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Matt Eland
Matt Eland

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Public Speaking for Introverts

I'm not an extrovert. I don't like crowds. I'd rather be the trusted adviser than the guy in the spotlight. In high school, speech class gave me such anxiety that I was physically sick and needed to give the presentation over my lunch hour directly to the teacher.

So, how did I move from someone who couldn't make eye contact or speak up to someone whose job actually involves presenting internally to a team of developers? How did I get to the point where I'm anxious to find out if I was accepted to speak at a 2,500 person conference?

I'm not a great speaker, but I'm rapidly becoming better, and as I become better, my level of impact rapidly grows and I become more excited about speaking and the good it can do.

Here's a list of some tips that have worked well for me.


I think, in a word, the thing that has made the greatest impact for me is care.

I've come to care about the messages I can convey as well as the people I can convey them to. I care about getting a message across, whether that's making people aware of technologies or techniques, motivating them to reach some new level of success, teaching them something in depth, or challenging a preconception.

In re-framing the speaking experience from something to dread or get through, focusing that anxiety and discomfort on a desire to do good and make the most impact possible for my audience allows me to focus my nervousness on productive things like researching, practicing, or looking at a wide variety of audience member types and ensuring each one has something to benefit from in the presentation.

Caring about the people and the message actually gets me, a formerly shy introvert, excited to get up in front of people and talk. It's my magic bullet.

Confidence and Competency

In my earliest presentations, I tended towards show and tell style presentations where I presented a few projects I'd done and talked about the softer sides of development such as the design process. While there's a place for these presentations and they can be awesome and invaluable, for me it was a crutch for avoiding the areas where I could give the most benefit.

For example, last year I presented on Angular application development and I focused on architectural strategies for minimizing risk in using third party code. It was useful and valuable to the audience, but drilling into more technical details in building Angular applications would have been more useful to those wanting to get started with Angular.

In retrospect, I think I avoided it out of confidence. I didn't want to present on a topic I wasn't world class in for fear of letting people down in the questions. What's infuriating in retrospect is that I was at a very high level of competency in Angular at the time having built 4 single page applications for work and for fun.

Once I realized that although I don't have all the answers, I can still help others, I started delving into more of the technical weeds in my presentations. The hard questions rarely came and, when they did, I was able to admit what I knew, didn't know, and even farm out some questions outside of my levels of mastery to those in the audience more skilled than I (or in work settings, to do some research and follow up later).

This courage to get into areas of potential weakness effectively removed the training wheels from my presentations and allowed me to make a deeper and wider impact.

This is really important and so I want to restate it: You do not need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room to speak. That's not what speaking is about. It's about sharing the value you have to offer to the audience and helping them get better. It also can be about learning from their own distinct knowledge.

Speaking as a Growth Opportunity

As I've moved from a senior developer to a lead developer and then to a manager, I've realized that speaking is a vital aspect of growing some of the softer skills invaluable to a leader and I've come to welcome those growth opportunities.

Additionally, by committing to present on a topic, you challenge yourself to grow deeper in various topics for presenting and often delve into areas you don't get to work with frequently.

For example, I presented recently on libraries to amplify unit tests in .NET. Because of the breadth of the topic and many potential specialties of audience members, I included Selenium testing in my presentation, despite not having experience with it coming from an API development, Desktop, and Single Page Application background. Including that forced me to grow in my skills while not disappointing ASP .NET developers who were hoping to learn more of testing.

Re-framing the Speaking Experience

I mentioned earlier the concept of re-framing speaking into an opportunity for impact and re-interpreting that anxiety as a trigger to be better, but come speaking day that anxiety is still there and you have no more time to prepare.

What do you do with those same-day jitters?

What I do is keep my mind busy - whether immersing myself in work the day of the event or listening to an interesting audio book on the way over. If your attention wavers and you can't focus, some good confident music is nice as well - I still swear by I am The Doctor and The Sun's Gone Wibbly from Doctor Who, but everyone's tastes and backgrounds are different. Find something meaningful and inspiring to you that brings out the best version of you and inspires confidence.

I just finished reading Originals by Adam Grant, and in the closing chapters he discusses an experiment involving groups of individuals required to sing songs on a stage into a system that automatically scored them on accuracy to the original.

In this experiment the control group simply sang, while the two experimental groups had to say "I'm so nervous" or "I'm so excited" before singing. The numbers were clearly different with the group that framed their experience as one inducing anxiety performing worse than the control group and the group framing their experience around excitement scoring better.

There's some truth to that. When it's time to take the stage, framing your experience as one of excitement instead of anxiety will literally help you do better overall.

Taking the Stage

Speaking of taking the stage, for me the most crucial aspect of the presentation is the first few slides. I practice those the most. If I can take the stage and take control of my anxiety and launch into the presentation, the topic and my care will carry me to the end.

Practice the beginning and introducing yourself and rolling into the presentation more than any other segment. While you're at it, practice the wording of your conclusion and ending on a strong note. Everything else should take care of itself.

What has worked best for you?

Top comments (11)

jeremycmorgan profile image
Jeremy Morgan

Awesome article, thank you!!

For me, preparation builds confidence. Every time. Sounds silly but rehearsal is my biggest tool, at least with the speaking portion.

I prefer demos, because usually I'm demoing something I've done so many times I can do it in my sleep. Sometimes I wish the presentation could be 100% demos.

