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Public Speaking: Developing Stage Presence
I was recently asked what it’s like to be a Product Designer at Percolate. As I reflected on this, one thing I thought was interesting was that designers are asked to present our products at company events. The first time I was asked to present was at our Client Summit in November 2013. In that moment I immediately had a flashback to my first college design critique, where I found myself standing in front of the class with 30+ people staring at me, waiting for me to speak. My heart was pounding and my palms started to sweat. I imagine this is a feeling many of you had when you began public speaking?
Over the last couple of years I’ve been on stage three times. Once at the New Museum in 2013, then again at Digital Dumbo in 2014, and most recently at The Times Center in 2015. Each of these events required something different from me as a public speaker, and helped me grow and develop my stage presence in unique ways. Along the way, I’ve learned some important lessons to help you get ready for your next speaking engagement (I also have a cure for presentation jitters that I will talk about later as well).
Let’s look at how I developed my stage presence:
Taking Control of My Nerves
Our first Client Summit back in 2013 was the first speaking engagement I had of that caliber. That day in November I spoke to an audience of 100+ people at the New Museum. In this presentation I walked through a demo of our Marketplace product.
Leading up to the event I was really nervous about speaking clearly and slowly so the audience would understand our product. I decided the best way for me to deal with my nerves was to be prepared, so I powered up Google docs to write my script. Once I had this in a good place I started to rehearse. I did a few practice rehearsals with the team and I made my husband and our friends listen to me until they were blue in the face. During these sessions the main piece of feedback was that I was speaking too fast. I was letting my nerves dictate my pace.
When it came to the day of the Summit I was still rehearsing from my script until I got a piece of advice from Dom: “You’re the expert, tell them what you know.” It continues to stick with me, even today. It was a reminder that while I was new to presenting, I wasn’t new to speaking about design. I put my script to one side for the final few hours and focused on the product details I would be presenting.
I did pretty well looking back at this now. My delivery was in control, but my presentation came off too impersonal. While memorizing the script helped calm my nerves, it also made me sound robotic. I came away knowing that I needed to be more relaxed on stage next time.
Moving from Scripts to Prompts
I was asked to speak at dd:IMPACT in 2014. The event was created as a half-day conference to explore digital design trends. I focused my presentation around the 7 principles that guide product design at Percolate.
The above image is a slide from the deck I presented. It’s a scene from the movie ‘Hoosiers’ where high school coach Gene Hackman is giving his team at pep talk before a state championship game. Hackman tells the team what they need to do to win. This image was the perfect prompt to tell a story about how good design can coach users. I was asking the audience to consider if their product designs did a good enough job to help users understand the actions they can take.
I found the tactic of using visual prompts helped me be a more relaxed and conversational presenter. It really took the pressure off and helped me to loosen up and let my personality shine through. To further this thought, I think you’ll like this analogy from MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey’s in his piece An Introvert’s Guide to Better Presentations. The passage that stuck with me the most was this.
The next step is to realize that those hundreds of pairs of eyes aren’t there to kill you, but to learn from you. They’re not lions and you’re not a zebra separated from the pack, they’re all monkeys and you’re the prettiest monkey and they desperately want you to tell them where the best bananas are located that will turn them into pretty monkeys as well.
You’re a pretty monkey, and you know where all the bananas are. That’s what I tell myself before I go on stage to hundreds or thousands of people. I really do. It makes me laugh and it calms me down. If that sounds too ridiculous, instead repeat to yourself something like: “I’m here because everyone wants to hear my story. I’m just a person on stage sharing lessons with other people. That’s all this is, and it’s going to be great.
Matt’s point here is not revolutionary, but its something we easily forget when our nerves kick in. It’s a good reminder that the audience is here because we have something to share with them and they want to hear what we have to say.
Own Your Posture
Fast forward to last month. We’re at the Times Center for the 2015 Client Summit with 300+ guests and dozens of my co-workers in attendance. This was the biggest stage I’ve been on so far. My presentation would explain how Percolates’ new software architecture would solve for the challenges marketers were facing from having to manage an ever-increasing number of digital channels. The products I spoke about were some of the most sophisticated ones we took to the stage that day.
In order to get all the presenters ready we held multiple rehearsals at a mock venue with members from design, marketing, sales and our co-founder, Noah. Each of these rehearsals helped refine the story I was telling and my behaviours as a presenter.
During our last rehearsal, Yuanbo Liu from our sales team gave me a great piece of feedback. She noted a nervous behavior of mine was swaying back and forth as I spoke. Yuanbo suggested that instead of swaying take a step forward or to the right, so it looks purposeful.
That night when I got home I dug up an old Ted talk by Amy Cuddy about how Your body language shapes who you are. Amy discusses how ‘power posing’ — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect chemical levels in the brain, and could even increase our chances for success.
This was really helpful because it was such a simple action. Before I took to the stage I reminded myself to own my posture. It really soothed my jitters and improved my stage presence.
The old adage practice makes perfect applies perfectly to public speaking. The more you do it, the better you get. Make sure you surround yourself with a mix of disciplines to get diverse feedback that helps you grow.
Last but not least, don’t let your nerves stunt your growth as a public speaker. Keep at it. From here on out, I know I’ll take every public speaking engagement that comes my way. I’ll be sure to come off every stage, big and small, and enjoy that exhilarating feeling of sharing my passion for designing products.