Imposter Syndrome and Public Speaking: 5 Tips for a Successful Tech Talk
I've done hundreds of presentations at large and small events. I’ve delivered keynotes in front of a thousand people. You probably think I enter the stage each time with full confidence that I’ll give a solid and engaging presentation. You’re wrong. I’m an imposter when it comes to public speaking, and I'm not the only one. Every time I accept a speaking gig I think there must be people in the audience with much more experience and who can deliver my talk more eloquently. I feel like a fraud, and I know lots of other speakers that have the same feeling. That’s imposter syndrome. Studies have shown that actually 70% of us have experienced this kind of anxiety at some stage in our lives. But none of this stops me from speaking, and it shouldn’t stop you. You’ll get so much out of being brave enough to tell your story in front of a small or large audience: people open up and share their experiences with you, you end up helping others by inspiring them with your story, and you meet a lot of interesting people. Here are five tips for how to overcome your imposter syndrome and deliver a successful tech talk with confidence. 1. Be Better It helps to watch a lot of talks from conferences and note down what you like and don’t like about them. When preparing your talk, have that list present and avoid including things you dislike. This will help you develop better practices in delivery, story telling, slide design, or whatever area you have identified as important. When I put together my first presentation for an event in Munich, I watched some talks from the previous year. I was bored when speakers started with five minutes of talking about themselves and what they’ve done, so I decided to always begin my talks with telling a personal relatable story. It helped me to have the impression that my talks had a much better intro than all others (which might not be true, but I felt that way). 2. Be Authentic If you pretend to be someone you’re not, you’ll definitely suffer from the imposter syndrome. Be honest with the audience. Share your experience about a specific topic. Audiences love to hear real stories and want to learn from your successes and mistakes. As I mentioned before, I always start talks by sharing a true and relatable story. That serves a few purposes: The talk has an interesting start, and I have people’s attention from the first minute. When I share my own struggles and successes, it helps make the audience feel that I’m one of them. I don’t have to pretend to be someone that I’m not. It's my story and my experience. Being authentic helps you feel less like a fraud. 3. Grow Confidence Get feedback at every stage of your talk development, from writing your conference submission , putting together your talk , and crafting your slides to practicing and refining. Ask coworkers, friends, or other speakers to give you feedback. I know this is very hard for us imposters. We’re afraid to get caught being a fraud by people we care about. On the other hand, it’s a safe environment for receiving candid and honest feedback. I always test my new talks in front of a couple of coworkers. They know me and don’t want to hurt my feelings, but they also do not hold back if they don’t like parts of my presentation. It always makes my talks much better and gives me confidence that if they like it, the conference audience might like it too. If you’re just starting with public speaking, it might be an option to hold your presentation first at a smaller community gathering. These events normally are held in a much more relaxed atmosphere and have a smaller audience. It’ll boost your confidence if those user groups like your presentation, and you’ll feel more prepared for larger stages. Start small, grow confidence, and then go big (if you want). 4. The Audience is Your Friend Every speaker I know is nervous before the talk, no matter how many presentations they’ve given. Always remember: the audience wants you to succeed. They came to learn something. They don’t want you to fail. The audience is full of friends that want to support you. Bring some friends. It’s always good to see a friendly, familiar face in the audience (even if your talk is being delivered virtually). Talk to your friend right before you go on stage so your mind is not focused too much on the challenge ahead of you. Find friendly faces. Look around in the audience and find some friendly faces. You can use those attendees later in the talk to get visual confirmation that you’re doing great. If you’re giving your talk in-person, talk to people at the entrance or in the first row. Have a casual conversation, or just say hi. Connecting to the audience helps you to not think of them as strangers that are going to raise critical questions. 5. Use the Imposter Syndrome to Your Advantage Imposter syndrome gives you the feeling of being a fraud talking about a specific topic. You think there must be experts at this conference that know much more about the topic than you do. Use that feeling as a catalyst to really double down on learning more about the topic. I once submitted a talk about software development automation to an event in Norway and got accepted. I knew a few concepts but wasn’t an expert. The next day I went into deep-learning mode, read tons of articles on the internet, and scheduled a dozen interviews with people from various organizations who were responsible for running development tools, were tech leads, or just were innovative developers. I dug up so many interesting stories. I was scared as hell when giving the talk for the first time because I still did not feel like an expert on the topic, but people loved the stories I uncovered and as a result, I got invited to give the talk as a keynote at another event in Italy. Investing time in your research helps you to build confidence, so use the imposter syndrome as an accelerator. How can you start putting together your tech talk abstract and getting ready to submit it to your next conference? At MongoDB University we’ve put together a free course on this topic. Additionally, we run a speaker program at MongoDB. We give speakers feedback on their abstracts, run a one hour coaching session, and pay your travel bills when you're speaking about a MongoDB topic. Read all about it here .
