How to Become a Successful Technical Speakerby@danicat
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1,629 reads

How to Become a Successful Technical Speaker

by Daniela PetruzalekMay 28th, 2018
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It's close to 4 PM Brazilian time. The speaker on stage is giving his final thoughts and my heart rate is rising fast. I'm next in line… In just a few seconds I'll be standing on the red carpet for my first TEDx talk!
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It's close to 4 PM Brazilian time. The speaker on stage is giving his final thoughts and my heart rate is rising fast. I'm next in line… In just a few seconds I'll be standing on the red carpet for my first TEDx talk!

This happened in May, 10th of 2018, in the city of Niterói-RJ. Speaking at TEDx Niterói was probably one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. Sometimes it still doesn't feel like it really happened, kind of like a dream, but them I look at the pictures and, yes, I really did it!

Speaking at TEDx Niterói. I really did it :)

I think this feeling is related to the fact that the TEDx brand has so much weight over it. It was the most challenging talk of my career so far, mostly because I felt I had to live up to the standards of so many amazing speakers from all over the world that have been on this platform before.

I consider myself a seasoned speaker, even though I've been participating more actively in the community since the beginning of 2017. I've had about one speaking spot per month since then, with an audience ranging from 20 to 250 people for each event, reaching out to over 1,200 people over the span of this past one year and half.

Most of those talks were done in Brazil (where I live), but this year I've set a goal to become active in the international community as well. My first international talk was done at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit, in San Francisco, earlier this year. I'm also scheduled to speak at Gophercon UK next August 3rd.

My international debut at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit 2018 in San Francisco, CA.

Just by looking at these facts it may seem that public speaking something natural to me… but it is not! The truth is that I'm naturally an introvert and for most of my life just the thought about speaking in public would scare the hell out of me.

The Beginning

During my childhood I had trouble interacting with any person that was not from my trusted circle (family and friends). I recall suffering a lot when I had to go to school… meeting new kids and, particularly, doing presentations to the entire class were very painful experiences.

Nevertheless I was a smart child. Since I knew that facing the public was a hard thing to do, I devised a strategy to overcome it: I would memorise all my texts so I could just repeat them mechanically without thinking about the public.

This trick works really fine when you don't care about the reception of your message. I mean, nobody likes to mechanically hear someone speak about something (or even worse — read the slides), but it worked just fine until the end of high school. After all, I just wanted my grades (lol).

Other than annoying your audience, this model has many other issues, like, it becomes very hard to scale when you have to present complex topics. Also, it depends a lot on your memorising capabilities which becomes a liability as if you forget a line you lose the cadence of the speech and become susceptible to "blanks".

Once I got to the college I had a brief hiatus on my speaking "career" while I was working towards an engineering major. All those technical courses and none of them required any social/speaking skills.

It was only when I decided to switch to medical school that my speaking "nightmare" started all over again: almost every week I had to speak to a class of about 180 students about subjects in biochemistry, anatomy, pharmacology, pathology and others.

Like that old saying: practice leads to perfection. My medical career didn't last long and I switched back to a technical field 3 years later, but those years of practice speaking in public made a huge impact in my life. I've lost the fear of going in front of an audience, but I still had many lessons to learn regarding the content of the talks.

Speaking Professionally

Even though I had only the basic concepts of public speaking, that skill would prove to be very useful a few years later.

In 2012 I’ve joined Oracle as a sales consultant and I was responsible for building solutions using Oracle Database and other products to solve the customers' pains. That role required basically both investigative and presentation skills, which coincidentally I had them both developed at medical school.

It was by repeatedly interacting with customers that I started to see the impact of giving a proper message. What I had developed instinctively on the years before become more mature as I started studying about storytelling and other presentation techniques.

When you are facing the customer anything can happen. I can’t remember a single moment where I’ve followed the script 100%. There was one particular situation when the CEO of one company said to me, just a few seconds after I started projecting the slide deck: "Skip to the end, I know all of this already, I just want to know the price". What to say… the client is always right!

Dealing with those kind of situations taught me a lot.

I had learned that if I didn’t memorise all the text, but only the key components, I could modify the flow of speech on the fly, giving me flexibility to handle different kinds of situations, like interruptions from the audience, answering questions, or even, handling some occasional blanks. Also, if I didn’t had to memorise all connecting phrases I had more memory to hold information on the important topics. The ending result was that my speech become more natural over the time.

Then I started playing with the support material. I've tried everything: a lot of text, little text, no text at all… Every format had it's advantages and drawbacks.

Having too much text will help you deliver your message making you less prone to forgetting to say something important, but it will also divert your audience to read the slides instead of listening to you. This may be a good thing when you are starting because it helps loosening the pressure a little bit, but it's not a good thing when you want/need to impress your audience.

