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The Fear of Public Speaking

Talk like TED

Public Speaking - it’s one of my fears. But I think I am not alone, and according to some studies, it’s a very common fear.

I don’t know exactly the reasons that cause us to be terrified 😨 when we need to speak in public or to an audience - probably there are social or psychological reasons, or even physiological, I don’t know. But I do know how I feel when facing an audience: anxious, nervous, my heart starts beating faster, I start sweating, etc. Typically these feelings have its peak few minutes before the presentation. But then, a few minutes after the presentation starts, everything returns to a normal state, unless there are some issues with the presentation itself, like a laptop crash, or the projector is broken, or anything else that doesn’t follow the plan, and in that case a lot of stress arises. The root causes for these feelings might be: fear to fail publicly, fear to be negativelly commented, fear to be vulnerable, fear to be judged, fear to not know the answer, etc. Today, if someone is on a stage, that person deserves my empathy and my respect - that person is facing these fears fighting them in the Arena (I really like the term Arena, which I heard in the book Daring Greatly).

In 2005 I was invited to be a speaker in TechDays Portugal, an event sponsored by Microsoft, to present a session about the Fallacies of Distributed Computing. I presented the session with a friend and colleague (fortunately I was not alone on the stage) and we decided to present it in a different way: we presented as a parody between two characters. One of the characters was the Teacher, the “Software Architect”, the reasonable, the prudent, and the experienced professional; and the other character was the Student, the “Cowboy Coder”, the developer who thinks is the best in the world and solves everything with a few lines of code. Sounds familiar 🤠? The whole session was presented as a conflict between these 2 characters, with a lot of drama. Guess what character I played:…The fu#$#%&& Cowboy.

Since this session in 2005 got some positive feedback, we were invited again in 2007 to the same event. This time we did two sessions: one about Visual Studio Team Systems and Agile Methodologies (XP, Scrum, etc.), which can be partially watched here; and the other was the continuation of the session of 2005 with the title “The anxieties of an architect”.

For this session we decided to use the same recipe, but now the “Cowboy Coder” became the “Architect Wannabe”, and the Professor was now the Doctor or the Psychologist. Basically the goal of the session was to discuss some questions of that time, such as “XML vs JSON”, or “REST vs WS-*”, “ORM or not ORM”, etc., that were the anxieties of the Architect Wannabe. This time, I played the role of the “Architect wannabe”, and the whole session was designed to be pretended as a psychoanalysis session - I was the whole session laid down in a chaise long, so vulnerable 🛏️. OMG, what have I done? Recently, I found the recording of this session, but I refuse to embed it here in the blog post itself 😄, but you can still watch it here. As far as I remember, the feedback was better in 2005 than in 2007.

My feeling in general is, every time I watch a video of me speaking to an audience, I typically only see the negative points: I think my voice is not good, I think I have the wrong posture, typically my jokes don’t work, etc.

Since then I stayed away of “the stage spotlights”. This year 2020, last February, I was invited to teach a class of Database Management Systems in the School of Business Administration at the Polytechnic Institute of Setúbal, Portugal. This class belongs to the study plan of the 1st cycle college course of IT Systems Management. My role was limited to help students solving problems at the labs, by putting in practice what they were being taught in theory. Basically we are talking about SQL problems, writing a lot of queries, something that I am completely comfortable with.

But then it came the pandemic, and we were all confined to our homes, and most of the sessions were presented online via Microsoft Teams, which is not the same thing as being physically in the classroom. I felt that the level of stress when doing online sessions is much lower.

But since I am going to continue to teach at the same institute, I decided to invest sometime to know and understand how to be a better communicator, and how to improve the connection with your audience. I started watching great speakers and revisiting great presentations. We can find them on TED - go to the list of TED talks and sort presentations by most viewed and we are all presented with excellent speakers and inspiring talks. I confess that I envy them, because they are really great and every talk is absolutely inspiring. I am aware that giving a TED talk is entirely different than teaching a class, but I thought that I could gather something from these TED speakers.

I’ve read the book Talk like TED. The author, Carmine Gallo, studied hundreds of TED Talks and compiled what they have in common in order to be a great presenter. The author presents the 9 public-speaking secrets:

  1. Passion - be passionate about your topic
  2. StoryTelling - tell stories. We tend to pay attention to stories.
  3. Have a conversation - deliver your talk as a conversation with a close friend. Be natural.
  4. Teach something new - present something new to your audience. It can be new information, or just presented in a different and novel way.
  5. Have Jaw-Dropping Moments - deliver shocking, impressive or surprising moments.
  6. Lighten Up - deliver some humor, and don’t take too seriously
  7. 18-Minute Rule - keep your presentation length approx. 18 minutes
  8. Multisensory experiences - incorporate several senses in your presentation (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste)
  9. Be authentic - most people can spot a phony.

I enjoyed reading the book and I strongly recommend it to everyone that wants improve their communication skills. I’ve also annotated each TED talk referenced in the book and I am watching them to observe the subtleties of the speaker.

I would say that is hard do design a presentation with all the secrets in the list, but I will definitely consider them on my next class or talk.