Prepare and Deliver Remote Presentations
When we talk about delivering a presentation we assume a stage or at least people physically sitting in a room. While this has some challenges on its own giving a presentation remotely from your desk is different. You don't have the immediate reaction of the audience like people laughing about your jokes. On the other side of the screen people can leave much more easily. It's simple to close the stream compared to sneaking out of a session room. You'll need to adopt your presentation to these circumstances. Planning the talk Plan for a strong start The beginning of a presentation is much more important in a virtual environment. It's easier to leave a virtual presentation than to leave a room at a conference. Starting with a story or with information that captures the attention of the audience will make it more likely for them to stay through the rest of the presentation. Appealing slides Staring at a screen for one hour can be quite tiring. Therefore it is even more important for a remote presentation to not just show boring slides (for example, just slides with bullet points), but more interesting or interactive ones. Often people only see your slides and hear your voice. Even a tiny camera feed doesn't make a huge difference. So be sure to put in a little more effort on your slides! Be interactive At a presentation on stage you can ask for a "show of hands". How about in virtual talks? You can still do that and you should. It helps you connecting with your audience. Not only that, you can imagine a lot of people watching the presentation will nod but it also reminds you that you're not doing that talk just for yourself or for a machine, but for many others. Some platforms let you do live polls. Ask questions, give people the possibility to pick an answer on screen, and share the results with the audience. It helps make your presentation much more engaging. Look for a co-presenter The dynamic when presenting with two people is often very different than presenting alone. It helps you sound more natural and engaging. This, of course, can cause some issues in handing over the control for the slides or screen sharing but it can improve the overall experience. Animations Animations require quite some internet bandwidth (on the presenter and the attendee side). Avoid complicated animations if you want a smooth experience. Prepare for delivery/recording Camera Some virtual conference platforms and screen capture software offers you to use your camera so people can see you while you give your presentation. Use those. It makes your presentation more interactive and the audience feels more connected. Some things to look after: clean up your office or the room you present from. Try to find a background that doesn't attract people's attention too much. Your content is what matters, not the cool picture behind you! No interruptions This seems obvious but you've probably seen this video: Make sure you don't get interrupted by your co-workers or family members during your presentation or the recording of it. Tell co-workers or your family to not enter the room for an hour and put a sign at your door. No background noise Make sure you don't get interrupted by your co-workers or family members during your presentation or the recording of it. Tell co-workers or your family to not enter the room for an hour and put a sign at your door. Your connection Have a stable internet connection. If you do this more often you should think about buying a larger package or having a second internet provider to switch to. Make sure your family is not streaming HD movies at the same time. You might need all the bandwidth. Be ready Reboot your home router Reboot your laptop Close all apps you don't need for the presentation. Especially everything that has notifications, like Slack or Mattermost. On MacOS: Turn off all your notifications (System Preferences → Notifications) On Windows: Turn off all your notifications (Windows Key + R → "presentationsettings.exe") Be ready to go 30 mins before you are set to go live. Use this time to check your connection, slides etc. Remote Q&A At conferences people can catch you after your talk in the hallway to ask questions, in addition to the Q&A on stage. This is not possible for remote presentations. Make room for Q&A if the platform allows for it. On a virtual platform, questions usually stream in during the talk. Some platforms allow attendees to upvote questions: concentrate on your talk and do not read questions in between. You could plan for some breaks to answer the most recent ones. Make sure your presentation flow is not affected too much by this and try to address the questions after your talk. At the end This is the standard for virtual presentations: answering questions at the end. The great thing about virtual platforms is that you usually can answer EVERY question: Have a moderator pick questions and read them to you Read out the question and answer those with the most votes Answer other (not so highly voted) questions afterwards on the platform or on a public page Answer questions during the talk Instead of you answering questions directly during the talk, a co-worker can answer questions as they come into the Q&A screen. This actually adds value to a virtual live presentation compared to watching a talk on YouTube. Another tactic is to pre-record your talk, stream it, and answer questions yourself (via chat or Q&A screen) as they come in. It can come across a bit strange since it looks like you're answering questions while also giving your presentation, so be clear about this or answer them by logging in with a different user name.
