Some people say I talk a lot – but I guess it depends on the context.
Certainly, for many years, I’ve been fairly comfortable about standing up in front of people and explaining things. Whether it’s teaching a course, leading a workshop, presenting at a conference, or preaching at a church, it all has that same “I’m talking, and people are looking at me” feeling. I totally understand why people get nervous about it, and still have a certain about of terror that I suffer from before getting up to present. It doesn’t stop me doing it – I would happily present all the time, despite the fear factor.
It’s almost a cliché, but the biggest advice I have for new speakers is to realise that the people in the room do actually want to hear what you have to say. They don’t want you to fail.
…but there’s more to it than that.
I can present on just about any topic, so long as I have time to prepare. That preparation time is NOT in creating an effective talk (although that’s part of it) – it’s in getting to know the subject matter well.
Suppose I’m giving a talk about Columnstore indexes, like I just did at the PASS Summit. By all means, I want to craft a story for my presentation, and be able to work out which things I want to communicate through that story. If slides will work, then I’ll need to create them. If demos will work, then I’ll need to plan them too. But most of all, I want to get myself deep into Columnstore. I want to read everything there is on the subject. I want to create them, alter them, explore the DMVs about them, find ways to break them, and generally immerse myself in them. That way, I can speak confidently on the topic, knowing that I’m quite probably the most qualified person in the room to be up the front. I want to be explaining concepts that I know intimately.
When people ask questions, there’s no guarantee that I’ll know the answer. At the end of my talk at the PASS Summit, someone asked me if I’d tried using columnstore indexes in a particular way, and I had to say no. She went on to tell me what she’d found, and it was interesting and piqued my curiosity for an area I hadn’t explored. Would I have been thrown if she’d asked me during the session, in front of everyone else? No – not at all. Because I felt comfortable with the depth of my knowledge.
This applies just the same if I’m preaching in a church. If I’m preaching on a section of Galatians, I want to know that section backwards. I want to know the rest of the chapter, the rest of the book, what the rest of the Bible says on the matter, how it has applied in my own life, and what other people say on it too. I want to have a thorough picture of what God is saying to me, and to the rest of the church, through that passage.
When I get stuck in my words, and stumble in some way, I need to know the topic well. I will have a bunch of sound bites that I’ve rehearsed, and expect to explain things using particular phrases. But those are the things that can disappear from my head when the nerves strike. My safety net is the deep knowledge of the subject, so that I can find a different way of explaining it.
I don’t like giving word-perfect speeches. The idea of talking from a script that I need to stick to exactly doesn’t work for me – I get too nervous and wouldn’t be able to pull it off (although one day I will give stand-up comedy a try, which means having well-crafted jokes that need to be word-perfect to work). Knowing the material is way better than knowing the words, and for me is way less stressful.
My advice to anyone is to get into public speaking. It’s a great way of stretching yourself. But do get into your topic as deeply as you can. If you’ve looked at something from a variety of angles, you will be able to explain to anyone.