Presenting to a team

You Don’t Have to Be *The* Expert to Speak on Stage

Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from the book Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Viyashanker and Karen Catlin. All of our 50/50 Pledge readers get a special 25% off discount on the book as a thank you and as a resource to help you get you up on stage sharing your knowledge.

In 2014, an internal Hewlett-Packard report shocked us into acknowledging the challenges that professional women face. The company had surveyed thousands of employees and showed that women won’t apply for jobs unless they are 100% certain they meet all the qualifications.

Men, on the other hand, would apply if they met just 60% of the qualifications. The report, later quoted in multiple publications including Harvard Business Review, shed a bright light on an area that affects women in tech in particular: We tend to think that we must check all the boxes to move up the ladder. With speaking, we tend to think we must be the expert on a topic before we take the stage or volunteer to talk about it.

Just as you can apply for jobs where you don’t meet 100% of the qualifications, you can do the same with speaking at conferences. You can round up on your expertise and fill in the gaps in creative ways.

What To Do When You Don’t Know Everything

You don’t know everything. Most experienced speakers don’t either, and that’s okay. Your goal is simply to take a complex problem that you’ve personally struggled with and help the audience understand it. They can learn from your experiences, so they have a clearer understanding of the problem if or when they encounter it themselves. All you have to do is stay true to your qualifications and what you’re certain you do know. Audiences love clarity, especially when you’re working with abstract and technical concepts.

Here are some ways to keep your topic within the scope of your knowledge and make sure that your audience has the right expectations for your talk:

  • Narrow the scope to a subset of ideas on a topic and verbalize what you will and will not cover. This might feel like you’re copping out of explaining the broader, tougher subject, but remember that there will be many people who want to learn about the specific sliver you know plenty about.
  • When you’re creating your proposal and promoting your talk, clarify who should be sitting in the audience. You can even do this when you start your talk. If it’s for beginners, say so, and then advanced people will know that your talk may not be for them (and vice versa).
  • Offer resources that people can check out for additional information on your topic. If you’ve narrowed the scope of your talk, you might still get a question during a Q&A session that you’re just not sure how to answer. We discuss how to handle this scenario and share other strategies to finesse Q&A in Chapter 12 of Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking.

It’s Okay if Your Talk Topic Isn’t Unique

You might also be worried about giving a talk similar to one someone else has given recently, covering a topic that’s often rehashed elsewhere, or having a subject that overlaps with another presentation at the same event you’re speaking at.

Don’t preemptively stop yourself from giving a talk for fear of having a redundant topic. Your unique background and perspective on a subject bring new value to your presentation, and people don’t necessarily tire of hearing a similar idea more than once, or from someone else, especially if it’s presented well or in a unique way.

In 2012, Poornima and one of her employees submitted a panel proposal to the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. Their topic was about career generalists versus specialists - how some people change roles during their careers and develop a wide range of skills, while others are focused on specific areas and become experts. Their proposal was accepted. But when they got to the conference, they noticed that there was another panel at the event on the exact same topic!

They were worried that no one would show up to their talk and began to investigate why SXSW chose to host two redundant panels. The conference organizers told them that it wasn’t a big deal because the conference is so big. In fact, they do it on purpose. If conference attendees miss the first one, they can catch the second. Plus, the panelists planned for the other talk had different backgrounds.

If your proposal is accepted for a smaller conference and there’s a similar topic, organizers will usually reach out to you and let you know. They’ll often work with you to position your talk so that it’s sufficiently different from the other presentation.

How to Find Your Talk: The Talk Topic Test

So… how do you actually pick a topic? The Talk Topic Test is a fantastic quick tool, which will help you carve out exactly what talk to give for your next event.

This is a quick way to gauge whether your topic is interesting to your potential audience. Take a topic you’ve narrowed in on (if you’re unsure of a topic, Poornima and Karen outline a method they call ‘the Inventory Method’ in their book), follow these steps:

1. Create a ‘topic teaser’

Grab a pen or keyboard and jot down three to four sentences about your topic, covering the following points:

  • Describe the problem. In one or two sentences, explain the project you worked on and the challenge you faced.
  • Who is it for? Who would benefit from hearing this talk? Who is your target audience?
  • What will you cover? What are you going to share during your talk? Do you have any advice or takeaways you want your audience to walk away with? Keep this to one or two sentences as well.           

A quick note before you move on: Make sure you have permission to speak about a topic if it’s related to your company. Do you need to get approval before talking about it? Did you sign a nondisclosure agreement that limits what you can say about a project? If you’re not sure, seek advice from your manager or a legal expert.                           

2. Share it

Tie it all together in your mind, and practice a quick 30-60s verbal snippet. Next, speak through the snippet one or two coworkers or friends who are representative of the audience you have in mind, or at least are in your general field. It’s best if you tell someone about the proposed talk or read it out loud rather than sending the paragraph in an email.

3. Observe the reaction

Watch their body language and facial expressions to see how interested they are and what parts might confuse them. Ask them before you start that you’re going to be asking for feedback too, so they’re really listening!

4. Ask for feedback

Find out what parts they liked and what you can do to improve the topic. Or, determine whether you should toss it and find a different one (then repeat this exercise).

Once you’ve run through the Talk Topic Test, you’ll have a good grasp on the areas in which you’re an expert that also resonate with your audience. Your colleague has (hopefully!) also offered some good, constructive feedback to help you understand which parts are truly unique, and what will best resonate with the audience.

Going through this process is a great first-step any time you’re trying to think about what topic you should speak on. It’s also a great confidence boost to learn that the experiences and content you can share are valuable and interesting to one person, let alone a whole audience!

Want to learn more practical, actionable public speaking tips specifically geared toward tech workers? Get your copy of Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Viyashanker and Karen Catlin.  All 50/50 Pledge readers get a special 25% off discount!