Surviving the Stage
Most speakers are nervous before they go on stage - even the speakers that are doing this almost every day. Being in front of hundreds of people that watch you and listen to every word you say is not a usual situation. This guide hopefully helps you to be well prepared for this. We want you just to concentrate on one thing: delivering a great talk! Remember: The audience wants you to succeed. They came to your talk to learn something. Most people are probably happy to sit comfortably and enjoy your talk instead of staying on the stage. Keep that in mind: The audience is full of supportive, friendly people. Before the talk Speaking time Please double or even triple check the agenda. When is your talk? Sometimes conference organizers change the agenda last minute and forget to inform the speakers. Check again and find out what time your talk is scheduled for, even on the very same day of your presentation. Room The same applies to your room. Often the organizers of a conference pick rooms based on the people showing interest in your presentation. This can be through an app or on a webpage. Based on the popularity of the sessions that happen at the same time, they might change the room for your talk. To calm your nerves you should also check out where the room is in the building at least one hour before your talk is happening. It could also be a good idea to take a look at the room during a break. How does the setup look like? What microphone do they provide? How many seats are there? What does the stage look like? How bright are the lights? All of this can help you get more comfortable with the speaking situation. Be there on time A rule of thumb is to be in the room at least 15 minutes before your presentation starts. It could take some time to get your microphone adjusted, to connect your laptop, to try out your clicker, etc. There's often a 10+ minute break between talks. Pro tip: Don't wait outside the room if there's a presentation still going on in there. You don't want to lose setup time by letting the attendees out while you can't enter. The setup Here's a typical conference setup: a headset mic or one to put on your shirt. Handheld mics are very rare these days. It's also hard to carry a handheld mic in one hand and a clicker in the other hand for a 45 minute presentation. There's usually a technician that helps you put on the mic. Make sure the cable from the mic to the transmitter is not visible (on the back or under your shirt). It would be good to wear something with a pocket or a belt for the transmitter, which is normally the size of a box of playing cards. Furthermore you connect your laptop to the projector cable. These days HDMI is the standard and VGA is very rarely used anymore. Ask the organizers before the event what adapter cable you should bring. Often the conference sends you that information a week before you go. You put your laptop on a podium or desk. At larger stages you have a confidence monitor: a TV that is showing your actual slide. If you need to see the speaker notes on the "presenter display" of your slide software, these will be on your laptop screen for 95% of all conferences. Only large keynote stages offer the opportunity to attach another confidence monitor that shows your "presenter display". Some other things to remember when setting up: Connect your clicker and try it out Bring extra batteries for your clicker and/or a second clicker Connect your laptop to power - even if you have enough power. Some laptop models put out a stronger video signal when connected to power Turn your phone onto flight mode - you don't want to get calls on stage and the phone signal can interfere with the microphone transmitter Take off your badge - it looks unprofessional to wear a badge on stage. When you wear a MongoDB shirt, make sure the logo is visible and not hidden behind a badge Jewelery - avoid large earrings when you have a headset or bulky necklaces that may bump into a lavalier mic (those that clip onto your clothing) Don't panic A lot of speakers are asking themselves right before their talk "Why am I doing this? I could sit in the audience and listen to someone's presentation instead!" That's normal. Breathe and calm down. Here are some other tips: Bring some friends: It's always good to see a friendly, familiar face in the audience. Talk to your friend right before you go on stage so your mind is not focused too much on the challenge ahead of you. Find friendly faces: Look around in the audience and find some friendly faces. You can use those attendees later in the talk to get visual confirmation that you're doing great. Talk to people at the entrance or in the first row: have a casual conversation or just say hi. Connecting to the audience helps you to not think of them as strangers that are going to raise critical questions. Always remember: The audience wants you to succeed with your talk. They came to learn something. They don't want you to fail. The audience is full of friends that wants to support you. The talk So it's time for your talk. Someone gives you a sign or you decide to start the presentation. You go on stage. Take a deep breath. All people are looking at you. Music turns off. Silence. You start speaking. Do you have sweaty palms by just reading these lines? Here's my pro tip: Practice the first 5 minutes of your talk very intensely. You must be so well prepared that someone can wake you up in the middle of the night and you