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How to overcome common public speaking barriers

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Almost every time I speak at an SEO event someone from the audience seeks me out after the session to share that they would like to start speaking as well.

When I smile and say ‘you absolutely should,' this clearly brilliant person will typically explain that the very thought of taking a stage makes them nervous. And while stage fright is a valid consideration, if public speaking is a career ambition, then I would use this blog to explore ways that you move closer to this goal at your own pace.

Common reasons for public speaking hesitation

Speaking almost entirely anecdotally, but based on numerous conversations that I’ve had over the years, the most common public speaking worries I’ve heard are:

  1. I don’t have anything to talk about

  2. My topic isn’t unique

  3. I don’t have any experience

  4. I’m painfully shy

  5. People don’t know who I am

While speaking at conferences or events is not an essential requirement for career growth, if you are interested in, but hesitant about speaking in public, here are my recommendations for overcoming some of these common reservations.

What if I don't have anything to talk about?

This is unlikely. If you've ever trained a colleague or client on a set of tools or tactics, then you have something to talk about. If you have a go to method that works for every client, then you have something to share. If you’ve done some extensive research on a particular topic - for a client, yourself, or your team - then you have something to share. If you’ve ever fallen down a rabbit hole and lived to tell the tale, then you have valuable insights to impart.

The conference presentations that I have had the best feedback on were inspired by:

  • Blogs that I converted into decks

  • Client case studies

  • Topic research

  • Successful Twitter threads that I converted into decks

  • Tried and tested client implementation methods

  • Podcast conversations

  • Topics requested from the organizer

  • Addressing an FAQ

Using content that has proven to be engaging in other forums as the basis for your talks puts you on firm footing when choosing a conference topic. You know that the core content here will connect with your audience so you can spend time shaping the format of the talk and making sure that your delivery is solid.

What if my topic isn’t unique?

There are two ways to approach this.

First option, don’t worry about it. Fun fact, I practiced kungfu for about ten years. One week when the instructor was out, he had one of his top students lead the lesson. We did the same exercises that we had done every week but the student explained it in his own way, from his perspective.

On that day, I learned loads.

We were doing the same work, but the phrasing suddenly made everything more clear. If you are explaining the topic in your own words, sharing your own personal experience, with the express purpose of genuinely helping someone else understand it better, then you are almost certainly adding to the overall understanding of the topic. Don't worry about whether it's "new" or not, just explain it in your way.

Option two is to lean into the fact that everyone says the same thing. If a topic has been done to death, then have a think about how you can flip it on its head, dispel a commonly held myth, add some context (and by context I mean stats) to what everyone assumes to be true, or test a common assumption at scale.

What if I don’t have any experience?

First things first, remember that everyone starts here. This can seem difficult to overcome, but in actuality there are a few different places where you can hone your oratory skills before you take to the stage professionally. Skills around projecting your voice, crafting a story, or making a case for an argument are incredibly transferable.

There are often opportunities to stand up and speak with intent in your day to day and professional life. Look for chances to hone your skills in:

  • Team meetings & training

  • Client pitches

  • School presentations

  • Business networking sessions

  • Place of worship or leading prayer/meditation

  • DIY Video Tutorials or Looms

  • Sports coaching

  • Job Interviews

  • Wedding & Ceremony Speeches

  • Poetry readings

  • Drama, theater or dance

If you decide to practice your presentation skills in one of these venues, prepare and plan for the main benefit of each occasion. For instance, a team meeting is likely to get a few questions, so this is a great place to practice audience Q&A’s. If you are reading a text aloud, as in a prayer or poetry reading setting, this is a place where you can practice how you speak i.e. your pace, diction, and projecting.

Once you have honed your skills in a space where you feel comfortable, you can try out some low pressure speaking engagements while you steel your nerves.

What if I’m painfully shy?

Three of my favorite SEO conference speakers have said that they used to be terrified to speak in public. It’s ok to go at your own pace, it’s ok to have nerves, it’s ok to have a go and then decide that public speaking is not for you.

My advice for those who want to know how to overcome public speaking hesitance is to start with smaller, lower stakes activities.

Start with video conferences & webinar panels

With virtual and video conferences, you can record your talk ahead of time and send it in. This means that you can record your session in your own time, re-record if needed and share it with the organizers when you're ready. No audience and no pressure to get it perfect the first time.

Script your talks

I am not someone who is able to script a talk - I use bullet points but not a super tight script. However I know many speakers who script their entire sessions to create something really precise. This can work well in combination with an online presentation to make sure that you have support where you need it and to help quell any nerves and can also be helpful for those presenting in a second language.

Try podcasting

As a podcast host and regular guest on SEO podcasts, I can tell you that many podcasts don’t include a video version, of course, some do, but many do not. In this scenario, you can join via audio and take some time to concentrate on your vocal delivery referencing your notes as required.

What if No one knows who I am

This is the case for almost everyone at some point, and that’s ok. Just because you’re not a big name (yet) doesn't mean that you aren’t an expert in your field. Remember that you know your stuff and that is most important.

If it's your very first time speaking at an event it's totally fine to tell people that on social and on the day. You will be amazed how supportive people are.

Where to get support for public first time conference speaking

Being a first time public speaker isn’t always easy but don't be afraid to ask for help. Though I have offered some solutions here, this isn’t to say that the challenges aren’t real and present.

Where can you get support for public speaking? Here are a few places worth checking.

Check with your event organizers

As a first time speaker, some events will offer extra support, training and mentorship. This is standard practice for Brighton SEO. Other organizers will give you resources like instructions, guidelines, or videos. Read them thoroughly as they will help you a lot.

Reach out to 'public speakers' in your network

If the organizers do not offer direct support, I then highly recommend asking for top tips from someone you know who regularly presents ideas to groups of people. This can be someone who is a 'public speaker', but you may also know a few people with transferable public speaking skills like:

  • Teachers, professor, or instructors

  • Sales people who pitch regularly

  • Tour guides

  • Scout leaders

  • Religious leaders

  • Entertainers and musicians

Famous or not, each of these folks will have tips and advice for how to convey an idea to a crowd.

Don’t let nerves stand in your way

To be nervous about public speaking is natural, especially if it’s something that you don’t normally do. But don’t let nerves hold you back from speaking if it’s something that you want. There are lots of different paths to getting there, so find a place that works for you and make a start.


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