Whether you’re trying to inform, influence, or ask questions to improve your understanding, communicating ideas succinctly is the most important skill for tech workers. In this post, I’ll share how I’ve practiced my public speaking through internal company opportunities, leveraging higher degrees of psychological safety, with the hopes of improving my public speaking for future conference talks. I’ll share my step-by-step checklist for creating your own opportunities as well, should an existing venue not yet exist. Want to skip ahead to the checklist? Click here!
I love the constraints built into public speaking: you have a very limited amount of time, and you have to build your message for a specific audience. There are a lot of parallels to writing, including the fact that you will never be done practicing. When I spoke at LeadDev Austin in 2019 about parental leave, I spent two full weeks writing and revising my 10-minute talk including several dry-run performances. I only had the one shot to get it right (it was recorded!), and so every word had an especially high impact.
As a director, I spend some of my time focused on team-specific messaging, and some on building engineering and product development culture. Although these messages are still important, I have a nearly unlimited opportunity to follow up with my audience, whether to correct myself or provide more clarity. As a result, I don’t need to spend as much time preparing for these internal events: just a day or two, whether I’m presenting for 5 minutes or an hour.
I hope to speak at conferences again someday, but in the meantime, I’ll be practicing my public speaking skills more privately. Here are a few ways that you can look for internal opportunities within your company, too:
- Is there an all hands to share something that you’re doing, whether at an individual, team, departmental, or company-wide level? I most frequently present at our team all hands to 20-30 people, sometimes to broader swaths of leaders across the company (50-100 people), and sometimes to a much larger audience (500+).
- Are there 5-minute lightning talk sessions coming up? Sometimes I’ll sign up to give a talk when I want to share a message more broadly, and to encourage others to do the same. On the flip side, I find it easier to make opportunities to give talks, so I try not to take these slots from folks who feel less comfortable taking up space.
- Has someone asked you to share something to a group? Maybe it’s a status update, maybe it’s an enrollment pitch, or maybe it’s a Q&A. These don’t come up especially often unless I’m working on something that has a broad impact, but are great opportunities.
- Do you have any sort of employee-run education programming? This year, I signed up to teach a workshop on presentation preparation — from ideation to delivery, with an audience covering numerous roles across the company.
Sometimes you want to influence the culture of your team or company, but there isn’t an existing clear venue for you to make your pitch. I think that it’s valuable to mindfully create your own ad-hoc venue, though this may be safer at some companies than others. I have found that it’s better to add productive meetings and messaging than to hope everyone will become aligned through osmosis and magic. If your presentation is more of a nice-to-have, I strongly recommend making it optional and record it.
Here are a handful of examples of culture-focused presentations I gave in 2021:
- As my team was beginning to ramp up our hiring, I wanted everyone in my group to be aligned on what providing a great candidate experience meant to me. I put a workshop together and shared the materials with other directors. I also worked with our recruiting team to create a sourcing workshop for hiring managers.
- As I hit my five year work anniversary, I reflected on our tradition of “last lectures” when someone left. I didn’t want to leave to be able to share what I had learned, and I wanted to inspire other folks to share their knowledge too. I spoke with a few leaders about the right audience, put an optional event on the calendar, and shared the recording afterwards. It was a really fun hour of presentation and Q&A that left me feeling energized and sparked a lot of wonderful one-on-one conversations in the weeks and months afterwards.
- I wanted more opportunities for our directors to get to know managers, so I co-created an “Ask a Director” program where a different director hosts an Ask Me Anything session every other week. We started with an audience of managers new to management or new to the company, and expanded to a second session for all of our managers and directors to get to know each other better. I hosted twice and it was incredibly rewarding!
- I wanted to help share more alignment around our career ladders, so I co-piloted a panel program to bring IC and Manager leaders together to share expectations and experiences for folks in our two roles with the most flexibility (Senior Engineer and Senior Engineering Manager).
All of these programs took time to organize, but they were all extremely worthwhile and I’m so glad that I made the effort.
I recognize that my ability to create speaking opportunities comes through the privilege of having built up a local brand that makes it very safe to try new things, and also due to systemic biases operating in my favor. I credit the leaders around me for making this feel incredibly easy, and for recognizing and rewarding my efforts. I’ve also followed in the footsteps of some of my amazing colleagues who have inspired me to turn ideas into action.
To every senior leader reading this post, please consider whether you’ve witnessed safety for anyone in your company to create these kinds of opportunities. Have you encouraged them? Have you recognized and rewarded them? Have you partnered with them to help them succeed?
If you have, then great! Please keep it up! If not, start small. Co-create an opportunity with someone and build off of that foundation.
So, how do you create these opportunities? This is my checklist:
- Vet your idea. I recommend asking a peer, or someone higher than you in the company (your manager counts).
- Decide how much support you’ll need. You could drive this entirely yourself, or co-create with one or more partners. If other perspectives will produce a better result, or if your schedule is already tight, definitely partner with someone. They’ll help you accomplish your shared goal and be an accountability buddy!
- You should leverage the expertise of your co-workers, when possible. You may have willing partners in HR, internal communications, people development, or among your leadership.
- Consider finding a sponsor.
- If your audience is solely made up of your reports, go for it.
- If your audience is a set of peers, and you are not asking people to change their behavior, you probably don’t need a sponsor (but your manager might appreciate a heads up).
- If the audience is broad or you’re asking anyone to change behavior, I highly recommend finding a more senior leader to sponsor your work. This person can provide a gut check that you’re on a mission-aligned track, can provide additional resources and context, and lends authority and credibility to your message (you can never have enough). In the past, sponsors have helped my groups find time with increasingly broader audiences, and ensured that our work is formally recognized as positive Glue Work.
- Consider your timing. Work with the appropriate schedulers to get your program on the calendar at the right time. You want to avoid scheduling it at a time that conflicts with major events or when attention may be elsewhere, such as near a project deadline or the same week as annual reviews.
- Think about how you’ll learn from your program, and how you’ll collect feedback about it. If you want your program to be a pilot for something bigger, you’ll need to convince someone this is worth doing at scale. Audience feedback is critical for that next step.
Internal speaking opportunities are great, but they are not replacements for conference talks
I’m looking forward to submitting proposals for conference talks again someday. Giving a talk to a friendly but unknown audience is a different situation than internal talks. I encourage you to keep submitting when your favorite conferences open up their Calls for Proposals, and to take advantage of meetups (if you attend any).
In the meantime, keep building on your skills with the folks who are there to support you, whether it’s a 3-5 minute presentation or an hour.
If you want one challenge to take into the new year, I suggest that you give a 5 minute lightning talk about any subject you care about. If there isn’t already a venue, see if a few colleagues would be up for putting together a 30 minute session. If you get push-back from management, consider treating it as an eat-together-during-lunch event. Be sure to get feedback along the way so that you can learn from the experience!
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