give the first 5 minutes of your presentation without thinking. If you are at that stage you can deliver the first 5 minutes of your talk without thinking about your content or looking for words. It's like putting you on auto pilot. During this first 5 minutes you get the feeling that everything works well and you'll also rock the rest of your talk. It really works. Try it. Speed I once saw a speaker giving a 40 minute presentation in 15 minutes. Talking very fast. Without a pause. You know your content: the audience doesn't. They hear everything for the first time and need some time to process the information. Slow down. Pause Use pauses for your advantage. When you stop speaking for 2-3 seconds there can be this awkward silence. Guess what: with that you get everyone's attention. People will look at you and wait to see what is coming next. Use pauses when you have something really important to say and you want everyone to hear it. Prepare or improvise? Unless you are a super natural speaker that feels comfortable on stage, don't improvise. There are not a lot of presenters that are really good at this. For all others I have one advice: stick to your script. It's not a problem that you've given the same talk before and the recording is freely available. Believe it or not: not a lot of conference participants are watching conference talks online. What's the value of improvising? Ohh ohh - Black out? The show must go on. If you stumble or you don't know how to proceed: Make a short break Take a deep breath Skip the current slide and progress with the next one Yes, you should skip it. No one knows your script and will recognize that something is missing. Just go on with your next bullet point or slide. Don't talk about the talk Some presenters start with: I worked on the slides late night, I just flew in, I added this chapter this morning, etc. The presentation is about the topic, not about how you've put together the slides or about what you did this morning. Find the nodder Believe it or not: there's always someone in the audience that nods to every argument you have. To make eye contact with this person during your talk is super motivating. It builds up your self confidence. Find the nodder. Use the stage The stage is there for a reason. Try not to hide behind the podium. Of course if you're running a demo you have to be at your laptop on the podium. If you feel comfortable use the non-demo part to move around. Don't turn your back to the audience If you need to read something from your slide, don't turn around. Normally there is a monitor on the stage showing your current slide. If not, go to your laptop and read. But don't turn your back to the audience, even if you want to point something out on your slides. Q&A You can prepare for your talk, but how about Q&A? Some speakers are afraid of Q&A sessions especially those with imposter syndrome: What if they find out that I'm not a true expert? What if I get a mean question? What if I don't know the answer? Q&A is often not under our control and this can be scary. You don't have to A lot of organizers are asking to reserve a few minutes for Q&A at the end of your talk. It makes every presentation more interactive. That's why people go to conferences instead of just watching a webinar. Here are some tips to avoid the Q&A situation: Use the full session time - This requires some training and you need to watch the clock. If you use all the time for your presentation you can end with: "I'm out of time but I'm happy to answer questions 1:1 in the hallway" Ask the organizers if it's alright to skip Q&A and offer to take questions 1:1 after your talk. I guess most organizers are fine with that. Say "I don't know" If you don't know the answer say it. There is no need to pretend. Ask the attendee for their contact information and follow up afterwards. Include the audience If you don't know the answer maybe someone in the audience does. Don't be shy to pass the question on to the audience. This is another great advantage of conferences. Prepare Guess the questions in advance. Prepare FAQs and write down the answers. If you've given a talk a few times you'll also know possible questions. People that want to argue or don't stop speaking You've got the mic. Say that you two can continue the conversation afterwards. Repeat the question If there's no mic for the audience to ask questions, make sure to repeat the question. Didn't get the question? Obviously, if you couldn't hear the question well, ask to repeat the question. If you didn't understand what the person is asking, ask them to reframe the question. If you're unsure you got it right, ask the question in your own words. Leave the stage Pack & answer Don't forget your stuff: Laptop, power supply, clicker, adapter, and take off the mic. Double check if you have everything before leaving the stage. Often people are waiting after your talk to ask questions. Pack your stuff before you answer those so the next speaker can set up their technical equipment. If there's a tight schedule leave the room and take all the people with you that have questions. Continue the conversation in the hallway. Improve the talk After answering all the questions take some time to reflect on your talk. What went well, which parts felt really good, which didn't? Write those down. If you consider giving this talk at other events, work on those improvements. Q&A is also a great indicator for which parts of the talk you could expand on.
