How To Rock Your First Public Speaking Engagement

Alternatively titled: 7 Things I Learned From My First Speaking Engagement (At a Fortune 50 Company). 

Public speaking is consistently at the top of people’s fear list, right next to and sometimes even surpassing death. That’s right, lots of people would rather die than have to speak in public. Sort of dramatic, huh? But even if you don’t want to die from speaking in public, a good 75% of people say they realize increased anxiety from public speaking. The other 25% are lying.

A week and a half ago, I did my first live public speaking engagement at Target HQ – yes that Target, the one with the big red target logo. I was invited to talk to their Target TRI club about running your first triathlon. What better way to kick off my first ever talk than to talk to 70+ people at company which is sitting somewhere in the 30s on Fortune 50 list? No pressure right?

It turns out that pubic speaking is scary. You’re scared you’re going to say something stupid, do something stupid or get booed off stage.

Over the last couple years, I’ve slowly been bashing that annoying thing called fear to pieces, but every once in a while it pokes it’s ugly little head out and starts telling me to freak out. And I do.

So right before my Target talk, I started to tense up (am I really going to speak at Target?), but I managed to calm down, do the talk, survive, and learn a few things along the way. If you’ve got a speaking gig coming up or just want to be able to be able to talk for five minutes in front of people without going catatonic or having to get yourself a change your pants, here are a few pointers:

Slow The @#$! Down

I can be loud, speak quickly, and be hard to understand in a normal conversation – I know that. When I get nervous or excited (which, lets face it, is quite often), I’ll speak even faster. When my brain really starts going, it works faster than my mouth which means that  I’ll start to speed up talking and my words startoruntogetherwhichmakesitreallyhardforpeopletounderstandme.

See what I mean?

When you’re up in front of people, you’ll have a natural tendency to speak faster than normal. After all, if you speak faster, it’s all over quicker, right? Maybe, but only because people will get up and leave you speaking to an empty room.


Slow down. Nobody’s going anywhere. Use the time to choose your words instead of talkingreallyfastandsayingumsodangmuch. You’ve got plenty of time. Use it.

Spend Less Time On Your Slides…

When’s the last time you went to see someone speak and thought “I really can’t wait to watch their powerpoint presentation.” Exactly.

No one really wants to pay attention to your slides and you don’t want anyone to pay attention to your slides. People came to hear you talk, not to watch a bad slideshow – no matter how much time you spent on it.

Seth Godin recommends putting 1 thought on a slide (with no more than 6 words) and creating 200 slides for a 40-minute presentation. I don’t think you need that many slides, but the one-thought-per-slide rule is golden.

Think of slides as placeholders or markers in your presentation. They’re there to hold a thought serve as visual reminders of the points you want to impress upon people. That’s it. No one needs to read 5 bullet points on a powerpoint and watch them fly in from the slide like it’s magic. It’s not 1995 and nobody cares about your bad animation skills. Get to the point and please, whatever you do, never ever ever ever read your presentation off your slides unless the goal of your presentation is to have everybody crying at the end, wondering why you stole 30 minutes of their life that they can never get back.

…And Spend More Time On Your Stories

If your slide are placeholders, your stories should be what’s driving your presentation. You need to answer two things:

  • What the crap are you talking about?
  • Why the crap should they care?

Stories are the best way to do this. They’re able to do a little of everything at once. The best stories don’t just feature a character who wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it – they’re also relatable. Even if your stories don’t have an explicit moral, you should be persuading people or making them think about something that they wouldn’t have thought about if you didn’t show up. If you’re not telling a story, what are you doing? Unless you’re just there to entertain people, you should have a conclusion that you come to, or a hypothesis that you make people think about.

You want people to walk away from your talk different than when they walked in.

Talk to a few specific people

Find a few people in the audience, make eye contact with them and talk to them. Whether you talking to a crowd of 5 or 500, pick one or two people out in each section of the crowd and talk to each one individually throughout your talk. Everyone says this, but if you actually do this, you’ll be much more specific and conversational to the audience as a whole than if you don’t.

