Gain confidence at public speaking

By Marc Littlemore
6 min read

I was shy as a teenager.

Really shy.

The sort of shy where I'd blush bright red if somebody I didn't know talked to me.

The sort of shy where I'd blush bright red if I knew them too!

Since my teenage years, the thought of having to get up in front of people and give a speech or presentation absolutely terrified me. I had to explain my university dissertation to my tutors and peers at 21 and I mumbled and sweated my way through that. I then managed to avoid public speaking for a long time. I became less shy over time but I still avoided talking to large groups. And then two things changed which gave me more confidence to start giving speaking to an audience.

Firstly, I got married in 2006. I spent 12 months prior to the big day preparing for my groom's speech. It filled me with fear but I practiced it so often that I knew most of the points by heart. As the groom, you have the obvious advantage that everyone is on your side and they want you to give a great performance. I gave the heartfelt speech and it was incredibly well received. That was the first inflection point which made me think I might enjoy public speaking.

Althought I'd enjoyed talking at my wedding, I carried on with my role in the games industry for many years without much thought of public speaking again. In 2013 I decided to change my technology career and moved to work at the BBC. This was the second inflection point. This is when I decided that enough was enough.

I wanted to become a confident public speaker.

How to get better at public speaking

So what's the secret? How did I go from becoming a nervous wreck to a confident public speaker?

It was a simple difference. I said "Yes!" A lot.

I decided that my job move was a chance to reinvent myself. Every time the engineering manager asked for somebody to share their work with the team. I said "Yes!" When there was a time to present my team's work to the wider department. I said "I'll do it!" Learning sessions about technologies I knew a little bit about? "Yes! I can talk about that."

I'm sure everyone became bored of having me sharing my thoughts over and over again but it did wonders for my confidence. I was really nervous before each one but over time, I realised that I was getting better at speaking to an audience.

So what should you do to gain more confidence?

Start thinking that you can be good at public speaking. Most people will want your talk to succeed and to hear you speak. The floor is yours so allow yourself to believe that you can do it. The crowd will be on your side even if your brain is telling you they're not.

Most of us don't have speech writers so we have to write the talks ourselves. Start by deciding on your main theme and then create an outline of the points you'd like to make. Consider using the rule of three when grouping your points. It creates a good rhythm to your presentation.

I don't like to write out every word I'm going to say. I use my outline to remember key points and I'm now confident enough to talk about each section. If your confidence won't let you do this yet, write out more of your speech but try to avoid just reading it to the audience. Take a look at it a few days later and edit it. Try short and snappy phrases. Long and winding speeches can quickly become boring.

Zach Holman has a great site called which has a helpful section on outlining your talk.

I recently hosted a 300+ person online conference with some BBC colleagues. I gave the welcome speech and introduced 3 of our speakers, including a senior director at the BBC. I had so many compliments that I was a natural at presenting and public speaking. But do you know why that is?

I make it look natural because I practice. A lot.

Prior to the big day, I probably practiced my speech to nobody at least 10 times. Don't rehearse the speech in your head. Speak the words out loud like you're presenting to a room full of people. Do this at least 5 to 10 times. You'll quickly realise what works and what doesn't. Remove or rewrite any words or sentences that trip you up.

If you have the time, it's useful to record yourself speaking. Record your talk using a microphone, maybe the ones on your headphones, but your computer microphone will work just as well. Recording the speech will give you an idea of how you sound when you speak. You'll spot the pauses and the "ums" and "ahs". Try and spot what works and what doesn't and edit your speech accordingly.

Once you've practiced then it's time to share with an audience. This could be your partner or best friend first. Ask for honest feedback from them. Even if they're not familiar with the content they can comment on the delivery. Try and share it with a few close colleagues. I've shared my talks with my team of 9 people before giving it at our internal conferences. If anything isn't clear then they can tell you.

If your speech is accompanied by a set of PowerPoint or Keynote slides, use these as prompts to help you to remember what to say. Don't fill them with all of your speech and read off them. Key phrases are much better than a list of bullet points. Use your outline that you wrote earlier and with all that practicing you did, it'll spark a reminder of this part of your story.

This will be hard for the first few talks but if you come across as your confident self that I know you are, the audience will warm to you immediately. You are the expert in front of a crowd of people who want to hear what you have to say. Remember that. If you can inject a bit of humour into the talk then that's helpful to put both you and the crowd at ease. But remember it's not a stand-up comedy gig!

Try and make some eye contact with your audience. Choose a few people in the group and imagine you're just talking to them. Spending the talk looking down at your notes, or even worse, holding them in front of your face, is not what the audience want. Don't use looking at your notes as a defence mechanism.

Take a deep breath before you start. Remember to speak slowly and don't rush it. And remember that things might go wrong. You might forget a section of your talk. You might introduce something before you wanted to. The technology might go wrong. These are all part of public speaking. Shrug it off and carry on. It'll be better next time. I know you'll be brilliant anway!

I hope this article helps you to gain a bit more confidence. Go out and speak publicly to others and please say "yes" more when the opportunity arises.

Marc Littlemore avatar

I'm Marc Littlemore.

I’m a Senior Software Engineering Manager who works with high performing development teams and loves to help to grow other software leaders and engineers.


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