The Art of Creating a Talk
You should watch a lot of talks - the internet is full of great content! Get inspired by how other people build the flow for their talks. Have you seen a talk that you thought was really great? Try to analyze that one, write down the outline, note when you got excited, when you were entertained, and try to find the overall message. Where to start Some people recommend starting with a talk outline, but this should really be step 3. The first step should be to nail one thing: "What do I want the audience to take away?" Think deeply about this. When people get back to work the next day, what do you want them to remember from your conference talk? You really can't teach a new technology in 45 minutes. You can make people interested, show some hints for how they can get started, and inspire them with the value this provides. Plan the flow Before you plan the flow, do your research. What topics would be interesting for your talk? Where can you find good examples? Where do you get inspiration? Search articles from the internet that cover a similar topic. Talk to people. e.g. schedule video interviews with experts for your talk. Think deeply. What stories can you tell? What have you experienced yourself? Here's a trick that a lot of well known speakers do: Put every idea, example, anecdote, demo, etc on a sticky note. You may have 100 sticky notes. Don't try to think of an order in which the different topics appear in your talk for now. Just write everything down. In the next step try to group those sticky notes. What notes belong with each other? What are the topics that connect the different sticky notes? Try to use a whiteboard so you can add additional thoughts. Often a white board gets too small so maybe you need to use a wall in your office. Great, but how do you stitch the different parts together? Here are three criteria: How exciting is the topic compared to the other stuff you want to say? What could be a natural flow that leads to great transitions between the sections and plays along with the overall message? How do you want to end your talk? Hint: Always on a high note. Build up excitement We all wish that the interest and excitement of the audience is constantly at a high level. This is pretty hard to achieve and maybe also not what you want: there should be a dynamic in your talk where you surprise, inspire, and educate your audience. Create an excitement curve. How does the excitement change during your talk? Think about the audience: what would excite them? You don't want to give away all of your cool things at the beginning, or people may be bored throughout the rest of the presentation. You also don't want to leave all the cool stuff for the end: people will leave the room before you come to the best part. A good rule of thumb is to start with something exciting, let the energy maybe drop a bit, and then pick it up again at the end. If you just think about your excitement curve and adjust the flow a bit (if possible), you're doing probably 80% more than the rest of the speakers at conferences. The first 5 minutes It's very important to capture the audience right from the start. The first few minutes are important -- that's where people decide if this is going to be interesting or not. It's harder to convince an audience later that the topic and the presentation matters to them. You might have lost the listeners by then. What is the best way to start a presentation? With why the topic matters. Don't start with your speaker details, the agenda of the talk, or that you've been working on the slides the whole night. The audience didn't come for that. Some thoughts here on traditional starts of presentations: Bio - Start with the topic and after that explain why you're qualified to speak about it. Don't mention every stop in your career or technologies that don't have anything to do with the topic you're presenting. Agenda - Maybe tell the audience what to expect. Make the agenda short and don't come back to it in the talk. Guide your audience through the talk and work on better transitions from section to section rather than repeating the agenda slide over and over again. I normally start with a short story, often something that I experienced myself or something that everyone can relate to. Pick a story or intro that really resonates with most of the people in the audience. Touch on a pain point that the audience might also have experienced. Another way to intro your talk is the absolute opposite: start with a story everyone disagrees with. This can be powerful when everyone doesn't really know whether you're sarcastic or really mean what you're saying. The relaxed moment when you reveal that this is not your opinion can really wake up the audience. Inspirational and practical Don't just present your solution. Make it real. Make it matter. Tell stories that resonate with the audience. My talks follow mostly a simple flow: Before When explaining a certain topic I always start out with the problem. I try to find a story people can relate to and a pain that everyone feels. It's also very powerful to be honest and tell a story of a failure or struggle. Make the frustration real. After After that, introduce your solution. This works great with new features of a product or a new way of working. Explain in detail how this new thing works, a step by step guide on how to do it. Mix this with stories about how your solution makes the life or work of the audience better. Be concrete. Inspire people with a success story. If you look at some important presentation or speeches: this is the recipe to follow. The bigger the gap between Before and After, the larger the a-ha effect. The secret is always to be real. To admit failure. Tell an honest story about the success. Telling stories When telling stories your audience should be able to dive into it. Make them feel that they've been a part of it. Simply follow (some of) these rules: Time - have time references in your story. It could be something like "it was 2008 when we first tried" or even better "it was right after the iPhone was launched". People can relate better to stories when they have some kind of connection to it. They remember when they first heard about the iPhone, where they lived, and maybe the feeling of the time. Place - have place references in your story. "I was working at a startup near Central Park" or "I was cycling the Golden Gate Bridge when I had the idea to...". This helps people get a better feeling for the story. It makes it more real. Emotional - be angry, funny, surprised, etc. Show your feelings. This also makes a real story. Tell the audience how frustrated you were when things didn't went so well. Not everyone is a born actor but you can talk about your feelings. For a long time stories were the only way for humans to pass on our knowledge to others. They were mostly told around a fireplace. Conferences usually don't let you present at a fireplace but stories are still a good way to teach people something new that they'll remember. Use this ancient technique for your advantage. The ending Ending on a high note leaves the audience with a good feeling and some thoughts. To achieve this, summarize your talk into a single statement, a single slide, or reveal your conclusion that you worked towards during the whole presentation. Let the people leave your talk with some thoughts on how or why they should follow your advice.