Fear, loathing and uneasy love: how experimentation taught me to enjoy public speaking

6 min read


By Jøran Vagnby Lillesand


December 11, 2020

I gave my first talk at a proper conference in 2009. A whopping 8 minutes and 30 seconds in rapid-fire Norwegian about the state of Scrum and Agile with the catchy title “Derre e itj smidi!!”. Those 510 seconds caused me more than two weeks of anxiety and poor sleep. It felt totally worth it, and I swore to never put myself in that position again.

Since then, public speaking has been a great fascination to me. Why is this so hard to most people, myself included? In my early years as a speaker, I discussed this a lot with people around me. Based on those discussions, the conventional claim that 75% of all people dread public speaking sounds way low, at least in the developer community.

These discussions led to a few unscientific observations:

  1. Most people fear public speaking, and it’s common to have quite strong physical stress reactions.
  2. There is little correlation between who does and doesn’t get nervous, and who actually gives good talks.
  3. Many good speakers suffer anxiety over public speaking, but are consciously both dealing with that stress and putting it to use when preparing for talks.

Experiment 1: Establishing a safe space

Although I swore to never put myself in the position of having to prepare a talk again, it wasn’t long before temptation got the better of me again. The anxiety was still there, and it was long time before that really changed.

The real turning point was when I, with the help of people around me, realized that stress can be both good and bad. And, with practice, you can actually choose how to use it. When I started thinking about it, I realized that stress had helped me prepare well for talks all along. Both in terms of hours of preparation, but also with of being mentally and physically ready.

Realizing and acknowledging this really helped. And it let me observe the anxiety in addition to just experiencing it. Observing it, I realized that it helped me both prepare and to be super aware while presenting.

And the best part: observing the positive parts of the stress, helped alleviate the negative effects. To be certain, they were still there. And to this day, they still are. But when I feel my palms getting sweaty before a talk now, it brings a smile to my face. Oh, it’s on!

Experiment 2: Minimum viable preparation

Stress turned to something slightly less negative, giving talks was getting more fun every time I did it. But at this point, much of my feeling of personal safety when giving talks was tied to feeling really prepared. Like really prepared. On average, I spent more than an hour of preparation on every minute of presentation I gave to larger crowds.

With stress becoming manageable, I was getting ready to consciously experiment with how I was doing things. My first ambition was to bring down the amount of time I was spending to prepare presentations. Or at least to better match the preparation time to the size of the occasion.

The first experiment was a talk about the now fairly exotic CoffeeScript programming language. I signed up to do a 15 minute introduction of CoffeeScript to a group of fifty students. The caveat: I didn’t really know CoffeeScript. I promised myself I wasn’t going to spend more than 3 hours on preparations, all included.

And the result? Well, it definitely wasn’t my best talk to date. But it wasn’t horrible either. And more importantly: it turns out the correlation between hours of preparation and quality of the talk isn’t linear! Unsurprisingly, you get better return of investment for the first 10 hours than the last 35 when preparing for a 45 minute talk.

I still keep the 1 hour per minute preparation rule in the back of my mind when giving talks, but I’m a lot more aware of when that’s actually required. The bigger the occasion, the better prepared I choose to be.

Experiment 3: Playing with the format

Finally realizing that every talk doesn’t need to consume all available time up to the moment of truth allowed me to really get going. I started differentiating a lot more with both preparation times and presentation styles.

One of the scarier things I did was giving a talk about giving talks. A talk about giving good talks. Yelp. Talk about anxiety inducing. The good thing was that the topic, for better or worse, made me self-aware about things like voice use and body language while giving talks, which was something I’d been more or less avoiding for years.

Crawling deeper into that rabbit hole, I created the over-engineered monster of a talk “Presentasjon 2.0”, which among other things included live heart rate in slides, a custom developed live feedback system and augmented reality slide progress control. Because, err, why not?

For the record, building everything required for that presentation took about 90 hours for 10 minutes of presentation. And generally got lukewarm feedback. I had fun, though!

Experiment 4: Bringing it all together

These two presentations weren’t particularly useful in themselves. And some would argue that they weren’t even that good. Most importantly for me, they taught me to be playful and to experiment consciously with presentations.

Some presentations require, and deserve, a lot of preparation. Others you can basically improvise. Sometimes you need text-heavy slides with a professional look and feel, sometimes emoji and weird drawings get your message across better.

The most important thing I’ve learned, is to take time to reflect on what I do, and the effect it has on others. I always take the time to, and suffer the agony of, watching recordings of myself when my talks are recorded. I discuss and get feedback from colleagues and friends. And mostly importantly: I consciously do things differently from time to time, and learn from what works and what doesn’t.


So, what can you take away from this?

  1. Preparation is king (or queen!). The one thing you can control ahead of time is your own preparation. Giving a presentation is asking people to spend time listening to you, and they deserve that you’ve invested time in making sure you’re ready.
  2. … but remember to adjust the amount of preparation you do to the occasion. The return of investment of preparation is non-linear!
  3. Embrace anxiety. Nervousness when giving talks is entirely normal. Take the time to observe your own feelings, good and bad, and discuss them with close friends and family.
  4. Observe the effect of what you do, and practice consciously adjusting your style. This goes for preparation, contents and personal style during the talk.

And last, but not least: try to have fun! When giving talks, I focus on two things. First, I want to make sure that whoever attends the talk gets something out of it. It can be learning, inspiration, insight – or even just entertainment. And I want to have fun doing it.

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