#111 - Teach the Geek to Speak: Public Speaking for Technical Professionals - Neil Thompson

 

 

“The people who are the communicators are the ones visible within companies. Just being technically proficient is not enough. You have to be an advocate for yourself."

Neil Thompson is the founder of Teach the Geek and a public speaking coach. In this episode, Neil explained the importance of public speaking for technical professionals. Neil shared tips and advice on we can start and improve our public speaking skills. We also discussed some common challenges when speaking publicly and tips on how to overcome them. Towards the end, Neil shared more tips on storytelling, presenting data, doing virtual presentation, and presenting at large events.  

Listen out for:

  • Career Journey - [00:06:43]
  • Importance of Public Speaking - [00:10:25]
  • Tips to Start Public Speaking - [00:11:52]
  • Challenge 1: Lack of Confidence - [00:14:44]
  • Challenge 2: Lack of Expertise - [00:16:27]
  • Challenge 3: Language Barrier - [00:17:59]
  • Challenge 4: Past Trauma - [00:19:36]
  • Filler Words - [00:20:52]
  • Maintaining Eye Contacts - [00:22:36]
  • Recording Video - [00:24:28]
  • Body Language - [00:25:33]
  • Getting Feedback - [00:26:44]
  • Storytelling - [00:27:52]
  • Presenting Data - [00:29:22]
  • Managing Presentation Time - [00:30:33]
  • Virtual Presentation - [00:31:48]
  • Conference and Big Events - [00:32:37]
  • Practising and Opportunities - [00:34:06]
  • 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:36:32]

_____

Neil Thompson’s Bio
After one too many failed presentations, Neil Thompson, an engineer, knew he had to improve. He did so, and now he works with technical professionals like himself to improve their communication skills. He hosts the Teach the Geek podcast, interviewing technical professionals about their public speaking journeys. He is also author of the book, Teach the Geek to Speak: a No-fluff Public Speaking Guide for STEM Professionals.

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Quotes

Importance of Public Speaking

  • Typically, the people who are the communicators are the ones who are visible within companies. You don’t want to be the engineer sitting in his or her cubicle mad, because somebody else got the promotion and pay raise you thought you deserved.

  • You thought that just being technically proficient was enough, but it’s never been enough. You have to be an advocate for yourself. Because not as if the decision makers are looking at you all the time to figure out what your career progression should be. You have to be the person who’s driving that.

  • A great way to do that is by being adept at presenting in front of other people and just showing your expertise.

Tips to Start Public Speaking

  • Look for opportunities to do it. And then, once you are given those opportunities, give some thought as to the audience that you’re going to be speaking in front of.

  • One of the main reasons I ended up being quite sweaty by the end of the presentation is because I didn’t take into account what the people in the audience needed to know from me at the end of the presentation. I would just slap slides together, get up there, read them, and try to get out there as quickly as possible.

  • I’m a big fan of taking into account what these people need from you. Then you make sure that you have that type of information within your presentation.

  • Another thing that I would mention is timing. I don’t think a lot of people really give this as much credence as it deserves. It is really important to take time into account or else the agenda for that day is just going to go off the rails. So if you’re given 15 minutes to give a presentation, practice it so that not only that you finish within the 15 minutes, but that you leave a bit of buffer in the event that you say something during the presentation that you didn’t practice.

  • Another tip I would offer is to try to minimize the technical jargon that you would use amongst your colleagues. Especially if you’re talking to a non-technical audience. They may very well not understand what you’re talking about. They may not ask, and if they do not ask, that’s a bad sign. It’s a red flag because they may not even listen to your presentation in the first place. And if they do ask, well, now you’ve essentially wasted time in having them have to ask those types of questions. You could have used more commonly used words in your presentation to begin with, or at least explain what the technical jargon that you were using meant during the presentation.

Challenge 1: Lack of Confidence

  • You need to tell yourself that you are improving. Don’t tell yourself you suck. If you tell yourself you suck, you will. But if you tell yourself you’re improving, then you will. Something that I advise people to do before they give presentations is to actually visualize themselves doing well. It really helps to really put you in the frame of mind to actually do well.

Challenge 2: Lack of Expertise

  • There’s going to be people in the audience who aren’t experts either. And if they see you presenting and you’re not the foremost subject matter expert, it may give them the confidence to do it, too. You could be the catalyst for them to have the confidence to actually give presentations.

  • I wouldn’t let not being the number one expert in any field to stop you from doing presentations. There’s going to be a lot of people in the audience that are going to be similar to you, maybe even lower than you, so you’re an expert to them.

Challenge 3: Language Barrier

  • When you hear someone with an accent, you get the sense that, okay, this person’s first language isn’t English, and yet, they’re up in front of us talking, anyway. That takes a lot of bravery and a lot of courage. So, I think you’ll get a lot of respect from the people in the audience for doing that.

  • When it comes to being someone who’s speaking in a language that isn’t your native tongue, I would highly suggest speaking more slowly. Because of your accent, it might be difficult for the native speakers to understand you.

Challenge 4: Past Trauma

  • Public speaking is the number one fear of most people. And I think a lot of times the reason it is their number one fear is because they had one of those really bad experiences doing it.

  • It certainly will take some time, but especially, if you’re somebody who wants to gain visibility within a company, instead of thinking about the fear and the traumatic experience, think of what you’re going to get by improving your public speaking skills or your presentation skills. In most instances, that’s going to far outweigh the fear that you have.

