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Ask HN: Help, I need to talk in front of a big audience & I'm scared, what now?
43 points by c1sc0 on Nov 24, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 56 comments
I've done some presentations/demos in front of smallish audiences (dozens of people) but now I need to give a talk in front of 2000 people (+ probably live streaming). I'm scared, clueless, don't know where to start & I'm reaching out to HN: any tips? The talk is in 2 weeks.

Edit: It's an Ignite! Talk (http://igniteshow.com/). 5 minutes. 20 slides. 15 seconds per slide. auto-forward is on. Not sure if I can disclose the topic yet, will update when I can.

You have two weeks. Rehearse the shit out of your talk. Run through it several times every day. Do it until you're completely sick and tired of hearing yourself, and then run through it some more. Get friends and family to watch. Videotape yourself. But go through it as much as possible. That's the most reliable way to beat the nervousness and deliver a kick-ass talk. I know Steve Jobs makes it seem like it's something you have or you don't, but I've read he spends like 20 - 30 hours prepping and rehearsing for his keynote talks. There's a word for this: sprezzatura. Good luck!



I'd never heard of sprezzatura. What a great word! Reminded me instantly of one of Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power: "Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless"

All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed. When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more.

No surprise that it's mentioned in the book: http://books.google.com/books?id=afCxg5sogvAC&lpg=PT316&...

I'm going to second videotaping yourself. I found that running through a speech then watching the recording helped enormously. It let me see the 'this part doesn't work, this part does' big picture, which helps you improve with each rehearsal.

Another good move is to present to yourself in front of a mirror and you should always do it out loud. Just going through your presentation in your head doesn't really help / add as much value as doing it right.

The only trouble with the mirror is you can't re-watch later and go "That is the most boring presentation I have ever seen" to learn what to improve.

That's true, but you are also probably not taping yourself each time.

With a short talk and most laptops having a built-in camera, it's pretty trivial to record every practice and watch it back before trying again.

I'm also an inexperienced public speaker, and have decided to improve as much as I can. A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a conference in front of about 350 people, following this advice exactly. I still have a long way to go but the talk went well, and a lot of people came up to me afterwards and congratulated me. During the talk I was a little nervous, but not as bad as I would have thought.

So first and foremost, follow this advice - it's 100% correct!

^^ This. Also, while you're presenting, try to remember that you're the expert. Practicing in front of people will give you an idea of what kind of questions you might get so be prepared with a coupe extra slides to answer any frequency ones.

Very good advise!

I was in a similar situation and format, and rehearsed my presentation 100++ times. Worked out well.

In the minutes before the presentation: Breathe. Exhaling longer than inhaling will calm your nervous system substantially within a minute or two.

In my experience, practice is by far the best salve for nerves. If you can give your talk cold, without slides, while being attacked by bees, a couple of thousand people won't bother you in the slightest.

Luckily, you're speaking in the best possible format for this. The neat thing about Ignite is the length constraint. With a five minute talk, you can practice properly (run through the whole thing, making notes on paper about changes you need to make) something like 6 times in an hour - that would take closer to 10 hours with a 45 minute talk. That said, don't work from a word-for-word script. Change things up a little on each run-through. That's always good advice, but it's even more important with Ignite, since it's easy to get off-track with the auto-advancing slides.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Make sure you're telling engaging stories. This might sound dorky - but at least one week before the talk, record yourself if you have a camera. You'll notice what you're doing wrong, and be able to practice again to fix it.

Also - try and give the presentation to someone who knows nothing about the topic (maybe even post one of the recordings to HN?) and make sure they completely understand what you're talking about. Sometimes we get so close to the topic, we don't realize we're using terms people don't know.

If you're looking for design inspiration for slides with less text, check out: http://noteandpoint.com/ They have an awesome collection!

Most importantly, remember most people who are amazing at presenting practice the shit out of what they're saying. Even Malcolm Gladwell scripts every word of his presentations [1].

[1] http://blogs.ft.com/rachmanblog/2010/02/the-secrets-of-malco...

EDIT: Also, I've bookmarked a bunch of links related to presentations: http://www.delicious.com/sachitgupta/presentation

EDIT2: Another tip - find a presentation you really like. Write down the text and record yourself trying to do that. After this - instead of just saying you want to present like Steve Jobs, you can see exactly what to improve on to present like him.

