In fact, it often feeds a very common fear called glossophobia, which is believed to affect up to 75% of the population. If public speaking is one of the scariest things you can do, how do you manage it so you can build the skills necessary for a successful career?

Early in my own career, it felt like my soul left my body every time I spoke in front of my team or company. I would plan my presentation, practice it extensively, and the second I stepped onstage, I essentially blacked out. I always delivered the presentation in full, but the fear outweighed the message in my memory. I knew that in order to grow as a leader I would have to improve my confidence and my delivery onstage.

The first step I took toward the improvement of my public speaking skills was joining Toastmasters International. Luckily I wasn’t alone. A few colleagues came together to start an official Toastmasters club, which meant we could practice every week at the office. Once I had enough practice with the fundamentals, I signed up to emcee some local design meetups. Emceeing helped me get comfortable using a mic without having to deliver a big talk. After gaining confidence with the basics and acoustics of public speaking, I felt ready to take the leap and apply to my first conference. I was terrified, but did better than I thought I would. As soon as my talk wrapped, the audience applauded, which made me less afraid to do it again. A few years and many conferences later, I now feel excited and energized by an audience. I’ve learned how to control my breathing, how to design good slides, and how to deliver a compelling message. I just wrapped up a speaking tour, delivering talks at some of the biggest design conferences in the world. And now that I focus on community programs at Dropbox, I have the honor of helping many designers and design leaders deliver their first talks. Since I’ve been able to overcome my fears and help others to do the same, I’d like to share these top tips for public speaking:

  1. Book a speaking gig

While it may come as a surprise, many organizers appreciate outreach from interested speakers. Contact your favorite meetups and conferences with a short pitch about a talk you have written or want to give. You don’t need to have a complete talk at this point—a simple abstract will do. Let the organizers know what you’re passionate about and what the audience will learn from you. You can usually find their contact info on their website or LinkedIn.

  1. Choose a topic

Once you know where you’ll speak, choose a topic that is valuable and additive to that community. Consider how your topic and talk can embody your values and what you want to be known for.

Choosing a topic can feel like a daunting personal quest to find your message or purpose. I suggest sticking to topics you are passionate about, because then it’s easier to make up talking points on the fly if you forget your script during moments of anxiety. Remember that you don’t have to be an expert to give a presentation. You can inform your views through research and provocation if you are interested in a particular subject.

  1. Research your topic

Read articles and watch presentations by peers in your field. What points do they make? Think about how your angle will be personal and different from what’s already out there. Using quotes from others helps lend support to your ideas.

  1. Write your talk

Think of your talk as an essay, and make sure it’s written and delivered in your voice. First develop an outline to help guide your writing process, then begin with a statement, fact, or quote that grabs the audience’s attention. This introduction should function like a headline, inciting the audience to read (or listen) further.

Questions to ask yourself: What is my purpose? What do I want the audience to take from this? Whatever the answers are, every point you make during the talk should directly support them. Keep it simple, too. Use clear and concise examples to strengthen your thesis. If your concept is abstract, root your points in an easily understood metaphor that is carried forward throughout the talk.

If you’re speaking on behalf of your company, check to see if it has voice-and-tone guidelines that could inspire you. Think about the feeling you want to create for your audience and tailor your points accordingly. To strike an evocative mood, start with a question. To show empathy, share a personal story and how it relates to your thesis.

Lay out your key points to build the body of your speech—the majority of your words. Some folks like to script their talks word for word, while others prefer to use bullet points and fill in the rest conversationally. Choose a method that feels most natural for you. I like to use Dropbox Paper to lay out my talking points with strong type hierarchy. I use H1s for section breaks and H2s for slide titles that will have a few talking points.

Finally, wrap things up with a clear conclusion and call to action. The conclusion should repeat your key message and its supporting points and should tell your audience exactly what you want them to do.

Pro Tip → Consider publishing your talk as an article or blog post the day before you deliver it in front of an audience. This will allow folks who are not in the room to read your perspective, and it can serve as a handy reference point if your audience wants to follow up.(Here’s an example of a write-up from my recent talk at Config.)

Michelle Morrison at Config
Here's a photo from my 'Designing Culture' workshop at Config, Figma's first user conference, hosted in San Francisco.
  1. Design your deck

Design your slides last. It’s much easier to design a deck once you’ve outlined your talk and defined the main points. Starting the deck before you’ve drafted the talk may cause friction in the writing process and slow you down.

Use simple text on a slide to line up with your talk track. People will likely take photos of some slides, so be sure any punchlines can stand the test of time. Remember to include a contact info slide at the end. If you’ve done things right, people will want to engage with you after the talk, so let them know how best to do that.

  1. Practice

Record yourself delivering your talk. Keep an eye out for body language, voice modulation, and hand positions. Experiment with different tones, gestures, and body language. While sometimes cringe-inducing, the recording and refining of your presentation style will help give you confidence once you’re onstage. Listen to your recordings multiple times to help you memorize the talk. This will help you focus on your delivery rather than on your speaker notes.

Practice with an audience, even if it’s not your target audience. Give the talk to members of your team. Sign up to present it at a local meetup before the big day. Your peers can give you feedback and encouragement before you grace the big stage.

Pro Tip → Ask a friend to be your “um” and “like” counter. When you give a practice talk, keeping count of filler words will help you refine and slow down. It’s also a great way to measure your improvement over time.

  1. Deliver your talk

Know that everyone is cheering you on! You’re doing something scary, but you’ve put in the time and effort to thoroughly prepare, and this particular audience believes in you. Take a few deep breaths and smile as you walk onstage, because you’re going to do great.

General resources

Michelle Morrison at UX Istanbul
Remember to keep your slides simple so that your key message can be conveyed in photographs of your talk.

In closing, I hope this sparks a flame for you to share your story on stage. Like my friend LaDonna says, “Everything starts with a story, and no one can tell your story for you.” If I can go from blacking out to speaking around the world, so can you!

Do you have more tips that you want to share with the creative community? We’d love to hear them on Twitter at @dropboxdesign.

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