Stop Being Afraid of Public Speaking

Hannah Willis // April 16, 2019

Community & Culture

There are so many opportunities for public speaking in the corporate world. Vice President of Consulting Tim Rayburn and Principal Consultant Allison Pollard both spend much of their time writing, planning, and presenting talks for conferences and events across the nation. In this post they break down the top 5 questions they're asked about public speaking and how they've answered them in their own careers.

Question 1 : What would I even talk about?

There are a couple of ways to identify a topic. The first is to look at the things you do or talk about on a daily basis. Years ago, Allison found herself mentoring many Scrum Masters and realized they didn’t think of themselves as the coach of their teams—a talk was born! The talk nearly wrote itself as she thought about what had resonated with the Scrum Masters she mentored and what had helped her on her own agile journey. Creating a talk or workshop based on your everyday experiences gives you the added benefit of knowing what your target audience might be like.

Another approach to creating a talk is to share your journey—how you transitioned from one role to another, what it was like working on that impossible project, or when you tried something different in how you work. People love learning from the experiences of others. Some of the most beneficial talks we’ve heard shared not only what was successful but also the challenges and failures along the way. Your story can help others realize they are not alone—we stand on the shoulders of giants and get better as we are exposed to new and different ideas.

A third way to identify a topic is to consider what you’re interested in learning more about and practicing more intentionally. Whether it’s a new technology or a soft skill or something else entirely, talking about a topic can further your learning around it. In creating a talk, you’ll find yourself doing research, chatting about it with peers, thinking about it, and making a real effort to understand it well enough to teach it to others. At Improving, we’ve seen this with our mission around trust. The more we talk about trust, the more intentional we are in our behaviors to build trust. We notice how trust is being built, broken, and repaired where we might not have thought about it before. By putting a focus on a topic, it becomes more present in our lives.


A small group discusses an exercise during Allison's recent talk at The Agile Shift Conference in Houston.

Question 2 : Don’t I need to be an expert in the field?

Only if you start your talk by claiming to be an expert! We don’t recommend trying that. Your credibility comes from your intention in speaking to an audience and what you’ve learned as a practitioner. The truth is, you are an expert in your experiences—speak to what you’ve done and be honest about what you’re not familiar with if someone asks. Speakers with deep expertise risk talking at a higher level of understanding than an audience can follow or glossing over the mistakes and challenges that came early on. It can be challenging for an expert to talk about the same topic for many, many years and have it continue to resonate for them and for others. New voices can provide new perspectives, new insights, and new energy to existing models, practices, and technologies. Humble efforts can inspire others when shared in an open and authentic way.


When Tim was just starting out speaking, his first topic was about Test Driven Development (TDD).  He was far from an expert in the field, in fact his employer at the time was passionately against adopting TDD.  Instead his talk presented the learning journey of someone walking into it for the first time, it was targeted at a newcomer to the topic, and was very well received because of it.


Tim speaking at The Agile Shift on April 12th.

Question 3 : How do I get over my stage fright?

Practice, practice, practice—and if you stumble for any reason, get back on the horse.

It is completely normal to feel jittery before a presentation, and it can take time to get over stage fright. Even veteran speakers may experience pre-talk nerves. Many find it helpful to hang out in a private area to mentally prepare just before their talk; listening to a playlist of your favorite songs or getting a pep talk from a friend can help you relax. Spending a few minutes thinking about the energy and tone you want to set for the audience can bring you closer to creating it.

Ultimately, the audience wants you to do well—they are there to learn from you! And you don’t have to do all of the work during a presentation: engage the audience by asking them questions, facilitating activities, or encouraging them to share their examples. You can lead a conversation from the front of the room and tap into the wisdom in the room.

If you’re still worried and feeling that speaking in front of an audience is far outside your comfort zone, co-presenting with a friend or mentor can be a great way to move past stage fright.

Question 4 : What if I embarrass myself or my company?

Let’s talk about self-trust.

Self-trust is where you learn the foundational principle that allows you to build and sustain trust in all types of relationships: the principle of credibility. Credibility comes from integrity in having the courage to act in alignment with your values and beliefs. It grows when our motives aren’t purely self-motivated—when we serve and lead. Credibility is inspired by our talents, strengths, skills, and knowledge. And it stems from following through on the promises and commitments we make.

As a speaker, you have an amazing opportunity to be yourself and set a positive example for others. Show your credibility. Share real-world stories of successes and mistakes in a way that builds confidence in yourself and trust with the audience: by taking responsibility for your past behaviors and speaking of others as if they are in the room. Speak with integrity, and you cannot embarrass yourself.

At Improving, we believe that Trust Changes Everything. Act in the best interest of serving the audience’s learning, and you will not embarrass yourself or your company.


Co-presenting can be a great way to ease into public speaking. Here Allison and fellow Improver Ken Howard share the stage.

Question 5 : Where could I even speak?

Consider holding a brown bag at your organization where people can bring their lunch and hear you speak—invite your team or a larger audience if you wish. Or look outside the workplace. Local user groups and meetups are constantly seeking speakers! Talk to the group organizer and volunteer to do a talk that addresses their members’ needs. It is far easier than most people think to get on that list, especially if you’re an active group member. Friends and colleagues may be able to connect you to other groups interested in hearing you speak if you tell them your goal and your topic.


Speaking can bring your audience a new insight and knowledge... and plenty of light-bulb moments like this one.

Bonus Question : Aren’t conference proposals hard to do and difficult to get accepted?

They can be--conferences get many, many submissions and get to be far more picky than other events. Writing a good submission is a skill, and there are lots of resources available to help. We recommend reviewing the conference requirements and starting early in writing your proposal; by doing so, you can send it to friends and coworkers for their feedback until you feel comfortable submitting it.

Thank you to both of our authors for their insight into this incredibly rewarding professional skill! Stay in the loop about the many events Improvers speak at by following Allison, Tim, and Improving on Twitter.

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