The "talk" part with the slides is more of a struggle, so I practice it over and over again. My goal is to be able to click the slides as I'm talking without looking back at them because I know the talk so well. It doesn't always happen that way and depends on how much preparation time I've had.

So I can't add much other than focus on your rehearsals and get early feedback from others if you can.

integerman profile image
Matt Eland

For me, practicing to an empty room is actually harder than presenting. Previously, I've clicked through the presentation repeatedly, thinking through the words each time and examining the flow, but my last presentation was to a larger audience so I practiced it aloud around 3 times prior to the presentation. That made the presentation itself a lot easier and all I had to worry about was getting into the steam of things.

Practicing also helps me identify what can go wrong. I intentionally presented with no internet connection, just so there were fewer sources for unplanned interruptions. Additionally, during one of my practice runs PowerPoint crashed and I had to practice getting it back online and restarting the presentation.

I've done only a few demos thus far, and next time I do one I'm going to be sure I have pre-recorded video available on device, on USB, and in the cloud in case of catastrophic failure.

I've not had the confidence yet to try live-coding. I may never do it as I think that the benefits it offers can largely be created via slides done in a careful way.

scotthannen profile image
Scott Hannen

I hesitate to use the word "introvert" as a label that can describe an individual's characteristics in detail.

That being said, many introverts might be surprised to find that public speaking is not only bearable but is even more comfortable than one-on-one interaction. A few reasons:

  • 1:1 Social interactions can be ambiguous. What is our relationship? Why are we talking? When are we done? Introverts may overthink such details, or the lack of clarity may make them uncomfortable without them realizing it. Public speaking is unambiguous. I'm here to say this. You've chosen to listen. This is how long it will last. Then it's done.
  • Much of what we desire in 1:1 interactions is still present. When speaking we can still feel a rewarding sense of connection with our audience. We still see them as individuals, but they are individuals comprising a group to which we speak. We can think of how our presentation might benefit individuals. We see them responding to our speech and it energizes us.
  • This is a peculiarity of some introverts, but we hate to be interrupted. It's not an ego thing. We just express sentences and thoughts in a certain way. We might begin by saying what we don't think and build from there to explain what we do think. It's exasperating when someone cuts us off halfway through when the words we've spoken either don't say anything complete or even express the opposite of what we're about to say. (I've often told people, "Of course what I said doesn't make any sense. It's the incomplete first half of a thought.") Maybe that's not just introverts, or maybe it bothers us more. Anyway, when speaking publicly that problem goes away. You can express a thought the way you want to without getting stopped halfway through.

This isn't to say that I would replace 1:1 interactions with public speaking. Rather, we might just be surprised at how much we enjoy the latter. As we get comfortable speaking publicly a version of ourselves begins to emerge which resembles how we'd like to present ourselves in more personal interactions. As we recognize it we allow it to come out when speaking to individuals. Our public side and our personal side each help the other to grow.

integerman profile image
Matt Eland

There's a lot in there. For me, the core of being an introvert vs extrovert is how you recharge. Do you recharge by being alone or talking with one or two close friends or do you enjoy parties, groups of people, and larger-scale socialization? Most people are somewhere in between, and this can change over time. I'm a very introverted fellow, but I can act like an extrovert - particularly if I care about a cause or group of individuals.

I love what you're saying with:

Rather, we [introverts] might just be surprised at how much we enjoy [public speaking]

I certainly have been surprised myself.

chrisachard profile image
Chris Achard

Great post! The best advice I can give is also the hardest to hear (and most boring) - which is that you'll get better if you practice. Like most things in life, you grow when you get out of your comfort zone, and then do that over and over again.

If you're interested at all in speaking (and even if you're not!) I highly recommend finding some local technical meetups in your area, and asking if you can do a lightning talk. Meetup organizers are always looking for more people to talk (I know - I am one 😄) and most are happy to accept a 5 minute lightning talk. Do a few of those, and you'll quickly be ready to move on to longer and longer talks - even if you were terrified before!

So yeah - I love this post because it shows that 1. you don't have to be an expert, and 2. just do it!

Then make a post on DEV and let us all know how it went 😉

integerman profile image
Matt Eland

I agree entirely with this. While I give formal presentations at work once or twice a month, presenting to strangers at a meetup is a fantastic way to grow. I've done 3 full-hour presentations at meetups and each one has helped me grow and gauge where I am.

After the last, I gauged myself to be ready to throw my hat into the ring for local and regional conferences, and have applied to my first conference. I've identified 3 more conferences I plan on applying to next year when the call for speakers opens.

Hopefully folks will be interested to see me speak and interested in my abstracts and I'll get a shot with a larger audience.

As for posting to, I'll know by the end of September if my abstracts were accepted / rejected and either way I'll post them here for feedback and sharing my lessons learned on the process.

steelwolf180 profile image
Max Ong Zong Bao

Awesome article on public speaking.

I find that i always have the nervousness whenever I'm trying to present

integerman profile image
Matt Eland

From everything I've experienced and everything I've read / studied, that's normal. You're going to encounter at least some degree of nervousness / anxiety. The key is to find ways of telling your body that there's no imminent threat and to focus on providing value to individuals. Remembering a few people you know personally that could benefit from the topic is often helpful for me, but you're still going to have that anxiety, though it decreases with repetition.

thamaraiselvam profile image

Exactly, What I am looking for. Thanks

mixoglad profile image

@matt , taking the stage has worked well for me. 🤭

integerman profile image
Matt Eland

But if I take it, they'll want me to give it back - or at least bill me for a replacement stage.