The case for public speaking

This year I've run multiple workshops, seminars, and countless other presentations. I have a secret, though, which nobody believes. Not only I'm a radical introvert, but also there is not an ounce of natural talent in my presentation skills.

Learning public speaking is one of the best decisions I made, and today I hope to convince you to do something in this direction. But first, let's take one thing out of the way:

Public speaking is not normal

You probably heard that people are more afraid of public speaking than their death. While survey research results make for an engaging coffee discussion, it's worth drilling into this point. Let's consider our great-great-n-ancestor. If he could see multiple people looking at him expectantly...

People looking at you

That was a right moment for his body to pump up on adrenaline, cortisol and prepare pretty much any resources it could muster, because quite likely

Ancestor with wild animal behind

there was a wild hungry failed attempt at drawing a saber-tooth cat behind him,

Ancestor saying improper things

he just said something that will have severe social consequences

Ancestor stealing pizza

or he took the last piece of sacrificial pizza.

Poor armchair behavioral psychology aside it's normal to be afraid of making presentations. It would be suspicious if you were comfortable before an action that can severely impact your social status unless you spent thousands of hours on stage.

Public speaking matters

Working on soft skills is hard, and for people used to learning by digging through the documentation at 2 am - borderline traumatic. Recording yourself talking to the mirror doesn't sound very appealing, nor does attending public speaking club meetings. In the meantime, you could be binging on Netflix, reading great blogs like this one or setting up a Spark cluster. Why bother?

Well, as long as you work with at least one person other than yourself, delivery matters. It's a difference between:

  • convincing stakeholders to your ideas vs. boring them to death
  • motivating colleagues to improving practices vs. ensuring full resistance to initiatives
  • having people excited about upcoming changes vs. having them looking for opportunities outside of your team/company

You and your ideas won't be heard unless you can present them well. Period. But don't take my word for it.

They gave us this book of speeches—keynote speech, election speech, lieutenant governor's speech—and we were supposed to deliver these things every week. The way it works is that you learn to get out of yourself. I mean, why should you be able to talk alone with somebody five minutes before and then freeze in front of a group? So they teach you the psychological tricks to overcome this. Some of it is just practice—just doing it and practicing. We really helped each other through. And it worked. That's the most important degree that I have.

Warren Buffet in The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Warren Buffet, one of the best investors in history considers learning communication skills to be an investment that increases your personal value by 50%. That's a pretty good investment.

It's just a skill

Imagine you decided to learn saxophone or any other instrument for that matter. If the first time you had it in your hands, you were performing in front of a Wembley stadium, full of audience, what would be the result?

Poor musician performance

I imagine that neither the audience, you nor anyone who let you on the stage (your 'manager') would be too happy about it.

Musician taken off stage

Although if you spent 30 hours learning you could probably give a shot to playing a simple song in front of your friends. So start filling your skill bar - you want it full before serious, career-changing public performances. Do small presentations for your team and ask for feedback. Visit your local Toastmasters club and see what that's all about. Record yourself when preparing for a tech talk and work, work, work.

Yes, some people have a natural knack for public speaking. Extroverts generally have it easier since they tend to use more occasions in their early life. But it doesn't matter - as long as you are willing to put in the hours you can learn anything. I recorded the first speech that I did when I started actively learning public speaking (and mind that I've been doing presentations before that). Two years later I watched it and... deleted it entirely and irreversibly out of pure cringe-feeling. I couldn't agree more with Mr. Buffet - it's one of the most important skills you can work on.