Oct 28, 2022

My journey into public speaking

Google Photos chose to show this memory from "12 years ago". It was my first public talk and I spoke on Product Positioning at a Product Camp event conducted at Yahoo! office in 2010.

I have earlier shared how consistency has helped me build my reading and writing habits over the past 2 decades. The same goes for public speaking as well.

I vividly remember this moment from my 1st year of Engineering. My Physics lecturer had asked me to take a session on a topic. Though I had prepared well, I was extremely nervous in front of my class - my hands were trembling while writing on the blackboard and my words were all jumbled up.

I realized that I had stage fright but something pushed me within that I needed to overcome it. Back in the late 90s, some of the college lecturers would allocate certain chapters either for "assignment" or for "class session by students". It's a different story that these would be the tougher chapters!

Whenever the lecturer would ask for volunteers for these student sessions, I would end up raising my hand (aarva kolaaru!🙂 ). Though I gained practice a few times in college, the fear of public speaking still prevailed. So much so, that during the campus interview with Oracle, I was so nervous, while answering the questions asked by panel members. I remember after joining Oracle in 2002, I met with one of the interview panel members and he told me, "Anu, though you knew the technical answers which we were expecting, you sounded very nervous and shaky during the interview".

I had made up my mind that I needed to improve on public speaking. Thankfully, there used to be an active Toastmasters Club in Oracle, run by enthusiastic speakers and volunteers. I joined the Club and used to attend the sessions every week. Slowly, I stepped my feet into the Table topics and then ventured into prepared speeches. It was such a memorable experience to be part of those sessions for nearly 4 years - made multiple friends, listened to some awesome speeches, and made good progress in my public speaking abilities. Thanks to Oracle Toastmasters Club, my confidence improved and I slowly went past prepared speech levels until P7.

As I shifted to product management, I realized why public speaking matters - not just in front of an external audience talking about a particular topic, but with internal teams where communication of ideas, roadmap, strategy, and planning are routine activities.

Though I'm not a talkative person by nature, strangely I seemed to enjoy public speaking in the professional space. I volunteered as a speaker in some of the product camp events and have spoken on topics such as product strategy, design thinking, user research, etc. The whole process of putting together the presentation and delivering the talk is something that I look forward to.

This experience and practice also came in handy for the workshops and talks on packaged foods and healthy lifestyle, which became my passion project / side hustle.

Few lessons that I learned in this journey of becoming a better public speaker:

  • A deep desire to build a specific skill is very important. It pushes you to seek opportunities.
  • Stage fright can only be managed. It doesn't go away completely. Every time you step on a public forum, you will feel the butterflies in your stomach, but you will eventually get into a flow with practice.
  • As with any skill, consistent practice is essential. Do not expect overnight results. It takes years to build a skill - especially public speaking if you are not a natural pro.
  • Take feedback in your stride and keep going. I have heard comments like "your session was so boring", "too much gyaan", "it felt too academic", "do you need these many slides?" etc. A few people's negative remarks shouldn't stop you from pursuing your goal to become a better public speaker.
  • Be open to indirect feedback from people who might either be distracted or disinterested or might even yawn while you deliver a talk.
  • Consciously take steps to improve different aspects of delivering an effective talk - presentation structure, narrative, delivery style, storytelling, examples, etc.

I highly recommend this book "Present - A techie's guide to public speaking" written by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin. I found it very useful to understand the nuances of a good talk. It provides practical tips to improve your presentation skills.

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