Okay, maybe you watched the video and thought, "This girl is not scared of the stage." I can prove that I'm not cosplaying as a shy, introverted, awkward black girl through a few anecdotes.

I've cried speaking at church

I grew up Seventh-day Adventist Christian. It's just a Christian denomination that goes to church on Saturday and observes the Sabbath. They often get a little carried away with religion, but I digress. The church I attended loved having events that involved the kids doing some kind of presentation. Once my mom signed my little sister and me up to sing in front of the church. I cried before we could start singing. She essentially sang alone while I cried in the background. I think I was 8, and she was 4. I continued to do the same thing in other church performances, and people eventually stopped asking me to do anything on the church stage.

I didn't speak that much in middle school

In middle school, I was pretty quiet. One time, my teacher asked us what careers we wanted to pursue when we got older. I told the class I was thinking about being a journalist or a news reporter. Then, my teacher responded, "But you don't even talk. How will you do that as a job?" The rest of the class agreed, so 11-year-old me scratched that career off my mental list; I decided that maybe I could just be a writer because that's the part of journalism that appealed to me the most. I wasn't interested in talking much back then. However, I didn't realize that people evolve from their childhood versions of themselves.

I cried speaking in high school

I went to a school called Boston Latin School for a few years. It's the oldest high school in the United States of America, established in 1635. They still practice older traditions like declamation. Declamation is a practice dating back to ancient Rome, where people recite speeches in front of others. Each quarter, I had to perform my declamation in front of my classmates and teacher, and each quarter, I would receive a D on my declamation because I would burst into tears after the second sentence.

I cried while speaking at my graduation

I graduated from a private school called Greater Boston Academy. During my graduation, I cried through my valedictorian speech.

I cried speaking in college

In college, I ran for office. I don't remember what position, but no one voted for me because I cried during my campaign speech, so they had no clue what my goals were.

I almost cried speaking at my coding bootcamp graduation (or I did cry…I can't remember)

Eventually, I stopped crying in front of crowds, but my voice was always really shaky, and I would speak really fast, as if I was going to cry. For example, I attended a coding bootcamp, and for our Demo Day, I had to do a brief speech explaining my journey and what I built. During rehearsals and on the actual stage, I trembled throughout the whole thing. I'm not sure if I imagined it, but people's faces looked concerned while I spoke as if to say, "Please don't cry."

Why do I get so nervous?

What's the big deal? Why was/am I so scared of public speaking?

I'm too focused on the audience's opinion of me

I'm not really sure why I'm so nervous, to be honest! One of my biggest issues is that I'm too focused on what everyone else is thinking of me. I'd love to say that I don't care what people think of me, but that's not true. When an audience member looks at their phones, yawns, or disengages, I worry that I'm boring, annoying, or offensive. Then I immediately forget what words I planned to say, and I start to panic. My heart starts moving from my chest to my throat. I tense up, and then I start crying.

I focus too hard on memorization

I usually feel like I have to say all the words I practiced, and when I skip a word, I feel exposed and embarrassed. No one knows if I didn't say the words I planned to say, except for me, but I don't think my brain realizes that in the moment. Hence, tears.

The sound of my voice makes me cringe

It's scientifically proven that your voice sounds different to you than it does to others or via a recording. This fact is very unsettling to me because the voice I hear when I speak is pleasant, and then I hear my voice played back or in a mic, and it sounds nasally and deep. Hearing my voice replayed made me cringe, but I've become more comfortable with the sound of my voice since I've had to speak on podcasts and stream a lot in my current role.

I didn't know my presentation style

Every time I observed presenters, they were so professional, so I figured I should be the same. When I did any presentations, I would try to mirror seasoned speakers' body language, tone of voice, and pace. However, imitating other people felt so ingenuine and uncomfortable for me. I didn't know how to fake professionalism because I am not professional. I'm a little too honest, rude, and childlike for professionalism. Those didn't seem like qualities that belonged on a stage. I struggled to find my voice and style of speaking. How could I speak on a stage fully embracing my personality? Would others embrace my personality as well?