Filler Words

  • Words like, “um, you know, so, and like”. These words are common in just your conversational language, but they can be distracting to people in the audience.

  • In the event that you are one of those people that use a lot of filler words, I highly suggest when you practice to actually record yourself so you can listen back and see how many filler words you use. So at least you know where your baseline is and what you need to do to improve. It’s very difficult to improve without having that sort of measurement.

  • When it comes to filler words, a reason to improve it is people who are distracted by them. If you minimize them, those people will listen. And then the people who weren’t all that bothered by them, they’ll listen anyway. So at least, you’ll get more people engaged in actually listening to what you have to say.

Maintaining Eye Contacts

  • When I was in Toastmasters, I was told that when you give a presentation, you should maintain eye contact with someone for three seconds. You don’t know how long three seconds is until you stare at somebody for three seconds.

  • What would happen to me is when I would do it, I would forget what I was going to say next, and then a whole bunch of ums and uhs would come.

  • What you would do to help with that is you don’t look at people’s eyes, you look at their eyebrows. They can’t tell the difference. At least for me, when I looked at eyebrows, it wasn’t as distracting as looking into people’s eyes.

Recording Video

  • With video, you get the audio too, so you’re able to listen back and hear all those filler words you used, but you’re also able to see yourself and see did you do anything during your presentation just physically that you wanted to improve on or that you actually liked.

Body Language

  • When it comes to the physical gestures, I think this is definitely person specific. There are definitely people that use a lot more hand gestures, and there are going to be people that are distracted by the hand gestures, and then there’s going to be people that want more hand gestures. When it comes to feedback, you can very well get conflicting feedback.

  • You have to run all feedback through your own filter and don’t feel like you have to implement all feedback that you get. Does it make sense to you?

Getting Feedback

  • I’ll usually just bring my camera phone and I record myself. So even if there’s no recording from the organizer from the event, I’ll have my own recording, so I can at least see myself or at least hear myself.

  • You can ask the people in the audience what did you like about what I did, and what do you think I can improve on? And as I mentioned, you use your own filter to then figure out what you want to prioritize getting better at.

Storytelling

  • Start with the end in mind. What do you want people to take away from your presentation when they leave? So you determine what your call to action is.

  • Once you do that, you figure out what points do you need to make that will funnel naturally into what that call to action is. And then when you figure out what those points are, you develop your introduction, which naturally feeds into the points, which feeds into the call to action.

  • I’m a big fan of starting with the end and then working backwards.

  • Storytelling is something that I didn’t think was appropriate for technical presentations when I started giving presentations. But I see it now as almost essential. Especially if you’re talking to a non-technical audience.

  • When I was a kid, I used to love it. But then, once you become an adult, for some reason, we move away from it. If you’re able to take your technical expertise or the technical data that you want to convey to people and put it into stories, it’s going to be more likely that they’ll remember what you have to say as opposed to just spitting out a bunch of dry data.

Presenting Data

  • Once you know what the type of audience you’re going to be talking to, that will help you in determining the level of what you go into when it comes to the data. But then not only that, but if you have slides and you have graphs and tables, you want to give those slides or those graphs and tables titles that naturally convey what you want the audience to take away from your presentation. What do they need to get out of that graph? What do they need to get out of that table? And give them a title that would convey that.

Managing Presentation Time

  • If you’re given 15 minutes, and I mentioned to finish within 14, you practice until you’re finishing consistently in 14 minutes. And then, as I mentioned, you then have that one minute to play with in the event that you say something during the presentation that you didn’t practice, which inevitably is the case.

  • Another way I would try to just keep track of time is just to know if you’re using slides when you get to the halfway point, what time are you at?

  • If you’re behind, then you got to quicken up with the other slides.

Virtual Presentation

  • You definitely want to be somewhere where it’s quiet, so to make sure that people actually hear you. You don’t want a distracting background, so make sure that your background is pretty plain. You don’t wanna people focusing on your background, not what you’re actually saying.

  • You want to make sure that the lighting is good. So if you’re going to give a presentation, make sure that the light is actually shining on you, not the other way around, or else it’ll just look like a shadow.

  • You want to make sure that your laptop is positioned so that you’re able to look into the camera, as opposed to looking at the screen. If you’re looking at the screen, it doesn’t look like you’re looking at the people.

Conference and Big Events

  • You definitely want to visualize success in those events because people are going to be able to see all of your physical manifestations of nervousness.

  • Even in the event that you are nervous, I see that as a sign that you actually care about what you’re talking about, and you’re interested in people really getting what you’re saying. If you’re not nervous, that’s probably a sign that you don’t care all that much.

  • Make sure that you’re looking at the audience as opposed to looking at your screen and looking at your slides.

Practising and Opportunities

  • You have to get out there and do it.

  • When it comes to getting better at giving presentations, you can listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, look at all the YouTube videos. But until you actually get out there and do it, you won’t get better. Practice makes progress.

  • It’s definitely great for networking. It’s great for even finding other opportunities that might be paid.

  • In the event that people actually want to hear what you have to say and are willing to give you money for it. Well then, now you have that opportunity to do what you actually like and get paid for it too.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom

  1. Be clear. If you’re somebody who is the manager of people, you definitely want to be clear about what you expect out of them and what you need them to do, so that there is no miscommunication.

