Building colleagues’ confidence in public speaking

We recently ran an internal conference for everyone in our Digital Technology and Data function. The success of the conference was dependent on having a great mix of talks and workshops run by our colleagues from across the team.

We have some people in our department who are experienced speakers, happy to appear at public meetups and conferences. But we know there are lots more interesting stories to hear from other people. We wanted to encourage new voices and less experienced speakers to come forwards, but didn’t know how willing people would be.

Understanding the barriers to public speaking

We put out a call for speakers, making it clear we wanted to hear from everyone who might be interested. We offered coaching, feedback, or just an initial chat about ideas – whatever would help people feel confident to get started. Through this, we learned about a range of things that were on people’s minds:

  • some hadn’t done any public speaking before, and weren’t sure how to structure a talk or how they’d cope with nerves
  • it had been years since some people had spoken in person, and this seemed more daunting than the video calls they’d become used to
  • others were happy to talk in front of people they knew, or in communities that were encouraging – but weren’t sure how relatable their talk would be for a wider range of backgrounds

A common theme became clear: they all had fantastic stories to share and didn’t need much beyond a little assurance that people would want to hear them. We put together a varied agenda where all the talks were really well attended. On the day, the quality of the talks (and their slides!) was all really impressive.

A board of handwritten post it notes showing some of the conerence talk titles including career conversations, risk storming the death star and how to do a lightning talk

A positive experience for our speakers

Our colleagues who’d put themselves forwards for talks told us the experience of talking in the supportive environment of an internal conference built their confidence for doing it again.

A slide from Elisa Pasceri's talk which says uncertainty = anxiety = flight or fight response

While it wasn’t the first time I spoke in front of a large-ish group of people, it’s the first time I presented my own content, not just product-related or business material. So there was an extra layer of feeling exposed and judged on a topic I feel very strongly about. I talk about anxiety and repurposing product design techniques to mitigate its effect and build better products and services. So you can imagine my, well, anxiety putting myself out there!

The experience of the conference gave me a lot of confidence to pitch this externally in a way that I never thought possible before. I’ve already got an external event lined up in a few weeks!

Elisa Pasceri, ‘Designing with anxiety’

I was grateful to be given an opportunity to speak, especially with my name place alongside colleagues whose confidence and delivery I hugely admire. This is the first time I’ve delivered a talk to a large group of people and the warm support from colleagues before, during and after the conference has given me the confidence and appetite to do it again, and to a wider audience.

James Martin, ‘Bridging the gap between designers and developers’

Encouraging colleagues to think about public speaking – lightning talks

We carried this idea of encouraging speakers into the conference itself, by running a session on how to do a lightning talk.

A lightning talk, just a few minutes long, is a great way to start public speaking because:

  • there’s no need to plan and remember a long script
  • it’s over quickly so can be less daunting
  • they’re more informal than longer talks

Lightning talks do have their own challenges: with such a small amount of time to get to the point, you need to be really clear on what you want to get across, and be ruthless about leaving out lots of potentially interesting detail and asides.

People are interested in your talk

One of the biggest barriers to giving a talk, even a short lightning one, is accepting that people are interested in what you have to talk about.

“Come learn from me, I am an expert in this thing” is a daunting and difficult way to approach a talk. And often, advice from experts is not all that useful – sometimes when a world-class authority talks, listeners can be thinking “run multiple companies, decades researching this topic, wrote a book about it … of course they can do this stuff, don’t know if I can”

Instead, think about: “I thought this looked difficult but maybe useful, here’s how I found a way to put it into practice and here’s how a surprisingly small amount of work really helped my team and organisation. I’d like to learn more, next I’ll look at…”

This second approach:

  • is believable (you’re not trying to claim you’re an expert in anything)
  • is relatable and useful for the audience
  • invites the audience to come and learn with you

We were extra impressed with the bravery of the group of attendees for this session: they could have safely stayed listening to someone else talk in the ground floor sessions, but instead they ventured up 13 floors to discuss putting themselves in front of an audience. Taking that step itself showed they’re passionate about the topics they want to share, and we’ll look forward to seeing them talk at our future conferences.

Neil Vass
Standards and practices lead

One thought on “Building colleagues’ confidence in public speaking

  1. November 17, 2022 / 3:14 pm

    As a union rep I been doing public talking for over 30 years .one needs to know what they talking on , have written down key points . Stopping point .pitch pace and power in voice .Looking at who your talking to and making it intriguing interesting and to the point .along with others key points .same I missed this going on

Comments are closed.