A few things from my own experience:

1. Don't "give a speech". Instead, talk to a bunch of people that are interested in what you have to say. The distinction really matters, at least to me.

2. As others have noted. Don't drag your audience into PowerPoint Hell. At least look through the basics of "Presentation Zen". You need to be the focal point, not the screen.

3. Too late for you, but for anybody else with concerns about public speaking: you're going to need to do it sooner or later. Prepare now by joining your local Toastmaster chapter, and get the training and experience you need ahead of time.

> 1. Don't "give a speech". Instead, talk to a bunch of people that are interested in what you have to say. The distinction really matters, at least to me.

That definitely rings true with me. Having a conversation puts my mind into another mode entirely.

I don't think you need to go to Toastmasters or your local improv comedy group to learn how to talk. You just need to do it often.

Talk to everyone. People in elevators. Coffee shops. Your workplace. Anywhere you can find people you can engage with.

Sure, there are other ways to get better. But Toastmasters exists to do exactly this, and has a good track record at it.

You don't need to join a club to get help though. Shoot an email to a local club and ask to give a guest talk. They'll evaluate you and you'll get tons of constructive, actionable feedback you can use to improve.

Sure. But with Toastmasters, there are projects that force you to concentrate of other factors, such as structuring your speech or persuasion.

And there are people watching your speech with a critical eye (which I mean in a positive sense), ready to give you tips about problems you may not even be aware of.

Wow, that sounds cool. What's the topic?

As far as actually getting up and talking, all I can really say is that you should stay relaxed. Those people want to like you. They have chosen to come and listen to you because they know you have something interesting and exciting to tell them and they want to know more.

The best talks are the ones where the speaker is relaxed, confident, and speaks as if to a small group. You already have that experience so you know the sort of it's-just-the-5-us-us-here-talking feeling to aim for.

In terms of your slides. Remember that anytime the audience has to read a slide or make sense of a chart, they are not listening to you. It follows then that you should not have much text (if any) on your slides.

Your slides should only contain simple images supporting whatever point you wish to make during that part of the talk; simple charts (2D, no bling); or words written in a minimum of 60pt (sans serif font)

When testing them. Put them up on your laptop and look at them from 30 feet away. If you can't make out the detail, then neither will your audience during the real presentation.

Any real detail, data, background info, etc should be in a separate slide deck that you hand out or make available to download.

One book you might find interesting (I know I sure did) is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds [1].

Best of luck to you. I hope you have a great time

[1] http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0321525655/103-6148611-3957...

It has been my experience (and I do a lot of talks now, but in a completely different realm) that you can give a talk to ten people, or twenty-eight people, or forty-three people, but you cannot give a talk to two kilopeople -- at some point (seems the threshold is a hundred or a gross or somewhere around there) your perception goes from "N people" to "one audience".

I find it a lot easier to talk to one audience massing 150 tonnes than to talk to ninety people. At 90 people, there is still a tendency to try to pay some attention to each person. A sea of bodies is different, at least for me. My village-connectedness circuits hand everything over to my city-survival subassembly.

As for the rest: know your slides and know your stuff. Try not to know your words, if at all possible; it's way too easy to get creamed by a missing syllable, and you need to be a pretty darned good actor/orator to make a prepared script sound like human speech. Audiences like humans; they're not so big on bipedal assistive technology devices that sound like they're reading untrained vocabulary material.

This post has excellent advice: http://rustyklophaus.com/articles/20100627-HowToPracticeATec...

I wish I'd read it before completely bungling a presentation about Lua at a BarCamp. Make sure you've got hooking up your visual aids figured out first! I didn't, and it made me start off incredibly nervous.

Hey! Thanks! :)

Beta adrenergic receptor antagonists (beta blockers) are routinely used by people who have a physical reaction (shortness of breath, tachycardia) to public speaking. If the other techniques that people here are recommending are not enough to get you exactly where you want to be regarding comfort, it is reasonable to talk to your internist. It's worth noting that having a crutch like this can make a bigger mental impact than physical (you feel more confident because you believe the beta blockers will help keep you from messing up). Also, like a crutch, most people grow not to need beta blockers after some experience.

I'm not saying that you should immediately turn to medication, but since public speaking is more feared than death, I think it's only fair to mention something like beta blockers, confidence in which can help reduce the fear.

