I’ve given over a hundred talks in the past few years. Why? Because I think it’s perfectly OK for me to be terrified, but it’s not OK for me to stay that way. My biggest fear? Same as you, same as everybody else. I was afraid to speak in front of people.
A hundred talks later, I’m still terrified every time I go on stage. How did I ever get on stage, though? Well, here’s a little trip down memory lane, the series of unfortunate events that got me up on stage. I entirely blame Ioana and Marcela for this btw, if you want the tl;dr. 😅
Why did I do over a hundred talks, you might ask? Well, I do a bunch of things in this world. In my free time, I’m a Mozilla Tech Speaker. I also volunteer for the Mozilla Reps program, and I’m a Mentor in that program. Both of those programs are geared towards speaking to tech audiences and building communities. But I do like the idea of a paycheck and getting paid, so I work for Fidel as a Developer Relations Manager. And speaking in public is part of the job. I know, I must be a masochist. There’s no other explanation. 🤦
With Mozilla or work, I’ve met a lot of great people, Developer Advocates, Community Builders, and Developers getting over their fear of speaking so they could share their knowledge. Because there is not a lot to do in the “Speakers Room” at conferences, and because misery loves company, the question I always asked was: “How did you get here”. Everybody I’ve asked has a different origin story. There’s no common denominator, really. I will tell you a bit of my story, how I started out.
It all started about 10 years ago, there was an event called Open Source Open Mind in Romania, and I was working for Mozilla at the time. They asked our team to talk about Mozilla. Still, I was terrified of public speaking, so it definitely wasn’t going to be me. Ioana said she’d do it, but she was travelling to the US and didn’t have time to do the slides. I volunteered to do slides; that was the easy part; I didn’t actually have to go in front of 100 something people. So I did the slides. This was my first mistake. 😅
On the morning of the event, I was waiting at the airport for Ioana to land when she calls me to tell me her flight got delayed, so I should go to the event and stall; she’ll get there on the next flight. I get to the event. This was my second mistake. Marcela, the organizer, is a friend and a really nice person; she kept pushing our time slot later and later in the day. It came to the last time slot of the day. Someone had to go up on stage.
Marcela goes up on stage, looks for Ioana in the audience, but Ioana isn’t there yet. She then utters the words that sealed my fate: “And now, from Mozilla… Alex! Alex is going to come and speak about it!". It took me a while to process. I went up on stage, I put my hands in my pockets, I kept bouncing from one foot to the other, and it took a good minute until I started speaking. It was horrible. I couldn’t face my audience. I was looking halfway at my slides, halfway at the sidewall.
Sadly, the experience is recorded and still up on YouTube. I still use it as an example of what not to do when I try to help other people get over their fear of public speaking. Luckily, the experience isn’t in English, so you can’t really understand how bad it was unless you speak Romanian. 😅
The problem was, once I started speaking, I couldn’t stop —no questions from the audience, no nothing. After I finished my presentation, there was a Q&A part. For every question I got, I kept stepping further and further into the audience space. At a certain point, when the Q&A portion was finished, I was literally in the middle of the room.
By the time I finished my talk, Ioana actually showed up at the conference. But the damage was already done. I had spoken in public without dying in the process. After that first experience, I was horrified, nervous and vowed never to do it again.
Two weeks later, I was doing it again, speaking in front of 50 other people. That’s how I got started into all this. Turns out, peer pressure is a strong motivating force, especially if done live in front of hundreds of strangers. I’m being sarcastic here. Please don’t do this to your friends. I highly doubt it’s going to work a second time. You might call me the “Accidental Public Speaker”.
The other hundred or so talks that followed, I have no excuse for those. 😅 In the meantime, I’ve learned a lot about things that help me get on stage and power through fear. I do some embarrassing things before I go on stage now. But they work for me, so I’ve learned to accept the process and don’t fix it if it’s not broken.
One of the things that work for me has to do with the “Psychology of Winning”. If I make myself believe I’ve “won” this talk before it even starts, there no pressure to hype my fear levels. It sort of takes the edge off enough for me to start. And once I start, and get through the first 2 minutes of it, practice and a lot of other things kick in, and it’s all the better from there.
How do I trick myself into believing I “won” something before it happened? Well, this is where the embarrassing things happen. The “Psychology of Winning” says winning is a state of mind that correlates to physical reactions to winning. The reverse is also true to some extent, so mimicking those physical reactions will induce a mild “winning” mental state. You see where I’m going with this.
Before my talks, I find a quiet corner at the conference or an empty bathroom stall 😳. And I do winning gestures, like pumping my chest forward, raising my fists in the air, jumping up and down, and screaming my lungs out. In case you’ve been at a conference with me before and you’ve “experienced” the ritual, I’d like to profusely apologize. 😅 I hope we can still be friends.
If this all inspired or convinced you to try speaking in front of people, reach out on Twitter. I’m putting together a list of other things I tried to get over my fear of public speaking, some of which actually worked.