How to be a confident public speaker

I recently did a presentation for about 40 people at VanDev called “Jumping on the Casual Game Bandwagon”. It seemed to go down well and I didn’t feel nervous beforehand or during the presentation despite the intimidating stare of a room full of programmers. A couple of months back I did a presentation at the Vancouver Game Design Expo and I did feel a bit nervous then, although I got into the swing of things after a while. So I got to thinking about why I felt better this time.

Previous Experience

Before I did the presentation, the organiser asked me if I had done much public speaking before and I said that I hadn’t but that I’d done a lot of sales presentations before and taught Aikido (believe it or not, this simple question made me feel the most nervous all night! That’s self doubt for you folks.) Later that night I thought about the types of situations I’d been in where I was in front of a big crowd of people and came up with this list:

– School (Probably I had to stand up in front of a class a few times and talk about stuff or read out loud or make a presentation, although I can’t think of any specific circumstances right now. This was mostly to people that I already knew.)

– Sport (I wasn’t in any official school sports teams but I partook in “sports day” and I haven’t been in any sports teams since then, so not much experience there. I do remember that sports day used to make me nervous due to having to perform in front of others and I wasn’t very sporting, so I would often not do very well and then I’d feel crappy about it.)

– Gigs (I have played guitar in a few bands and done a few gigs, probably less than 10, either in pubs or at parties and once in an art centre. This is certainly nerve racking until you warm up and get into it. I was even in a brass band as a kid.)

– Meetings (I’ve spoken in or lead various business meetings before with colleagues. This is pretty easy because you already know everyone most of the time.)

– Sales Presentations (I used to travel the UK and demonstrate bookshop computer systems to interested businesses which even included the UK government. This was definitely a time of much self-growth. In the end I got very good at this with great closing rates.)

– Teaching Aikido (I’ve taught Aikido for 7 years to children and adults. Again this is a situation where most of the time I already knew everyone.)

– Taught an Aikido course (Once when the head of the school was late I had to start off a week long summer school and teach a large number of people from all different areas for a couple of hours.)

– Business Link introduction (For a while I went to some Business Link meetings in the UK and I had to do a presentation about my company when I first turned up to business professionals that I’d never met before.)

– “The Secret” screenings (A couple of years ago some friends and I hosted some free public screenings of The Secret movie and afterwards we did a talk about how The Secret had affected our lives. The audience was often 20-30 people.)

– Granddad’s 80th birthday (I read out an emotional speech about my granddad at his 80th birthday party to a large number of people, some of which were relatives.)

– Vancouver Game Design Expo (I co-presented a slide show about game design using a microphone and a big screen at the Vancouver Film School to an audience of 50+ I would guess).

– Van Dev Meetup (I presented a slideshow about casual games to an audience of about 40 programmers. I had to speak loudly and clearly to the room for this one, and the audience were allowed to ask questions during the presentation. However, it turns out that I was very used to this from my sales presentations, although they were on a smaller scale.)

There may have been other occasions too that I’ve forgotten about, but that’s the bulk of them. So when I thought about it, I realised I’d done many things that were not exactly “public speaking” but which were pretty close. If you were to think about doing similar things in your life I bet that you could build up a big list too, some of which would be similar to my list. That list is all relevant experience that you can feel good about and it should boost your confidence knowing that the presentation you are about to do won’t be a totally new experience 🙂

Getting to know the audience

So the times when I’ve felt most confident were when I already knew the people that I was speaking too. When we did The Secret screenings we discovered that if we tried to meet and talk to as many of the audience members as possible briefly beforehand it made the presentation much less nervewracking. This was because it somehow made the audience feel more human, like you and me, and less like some unknown entity to be fearful of.

For the Game Expo presentation I didn’t get to meet the audience beforehand so I was more nervous (also I may have shared nerves with my colleague – something to bear in mind). But for the Van Dev meetup I talked to a few of the people beforehand and took a good look at them whilst they were filing in and sitting there – this really helped. Also I’d been to the venue before, which may have also helped because it was a familiar setting.

Visualising Success

For years now, before I do any kind of event like this, I spend some time breathing deeply and calmly, and visualising a successful presentation. I see myself being confident, clear and funny (I always like to make a few jokes, the best ones are often ones that come out naturally and that are not pre-planned). I also see the audience laughing (in a “good” way!) and looking happy and then thanking me afterwards for a good presentation. This REALLY works for me. Sportspeople do a similar thing before a big event, and I do it before my Aikido gradings.

Remember that you have a choice of thinking “Oh my god, I’m totally scared of doing this, it’s going to be awful” etc or “I rock, this presentation is going to be awesome!” Which do you think is the more helpful mindset? 😉


I almost forgot to mention that of course I do “dry runs” of presentations on my own and to some colleagues. This is so that I’m more prepared and get a good flow going without hiccups. Also I can remember more of the subject and can talk naturally for large parts of the presentation instead of having to read verbatim from notes.

I’m thinking of joining a local Toastmasters club as I’ve got an interest in public speaking now and would like to do more of it. Perhaps this is something you could look into. Or alternatively you could join some kind of debating club.

Basically the more you practice, the better you get, we all know this – so get practising!

Anyway I hope that you found my own thoughts about public speaking somewhat useful to you. Please share your experiences and advice in the comments.

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