I can vouch for this, and if your need some social validation, I hear that Beta Blocker usage is rampant on the PGA tour, where an unwelcome twitch at the wrong time can cost thousands of dollars.

Practice is absolutely the best thing to do but this little trick worked for me in my early days so I thought I'd pass it on.

Get someone you're really close to like a best friend or a spouse and have them sit in the absolute middle of the audience (or in the middle of the area where you can make out faces). When you start the talk focus directly on them and give the speech as if you were talking to that one person.

Once you get a few minutes into the speech and you've gotten over the initial hump start looking around the audience and trying to connect to other people as well. But if you start to feel nervous again go right back to your "safe" person and focus on them for another couple minutes. Then repeat the process until you can connect with the entire audience and be calm doing so.

It sounds weird but it worked for me every time.

The one trick that always helps me:

When i get nervous i smile (even laugh internally) about the fact how nervous i am. It's not worth it. People come to have fun. Nobody hates you.

The other tricks are:

* Reduce slides to a minimum so you are in time for sure. Kill the boring stuff.

* Build up a story through the presentation. People want to hear storys not presentations. Explain Problems, Users, Solutions.

* Try to find calm points in the audience. People you maybe already know or you have spoken before. They will be your mirror to tell you that you are doing everything right. Look for people you are doing this talk for - eg Investors. They will be the ones mirroring to you when you go wrong. To repeat: Look at people and interact with them.

Last of all: You are going there because you are proud of what you do. So don't be scared, be proud. And good Luck!

+ What's it about?

+ Do you know your material?

+ How long is it for?

+ Are you explaining, lecturing?

+ What is the style?

If you know more about it than the audience, then say up front that you expect everyone in the audience to know more than you about various bits, and that you're simply there to share something on which you have some expertise. Starting with that tends to put an audience on your side, and emphasises that you acknowledge their expertise.

Depending on your answers to the questions, though, this might not be appropriate, but without more to go on I can offer no other advice.

Just for reference, I regularly speak to audiences of up to 500, and have several times spoken to audiences of up to 2000 and done live television.

As others have said, practice is essential--especially in front of other people or at least a video camera.

Also, become comfortable with silence. Standing front-and-center in a crowded room and staying quiet for even a couple moments can be terrifying at first--much more difficult than actually speaking in public. As a result, many inexperienced speakers end up rushing through their entire speeches, reciting word for word what they practiced without emotion or even an awareness of what they are saying, too afraid of silence to stop for even a moment.

In reality, such pauses do wonders in not only breaking up the cadence of your speech to grab the audiences attention, but also allowing you the opportunity to collect your thoughts and contemplate what points you want to make on your next topic or what points you need to add before moving on. Try forcing yourself to pause for a couple seconds as you put up each new slide.

Although I usually like to have the first few sentences of a speech planned out verbatim to get the ball rolling smoothly, I still make a point of just standing quietly for about 10 seconds after the introduction. It's enough to get me comfortable with the feeling of silence so that I'll be able to pause and collect my thoughts later on, and just long enough to make the audience curious and attentive--ideally causing everyone to look up and be alert as your start into your speech.

I know exactly how you feel.. This is my advice from my own experiences, research and seeking advice.

QUICK FIXES - Force yourself to practice 5-10 times a day. You will find natural confidence in the automacity you'll gain from the slides & the presentation being second nature after so much practice. Also see your powerpoint slides as safety mechanism - imagine if you had to do the talk without anything to refer to and keep your thoughts on track!

- Bach's Flower Rescue Remedy - OK I'm a bit of a hippie - but this is a natural remedy for fighting anxiety that many people swear by.

- Beta blockers - I've never tried them, and if you've never tried them - I'd recommend giving a dose a trial run before the presentation day just so you know how you will be feeling.


- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy - although the psychologist will basically tell you to 'ride out the anxiety' and counter any negative thought with realistic positive thoughts. This takes time and a lot of exposure to the feared situation to become effective.

- Toastmasters. Proven, tested and true. If you get to 1 meeting a week, you would probably end up giving up the beta blockers pretty soon (if you do decide to try them).

I've been pitching quite a bit recently to various sizes of audience (although nothing as big as 2000 people) but meykey take away (perhaps unsurprisingly) has been practice, a lot.

More specifically:

- Practice in front of a mirror, this really helped me focus on my body language (reduce arm waving, and feet shuffling and the like). It also made me realise I don't look like a complete idiot or anything when I speak, and I actually look perfectly normal, which was a big boost of confidence.