How I gained more confidence public speaking

I embraced my personality

Unintentionally, I got better at public speaking by teaching people to code. In 2020, I started running a program called Intro to G{Code} alongside my friend Bailey Siber. For a few hours a week, we invited women and non-binary people of color to the Boston Public Library to learn HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. A few hours before our pilot class for our pilot cohort, Bailey asked, "Aren't you scared? I'm scared." I lied and said, "No, not really." I was petrified, but I had a responsibility. In a few hours, 15 women were going to look at us for information, so it wasn't time to feel scared. I didn't do a perfect job, but I survived. Then, the pandemic happened, and we moved to an online format. That's when I started to embrace my personality. I introduced Kahoot quizzes and made up a sports commentator voice to make learning more fun, and the students enjoyed it. So, I continued to be myself. I started making jokes, and I approached lessons authentically. I was in a room full of people like me, so I stopped feeling worried that I wasn't professional enough. When I made mistakes, I learned from them. I also gathered feedback from students to figure out how we (me and the entire program) could improve each week

Tips for embracing your personality

Tap into the passionate version of you

What does the enthusiastic version of you look like? Tap into that. What does it look like when you're showing your friend something you think is really cool? Bring that energy to the room. When I'm more interested and passionate about the topic I'm presenting, the audience's interest level increases too.

Make the presentation fun for you

I present better when I'm genuinely excited about the topic, and I'm not pretending, but to be honest – not all the topics I present are particularly riveting for me. Sometimes, technical topics are dry, which is why it's my responsibility to include a story or demo or something that I have fun talking about. For example, I delivered a presentation about GitHub Pages. Instead just talking about GitHub Pages, I included anecdotes about my family's place of birth – Guyana. I taught listeners Guyanese idioms that my mom said to me as a kid. I paid homage to the internet during the 2000s by reminding folks about MySpace and Neopets. And then, I weaved those stories into the presentation to teach people about GitHub Pages running on GitHub Actions. By the time I was talking about GitHub Pages, I was upbeat and giggling at my childhood memories.

In a more simple example, I've done presentations about GitHub Copilot. The part of this technology that excites me is that it has the ability to improve accessibility and experiences for programmers of all backgrounds. I usually can't wait to unveil my ideas about how folks who speak English as an additional language or folks who are visually impaired can use Copilot to code.

It doesn't have to be elaborate, but it helps if you're excited to present the topic. At least it's helpful for me because now I'm focused on the presentation more than the audience and more than myself.

You just have to be you

Enthusiasm doesn't have to look super smiley. Perhaps, the enthusiastic version of you speaks monotonously, but your eyes light up. You don't have to be the most enthusiastic, professional, loudest, or funniest speaker. You just have to be you. There will be someone in the audience who appreciates how you speak and share information.

I delivered virtual talks first

Between 2020 and 2022, I led four cohorts of 15-20 women. I felt more comfortable speaking to folks on Zoom with confidence. During this time, I transitioned from software engineering to developer advocacy. My new role included public speaking, but due to the pandemic, our industry started exploring virtual conferences, so I spoke at all the virtual conferences I could find. This helped me learn how I prefer to structure my presentations, slide decks, and demos without having to see my audience. Who cares if they weren't paying attention? Virtual talks prepared me for speaking at in-person events.

Tips for speaking virtually

I filled out CFPs to speak at virtual conferences

The acronym CFP stands for "Call for Proposals" or "Call for Papers." This is essentially the application to speak at a conference. Typically, it opens and closes months before the conference. Here are some resources for applying to speak at a conference:

I interact with my audience

…or at least I try to. Virtual talks can feel very lonely because you can't see the audience. This was perfect for me because seeing the audience sometimes triggers my tears. However, it can also feel not good if you have no clue if someone is listening on the other side. I've talked to other speakers about this, and they've admitted that they feel unmotivated due to a lack of connection with the audience during virtual talks. I try to include questions throughout my presentation, so the audience can respond by typing in the chat. It helps me know they are there and get a pulse on the audience's engagement.

I invest time into creating content that I'm proud of

I spend too much time making my slides. I recently streamed myself building out a deck, and it took me over 2 hours to complete the designs for the deck. If my delivery goes poorly, at least the slides will appeal to the audience, and they can still absorb information from the slides.

