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Public Speaking - My Favourite Nightmare

Emma Zambonini

Speaking at events isn’t something that comes naturally to me and I think many people who work in the tech industry find computers easier to interact with than humans. Nevertheless, I think public speaking is a really worthwhile skill; whether to small groups or large conferences it’s important to be able to get your point across clearly to your audience.

I’d heard that the more you present it the easier it becomes, so what was the best thing I could do? Throw myself in. The first talk I ever did was at a SQL user group. I found it tough and finished early. User groups can be a friendly place to try out speaking but the trouble is the people there tend to be really engaged, so they will ask questions. The most important thing I learnt is that, although you should try and know your material, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. You aren't expected to know everything, especially at a user group where people are there to learn. Personally, I initially felt that because I worked for a top consultancy I had to prove I knew it all, but when it came to it, saying I don’t know is much more admirable than saying something incorrect.

I've spoken a few times now, and I didn’t really think it was getting easier. I hope my presentations are better and I know I have spent less time preparing for each but the speaking part isn't easier. I felt a little cheated as I wanted it to start feeling more natural. Then I had the benefit of delivering some partner training. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it as it was no longer an hour of speaking, it was a whole two days. Two days to be nervous, panic and rush ahead. As all people should do, I turned to my mum for advice. She told me that she hated public speaking but loved training. Strange because I always thought they were the same thing, so I gave it a try.

It turns out, as usual, my mum was right. When you deliver training it is very different to giving a talk. For one you get attendees to introduce themselves and instead of talking at them you talk to them. There's plenty of interaction, questions, lab work and deviations from the subject too but usually in good ways. I think one of my strengths is that I'm good with people; I'm fairly confident talking to new people and I like to lighten the atmosphere with a few (usually inappropriate) jokes. I would never tell a joke in a conference talk but I would in a training room. The key point I learnt is that in a training environment I could get my personality across which made the vital difference and meant I relaxed and enjoyed it.

I feel at the moment I lack personality when giving presentations but I don’t with training, something I'm hoping I learn in time. I've had some negative feedback from conferences and blog posts I've written and I think it's actually helped me to become more tolerant of other speakers and writers. It's really hard to present your work in a public forum whether in person or online - while feedback is great I do urge people to understand what it takes for someone to present themselves in this way. I think the cruelest critics generally don’t have the guts to do these things themselves. So if you're thinking of speaking, yes it might be uncomfortable, yes you might get negative comments, but if you do it I promise you'll be proud of yourself and you should be. Most of the negative critics wouldn’t have the guts to do it.

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