Few people are naturalsBefore I started speaking, I assumed that everyone that you see up on stage is a natural, completely comfortable talking about whatever subject with whoever happened to be in earshot. Many speakers make it look so effortless. They're the center of attention wherever they go, are ridiculously smart, and can recover from any mistakes without missing a beat.
Here's the dirty little secret: most speakers aren't naturals.
I can't speak for all other speakers, but I have talked about public speaking with others enough to know that many are just as insecure as me.
I have three phobias: claustrophobia (fear of small or enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), and glossophobia (fear of public speaking). All three give me difficulty breathing, vertigo, and copious amounts of sweat. One of the three I feel like I can (safely) work on.
How we get through itSome of us try to use humor. A few well-delivered jokes interspersed with relevant and interesting content makes the whole presentation seem better.
Some of us over-practice. For my talk at MidwestPHP 2014, I practiced it probably forty times. I'm really not exaggerating. I practiced it almost every night for the month leading up to the conference and several times on the weekends.
Some of us over-prepare. What if someone's phone goes off in the middle of my talk and doesn't silence it? Can I recover? I set my phone's alarm to go off during a practice run. What if the cleaning crew is vacuuming and someone brings a pet that tries to bump into my feet? I practiced with the Roomba in the same room as me. What if my speaker notes don't work? I mirrored my laptop to the projected display and gave it that way.
Some of us use mental tricks. Focus on a couple of people and move between them. It's pretty easy to give the talk to a few of people that you know compared to a room of people that you don't.
Some of us are naturals. Yeah, those lucky few that love the limelight and are naturally able to do it do exist. I’m not one of them, and if you’re reading this you probably aren't either.
How I got startedOne of the organizers of DallasPHP asked me to give a talk. Many user groups have a small group of people that are very active with speaking, and tend to fill up every month with those speakers. At first I thought those people just loved speaking (and were probably public speaking naturals). I found out that I was completely wrong. The same people speak month after month because they need someone to speak or they'd have to cancel the meeting and they really don't want to do that.
So then I had to come up with something to talk about. My first talk was a very technically-soft talk called "Building rock solid software in the real world" where I rambled for a very short thirty minutes about some tools and some software design methodology. I thought it was pretty bad. For anyone that saw me give the same talk at MidwestPHP 2014, you can go back and see how bad the original talk was (fast forward to 12:00 or so when I start talking, sorry about the low quality). Reviews were mixed at best.
I submitted a slightly more technical talk to Lone Star PHP 2012 "Improve your tool chain for stress-free deployments". It received slightly better ratings, but many people talked to me afterwards with a few things I did wrong. Apparently no one wants to give you candid feedback on joind.in. I wish I had given this one at a user group instead of a conference. I wasn't polished enough for a conference.
At this point I decided that if I was going to continue speaking, I might as well do it right. I learned what conference organizers were looking for, and improved my talk abstracts quite a bit. There is some definite art to that. My teammates (particularly Jake Smith) convinced me that some of the skills that I use in my daily job aren't things that most people know how to do. Anything that you know how to do that isn't common knowledge is something you might be able to create a talk on. It's that simple. You'd be surprised at how many things you know that your team doesn't just because they've never been exposed to the technology.
I've written a bunch more abstracts for talks and started sending them out. SunshinePHP passed on my talks (though Adam Culp was willing to give me some private feedback when I asked, which helped immensely). MidwestPHP decided to pick up two of my talks: "Get hooked on git hooks" and "Phing all the things!". Shoot... I was expecting to give one talk or be declined. I hadn't written either. That was a busy month of writing and practicing the talks. But with lots of encouragement I made it through. And I started to feel like less of a fraud.
Oh no… What have I done?Fast forward through a year where I spoke again at Lone Star PHP (Phing all the things!) and then spoke at SkiPHP (Phing all the things! again to three people). Coming full-circle, MidwestPHP again selected one of my talks. I submit a bunch of talks so they can choose more than one to better justify the expense of flying in a speaker from far away. They chose one that I just kept on their for that sort of fodder. They picked my worst talk, and only my worst talk. If I gave it as-is, no one would ever accept me anywhere again.
I was terrified.
So I refined it relentlessly. I fleshed it out with more topics and added technical information. I practiced it relentlessly. I worked on my timing. I worked on my jokes. I worked on some self-deprecating humor. I refined my delivery. I refined my transitions.
And then I nailed it. It was as perfect a talk as I think I’m capable of.
When does impostor syndrome go away?I'm not sure it ever does. As you're writing your first talk and feel like you're not qualified to talk about it, understand that the feeling is completely normal. I still feel like that at times.
I've talked about my feelings with other speakers. Several of them (Chris Hartjes in particular) wouldn't let me accept my feelings of inadequacy. Their constant encouragement (and in some cases with less kind words) forced me to force myself to keep trying.
And for that, I’m extremely grateful.
The “Shortcut”There really isn't one, but the closest thing to a shortcut is a good mentor. Here’s how you might find one:
- Attend a conference.
- Listen to talks.
- Pick out a few speakers that deliver talks in a style that you respect on a topic that you can ask a question about.
- Stop those speakers in the hall between sessions, tell them that you really enjoyed their talk, and ask a question.
- Attend the conference’s after-party or after-event function. One of the speakers you talked to earlier will be there. Talk to them again. They don’t bite.
- Ask if you can send them an email some time or chat with them on IRC for some advice. I’m willing to bet that they’d be extremely flattered and willing to help you. If not, repeat on the next speaker you broke the ice with earlier in the day.