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9 Public Speaking Lessons I’ve Learned (So Far!)

Oct 18, 2016 6 min readOpen
Photo of Joe Birch
Joe Birch

Senior Engineer @ Buffer

Public speaking is a scary or uncomfortable idea for many people. Some people feel they don’t have anything valuable to share. Others feel it’s a lot of effort, don’t see the benefit in speaking publicly or are too anxious to do so.

These are definitely all points that previously put me off speaking in public. If I rewind to just a few years ago, there’s no way I would have ever dreamed to speak in front of an audience.

But as we’ve mentioned on the blog before in our exploration of stage fright:

“The reality is, if you’re planning on presenting pretty much anything in your life (which you most likely will), you’ll need to be able to effectively communicate your ideas in front of at least a few people.”

When I first spoke in public, I caught a bug for it. One of the things I love most about my career is the community – there’s so much being shared and so much to learn from, and public speaking is just one of the great ways of giving back to that community.

Whilst I’ve only spoken at several conferences and a couple of meet-ups, I thought I’d share a few of my learnings so far in case it might help any other potential speakers.


9 public speaking lessons I’ve learned so far

Speaking at AnDevCon in Boston 

1. It’s a lot easier after the first time

If you’re nervous about speaking publicly, it’s helpful to remember that just like anything, it definitely gets easier after the first time . Maybe even a lot easier, especially if you’re going to be giving the same talk the next time around!

As long as the title and abstract of your talk are honest, you’ll likely have viewers that will be engaged in your talk.

For me, the first time led to a feeling of acceptance, learning that what I was speaking about engaged the listeners and made sense to them.

2. It can provide a chance to experience new, unexpected places

One of the biggest benefits of conference speaking is the motivation to visit new places. Romania had never been in my mind as a place to visit ,  but being invited to speak there back in March gave me 4 days to explore the city of Bucharest.

Berlin has always been on my list to visit but I’ve never got around to going. Being offered a slot at Droidcon Berlin gave me even more of a reason to go and take a short break there also.

Public speaking has given me more motivation to get out there and visit new places, opening the doors to areas of the world that hadn’t been on my radar.

3. Getting rejected makes you stronger

My pitches were rejected several times for several different conferences before I begun to receive acceptances. I still get rejections—sometimes your talk may not fit in with the rest of the talks, or other people’s talks are more relevant than yours at the time.

But rejection isn’t always bad! Getting rejected made me go back and improve both my talk and my slides. Rejection is sometimes a great motivation for improving on what you do — revisit your efforts and smash it the next time round.

You can keep the content of your talk fresh by ensuring you update the slides as the subject you’re talking about is updated. For example, as soon as some new Android TV features were added in Android N, I updated my Android TV talk to look at these features – which helped to keep my talk current and offer something new for people to hear about!

4. It’s about meeting new faces

Whether it’s listeners who have questions about your talk or new friends simply just want to say hi, you’re bound to meet great new people during a public speaking opportunity.

You’ll meet people starting out in their career, mid-levels a few years in and veterans who are known in the ‘scene’ — it’s a great way to build your profile and connect with new faces.

Conferences in general are a great chance to meet up with friends or make new ones. If you are heading out to a conference, it’s a great idea to reach out to others you want to spend time with beforehand — it’s easy to get caught up in events and lose track of time!

5. You know more than you think. Share it!

Everyone has a unique experience when they work on something. We’ll experience different failures and different successes , be it in the topic we’re speaking about or something closely related.

Speaking is a great chance to share this with others and relieve this pain for when they may encounter such an issue. When was the last time you were saved by someone’s answer on Stack Overflow? ?

Just like you’ll always have something to take away from someone else’s talk, there’ll always be someone who will take something away from yours. And at the end of the day no matter how many people attend your talk, there will always be someone in the room that can learn something from you. Whether it’s something about the topic you’re talking about, the company you work for, the presentation slides you’ve created or the way in which you’re speaking – someone will always walk away with something new.

6. Teaching is the best way to learn…

The more I’ve talked about Android TV to people, the more I understand how it functions. When I began talking about it, my knowledge was quite basic – I hadn’t been working with it for too long before giving talks on it.

But the more I spoke about it (on top of the more I worked with it) the more confident I became in what I was talking about. Teaching my learnings to others helped me to gain a better understanding of the Android TV framework.

Sometimes you’ll get those moments when you may have doubted yourself in certain areas of a given topic. For example, someone may ask you how to do x using the library y that you’re talking about – you’ll think about it and come out with a solution that you had never even thought of before. Moments like these will also help to build your confidence in the topic that you’re talking about.

7. …but there’s always more to know

Of courses, there’ll also be moments when you realize that you don’t actually know as much as you thought you did about a certain area. Speaking isn’t like being at your computer, you don’t have time to Google the answer or spend a few hours trying to find a solution.

When you’re speaking, you’re put on the spot .This can sometimes be a good way of being ‘tested’ on what you know.

This has happened to me several times, and it’s fine. If you don’t know as much as you thought, it’s OK to say so . If anything, it’s motivation to go away and improve on the things you don’t know so well.

8. Speaking builds crucial communication skills

In my field of Android engineering, I need to communicate with either clients, users of our product or other team members, sometimes in a technical discussion.

Public speaking helps me get better at conveying a message. The audience of a talk can range from beginners to experts in the field, and I want to make sure everyone gets something out of it.

This creates a natural incentive to get better at communicating with a wide range of skill levels. Learning to speak about things at both a higher and lower level is an invaluable skill .

You’ll also more than likely get feedback on your talk, too. Maybe I spoke too quietly or went through my slides too fast. Both of these situations are opportunities for me to get better. There’s always room for improvement, so I try to embrace any feedback I get!

9. It’s not just talking; it’s problem-solving

Both during and after your talks, listeners might ask you questions about issues they’re having. Whether it’s how to do x with the new support library, or how you tackled y using RxJava, there’s no doubt that you’ll get the chance to problem solve with people. This may be something you’ve tackled before, or something you’ll get to do on the spot and learn something new from.

Because everyone has a different way of thinking, working with new people is such a valuable experience.

But it’s not always you being the one to help others. Chances are there’s something you’ve been stuck on – in a gathering of many minds on your topic, it’s likely that there’s someone watching your talk that knows exactly how to do that thing. Not only will this help you overcome this problem the next time you encounter it, but it gives you something to add to your talk and share with others next time around.

Over to you!

I hope a few of these things might help you to consider sharing your knowledge publicly. If so, we’ve got some great resources on public speaking on the blog—including how to cut out “ums” and “ahs.”

What are your best public speaking tips or lessons? I’d love to learn something new from you!

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