  2. Be thoughtful. You also want to be thoughtful about what you say to them too, so that you don’t have to apologize later because you said something that perhaps they might be offended by.

  3. You also want to listen. You don’t want to be the person who’s just the talker, and your idea is the best idea and everyone just has to implement it. You want to listen to what other people have to say too. And once you do that, that actually informs your ability to be clear and to be thoughtful, too.

Transcript

[00:02:15] Episode Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello to all of you, my listeners and my friends. Welcome to the Tech Lead Journal podcast, the show where you can learn about technical leadership and excellence from my conversations with great thought leaders in the tech industry. If this is your first time listening to Tech Lead Journal, subscribe and follow the show on your podcast app and on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you’d like to support my journey creating this podcast, please subscribe as a patron at techleadjournal.dev/patron.

According to some research, public speaking was ranked the number one fear among the majority of people, even higher than death! I had my struggles with public speaking, too. And I’ve been trying to continuously improve it in the last few years. If you are someone who are struggling with public speaking, or want to further improve your public speaking skills, then today’s episode is for you.

My guest for today’s episode is Neil Thompson. Neil is the founder of the Teach the Geek and a public speaking coach. In this episode, Neil explained the importance of public speaking for technical professionals and the engineers. Neil shared tips and advice on how we can start and improve our public speaking skills. We also discussed some common challenges when speaking publicly and tips on how to overcome them. Towards the end, Neil shared some tips on storytelling, presenting data, doing virtual presentation, and presenting at large events.

I enjoyed my conversation with Neil, and I believe public speaking is an essential skill for all of us to advance in our career and build personal brand. If you find this episode useful, or you know someone who can improve their public speaking skills by listening to this conversation, please help me share it with them so that they can also benefit from listening to this episode. I really appreciate your support in sharing and spreading this podcast and the knowledge to more people. And before we continue the conversation, let’s hear some words from our sponsors.

[00:06:00] Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. Today, I have with me, Neil Thompson. He’s the founder of this brand, Teach the Geek. So if you heard about the name, Teach the Geek sounds very interesting. So Neil is actually helping a lot of people to do public speaking, including engineers. I think public speaking is something that maybe a lot of engineers have fears within themselves. So they want to do it, but somehow they couldn’t do it for whatever reasons. Today, we are going to cover this topic. How we can help engineers to become maybe braver, so to speak, to become much more confident in doing public speaking. So Neil, I’m really looking forward to having this discussion. Welcome to the show.

Neil Thompson: Thanks for having me.

[00:06:43] Career Journey

Henry Suryawirawan: So Neil, I always love to ask my guests to actually share their journey first. Maybe some kind of highlights or turning points that you think are interesting for the listeners to learn from you.

Neil Thompson: Sure. I became an engineer because my father said I should. I had no other ideas as to what I wanted to do after high school. I used to lie about that too because I was embarrassed by it. I noticed a lot of other people when they were asked that question, they had a lot more interesting answers. Maybe they played with Legos when they were kids. Maybe they were in a robotics club when they were in high school. I was not a member of any robotics club, and I don’t even recall playing with Legos all that much when I was a kid. But my father, I think, thought that just being an engineer would be helpful and just that it’s a stable career. So I did it. I became an engineer, like he said. And then he said, “Do a Masters”. And I said, “All right, I’ll do a Masters”. And then he said, “Do a PhD”. And I started a PhD, but I dropped out after a year. And the reason I dropped out is because at this point, I wasn’t just an 18-year-old going into college anymore. Now I’m 24 years old. It was six years later. And at some point, you have to start living for yourself and not for what other people want for you, your parents included.

So it was a year of the PhD program. I left it. I had to determine what I was going to do next. Luckily, I got a job as a research associate after seven months of looking after I left that PhD program. I did a lot of work in a lab as a research associate. A lot of experiments. A lot of writing of protocols and reports. There was no public speaking, no presentations to be done whatsoever, and I was not unhappy about that. I was quite happy about it, actually. All that work went on to my boss.

It wasn’t until that second job that I had as a product development engineer that I had to start giving presentations. When I first took the job, I didn’t have to do any presentations. And when I was interviewing for the job, I was not told about presentations. I thought I was going to be doing very similar work that I had done as a research associate. But a few months into the job, I was told I was going to be a project lead. What’s a project lead? The company was too cheap to hire project managers, so they pushed that responsibility onto the product development engineers. One of which was giving presentations in front of senior management on a monthly basis on project status. We’re talking CEO, CTO, CMO, C fill the blank O. All the Cs were in the audience giving these presentations. Let me tell you, my first few presentations were absolutely horrendous, Henry. I did not know it was possible to sweat that profusely from one’s body, but there I was doing exactly that. What made it even worse is that after the presentations, I get these questions that I thought I had answered during the presentation, but because I didn’t put my presentation in a way that these people could understand, now I’m getting these questions. I was already sweating. Now I’m sweating even more. It was just a sweaty mess altogether.

