Speaking with confidence

I’m speaking at my first real life conference today, UX London.

Last time I spoke at a conference, in person, was around three years ago at Create Leicester.

I had a panic attack in the bathrooms right before I went on stage. I still spoke, while sitting down, and I wrote about my experience afterwards.

Since then a lot has changed. There have been the obvious world shattering experiences but I’ve also changed jobs — twice.

I’ve grown in confidence since then. Both more broadly but also in relation to public speaking. Some of this growth can be attributed to the UpFront course and community, some to my change in circumstances and being happier in my work but I’ve also been carrying out a public speaking experiment.

A while ago someone, I think Cassie Robinson, gave me some advice. They said you should only produce one talk a year. Then get good at that talk and deliver it to multiple audiences. So this last year I’ve done just that.

When I left NHS Digital I was proud of the work I’d championed to ensure the Covid-19 vaccination booking service was inclusive for people of any sex or gender. I created a talk version of this blog post, initially for an internal show and tell. However I started receiving requests from outside the NHS to hear the story.

This was a story I was pleased to tell again and again because I believe the message is so important.

Since I left NHS Digital I’ve delivered the talk about 15 times to organisations and communities of all shapes and sizes, both nationally and globally. I’ve done learning lunches for agencies like Snook, Methods and DesignIt. I’ve talked to charities like Shelter and larger communities of practice like at the UKHSA. Last week I did my first talk outside of Europe to Kerry Foods via their Manila office.

I have done the talk twice in person but it was to small audiences within an organisation — no stages or microphones!

This whole experience has taught me a lot about public speaking. I’ve learned that once you know the content of a talk inside out you can hone the delivery. I started to notice things like where to put emphasis, where to pause for effect and which slides I really wanted to land more than others.

I even dared to watch a recording of my self back — once. It is as cringe worthy as you can imagine but it’s also very helpful. Doing this helped me see things I was doing visually that I hadn’t noticed myself. Like touching my hair a lot. I also know I talk with my hands a lot but that wasn’t coming through over zoom so I wondered how I could bring that movement in.

The main thing I’m still working on is speed and pace. UpFront taught me that people often speak a lot faster than they need to and calm, paced public speaking coming across as more confident. This is something I’m still learning how to manage.

Attending my first real life conference for a while last week, the wonderful Camp Digital, also allowed me to observe the style of speakers. I noticed how I was much more engaged by speakers who were bringing something of themselves to the stage. Whether that was the accessible humour of Rachel Coldicutt, the lived experience of Helen Lawson or the mind blowing personality of Gavin Strange. These were the stand out talks of the day for me and they all brought something of themselves in different ways.

I hope I can do this today at UX London. I’m also interested to see what I learn from delivering the talk in person and how this experience will continue to shape how I deliver this talk.

Hopefully see you there.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.