I also am trying to convert my blog posts into talks. I like starting with a blog post first because my blog posts are thorough and have a beginning, middle, and end. Now, I can present a complete idea rather than deliver fragments of disorganized thoughts. I've delivered talks filled with incomplete thoughts and no direction. Very embarrassing for me.

You don't have to create the fanciest slides. Some folks do minimalist slides with a white background and black words. Some folks don't include slides at all. Do what makes you feel good.

I practice (sometimes)

Okay, I don't always practice, but when I do, I feel confident. When I don't, I'm usually unsure of what information is on the next slide. Sometimes, I realize I shouldn't have included the slide. It affects my delivery. I don't practice when I become overconfident or commit to too many responsibilities. My advice to you is to practice as much as possible. When I practice, a magical thing happens to me on stage – I remember the words and my delivery with minimal effort. I practiced my segment of the keynote for GitHub Universe so much that I can still recite my script today. I practiced the words, my inflections, and flair so that I could perform the keynote without worrying when I got on stage. I did have a teleprompter that I could read, but I didn't need it. Feeling comfortable with the main points allowed me to focus on the delivery and not on my insecurities.

I practiced in front of my family and friends

"Okay, time to practice again," I said to my husband, who probably wanted me to release him from the torture. I practiced the keynote in front of my husband almost every night. I wanted the words to flow off my tongue like they were natural to me. He was supportive but probably tired of me saying, "I messed up. I'm gonna start over."

I've also practiced my talk, Level Up with Copilot, in front of my friends. I practiced it in front of my non-technical friends. They gave me good advice like, "Slow down. You're talking too fast" or "Slide 5 is too distracting for me."

I also practiced my talk in front of a technical friend and seasoned speaker, Ramón Huidobro. He gave me feedback about where I should pause, elaborate, and interact with the audience. I'm very grateful for his time and feedback.

And I practiced by myself. This was the hardest because I get bored practicing by myself, but practicing by myself always yields great results.

I practiced with a speaker coach (actually, two speaker coaches)

This is not a super accessible or practical option for everyone, but my job gave me two speaker coaches to help me confidently deliver the keynote. They taught me about grounding my feet and inflecting my voice at the right moments. They helped me tweak the script at parts that felt like tongue twisters for me. And they gave me tips on how to remember the script. They encouraged me to walk on and off stage confidently.

I'm grateful for the speaker coaches because they elevated my speaking skills.

I envision myself successfully speaking on stage

Ramón Huidobro advised me to check out the stage or room I will speak in. I believe he learned this advice from Jessica Rose. It's excellent advice. It works for me to check out the room and envision myself confidently delivering the talk. The only time this doesn't work is when I don't have time or the ability to check out the room prior to my talk, but I still try to imagine myself confidently delivering the talk in a room – even if it's just a figment of my imagination.

I watch other people speak

I used to watch other people speak, so I can copy them, but now I watch them speak to feel inspired by them. I observe how they structure their talks, add creativity demos, and engage with the audience. This helps me brainstorm ideas for my talks without feeling like I have to fit their mold.

I'm still not perfect

I get nervous still. For example, here's a talk I did at Git Merge, a month before the keynote. I was nervous because:

  • I didn't practice enough

  • I never presented in front of my skip manager before

  • The talk had a 10 minute time limit, and I went over the time limit

Because I was nervous, I spoke really fast. I was gasping for air in between sentences. I was moving from side to side because my body wanted to leave the stage, and I had difficulty making eye contact with the audience. Although I stopped crying and shaking in front of crowds, I still feel nervous.

Delivering the keynote helped me learn that public speaking is a learned skill, which means I can actually learn how to do it. I can learn how to gain enough confidence to speak on stage. And I can become an expert at it. I know how to evoke feelings of inspiration and excitement to an audience. I'm embracing future keynotes and other speaking engagements in 2023 and beyond.

I hope this helped folks who are scared of public speaking.

I didn't share ALL my public speaking tips because this blog post is long enough; however, if you have a public speaking tip to add, comment below! Additionally, if you have a question, I'm happy to answer it.

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