It wasn’t until my project got canceled that I realized that perhaps this is something I want to get better at. Giving presentations in front of people. And so I did. I joined Toastmasters. For those of you all that don’t know, it’s an international organization that helps people with their public speaking skills. It’s a great forum to practice. And then instead of avoiding giving presentations like I did with that first job, I actively looked for opportunities to give presentations. And basically, I took everything that I learned in becoming more effective in giving presentations, and I turned it into a course and I called it “Teach the Geek to Speak”. It’s geared towards people like myself, technical people who have to give presentations, especially in front of non-technical audiences. I realized that just having a course may not be enough. I wanted to offer more ongoing support. So earlier this year, I started a membership. In addition to the course, people who join, well, obviously they get the course, and they also get online community, and then also monthly calls so we can talk about all the issues that you’re having with your speaking. And that’s essentially where I’m at now.

[00:10:25] Importance of Public Speaking

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing your interesting story. I mean, not to mention also you have a podcast which also covers some of the interesting topics from other guests. Some could be related to public speaking, but some could be related to engineering as well. So, you mentioned that you learned from your experience, maybe the hard way, right? But tell us maybe the first thing. Why is it important for all engineers to start thinking about doing public speaking? What’s so special about this public speaking?

Neil Thompson: Typically, the people who are the communicators are the ones who are visible within companies. You don’t want to be the engineer sitting in his or her cubicle mad, because somebody else got the promotion and pay raise you thought you deserved. But you weren’t networked within the company. You weren’t visible. You weren’t talking to anyone. You thought that just being technically proficient was enough, but it’s never been enough. You have to be an advocate for yourself. Because not as if the decision makers are looking at you all the time to figure out what your career progression should be. You have to be the person that’s driving that. A great way to do that is by being adept at presenting in front of other people and just showing your expertise.

Henry Suryawirawan: So if we take a lot of software engineers, so my background is a lot more software engineering. A lot of software engineers when they start their job, they think their job is to just write code, right? And sit there, churning out stories after stories, and probably doing some demo. But that’s about it, right? They don’t think about public speaking. But there are opportunities, like you mentioned, when you had to present to your C levels or whatever that is.

[00:11:52] Tips to Start Public Speaking

Henry Suryawirawan: So maybe if you can give some kind of tips to those engineers who still think writing code is the only job for them, and they don’t have to do anything else like presenting. Maybe some tips how they should start thinking about doing this public speaking?

Neil Thompson: Well, look for opportunities to do it, for sure. And then, once you are given those opportunities, really give some thought as to the audience that you’re going to be speaking in front of. When I first started giving presentations, I think one of the main reasons I ended up being quite sweaty by the end of the presentation is because I didn’t take into account what the people in the audience needed to know from me at the end of the presentation. I would just slap slides together, get up there, read them, and try to get out there as quickly as possible. But I never got out of there as quickly as possible, because as I mentioned, I’d often would get questions afterwards I thought I had answered.

So I’m a big fan of really taking into account what these people need from you. When I was giving presentations in front of management, what I ended up doing was going to the senior management’s admins. It’s very difficult to get time with the senior managers because they’re busy. But if you go to their administrative assistants, they very well know what this person wants in a presentation. So you go and ask them, “What kind of information do I need to have in this presentation for your boss to pay attention?” Then you make sure that you have that type of information within your presentation. So that’s one thing.

Another thing that I would mention is timing. I don’t think a lot of people really give this as much credence as it deserves. But these are busy people. I mentioned that I had to give presentations in front of management, but it wasn’t just me. Every project that was going on within the company was being presented on. This was a full day affair. There’s presentation, after presentation after presentation. So it was really important to take time into account or else the agenda for that day is just going to go off the rails. So if you’re given 15 minutes to give a presentation, practice it so that not only that you finish within the 15 minutes, but that you leave a bit of buffer in the event that you say something during the presentation that you didn’t practice. So if you’re given 15 minutes, practice so that you finish within 14, so you have a minute to play with.

Another tip I would offer is try to minimize the technical jargon that you would use amongst your colleagues. Especially if you’re talking to a non-technical audience. They may very well not understand what you’re talking about. They may not ask, and if they do not ask, that’s a bad sign. It’s a red flag because they may not even listen to your presentation in the first place. And if they do ask, well, now you’ve essentially wasted time in having them have to ask those types of questions. You could have used more commonly used words in your presentation to begin with, or at least explain what the technical jargon that you were using meant during the presentation.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for those tips. So for those of you who want to practice more public speaking, maybe you can practice some of those tips that Neil just shared. I understand. I know from a few people that there are some challenges for people to start public speaking. So maybe if we can spend the next few minutes to actually cover some of these common challenges.

[00:14:44] Challenge 1: Lack of Confidence

Henry Suryawirawan: The first one is actually the very typical one. I don’t have confidence. Maybe since childhood, they are not taught do public speaking. They are not taught how to do presentation well, and they don’t like speaking as well. For some of us introvert, we don’t like public speaking. What kind of things that you can tell for people who are lacking of confidence?

Neil Thompson: You need to tell yourself that you are improving. Don’t tell yourself you suck. If you tell yourself you suck, you will. But if you tell yourself you’re improving, then you will. Something that I advise people to do before they give presentations is to actually visualize themselves doing well. It really helps to really put you in the frame of mind to actually do well.

So something that I do is I’ll close my eyes. I’ll take a deep breath, and I’ll picture how I want the presentation to go. I’ll hit all the points that I want to in the order I want to hit them. The people will be looking at me. They won’t be looking at their phones or looking off into space. When the presentation is done, I will give a call to action that’s clear and easily followable. The people that ask questions, I will have answers. And in the event that I don’t, I won’t try to pretend like I do. I’ll be confident enough to say that I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out the information, or find out the answer. And then, I open my eyes and I’m in a much better place to actually get up there in front of people to give the presentation.

