Public speaking is rarely regarded as a team sport. Baring your soul in front of a crowd is vulnerable and personal. It’s like climbing a mountain of doubt, insecurity, nerves, and criticism—alone. Triumph usually means, “I did it.” “I conquered my self-doubt.” “I survived.”
While public speaking is a deeply personal activity, you don’t have to go it alone. Nothing has helped my speaking career more than turning it into a group effort.
Speaking is a big endeavor. It requires a lot of preparation and effort to ensure that you make sense and are engaging the crowd. I knew I wanted to speak, but I wasn’t sure I could take all of this on by myself.
Finding someone to split this burden really helped. Over the past year, Allison Wagner has been my speaking buddy. I originally asked her to provide a developer’s opinion on a presentation I was giving to AIGA Philadelphia about “Designing for Content Management Systems.”
I didn’t choose Allison just because she was a developer though. We both were at similar points in our professional lives and wanted to strengthen our speaking skills. We had a common goal, and since we were both newbies, neither of us dominated the conversation. An added bonus was that our personalities and speaking styles are so different that we balanced each other out.
If you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, find someone that has opposing traits. For instance, I’m really good at staying focused and calm while I speak, so I pair well with someone that speaks off-the-cuff and injects some witty banter. The first two times Allison and I spoke together, there were some hiccups. Some transitions didn’t flow smoothly, we stumbled over lines, and we left feeling relieved that we survived. By our third time speaking, though, we were so comfortable with each other’s speaking styles that we were able to seamlessly balance my focused demeanor with her spontaneity.
Speaking with other people is really helpful for dealing with nerves. If you freeze for a second and forget your line, the other person can jump in and keep the discussion going. This will give you time to pause, breathe, and compose your thoughts. Knowing someone has your back if you slip up will make you feel more comfortable, which will make you act more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s a win-win.
If you don’t have someone to partner with, panel discussions are also a great place to start. The first time I spoke was on a panel with fellow Drexel alumni. I was super nervous. All I had to do was talk about myself and what I’d been up to after graduation in front of a small crowd at a happy hour. I wouldn’t say that experience was a rousing success, but the casual atmosphere was a great place for me to get exposed to speaking.
Last week, I spoke at SXSW in front of a crowd of nearly eight hundred people. This time I was also on a panel, but the stakes were much higher than the casual happy hour. When I heard we were speaking in a giant conference room, I was nervous. But then I remembered, I was presenting with other people. I didn’t need to carry the entire conversation or know the answers to every question. I gave myself a few talking points I wanted to focus on and had faith that if I stalled, someone on my panel would step in. (And hey, I never stalled. It went great!)
Where do I start?
Looking to be on a panel or work with a speaking buddy? Like Val wrote a few weeks ago, local meetup groups are a great place to start. If you don’t have a robust local tech community, but want to start speaking, Ladies in Tech is striving to create a supportive community where you can find people to buddy-up with. Head to our message board and post what you’re looking for.
Remember that speaking doesn’t need to be a solitary journey. Go find some friends and climb some mountains!