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An Introvert Reflects on his First Presentation

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"You're all set to go up in twenty minutes," the organizer tells me. I quickly flash to myself in front of hundreds of people - frozen, and consumed by anxiety - having completely forgotten what I'm supposed to speak about next. Will that actually happen? Wait a minute; will I make it happen by worrying about it right now? "Hey," I silently scream to myself. "Stop freaking out!"

As a bit of a self-diagnosed introvert, this was my experience over the weekend, as I prepared for my first presentation at WordCamp Kansas City. So the question is: if the thought of speaking for an hour in front of hundreds of people terrifies you, what's the solution? Do you accept your emotional limitations, or do you instead force yourself into uncomfortable situations?

I'm willing to wager that, in general, we web developers suffer somewhat when it comes to - ya know - interacting with the outside world. Now, that doesn't mean we spend our days curled up in the corner, typing "My Precious" into our laptops over and over. We're not that bad; but, nonetheless, many of us may have chosen this profession because it allows for some form of escape from the real world. Again, I'm stereotyping here, but there's certainly a reason why it's a stereotype to begin with!

As we grow, we learn to accept our limitations. During our younger years, we may attempt to become someone we're not. Who hasn't tried on a handful of hats in their years?

But, invariably, we return to our core at some point in our 20s. At my core, whether I like it or not, I'm a shy guy (not to be confused with this shy guy). It's not a trait that I'm particularly proud of, and it makes the process of mingling at parties infinitely more difficult.

As an example, my step father is the type of person who can approach a complete stranger, and find himself still chatting with them twenty minutes later. Sadly, potentially like yourself, this is an ability that I do not possess - try as I may. I'm a good actor, but, still, I've been known to answer phones that never rang - all in an attempt to get out of innocuous discussions. Feel free to use the words introvert, anti-social, "that guy who doesn't talk much," I.T. guy -- whatever works for you. They're, more often than not, one in the same.

But as we so often do, we come to accept ourselves for who we are. I'm a nice person; I just need to get to know you well before I can genuinely relax and let my guard down. I prefer 2-3 very close friends, as opposed to 50 semi-friends. Are you the same? If so, you're going to have trouble attending or speaking at web development conferences -- particularly if traveling alone, like I found myself doing this weekend. Even the thought of hundreds of people staring at you on stage frightens me!

What's the Solution?

The best we can do is force ourselves into uncomfortable situations.

When it's a proven fact that salary and job promotions are linked to one's people skills, what's the solution for the introverted among us? Must we accept our fate? Are we destined to make less than the outgoing guy in the office who is far less productive?

Well what do I know? I'm just a guy. But, in my 2.5 decades, I've learned something: people simply don't change. The best we can do is force ourselves into uncomfortable situations as often as possible. If you find yourself bee-lining for the door when an uncomfortable situation arises, the best course of action is to resist that urge as much as possible, regardless of what your brain may tell you. Remember, in social situations, your brain is the problem. Don't trust it!

So, you've followed this advice, and, against your better judgment, you've taken the plunge and signed up to speak at a web development conference. How do you keep yourself from being overcome by fear?


Lessen the Anxiety

For the more anxious among you, there are a variety of things that will help mitigate the level of nervousness you feel leading up to your speech.

  1. Valerian Root - Available in any drug store, and "promotes relaxation and tranquil rest."
  2. Tylenol - Even if you don't have a headache, a Tylenol or Aspirin will thin your blood and provide a modest level of relief.
  3. Whiskey - No; don't get drunk before your presentation. That's not a good idea! But, that said, there's no denying that a little Jack mixed in with your coke will help alleviate that anxiety "rock" which rests in your stomach. Please be responsible if you choose this route.
  4. Shake it Out - Ten minutes before your presentation, consider excusing yourself to a private place, where you can release as much built up energy and anxiety as possible. Shake your hands rapidly, run in place, give yourself a pep talk. All of this helps! Just make sure nobody sees you. :)

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

It's natural for any presenter to worry that he'll forget his lines.

It's natural for any presenter to imagine himself forgetting his lines. This fear will remain with you up until those final moments of your speech. The only cure - or prevention - is to prepare like crazy. When nobody else is around, practice your speech in front of your bathroom mirror. A word of caution when doing this, though: ensure that no one else is around! Otherwise, you will endure countless levels of ridicule from family members. Send them out for ice cream, and give the mirror the best you've got. Once you've finished, start over and do it again.

If you'd prefer to write and memorize your script, that's okay too, just as long as you realize that, come speech day, you'll undoubtedly forget many of those lines. Perhaps it's better to write your script, and then convert it to bullet points when you create your presentation slides. In addition to providing the audience with memorable notes on your speech, your slides can also be used as mental reminders and triggers for yourself. Further, a bonus to this method is that your speech won't feel as memorized to the audience. A bit of spontaneity is a good thing! If you find yourself going on a tangent during your talk, that's perfectly okay (in moderation)!


Put on a Mask

Be the person that you wish you could be.

No, no - I'm not suggesting that you literally wear an "Eyes Wide Shut"-like mask during your talk. That would just be...weird. Instead, I'm referring to the way you perceive yourself. Presumably, no one at this conference knows who you are. That means, for one hour, you get to be a kid again! Choose a hat...any hat! Be the person that you wish you could be. Want to be more outgoing on stage? Be an actor, animate yourself, and channel that type of person. All that matters is getting through the presentation, having done as excellent a job as possible. If you need to wear an invisible mask to get it done, then by all means, do!


Don't Be a Stick

Regardless of how interesting the topic is, no one can deny that it's difficult to sit and listen to another person speak for an hour. We're not built that way. In fact, I once read that we humans have trouble retaining focus for any period of time longer than fifteen minutes. As a speaker, though, you make things infinitely worse when you come across as a stick, for lack of better words. As Brian Flannigan's ex-professor would say, "Speak up; let the class hear you!" Nobody wants to listen to a dull monotoned speech for an hour. Here's some simple techniques that I found to be helpful when creating a more dynamic presentation.

  • Smile, fool!
  • Adjust your tone of voice from time to time.
  • Don't stand in the same position for your entire presentation. Walk around -- feel the space, as some might say.
  • Make jokes. Even if people don't appreciate your humor (which they often don't, as I found with my constant Mr. T references), they at least appreciate that you tried. Better yet, the biggest laughs tend to come when you least expect them.
  • Laugh at yourself. You're not giving a speech to the world. If you stumble on your words, lose your place, or screw up a slide, laugh at yourself on stage. Nobody expects you to be flawless. Flawless is boring.
  • Fluctuate your pacing. Speak slowly during some portions of your presentation. At other points, pick up the speed a bit.
  • If you have real world examples of your speaking points, take a break and reveal them to the audience. People enjoy these sorts of things.
  • Engage the audience. Ask them questions. Allow them to interject with their own thoughts, clarifications, and questions during your speech. This might throw you off, but it allows for a more dynamic presentation.
  • Drink some water, for goodness sake! I personally fall into that group of people who views any period of silence as tense silence. On stage, ten seconds of silence feels like an eternity...but it's not. The audience barely notices. So, when you need a moment to gather your thoughts, relax, take a drink of water, and continue on.

Conclusion

Please keep in mind that I'm quite possibly the last person who should offer speaking advice. I am clearly a novice! That said, however, the ideas and techniques listed above will hopefully encourage the fearful among you to dive in and test your limitations. When applied to my own first presentation, I didn't crash and burn. And well...that's success for an introvert like me!