Henry Suryawirawan: I mean like, of course, all these things will help, right? So I think the only addition that I would add also, probably, from the person themselves. They need to have that motivation to want to do it. Because otherwise, it always becomes an excuse for them not to do it. I guess the confidence part, sometimes it’s a psychological thing. The visualization technique, I think, yes. That’s really interesting. So maybe for those of you who want to visualize how you do it successfully, that can give some kind of inner motivation for you as well.

[00:16:27] Challenge 2: Lack of Expertise

Henry Suryawirawan: And then, the other thing that I sometimes heard, of course, when we do presentations most of the time is to cover our project, our work. But sometimes, you have to do it publicly as in like maybe in a conference, maybe in a meetup. Something that you have done, but not necessarily the most expertise that you have, actually. So some of these people actually think they should not present because they are not the subject matter expert. And that’s why, again, coming back to the confidence, they’re not confident. So maybe tell us some tips for those people who actually want to present, but they feel they are lacking because of the expertise.

Neil Thompson: Well, in those instances, I’m a big fan of doing it, anyway. Because there’s going to be people in the audience that aren’t experts either. And if they see you presenting and you’re not the foremost subject matter expert, it may give them the confidence to do it too. You could be the catalyst for them to have the confidence to actually give presentations. So I wouldn’t let not being the number one expert in any given field to stop you from doing presentations. There’s going to be a lot of people in the audience that are going to be similar to you, maybe even lower than you, so you’re an expert to them.

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah. So this thing is sometimes referred as imposter syndrome, right? Because I think in tech, especially, there’s just so many things that we always feel like we are lacking. We are not experts. So I think like what you mentioned, there are so many people out there. Some could be more expert than you, of course. But don’t forget that there are a lot of people who are also starting, or who may not understand the technical details that you’re talking about. So don’t let the subject matter expert becomes your barrier.

[00:17:59] Challenge 3: Language Barrier

Henry Suryawirawan: The other thing that I sometimes hear from people is that for those non-English speaking people, language is actually one of the barrier. They think they have funny accents. They don’t speak fluently or they don’t do good storytelling and things like that. So, maybe some tips. How do we overcome language barrier for those who are non-English speaking?

Neil Thompson: Well, in those instances, I think the people in the audience will have a lot of grace for those people because they probably couldn’t imagine having to give a presentation in another language, given that, perhaps, they only have one language. They’re not bilingual or trilingual. It’s just the one language they have. I couldn’t imagine going somewhere else and having to give a presentation in another language. English is my only one. So when you hear someone with an accent, you get the sense that, okay, this person’s first language isn’t English, and yet, they’re up in front of us talking, anyway. That takes a lot of bravery and a lot of courage. So, I think you’ll get a lot of respect from the people in the audience for doing that. And then also, when it comes to being someone who’s speaking in a language that isn’t your native tongue, I would highly suggest speaking more slowly. Because of your accent, it might be difficult for the native speakers to understand you. So in those instances, try to speak a bit more slowly to make sure that people get what you’re saying.

Henry Suryawirawan: I think the speak slowly is a good tip. Don’t try to become a fluent English speaker anyway, because you are not. So, instead of trying to become a person that you are not, then maybe you should leverage your situation and maybe speak slowly, maybe speak even better, right? Choose the proper language, not the technical jargons or difficult English, so that people can relate back to what you’re presenting.

[00:19:36] Challenge 4: Past Trauma

Henry Suryawirawan: So the next one that I want to cover. I think some people told me about this as well. It is probably deep. So they had past trauma. So maybe they did public speaking before, they didn’t do well. People probably mocked them or whatever. So they feel ashamed or afraid to do it next time because they had a very bad experience before. So tell us how we can probably overcome this for those who didn’t start well for their public speaking experience?

Neil Thompson: Well, I don’t know if you know this, but public speaking is the number one fear of most people. And I think a lot of times the reason it is their number one fear is because they had one of those really bad experiences doing it. What I would say to get over it is just it certainly will take some time, but especially, if you’re somebody who wants to gain visibility within a company, instead of thinking about the fear and the traumatic experience, think of what you’re going to get by improving your public speaking skills or your presentation skills. In most instances, that’s going to far outweigh the fear that you have.

Henry Suryawirawan: And how about maybe the physical things, like you mentioned in the beginning, you actually were sweating a lot in the presentation? How did you manage to overcome that? Before, you probably like more sweat. Now, probably is like an ease for you.

Neil Thompson: Oh, if you have a sweater, wear sweaters. Sweaters hide sweat really well.

[00:20:52] Filler Words

Henry Suryawirawan: Right. Right. Thanks for sharing all these common tips for challenges that people commonly have. From your helping other people, are there any challenges that maybe worth or interesting to share to the listeners here?

Neil Thompson: Sure. The use of filler words. Words like, “um, you know, so, and like”. These words are common in just your conversational language, but they can be distracting to people in the audience. As you mentioned, I have a podcast, and I once had a guest on my podcast. My mother called me about this guest, this particular episode, and she said that after a few minutes she couldn’t listen to the episode anymore, because my guest used so many filler words. She found it so distracting. She just had to stop. It’s unfortunate because it was a really good episode. But in the event that you are one of those people that use a lot of filler words, I highly suggest when you practice to actually record yourself so you can listen back and see how many filler words you use. So at least you know where your baseline is and what you need to do to improve. It’s very difficult to improve without having that sort of measurement.

