So I recently gave my first ever talk at a conference. Not the biggest conference in the world, but ~80 delegates felt like a lot when I’m used to speaking to an audience of around 25!
I am pleased to say that I think the talk went pretty well. The audience engaged, I didn’t see anyone nodding off, and lots of thought provoking questions were asked afterwards. I think the post-talk Q&A session is often the scariest part, but I just concentrated on answering the questions as directly and succinctly as possible. I’m still in shock that I somehow didn’t fall over, stutter, or forget what I was talking about, win!
I received lots of compliments afterwards, which I felt incredibly awkward about. I always worry that if I just thank them I come across as overconfident, but if I cower that isn’t great either as people think you’re unfriendly. Definitely some social awkwardness there from me! Any words of advice on how to accept compliments without sounding like a douche would be greatly appreciated!
Anyway, although I’ve only given a handful of talks (and only 1 at a full on conference), I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far about public speaking:
- Even people with heaps of confidence probably get nervous before a talk, so don’t worry, you’re not alone. Take deep breaths before your talk, and try to take your mind off of it.
- The worst that’ll happen is that the talk will be rubbish, but you’re unlikely to meet most of the audience again after the conference is over, and even if you do, they’ll most likely have forgotten all about your talk!
- As a rule, I try to keep my slides to 1-2 shortish sentences; you can elaborate on any details during the talk. One thing that bugs me about talks is when you get PowerPoint presentations with huge amounts of text on each slide (yawn). The audience are then so busy reading that no-one pays what the speaker is saying any attention!
- I honestly believe that lighthearted talks are the most memorable! Don’t be afraid to make jokes, if you don’t get laughs, just move on. Luckily mine were all well received, including my parting political joke that if the general public knew more about wildlife then perhaps they’d stop voting for the Tories. However, I probably wouldn’t advise bringing politics into talks too much, it could definitely backfire!
- If you ever have the option to choose when to do your talk, I think I’d prefer to get it over and done with so you can relax. My talk was towards the end of the day, by which time I’d worked myself up.
So to anyone who struggles with public speaking, sometimes you just have to put yourself out there. You get increased networking opportunities, and if you do really well you’ll get contacted afterwards to get involved with more. Furthermore, being able to stick ‘invited speaker’ on your CV is always a good thing, as being able to present is a really important skill nowadays!