It can be tempting to try and be grandiose and try to speak to everyone when you have a large audience of people, but if you don’t pick out a few people to talk to, you’ll end up picking no one to talk to. Instead of talking to everyone, you’ll end up talking to no one. Pick a few people. Talk to them like you would talk with a friend. It’s a lot more interesting for them and a lot less intimidating for you.

Remember that people want to hear you talk

Remember that wherever you are, you’ve been asked to be there. Whoever is there, wants you to be there. Act like it! You didn’t force anyone to come (and even if you did, act like they want to see you anyways). They want you to be there or they wouldn’t have asked you to come. This is the one thing that’s helped me more than anything else so I’ll say it again.

They want you to be there or they wouldn’t have asked you to come. 

They want to hear what you have to say. So act like you’re saying something worth listening to!

A lot of people approach presentations like the audience is a bunch of middle school kids who have to be there and are counting down the seconds until you’re done, so they can leave. Because of this, you have to amuse them in order to trick them into thinking you and your talk are interesting and therefore worth listening to. There’s a lot of techniques people recommend, but I find that they’re all exhausting. Instead of trying to trick people into thinking you’re interesting, it’s much easier to just be interesting. Remember, if they’re there to watch your talk, they probably want to be there.

When you start acting like people actually want to see you, your entire body language shifts. Instead of being timid and scared and desperately trying to win over this audience that has nothing better to do than boo you off the stage, you’re confident. And it will show. When you’re confident, you’re naturally more relaxed, more collected and you’ll be more persuasive (ever been persuaded by someone who wasn’t sure that what they were saying was right?). This leads to the next point…

Actually believe yourself

You know those words coming out of your mouth? Do you actually believe  that they’re true? You should. 

It’s already hard as hell to convince other people to believe what you’re saying. If you don’t believe it yourself, you just made it a whole lot harder. Actually believe the stuff you’re saying (this is generally a good rule of thumb anytime you’re saying anything meant to influence others). If you don’t believe the words coming out of your mouth, your uncertainty tends to show through and you probably shouldn’t be saying them in the first place. Even if you’ve gone off the deep end and are talking about things that have no chance of ever being true, you’re better of being delusional enough to believe them yourself. You’ll have a much easier time convincing people to believe you and make it happen rather than simply being dishonest (this is what people mean when they talk about Steve Job’s reality distortion field).

Record the stupid thing

A speaking engagement is a great way to take whatever presence you have to another level. If people think of you as a writer, a speaking engagement gives you a way to show that you can communicate through other mediums as well.

So for my talk, being the smart, forward-thinking person I am, I decided to bring a little flip cam with me just in case they weren’t recording the event as part of training for all future Target employees. When I arrived I found out they weren’t taping it, (I think they’re planning on just bringing me back live for that, right guys? :)). Anyways, unfazed, I set up my camera and had Graeme press play right as I started talking. That’s why I have this video available.

Now wait for it…

[click to watch the video in email]


What happened?


Well, everything was set up right, but apparently the camera decided to cut off just as I was about to start speaking. No joke. So besides the 12 seconds of me standing in front of some room with a big projector on the wall getting ready to talk, I have no actual physical proof I spoke at Target  to 70+ people, other than a few photos of my face in front of one of many target signs all over Minneapolis (and this link on vouching for me).

It’s really a shame, because now you’ll have to take me for my word that I didn’t entirely freeze up and start crying in front of the room. On top of that, it would have been a good video to post, share and talk about down the road so I’m a little annoyed that my camera seems to have been actively plotting against me. So trust me, if your camera lets you, record your talk! You’ll be able to use it down the road and you’ll mad if you didn’t get it on tape.