And then also, when it comes to filler words, a reason to improve it is, as I mentioned, you’ll have people like my mother who are distracted by them. If you minimize them, those people will listen. And then the people who weren’t all that bothered by them, they’ll listen anyway. So at least, you’ll get more people engaged in actually listening to what you have to say.

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah. I think filler word is also something that if people are not fluent in doing public speaking, they will tend to think before they speak, and that’s where the filler words probably naturally come. So I think Toastmasters, like what you mentioned, have this activity where they will count those filler words, and at the end, they will tell you, okay, you did so many of these filler words and you can improve from there. But if you don’t join Toastmasters, like what you said, I think record yourself and play it back, and then maybe you do your counting, and then you will see how you can improve from there.

[00:22:36] Maintaining Eye Contacts

Henry Suryawirawan: I saw from your website that you gave some public speaking tips, the easy public speaking tips. I think we have covered some of them. But there are some that I think will be useful to cover as well. So, for example, maintaining eye contact. So I think for people who present offline, in an event or something like that, they have to face the crowds. Sometimes it could be in tens. Sometimes it could be in hundreds. I think this is another fear for a lot of people because they are not used to seeing a lot of eye contacts looking at them at one go. So maybe you can tell us some tips for this one.

Neil Thompson: I’m someone who struggles with eye contact. When I was in Toastmasters, I was told that when you give a presentation, you should maintain eye contact with someone for three seconds. You don’t know how long three seconds is until you stare at somebody for three seconds. It seems like an eternity. What would happen with me is when I would do it, I would forget what I was going to say next, and then a whole bunch of ums and uhs would come. You want to minimize those because you want my mother to listen. So what you would do to help with that is you don’t look at people’s eyes, you look at their eyebrows. They can’t tell the difference. At least for me, when I looked at eyebrows, it wasn’t as distracting as looking into people’s eyes.

Henry Suryawirawan: Interesting. So you look at the eyebrows, not the eyes themselves. I think, yeah, people can’t tell. So some tips that I use as well last time is, actually, instead of looking the near end of the people, the people who sit in front of you, you look at the far end people, right? So maybe that gives lesser pressure. And the other thing is, I think, not to have eye contact to all of them. Just focus on a few who are interested in your speaking. Because that sometimes can also give you back motivation, instead of you looking at so many other people. Some get distracted. Some don’t really pay attention, or some give that look that you don’t like. So I think that also gives pressure. These are some of the tips that work for me. And thanks for, you know, giving these tips for looking at eyebrows. I think, yeah, people probably can’t tell that you’re not looking at their eyes.

[00:24:28] Recording Video

Henry Suryawirawan: Instead of recording the audio, I think you also mentioned that we should also record the video. So tell us why recording the video of us giving public speaking is also useful for us?

Neil Thompson: Well, I would actually suggest that video is better than just the audio, but if you can only get the audio, that’s fine. At least with video, obviously, you get the audio too, so you’re able to listen back and hear all those filler words you used, but you’re also able to see yourself and see did you do anything during your presentation just physically that you wanted to improve on or that you actually liked.

I remember when I was in Toastmasters, I was a judge of a speech contest. I was one of the two judges. And the person who actually gave the speech, they patted their right hand on their leg during their presentation. This is something I did not notice, but the other judge did. This is something that if this person was videoing themselves, they would’ve seen themselves. It’s one thing for somebody to say, you patted your leg. Perhaps you don’t believe them. But if you actually see yourself doing it yourself, well, now you can’t really say that the person wasn’t telling the truth. You see it yourself. And now, you have a decision to make. Is this something you want to get better at or not?

[00:25:33] Body Language

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah. So that’s a good point because sometimes when you are doing public speaking offline, people will see your body language. So tell us some tips about body language. How we should do it? Maybe any kind of pose that is commonly accepted? Is there any gotchas that we should watch out for?

Neil Thompson: When it comes to the physical gestures, I think this is definitely person specific. There are definitely people that use a lot more hand gestures, and there are going to be people that are distracted by the hand gestures, and then there’s going to be people that want more hand gestures. It just goes back to the point I made about myself and the other judge giving feedback to this person giving a speech. When it comes to feedback, you can very well get conflicting feedback. You get someone who says, “I like your eye contact”, and you get someone who says, “Improve your eye contact”.

So what are you supposed to do? You have to run all feedback through your own filter and don’t feel like you have to implement all feedback that you get. Does it make sense for you? After you looking at your video of yourself giving a presentation, did you like your eye contact? And if so, then maybe that’s not something you want to prioritize. But if you are the person that’s patting their leg with their hand and that’s something you don’t want to do anymore, well maybe that’s feedback you should take and try to improve on that.

[00:26:44] Getting Feedback

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah. So you mentioned about getting feedback. I think this is also one of your tips. For many people that I know after giving a presentation, they feel like, okay, I’m done. So I just don’t want to talk about it anymore. But I think the most important thing is also to get the feedback. How you can improve yourself from there? So tell us how we can get feedback. Is it like we have to record all the time? Because sometimes the event is not ours, right? How do you get feedback normally for your presentation?