- When you get bored of practicing the full talk, do more rapid run-throughs, focussing solely on the key-points. For an ignite talk that might be just one word or phrase per slide. It's quite energising to blast through your talk like that, particularly just beforehand, and it really helped me remember the main points for each slide.

Good luck!

My first speaking gig scared the crap out of me. I was still in college and one of my professors had recommended me to someone on the managing committee for a large, private technology conference called TTI/Vanguard. They approached me with an idea but ultimately it was up to me to find out what to talk about. They gave me a 45 minute block of time (!!) but it was setup for about 20-30 minutes of talking then Q&A. The thing that really freaked me out was that every seat in the room (hundreds) was wired with a microphone. Anyone could buzz in, and was encouraged, at anytime to ask a question. The room was filled with people I had only read about - Nicholas Negroponte, Len Kleinrock, Aaron Swartz and others.

I wanted to decline it but it included a trip to Rome with first-class everything. I reluctantly accepted and flew out, writing some notes and thinking up my talk and making some slides on the flight. I did it wrong. I had all of my sentences more or less memorized (instead of just a few talking points) but then I got there and had the most unfluid talk you've ever heard. Lots of ums, fast talking.. the works. Fortunately people in the audience chimed in and asked questions. I say fortunately because this was actually a good thing! They asked for clarification about certain things, or even off-topic things, which broke me from my robotic train of thought where I was trying to replay a speech I had in my head and made it more into a conversation and into a more fluid talk. A series of questions from the audience diverted my talk from cloud computing stuff to an explanation on my usage of Twitter and what it was (this was a few years ago), but I was happy that my talk was progressing.

In the end the trip was amazing (dinner with Negroponte! http://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls/2663284169/in/set-7215760...) and I ended up randomly meeting Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter from Big Bang Theory). http://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls/2663383147/in/set-7215760...

I still dislike speaking in front of large audiences but people keep asking me for some reason. I did Ignite Atlanta (and spoke too fast as usual) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYDfjaWc3Mc a while back. At least now I have no sweat talking in front of smaller groups and that happens more often.

Funny thing is I also ended up making an Ask HN plea for speaking advice about it back then hehe.

I've only given one talk but it was similar to this for me, although with a much smaller audience. I had a 30 minute slot and breezed through my slides in maybe 5 minutes with a lot of "um" and fidgeting. In my nervousness, I said the phrase "super easy" ~20 times in that 5 minute timespan.

Luckily, people were genuinely interested in my topic and asked a lot of questions. I calmed down a lot when I had some crowd interaction and was able to make fun of myself with the "super easy" thing.

If you ask me, I bombed. But when it was all over with I felt like I couldn't wait to do it again.

Whenever I have to do this, I find it helps tremendously if I can socialize with my audience prior to the talk, as opposed to just getting a cold intro, and stepping up to the podium. 2000 people is a lot to socialize, but perhaps if you can get some time to chat with people in the front rows beforehand, it may calm your nerves.

The other suggestion is somewhat controversial, but a friend of mine mentioned the same problem and talked to his doc about it. He gave him a very low prescription anti-anxiety scrip. He takes it now before his talks and says it works magic. Unfortunately I don't recall the name of the drug, but it might be worth investigating.

..and..practice..a lot.

Beta blockers work for me. I took public speaking in college and passed with an A+, but, had to make an emergency visit to the shrink. If your a complete social phobic, as in my case, it may get worse where you avoid the meeting at the last minute from panic attacks. I went to a meeting the other day thinking I was going to talk with 1-2 people and ended up giving a lecture to 20+ people. Thank God I loaded up on Propanelol and a couple of Klonipin about 25 minutes before hand -- spoke 2 hours without a hitch.

I've found that when preparing for a presentation, writing out my entire speech (in spoken language), and rehearsing from that, THEN boiling it down to keywords on index cards, helps tremendously in organizing your thoughts, determining the level of details needed etc. But this has probably more to do with speech technique than keeping your nerves under control.

Once you're on stage, locate a few spots in the back of the room - not cameras, not persons, and keep your eyes at them. Don't look at people, it's confusing at best.

Remember that the audience wants you to succeed. Watching an uncomfortable speaker makes an audience uncomfortable as well, so they will be on your side when you take the stage.

