The softer side of IT - public speaking

The case for public speaking

This year I've run multiple workshops, seminars, and countless other internal and external presentations.

I have a secret, though, that nobody believes at first. Not only am I an introvert, but there is not an ounce of natural talent in my presentation skills.

Learning public speaking is one of the best decisions I made early in my career, 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. If your great-great-..-ancestor found himself being stared at by his whole tribe, that was the right moment for his body to pump up on adrenaline and cortisol and prepare pretty much any resources it could muster. Either a saber-tooth cat is standing behind him, or he is about to be banished for certain solitary death.

Poor armchair behavioral psychology aside, it's normal to be afraid of presenting. It would be suspicious if you were comfortable before an action that can severely impact your social status unless you had massive previous experience handling situations like this.

Public speaking matters

Working on soft skills is hard, and for people used to learning in practice by writing code solving an esoteric technical issue at 3 am just because it's interesting - borderline traumatic.

(Pardon my dig at our industry stereotypes, but there are statistical differences between IT technical professionals and, e.g., salespeople - despite the growing diversity, I'd say it's fair to expect less interest in the softer side of practice here).

Recording yourself talking to the mirror also doesn't sound like an appealing pastime, nor does attending public speaking club meetings. In the meantime, you could be setting up your PI-cluster for distributed machine learning, optimizing an interesting Spark performance bottleneck, or reading great blogs like this. 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 improve delivery practices vs. ensuring complete resistance to your 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.

I noticed that opportunities for public speaking in the strict sense of performing in front of a larger audience, but also the smaller settings of tough team-leading scenarios or interviews tend to be tightly connected with crucial career moments. What was a long-winded way to say, "Otherwise, you will bomb and then regret massive opportunities".

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 practice, practice, practice.

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 - if you are willing to put in the hours, you can learn anything. I recorded the first speech I did when I started actively learning public speaking (and mind that I've been doing presentations before that - if you saw me present back then, I'm so horribly sorry you had to endure that). Two years later, I watched it and... deleted it entirely and irreversibly out of pure cringe.

I couldn't agree more with Mr. Buffet - it's one of the most important skills you can work on.

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