Neil Thompson: I’ll usually just bring my camera phone and I record myself. So even if there’s no recording from the organizer from the event, I’ll have my own recording, so I can at least see myself or at least hear myself. At least, if you’re doing a presentation at work, you can ask the people in the audience what did you like about what I did, and what do you think I can improve on? And as I mentioned, you use your own filter to then figure out what you want to prioritize getting better at.

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah, survey is also one thing that is quite common, although, probably, the filling rate might not be as high. But, yeah. Survey asking candid for some of the audience, I think that’s also useful. Don’t forget as well, maybe the kind of message that you kind of like convey. Do people understand it as well, or not? I think that is one thing that is also important.

[00:27:52] Storytelling

Henry Suryawirawan: We have spoken about common challenges, physical, some are psychological. Maybe let’s go to the techniques. How you can do better presentation? I mean, these days people always tell about storytelling. Maybe some tips on what kind of techniques people should use to be more effective in terms of conveying the message.

Neil Thompson: I say you start with the end in mind. What do you want people to take away from your presentation when they leave? So you determine what your call to action is. And then once you do that, you figure out what points do you need to make that will funnel naturally into what that call to action is. And then when you figure out what those points are, you develop your introduction, which naturally feeds into the points, which feeds into the call to action. So I’m a big fan of starting with the end and then working backwards.

Henry Suryawirawan: Any kind of coverage that you can tell about storytelling? Because I think many people talk about storytelling. Maybe from your experience as well. Is there anything that you can share?

Neil Thompson: Sure. Storytelling is something that I didn’t think was appropriate for technical presentations when I started giving presentations. But I see it now as almost essential. Especially if you’re talking to a non-technical audience. I remember when I was a kid, my mother or father would read me a bedtime story before I went to bed, and I used to love it. But then, once you become an adult, for some reason, we move away from it. But if you’re able to take your technical expertise or the technical data that you want to convey to people and put it into stories, it’s going to be more likely that they’ll remember what you have to say as opposed to just spitting out a bunch of dry data.

[00:29:22] Presenting Data

Henry Suryawirawan: Speaking about data, right? How should we present the data? Because there are some presentations which are, you know, a lot of data. In fact, too many. How should we present the data? Maybe there’s a visualization technique that we should use. So any tips about presenting data or facts?

Neil Thompson: Well, definitely, once you know what the type of audience you’re going to be talking to, that will help you in determining the level of what you go into when it comes to the data. But then not only that, but if you have slides and you have graphs and tables, you want to give those slides or those graphs and tables titles that naturally convey what you want the audience to take away from your presentation. You don’t want to just give it any sort of just random title with a bunch of words that they may not understand. What do they need to get out of that graph? What do they need to get out of that table? And give them a title that would convey that.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing that. Because I’ve seen so many charts, so many data, but they don’t actually pinpoint what exactly you want the listeners to learn from that chart. So I think giving the cues or maybe use some coloring techniques, some different types of charts is also one art in presenting, right? So that people can actually get the insights from the data that you are showing them. So I think that’s a great tip.

[00:30:33] Managing Presentation Time

Henry Suryawirawan: You mentioned about managing our time, right? So if we are given 15 minutes, maybe we should do it earlier. How should we pace ourselves? So, do we need to rehearse many times before we do the presentation? Tell us some tips here on managing the time.

Neil Thompson: Well, I mean, if you’re given 15 minutes, and I mentioned to finish within 14, you practice until you’re finishing consistently in 14 minutes. And then, as I mentioned, you then have that one minute to play with in the event that you say something during the presentation that you didn’t practice, which inevitably is the case.

Another way I would try to just keep track of time is just to know if you’re using slides when you get to the halfway point, what time are you at? So if you have, for instance, 10 slides, you have 14 minutes, as I mentioned, to give the presentation. When you get to slide five, where are you? Are you at minute seven? And if you are, then you’re on pace. If you’re behind, then you got to quicken up with the other slides.

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah. So managing time, I think, is also important. Especially when you have a long day for those listeners. They want to probably also refresh their mind not to be in presentation mode all the time. So I think managing our time is really crucial. And rehearse, I think, is very important, right? Because if you never practice, then you will not be able to get a sense how long do you need for the presentation.

[00:31:48] Virtual Presentation

Henry Suryawirawan: These days we have so many types of presentation, right? I mean, during the pandemic, most of the presentations will be online. So through Zoom, Google Meet, webinar, and things like that. Any kind of different tips you want to give for people who are giving online presentation?

Neil Thompson: You definitely want to be somewhere where it’s quiet, so to make sure that people actually hear you. You don’t want a distracting background, so make sure that your background is pretty plain. You don’t wanna people focusing on your background, not what you’re actually saying. You want to make sure that the lighting is good. So if you’re going to give a presentation, make sure that the light is actually shining on you, not the other way around, or else it’ll just look like a shadow. You want to make sure that your laptop is positioned so that you’re able to look into the camera, as opposed to looking at the screen. If you’re looking at the screen, it doesn’t look like you’re looking at the people. I mean, these are some of the tips that I would have for virtual presentations.

[00:32:37] Conference and Big Events

Henry Suryawirawan: What about conference? Those giant events where there are probably hundreds of people, where there’s a stage as well and there’s a mic and things like that. So these are the more elaborate events. So maybe any tips for those kinds of events?

