Enjoying Public Speaking (or 10 Tips for Faking It)
For any product leader, communication is a core part of the job. For me, one part of that is public speaking, whether it’s giving a talk at an org all-hands or announcing the latest product to customers and press.
When I’m doing a lot of public speaking, I don’t always have much time to prep each talk. As an amateur speaker, I’ve found these ten shortcuts help me ward off stage fright, connect with my audience, and keep up my energy onstage.
Pick important stories. The #1 thing my audience will remember is whether I really care about what I'm saying. If I'm talking about WhatsApp’s mission to connect the world privately, I think about how 40 years ago, my parents only heard their family's voices shouted over a scratchy landline every few months. Now they see my son every day on WhatsApp video. If I’m not tempted to cry at least once during rehearsal, I’m probably not diving deep enough.
Follow the narrative arc. The hardest part of this is cutting what doesn’t fit — even if I love it. (I’m told they call this “murdering your darlings” in publishing.) I once wrote a talk with four new ways to look at a problem. Someone had to point out that those were actually four openings in a row. I cut three (and still feel the pain of that today).
Mix up the phrasing. Instead of declarative sentence after declarative sentence, why not phrase some ideas as questions? Or include dialogue – what would a customer or friend actually say to me? Is there a good analogy? These implicit stories make the info more engaging and easier to follow.
Include a joke every few slides. Anticipating the next joke keeps my energy high. And even if my jokes are lame, laughing out loud at myself gives my audience permission to relax and chuckle a little themselves.
Humanize the talk by adding friends and family. If I'm doing a demo, can I use real friends or users I’ve spent time with? When I talk about people I know well, my voice gets lighter, my shoulders relax, and I'm more comfortable no matter how many spotlights are on me, which makes it easier for my audience to connect with me.
Carve out enough rehearsal time. An 8-minute talk for 300 people = 40 person-hours spent watching me! It's worth skipping an hour or two of meetings to practice, and even asking a colleague to listen to a practice run. I make time to repeat the talk over and over, as fast as I can without stopping — this helps me memorize and iron out issues quickly. If I stumble over a phrase, I say it three times fast or cut it. For an 8-minute talk, one hour covers 7-10 practice runs — efficient!
Turn the content into muscle memory. I practice enough that even if I’m screamingly nervous when I walk onstage, my mouth knows where to start. The jokes and stories are anchors that help me memorize the outline of my talk. Even for long talks, just knowing the basic story arc inside out helps me focus on my audience instead of my slides.
Use tricks to loosen up. I do a practice run while dancing to music. How can I be nervous when I’m rocking out to Daft Punk? Some of that comfort sticks around when I give the talk onstage. Or I practice like I'm talking to a baby or a puppy. Even complex ideas get real simple and my vocal range gets way broader. Closer to the talk, I record myself doing a practice run. My gestures always feel excessive to me, but when I see a practice run I realize they're not as foolish as I thought.
Go into the talk feeling powerful. Backstage, I do some stretching, hold an impromptu dance party, think about driving a convertible down Highway 1 — whatever I can do to feel powerful and grounded right before I go onstage. I try to remember that for most talks, the audience is on my side — they want me to be successful, or they wouldn’t have shown up!
Celebrate every talk. No matter how much I've prepared, some talks just don't feel like they landed. I celebrate the fact that I tried it and move on — that makes it easier to say yes to the next talk.
The most important thing I've learned: Put the audience’s needs over my own. I worry about going too big and looking foolish, or being too emotional and coming off as inauthentic. But what's helped me is to remember what the audience needs – a clear, compelling story and a speaker who cares. Break a leg!
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