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.