Neil Thompson: Sure. Well, you definitely want to visualize success in those events because people are going to be able to see all of your physical manifestations of nervousness. But even in the event that you are nervous, I see that as a sign that you actually care about what you’re talking about, and you’re interested in people really getting what you’re saying. If you’re not nervous, that’s probably a sign that you don’t care all that much. If there’s a stage, perhaps you use the stage to your advantage and move around so that the audience can actually see you up close or closer. In the event that there is a podium, then you, obviously, you stick behind the podium and give your presentation there. But still, make sure that you’re looking at the audience as opposed to looking at your screen and looking at your slides.

Henry Suryawirawan: Yeah. Speaking about nervousness, right? I think some tips that I learned as well is that instead of making that as a pressure, you transform that to become an excitement. So instead of being nervous, you say, I’m excited to do this. And that’s why I feel a little bit uncomfortable. So I think instead of, you know, succumbing to the nervousness, you make yourself excited instead. And I think yeah, you should care what you talk about. You should change the mindset. I just want to share what I know, instead of wanting to become an expert or something like that. So I think the key message here is it’s within your control. How you can probably manage yourself so that you can give a better presentation.

[00:34:06] Practising and Opportunities

Henry Suryawirawan: So Neil, maybe you have helped a lot of people, right? Is there any other interesting cases that you can share here for those people who still want to get some more tips from you?

Neil Thompson: Well, you have to get out there and do it. You can’t be like me during that first job, being happy that your boss is doing all the presentations and you get to pass all that information that you would’ve presented to him. When it comes to getting better at giving presentations, you can listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, look at all the YouTube videos. But until you actually get out there and do it, you won’t get better. Practice makes progress.

Henry Suryawirawan: Yep. That’s right. So we can always get inspiration from great public speaking, but sometimes, we have the challenge to actually do it. So I think thanks for reminding that. I think that’s really important. Just do it, practice it. Sometimes you don’t need to go public or with people viewing. You can also record yourself. I think this is also a key that I learn. You can just record yourself first and then watch it, and learn from there. Do you dread yourself speaking in the recording or not? So I think that’s also one tip that I learned. I think speaking about being more visible, I get a lot of people telling me that doing more public speaking actually gives you a lot more opportunity. Maybe not just within work. Because visibility in work is important, but from outside of work, you’ll get more opportunities. So tell us what kind of opportunities we will get by doing more public speaking?

Neil Thompson: Maybe another job if you don’t like the job that you currently have. So there’s definitely that.

Henry Suryawirawan: And yeah, I mean you can network as well.

Neil Thompson: Yeah. It’s definitely great for networking. It’s great for even finding other opportunities that might be paid. There are people that started off giving presentations because they just were interested in whatever they’re talking about and just wanted to be in front of people. But in the event that people actually want to hear what you have to say and are willing to give you money for it. Well then, now you have that opportunity to do what you actually like and get paid for it too.

Henry Suryawirawan: I think some talks can inspire other people, right? So I think coming back to the levels, in the audience, you may have different types of people. Some probably more experienced. Some are not. But for those who are probably not at that level as yours, so probably sometimes you can give inspiration to them, and that you will connect and that’s why you have more opportunities. From my experience as well doing this podcast, I also get a lot of opportunities. So I think for people who are still thinking of doing public speaking, I think it can give you some benefit. It’s not just about your public speaking, but also other opportunities. And hey, maybe you can find a cool job, your next cool job out of this opportunity.

[00:36:32] 3 Tech Lead Wisdom

Henry Suryawirawan: So, Neil, as we are going to the end of the conversation, I really enjoyed this, actually. I think a lot of practical tips for those who want to do better public speaking. I have one last question before I wrap up the talk. I have this custom question, which I call three technical leadership wisdom. So think of it like an advice that you want to give to listeners. Maybe from your experience, your expertise. What are your technical leadership wisdom, Neil?

Neil Thompson: Be clear, be thoughtful, and listen. So if you’re somebody who is the manager of people, you definitely want to be clear in what you expect out of them and what you need them to do, so that there is no miscommunication.

You also want to be thoughtful in what you say to them too, so that you don’t have to apologize later because you said something that perhaps they might be offended by. That’s going to take some time, obviously, to figure out what people’s sensibilities are.

And then, you also want to listen. You don’t want to be the person who’s just the talker, and your idea is the best idea and everyone just has to implement it. You want to listen to what other people have to say too. And once you do that, that actually informs your ability to be clear and to also be thoughtful too. So again, it’s be clear, be thoughtful, and listen.

Henry Suryawirawan: Wow. Speaking like a true public speaking expert. Be clear, be thoughtful, and don’t forget to listen. We are not there just to speak, but also to listen from others. So, again, thanks for the tips.

Neil, for people who like this conversation and they want to follow up, or continue the conversation from you, is there a place where they can find you online?

Neil Thompson: Sure. You mentioned my podcast. So you can go to podcast.teachthegeek.com. If you prefer to actually see me and my guests, you can go to the YouTube channel at youtube.teachthegeek.com, and then there’s also the actual website, teachthegeek.com.

Henry Suryawirawan: Right. I’m sure people won’t miss it. Teach the Geek. I think it’s a pretty unique brand. So for those of you who want to learn more about public speaking, do make sure to check out Neil’s resources that he just mentioned. So Neil, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoy this conversation. Hope you have a good luck to transform a lot of people to be better at public speaking.

Neil Thompson: Great. Thanks again for having me, Henry.

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