Your First Speaking Engagement

Updated: May 10, 2020

Sooner or later you will have to speak to an audience on a particular subject for longer than a couple of minutes. The format may vary — a presentation, a panel, or a facilitating role. It could be super casual, maybe a fireside chat, or just a mixer where you are in a Q&A session, giving answers to questions.  It could also be super professional, where leaders in your industry for a period of time will listen to you speak. It is a big deal.

Irrespective of whatever format, your very first speaking engagement can be very scary, and the imposter syndrome can come alive during this time, in a way you have never experienced before. I’m writing this post to share my experiences with you, in hopes that you are able to relate to them, and that you have the resources and knowledge in one place to power through the experience in style.

I’ll say very quickly, I’m not an expert at this. However, a few things have helped me handle the few public speaking opportunities I’ve had. The irony is, I can't actually remember my very first speaking engagement. It isn’t really clear to me.

For most, it likely happens organically. You speak to your team in groups, to leadership, to executives, and you get comfortable speaking at length about a subject matter without feeling acutely aware of yourself or what you're saying. However, when you have to speak at a more professional event, potentially televised, with subject matter experts in the room, it is normal to feel a little inadequate. But feeling inadequate doesn’t mean you’re inadequate. One thing that helps me quiet out the noise is the fact that I know, asides the nerves, and anxiety, that I have something to say.

One thing that helps me quiet out the noise is the fact that I know, asides the nerves, and anxiety, that I have something to say.

This helps me stay centered on the message.

I’ll share 5 high level tips I think will help. They sound basic, but they have helped me, and I hope they will help you.

1. Prepare for It:

I know this sounds obvious, but it is important to highlight. A significant percent of your anxiety could be because you don’t feel prepared. Some of that is just nerves, and the other part is legit. For the part that’s legit, be prepared. Anticipate difficult questions. Do dry runs with friends, and with folks who are a potential audience at your actual event. Research a few key data points ahead of time that you might use to support your message.

One thing that I have found useful particularly for presentations — depending on content — is to anticipate questions ahead of your event, even the really difficult ones. Most of the time, something similar will be asked. Then at least you expected it, and you have something to work with in response.

2. Wear Something Comfortable

Wear something comfortable, please. From clothes to shoes to jewelry.  This is really not the time to experiment with a new type of footwear or a dress you haven’t worn before. I think the key here is that when you are uncomfortable, it will show, and it will affect your performance.

Also, if you will be televised, popular advice is to avoid white, black or red and lean more towards blue. I also got feedback that overly patterned outfits will really show on air. I once wore black on TV though, and it wasn’t too bad. It looked like all the light in the room was consumed by my clothes, but it wasn’t too bad.

On the other spectrum, wear something you look good and confident in, and the trick is that will make you feel good, and make you more comfortable and confident.

3. Get There Early

Anxiety has a way of exponentially reducing our performance levels. Whatever will make you anxious leading to that day, you probably want to eliminate. The day of your event is not the day to cut it close with timing.

It helps to give plenty (maybe not too much room too), of wiggle room so you are not late. Running late will make you anxious and can get you off on a pretty rough start. You want to avoid unnecessary anxiety on the day.

4. Interact with People Just Before Your Talk

I see public speaking as a bit of an engine, so one thing that I’ve found helpful, is speaking with people just before my talk. In my mind it’s a prep for the actual thing.

Usually if you’re on a panel, the moderator will set up a pre-panel chat beforehand. This is very helpful to get comfortable with folks you eventually will be talking with on stage. Getting a sense of their energy and style and being comfortable I've found is a subtle but very important piece to being comfortable on the day.

5. Be Yourself

This one sounds cliché, but it is true. When I get nervous about public talks, I remember that I have something to say and most times I focus on that. I largely pretend the crowd or camera isn’t there, and just have a regular conversation with folks on the stage. With presentations, I imagine I'm talking to a small group of people (no matter how large the actual group is).

I’m quite an animated talker, and I keep that same energy when I talk to crowds. I think it is very important in these talks for your essence to come through, and that can be difficult depending on the content of what you are presenting, but being you is very key to being comfortable and just saying what you have to say. Lights, camera and people aside.

There are several tips and tricks I’ve tried, from power poses beforehand, to self-affirming words ahead of your talk. They have all helped in varying ways. But the one thing that particularly works for me, is that reminder to myself of the fact that “I have something to say”.

When imposter syndrome comes in and tells you all the ways you are inadequate and how you might embarrass yourself, be deliberate in focusing on your message. You have something to say, and you will say it. Everything else is a distraction.

You’re amazing, and you have something people want to hear. Now, go tell them.

I hope this helps.



Related Post: Doing The Work Is Half The Work


Recent Posts

See All

  Glossy White Pumps

Navigating Leadership as an African Woman