You’re qualified to talk! – Public Speaking #2

Okay, say you’re positive that your topic is interesting. Still, you can’t possibly give a talk because you think “I’m not an expert! I’m not qualified to speak about it.”

I don’t know you, so maybe. But that “maybe” has slim odds. In my experience it’s true for about 5% of topic ideas per person. The rest is various grades of fear and impostor syndrome.

I’ve heard  “I’m not qualified” from people who are insanely good at their jobs. People for whom I can immediately think of 5 topics I’d like to hear from them about and that they are more than qualified to talk about. “Qualified” is a very mushy concept anyway.

Let’s turn to Amanda Palmer for a spell. This is what she says about being an artist qualified:

[N]obody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it. There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist qualified. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published,[]…[but] it’s all in your head.

Whether you’re qualified also depends on the context. For example, I did a talk about Esperanto about a year after I had encountered the language. I didn’t even speak it fluently (and never got that far). What I had going were lots of theory, first practical experiences and loads of enthusiasm. I gave the talk at Chaos Communication Congress, an informal, volunteer run IT conference. Most attendants had never ever encountered Esperanto before. I knew more than them. In that sense I was qualified.

Was I an expert? Nope, not by a wide margin. In fact, Martin, one of the other speakers, turned out to be heavily involved in the Esperanto community, speaking the language for 10 years.

But his talk wasn’t about Esperanto in the least. Mine was. No conflict.

He agreed to come see my talk and help answer questions. Worked like a charm. There were 2 questions I couldn’t answer and he could easily help out.

In general, for this whole public speaking thing – whether you consider yourself an expert or not – it helps immensely if you’re comfortable with not knowing everything. Being able to admit “I don’t know right know. Let me think about. Give me your email, I’ll get back to you.”; being okay with someone in your audience knowing more than you about certain aspects of the topic.

Care more about your audience learning something than that they learn it from you and you’re good to go 🙂

A great way to train are BarCamps. There the audience is part of the presentation and expected to share their experiences.

It’s worth it, going out there with imperfect knowledge! I get about 1 email per 2 years from people telling me that they learned Esperanto because they saw a recording of my talk. That’s impact. That’s changing someone’s life. And that’s just the ones I know about. Sharing knowledge is powerful!

Oh, and by the way, you learn a lot while preparing a talk. If you aren’t already an expert you are gonna get closer.

Update March 8th, 2016: Here’s a great experience report by Sarah Whitee on how she submitted an abstract for a topic she knew only 50% and became an expert through preparing and giving the talk(s), once it was accepted.