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Public Speaking: How to Elevate the Confidence Level

5 min read

Professional public speakers are always confident in their delivery. For the rest of us mere mortals, the confidence level can be boosted by our ability to maintain eye contact and demonstrate a good posture. Of course, it also helps to avoid any speech fillers as best as possible.

Even for software engineers, public speaking is not avoidable. Obviously, it does not always mean giving a TED talk or presenting in a conference. Sometimes, it is in the form of pitching an idea during the sprint planning, running the demo of the current project, or representing the team in a company all-hands meeting. In all these cases, not only the content needs to be good, the packaging must be also solid. One way to achieve that is by ensuring that the confidence level during such a delivery is maximized.

In the western culture, making eye contact while establishing a verbal communication is very important. It is considered rude to talk to someone without looking at the person. As such, in the context of a 1:1 meeting, it is a good practice to maintain eye contact, as long as you do not go to the extremes (looking away too often, or another equally worse play, continuously staring at the other person).

For a group meeting, ensure that you hold a person’s eye until you complete the sentence (or a logical thought of what you want to say) before moving (gracefully) to another person in the group. Do not switch to quickly and obviously, avoid staring at a particular individual for far too long (that is creepy for sure!).

When presenting in a front of a big audience, ensure that you pay attention to all of them (but not at once). If possible, divide the audience into a few small groups. If the size of the audience is not that big, dividing it into just four quadrants should be sufficient. Then, rotate your attention to each quadrant every so often.

Whenever possible, do not look at the ceiling and do not look at the floor.

If you need to show some slides, do not look at the projected slides on the big screen. Also, while you may need to look at your laptop from time to time, do not do that too frequently.

If most people in the audience do not feel that you are trying to make eye contact, the connection between you and them will be broken pretty soon. Some of them will start checking their phone, working on their laptop, or doing something else. Consequently, this will have a negative impact on your delivery.

The same strategy applies to another aspect of your body language, your posture.

Do not sway. Do not rock back and forth. Do not walk around (e.g. on stage). Doing any of these things telegraphs a message to your audience that you are not comfortable being in front of them, as if you do not want to be right there, and you want to get out ASAP.

When you are in danger, you want to reduce the attack surface by making yourself small. It is our natural instinct. Without realizing it, you might put your hands in your pocket. Or perhaps doing another similar thing which indicates that you want to switch to that fetal position. By doing this, usually unconsciously, you implicitly tell your audience that you do not feel safe and hence why the switch to that defensive mode.

You can say out loud that you are extremely excited with the opportunity of presenting your favorite subject. However, if your eye contact is not proper and your posture is not convincing, they easily betrays your (bold) statement. People do not only hear what you say, they also pay attention to your body language.

It is equally useful to boost your confidence level by reducing or even eliminating all form of speech disfluency, particularly speech fillers. We tend to unconsciously introduce speech filters whenever we want to buy some extra time as we arrange our thoughts. I am sure you heard a variant of "I’m - like, a bit upset about it" or "This will - you know, improve our product", where the utterances such as like and you know (and many more: huh, ehm, well, etc) serve no purpose at all.

Without any speech fillers, the audience will have the impression that you are very articulate, that you can carefully choose the perfect words for the perfect subject.

How do we ensure that we make proper eye contacts, maintain a good posture, and avoid speech fillers? Here is a simple 3-step plan.

First, find a great presentation on the subject that you can relate to. Perhaps it is one of the thought-provoking TED talks, inspiring conference keynotes, Steve Job’s product launch, etc. Watch the presentation carefully and pay attention to all the three points I mentioned above: eye contact, posture, speech fluency. I recommend watching it multiple times and focus on one thing each time.

Second, pick a favorite topic of yours and design a short talk for the topic (5 minutes should be sufficient). After that, and this is likely the hardest part for most of us, record yourself doing that presentation, easily done using your laptop’s web cam or your phone’s camera. Review the recording and observe various moments where your eyes are not looking at the camera (not making eye contact), your posture reveals the feeling of being uncomfortable, and you sprinkle your sentences with the phrases as such like, literally, uhm, all the time.

Third, pick which one you would like to improve the most ("I want to eliminate speech filler"). Now, do the same talk: delivery, recording, review. While doing the delivery, make sure you are a bit of aware of the intended improvement. Do this a couple of times. Rinse and repeat.

If you are doing this seriously, watch your most recent video and the first video, compare them and you should witness a significant difference in your confidence level.

Happy practicing and have a lot fun!

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