Having more text will also make your talk more accessible to be read after the presentation (ie.: for uploading the deck to SlideShare or Speaker Deck), for hearing impaired people, or even, for people whose first language is not the one you are speaking in.

Nevertheless, you should make a conscious choice whether to put more or less text in your material. I personally try to have a balance between the stuff I say and the stuff I write. I want to give a "premium" to the audience that went to the trouble to seeing me in person, but I also want to produce an useful artefact for later consumption. It's not always possible to please both worlds and in this case I choose for putting less information in the slides.

The sales role also taught me a lot about human relations and how to see the business impact of the technologies we sold. The sad thing was that since it was a sales role I had to… you know… sell things. That would bias my speech in ways that I would not always be comfortable with.

My Experience Speaking at TEDx Niterói

Fast forward a few years and here I am at a different phase of my life and again the public speaking skills are proving to be very important. I'm back to software development and this time all my speaking efforts are towards spreading knowledge to the tech community.

I'm very happy to be able to speak freely without selling anything… at least, not selling with a quota and a deadline on my mind (and a target on my back).

Actually I still do sell… but not products, only ideas.

I've made my personal mission to advocate in favor of diversity and inclusion, and from time to time I will talk about it in one event or another. TEDx Niterói was one of those cases.

I was speaking about my experiences living as a transgender person and how that would transpose to the general public. The most quoted phrase from my TEDx talk was "How much energy you expend to be who you are not?". A fun fact is that that phrase was built on the fly, using the very same techniques I've described earlier in this article.

TEDx Niterói: from the speech to the dress, every detail was important.

It's important that every time you decide to do a talk you take some time to set up your own expectations about it. That will help you define the best choice of format, wording, media… even what to dress.

I went to that TEDx talk without any support material because I wanted the talk to be the most natural as possible. I wanted the audience to look at me all the time. I wanted them to hear my message, because it was a very personal one.

It's a bit different when you have a technical talk, where the focus is on the technology you are presenting and the support material would be required.

Without slides to guide me, I had to devise a way to anchor my phrases so I divided my talk by time slots… the clock would be my guide. I had five sections of 3 minutes to cover, each one with a idea that was linked to the central idea of the talk.

There were both "short loops" and "long loops" in my speech. Consider these like story arcs in your favorite TV series. I had carefully thought how to sew together the ideas in the way that I would make my message both impactful and meaningful for the audience.

I've also created a few "recovery phrases" that would help me restart the subject at any point in the talk without depending on any previously spoken phrases. I had a few of them for each section and that would allow me to keep the talk flowing even if I had forgotten any particular text, or for some reason skipped some of it. I just had to keep track of the time and use one of the recovery phrases if I got lost on the script.

Never in my speaker's history I was so prepared for a talk like this one… but, of course, life happened. :)

In the first couple of minutes of the talk I was not only nervous but I also had a strong light on my face, which later I discovered to be the sun reflecting through some of the windows. The TEDx staff promptly solved the problem when they discovered the source, but that got me a bit distracted and I lost the cadence of the speech for the first section of my talk.

Once the problem was fixed it still took some time to recover my tempo and normalise my heart rate. Luckily I was prepared for that with my recovery phrases, but I've skipped some lines and finished my talk a couple of minutes earlier than I've originally predicted. Most of people didn't notice what was happening and they thought that I was only nervous, which I think it's a big win, but I still left the stage with the feeling that I could have done better.

Final Words

TEDx Niterói was not a technical conference, but it taught me many things about improving my public speaking skills that will by consequence help improve my technical talks in the future.

The main lesson here is that no matter how experienced you are, you still will face challenges everywhere. You need to be ready for when things don't work the way you planned, and it's ok if you fail to deliver your own expectations. Just take the lessons learned and move on to the next challenge.

With practice you will get better and overcome your current limitations, but new ones will appear. That's part of life and can't be avoided. So the most important skill you must develop is dealing with the fear of failure as failing is part of the process.

If you are new to public speaking, start by tackling small challenges. Speak to the colleagues of your class, your friends, your family or even your pet. Then bring the challenge to your local meetup, local and regional conferences, national conferences and so on…

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Start with simple strategies and then evolve to the complex one. If you start too big it will be hard to extract the knowledge from your failures, but if you keep each challenge as a small increment from the previous one it will be clear where you should improve. Then take the lessons from each step and move on.

Everyone can learn how to speak in public. If I could start from zero, as an introverted child, and got far enough to have my own TEDx talk, you can bet you can do it too!

I hope this article is inspiring enough to help you kickstart your own journey. If you want to keep the conversation going on, just drop a comment below!