Rehearse like crazy and visualize yourself speaking to the large crowd. It's possible the stage lighting will be so bright that you won't be able to see the audience when you present. If that is the case, visualize your most successful practice and pretend you are speaking to that smaller group again.

I was in your same situation a year ago and what helped me was literally ignoring the fact that so many people were there. Speaking in front of a dozen people is no different than 2000. The streaming aspect shouldn't bother you either because you see no difference. If I were you I would stop focusing on the crowd and more on the presentation. You are speaking in front of 2000 people for a reason, give them a good show!

Just like with hacking, it's all about practice.

When you're programming for the first time, you have no idea what you're doing.

When you give a talk in front of an audience for the first time, you have no idea what you're doing.

If you've done it 5 or 10 times before, it becomes less intimidating: you know what to expect, and while you may not be 100% confident in your abilities, you will be confident enough to give a decent talk without feeling too embarrassed.

Actually, it's not that different (to talking to 20 people). You'll probably be interrupted less often and it may be harder to make eye contact with people, but if you've already given talks then you're way more than half way there.

So instead of being worried, think of it as a chance to give a really excellent talk where you're going to be able to say what you want with less interruptions. Go for it (and good luck :o)

We literally just posted almost the same thing at the same time...weird.

Great minds...

Thanks for the great advice all of you. Just sitting here, reading it all & following the links gave me a massive boost of confidence. I've started my outline, wrote my 'story' & will be practicing every day starting tomorrow. I just found out that the slides need to be in next week so while my anxiety levels have decreased, my stress levels have not. Fingers crossed.

step 1) Watch this motivational video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wS5xOZ7Rq8

step 2) It's an Ignite talk. So ignore most of the advice from the video. Assuming you are presenting something you are passionate about, just let that come through.

I've organized Ignite Salt Lake and Ignite at the Velocity Conf. I've watched 100s of Ignite talks. If you search, you'll find lots of good advice on how to prepare the slides and yourself.

My advice map out a coarse flow for the slides, practice a few times with the timer, adjust the slides, maybe do that once more, then make the slides as artistic as you can/will and run through it a few more times, preferably in front of some people and make the final tweaks.

15 seconds can be both longer and shorter than you expect. Practicing with the timer will make all the difference.

On the night of, just go for flow and avoid dead air (though a pregnant pause can be used to great effect).

The number of people in the audience is irrelevant.

Worst case it will be over in 5 minutes.

My trick is to spot someone in the audience, preferably in the middle who is really interested and maintain eye contact with that person, it increases the level of comfort 10X and makes you feel less conscious about others in the room. Keep changing the "chosen one" every few minutes or so.

Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance! Also, be yourself and remember not to talk too fast.

> remember not to talk too fast.

1000x Yes. The first couple of run throughs, talk so slow it's painful. Just drag things out and speak very clearly. Record it and listen, it'll probably be faster than you expect.

Also, try dividing your speech up and using a lap timer - sometimes when you go back to work on rough spots and hit certain sections more than others, it messes with your pacing.

And be relaxed, but enunciate! Auditoriums and microphones are less forgiving on the rounded edges of speech.

"remember not to talk too fast"

This is so true, how many time I found myself speaking nearly two times faster in frond of peoples. Take your time, walk, Look people in the eyes, interact with the audience and

Take your time.

One that works well for me: give the talk (ahead of time) in front of a bunch of people you respect. When you totally screw that one up and look like an idiot, you'll be so afraid of a repeat performance on game day that you'll be able to find and fix most of your problems.

You might be surprised how much good ten deep, slow, focused breaths can do your nerves.

c1sc0, I started writing a comment here at around 9:00 this morning. After the fourth paragraph, I decided it should likely be a blog post.

So (pardon the redirect) you'll find almost everything I can contribute to this topic here: http://www.ideasonideas.com/2010/11/how-to-%E2%80%9Crock%E2%...

I hope this is helpful, and now I really need to get back to work! (Funny how a single comment can derail one's morning.)

I know I'm a bit late, but this is what I'll be presenting next week at LeWeb: http://www.coldwaterswimming.com

One of my professors swears that "curling his toes" before he speaks calms his nerves. He's a little out there, but you never know.

Is anyone involved with Toastmasters society? I have been considering joining for a while now.

Btw, just about every professional performer, especially popular musicians, pop beta blockers.


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