Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reader Q&A: What if the audience already knows everything I have to say?

In the webinar I did earlier this year with the editors of Technically Speaking (@techspeakdigest on Twitter) one participant said, "I am a junior developer. I am not too nervous about actually delivering the talk, but my main block when applying to speak is that the audience will 'already know' what I am talking it common for people to feel that and how would you deal with it?"

I've certainly heard this before from junior and senior speakers, most often those in academic circles--so much emphasis is placed on narrowing you Ph.D. research to a wedge no one else has occupied that it sometimes carries over into the business of giving a talk or presentation. And even if you don't come from that world, you may be worried that you're not "the expert" in your field, the person who knows more than anyone else can know.

To which I always say, "You don't need to be THE expert. You just need to be AN expert."

Worrying that your audience will already know what you are speaking about has many layers for the public speaker. There's a presumption that, knowing all, your audience will be immediately bored or unimpressed by your talk. And in an elliptical way, it also may be a way of expressing the fear of getting a question to which you don't know the answer: If the audience already knows everything you're going to say, won't they ask questions that push well past that limitation?

But before you jump to those assumptions, the reality is both more mundane and delightful. Audiences may know your topic well, but be looking for a different perspective--yours. The smartest people I know, include some Nobel laureates, go to talks hoping to learn something new to them, not necessarily new to all. And even if we're closely familiar with the type of work you do, you can make it unique by highlighting your particular experience and perspective.

Here are a few more tips to plan your talk so that you avoid this mental trap:
  1. Work on your nerves and your confidence: Second-guessing yourself in this way won't help either one. Instead, try some of my easy, evidence-based ways to work on your public speaking nerves, and submit that proposal to speak. Especially useful when you fear your audience will be evaluating you is power posing, but any of these tactics will work.
  2. Beat them by being more thoughtful: Via Swiss Miss blog, I love this Frank Chimero quote. It's about design, but could work for any speaker on any topic: “If you can’t draw as well as someone, or use the software as well, or if you do not have as much money to buy supplies, or if you do not have access to the tools they have, beat them by being more thoughtful. Thoughtfulness is free and burns on time and empathy.”
  3. Remind us all of what we don't know: Some of the best talks I've heard have been those that remind us of all the things we don't know in a particular area. In this way, your topic becomes the great equalizer between you and the audience.
  4. Don't discount your own stories: Facts are facts, but instead of numbing the audience with numbers and data, why not share your stories related to your topic? In addition to being personal, they add the unknown and unique to your presentation.
  5. Use "I" statements: Don't couch your conclusions or observations with "we" (as in "as we all know") statements. Instead, speak only for yourself. "In my experience," "what I've observed," and "my own thinking is" will help you focus your remarks and make it clear you are sharing your own perspective.
  6. Know that you don't need to know everything:  Learning how to say "I don't know" with ease--try "I wish I knew that"--is a skill every smart speaker should have. Check out my 7 tactics for losing your fear of Q&A for more ideas.
  7. Consider what makes you unique: Shift your focus from trying to be smarter than everyone else to what makes you unusual. It might be your age, gender, experience (life or work), interests, location, and more. Highlighting what makes your perspective unusual helps you differentiate yourself so you're not trying to compete with the crowd.
You also could try a creative approach to being an "expert of nothing," the title of this talk by Jessie Char at NSConference. Thanks to Technically Speaking for the pointer to this talk. It's a clever, deep, fun look at what's behind this feeling.

Expert of Nothing - Jessie Char from NSConference on Vimeo.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Medialab Katowice)

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