I’m still not a public speaking pro – I say “um”, and “like” way more than is good for my health – but every time you do something that scares you, it starts to get a little less scary and public speaking is getting a little less scary for me. Not to mention, I can check off speaking at a Fortune 50 company off the impossible list (right after I finish adding it) without having anyone throw any food at me or walk out in the middle of the speech. Next time, I just need to actually record the stupid thing.

Major props to Katie, Graeme, and Sukie for inviting, hosting and showing me around Target & Minneapolis. Thanks you guys for everything :).

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  1. says

    I always reherse the first, opening sentense or sentenses that I am going to say so that I know exactly what to say by heart.

    For me it’s always the first few minutes that are the worst (actually the period leading up to the speak is the worst). Once I’m up there and on my way it’s okay.

  2. says

    Joel! Thank you! Perfect timing. I have 3 speaking engagements coming up, one of which is a conference I secretly dreamed I’d get asked to speak at (and I did!) and these tips are awesome! Especially the “pick a few people to talk to”. The last speaking engagement I had several people came over to tell me they felt I was speaking directly to them. WIN! Thank you for this!

  3. Sarah says

    As one of those employees that were there, I’d just like to say you did an AWESOME job! So inspiring! You didn’t seem nervous, so good job fooling us all!

  4. says


    Congrats on your 1st public speaking gig.

    Practice is so critical to giving a great pitch or talk. It has to feel like you memorized it — even if you have to look at notes.

    Slides are just props and using them as such will make the talk go a lot smoother. Reading directly from slides is a big no-no and just feels all weird.

    Your talking to a few people ahead of time is a great idea. Even better is to throw in a story you heard from one of them to make the talk unique to them.


  5. says

    Great advice, Joel!

    The most difficult for me is the slowing down part. Yikes! Whenever I speak it’s always about a minute faster then when I rehearsed the talk. Always working on that.

    I also think focusing on slides as placeholders or markers in your presentation is great advice. If you can practice with the slides it will make your talk that much easier to remember when you’re facing that crowd.

    One weird thing I do is practice parts of my talks while walking around my house. Each section of the speech is practiced in a different room. This is a great way, for me at least, to place visual reminders and easily recall different sections of the speech. Ah yes, the laundry room 😉

    And just like blogging, you need to infuse your personality into the speech, and as you wrote, tell a story.

  6. Catherine says

    First of all, congratulations on doing so well. I think rehearsal is the key. If you rehearse it enough times you will be able to say it and make it sound natural. You can adlib a little bit so it doesn’t sound as if you are reciting some prose word for word. Thanks for the tips.

  7. Josh Denness says

    Haha that’s very convenient timing Joel! Next time you claim to run a marathon/half ironman/tie your own shoelaces I’m going to need some proper evidence!

  8. Kurt Swann says


    Good job (video or not)! One thing I would add to the part of “people want to hear you talk” is that people also want to you to succeed . . . they’re rooting for the speaker! I think audiences get uncomfortable/embarrassed if the speaker is not so good. But when the speaker is good then the audience relaxes and enjoys themselves. So that’s something I keep in mind . . . the audience is on my side :) When I am in the audience of any live performance – singing, acting, comedy – I want the performers to do well.

    Look forward to future speaking/video updates!


  9. says

    Great post and well done on you speaking gig!
    I am absolutely terrified of speaking in front of groups and have spent the majority of my life avoiding it like the plague.
    Recently though I did a lecture to a small group of students – which went well (I think). It was only 6 people but we all have to start somewhere :)
    I have a few more events coming up over the next few months which I am already panicking about. Before those sessions I will have a read of this post again to boost my confidence.

  10. katie says

    woo hoo!
    you did a great job and it was so fun having you at the big TGT! and yes, you are welcome back in person any time to join in on the tri club fun!!! THANK YOU for coming to mpls/tgt — see you again soon!

  11. Julie says

    First of all, congrats on getting such a biggie on the first go ’round. It’s SO true about talking fast. I would practice at home and the timing was perfect, but always came up short in the real thing. Now I just force myself to slow down and enjoy it.

    Thanks for the post!


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