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How to Crack Stage Fright

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

My secret sauce for first-time public speakers to deliver technical talks on stage

No matter the stage, virtual or not, we can see why speaking to an audience might be a scary thing to do. It is also an obstacle worth tackling when it comes to technical talks - removing it clears the way to professional growth and branding. I have worked with many people on delivering technical talks and it seems to me that those who don't have stage fright share some secret ingredient.

public speaker
What happens to you on stage?

What makes the difference

It's not charisma. It is a mistake to think that public speaking is a trait; either you have it or you don't. ‘Speaking in public’ is a learned human skill, one that’s encouraged (or discouraged) earlier in life, well before we reach our professional career. From my experience, that's why some people find it easier to do than others. Encouragement that comes from our environment turns into an internal confidence in our ability, which gets reinforced with every positive experience.

The good news is that we can encourage ourselves at any stage. We don’t really need it to come from the outside. I’d use self encouragement as an antidote to any speaking fright. That is the first tool I’d put in the toolbox. Even if it’s your only tool, you’ll make it as a speaker in the long run because you will be able to fall back on something soft; that’s how you learn.

What else can help you?

What’s nice about technical talks is that they are professional talks amongst colleagues. In this context, where ‘content is king’, what matters most is the professional story, the architecture, do’s and don’ts - more so than delivery skills. Invest in the content. Construct an effective plan for telling the story.

Invest in comfort too. How? By preferring your own preferences. For example, while live coding, polls, or jokes may be fun for you as an audience, you may find that they are uncomfortable to deliver and prefer to let them go. You need to be you, not play some on-stage role. Of course, comfort looks different for each person. Some memorize a script, others rely on their slides. The key to ‘getting comfortable’ is to find what is helpful to you in a speaking situation and to drop what is not. You can figure that out in dry runs.

Lastly, it is really nice to have support. Someone who can walk through different revisions with you, offer suggestions and constructive feedback. It's also easier to deliver talks in pairs, so many find co-speakers to prepare and share the spotlight with.

Like any skill, public speaking has a learning curve. Everyone has their own learning curve since we are all different speakers. Encouragement, comfort and support push you up the curve. It just so happens that the engineering community encourages speaking opportunities, supports speakers, and appreciates professional content. If you try and still feel that it’s not for you, don’t be discouraged. You can always share your knowledge by making a workshop for a smaller audience or by writing an article or a blog post, until the next time you’re willing to take a shot at it.

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