How to be a Nervous Yet Successful Speaker


I’m not a naturally confident person, despite coming across that way. I’m still in the ‘fake it till you make it’ camp or if it’s a social occasion, you’ll find me with a cup of tea or glass of wine in my hand, as a barrier. I’m most comfortable in small groups with people I know, or behind my computer. The idea of public speaking, as for many people, is a hideous one.

At Eroticon 2017, I ran a talk on getting your work into print. It was terrifying and I said, “never again.” For 2018, I submitted a proposal that was accepted and I talked about self-editing tips. It was only marginally less frightening. I’m currently planning a proposal for 2019. It seems that I don’t learn!

With this in mind, the obvious question is why on earth would I volunteer to stand in front of a large group of people and run a session at Eroticon?

It’s an easy answer: Eroticon is an incredibly supportive community. We build each other up, encourage each other and feedback kindly. I also want to give something back to the community if I can and running a session helps me do that.

Of course, I get imposter syndrome — there are people who’ve come to my talks who are far more experienced in the same fields that I talk about. But, it comes back to Girl on the Net’s words:

“No-one does what you do quite like you.”

I’ve been to talks where I’ve known more than the speaker in a particular aspect but it’s led me to view the topic differently, or it’s started a discussion that other people have joined in on.

It doesn’t help also that I’m very last minute when it comes to writing my talks. I’m better with a looming deadline. However once written, I will go back through my slides and notes and ensure that I know the material, and what I’m trying to say at each and every point and that there’s no surprises.

Well, until I managed to miss a slide out of my notes, like I did this year! Thankfully, I do keep checking my slides on the projector to ensure I’m moving them on appropriately.

And when it comes to my slides? I have a printed copy and multiple digital versions: tried and tested USB stick pen, attached to an email in draft form, remotely in my OneDrive.

Waiting to see who attends my talk is always intimidating — will anyone show up? Will they walk out? Why would anyone come to mine when there’s a brilliant, concurrent speaker?

Eventually, I have to draw the line at people coming in the door — yes, they always show up — and start. That bit is not so difficult; it’s the continuing that I struggle with. When people are listening, the speaker looks out onto a sea of faces and there’s no feedback: you just can’t tell what they’re thinking.

And it’s then that I inwardly panic, feel that I’m being monotonous and quite frankly want to run to the nearest pub.

I’ve found that answering questions as I go, rather than waiting till the end, is a good strategy to combat this inner critic. Questions generate interest, get people interacting and change the dynamic of the room. I particularly love when different audience members answer each other — it’s gives me time to breathe, but also showcases my words and concepts in other ways. Because we all learn and comprehend differently, I think more people get more out of talk with this approach.

Taking time out to breathe is important — pausing before changing a slide, or taking a sip of water or checking my notes is something that everyone understands. And what seems like a lifetime up at the front passes in the blink of an eye for anyone waiting for me to speak.

I also gauge how successful my talk has been by three further factors: if anyone asks questions or gives me feedback afterwards, whether anything I’ve said has been tweeted during the session and whether anyone asks me to email my slides.

All of those things mean people have engaged with my talk and makes it very much worthwhile. And means I’ll keep volunteering.

Quick Tips:

  • Make sure you know your talk beforehand
  • Have different versions of your talk available – paper, digital etc… as peace of mind
  • Keep prompt notes to hand – spider diagrams, full written out text, one-word memory joggers… use whatever works for you
  • Make sure everyone can hear you at the start
  • Set out in advance whether people can ask questions as you go, or you want discussion at the end
  • Have a glass of water available
  • Look up at your audience – don’t read off your prompt notes – I tend to use my slides so stand at a slight angle to the screen and audience, but it helps me project my voice and look out rather than down
  • Remember to breathe – everyone is sympathetic to nerves. And take a moment to compose yourself where needed – between slides is a good time
  • Slow down – nerves make people speak faster. Give yourself time to think.
  • If you don’t have an answer to a question, ask the audience. Or follow it up later by social media or email. You don’t have to know absolutely everything there and then.

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