Tips for becoming a confident public speaker

Female speaker holding a microphone while speaking at a business seminar, public speaker


Learn the art of confident public speaking with Samantha Humphries, Senior Director at Exabeam. Gain valuable insights into preparing your speech, crafting engaging slides, and conquering stage fright. Whether you're addressing a tech conference or any audience, this guide will help boost your speaking prowess.

Today, being a woman in cybersecurity is not as unusual as it once was.

The industry that’s been dominated by (often) white men for a long time is fortunately seeing a massive shift in representation, with cybersecurity experts from a myriad of different backgrounds and perspectives taking the spotlight. Pleasingly, if you happen to attend BlackHat Middle East in Saudi Arabia you will find that the ratio of male to female cybersecurity professionals attending the event is now at 60:40, which is very significant, especially given the hosting country’s historic attitude towards women in the workplace.

However, when it comes to delivering a presentation, 44% of women report feeling anxious and afraid about speaking in front of an audience, with women twice as likely as men to have public speaking anxiety. The good news is there are ways to prepare yourself to deliver a talk – be it for an internal meeting, a small event, or even a keynote.

public speaker

So, here is Samantha Humphries’ quick guide on becoming a confident public speaker, not only in the tech industry but in any sphere of interest.

Samantha is Senior Director, International Security Strategy at Exabeam. She is responsible for ensuring Exabeam’s global markets receive relevant solutions messaging, collateral, and information. She also trains on security concepts and solutions. Sam has 20 years of employment experience in the information technology field and has held multiple positions, including senior product manager, global threat response manager, and incident response manager. She’s spent many years helping hundreds of organisations of all shapes, sizes, and geographies recover and learn from cyberattacks. She regularly speaks at industry events and authors articles for a myriad of publications.

Taking the first steps

Anyone looking to start in public speaking will feel more comfortable starting somewhere smaller – and from my personal experience, I’ve found that doing a talk in front of strangers can actually be less daunting than speaking in front of colleagues, but that may not be the same for everyone. For me, I felt more nervous speaking to a room full of people I knew and who were closer to the topic I was speaking about.

My first on-camera moments took place on webinars and recorded videos, with some in-person customer presentations where I was providing training related to their environments and then I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. This led to an opportunity to speak at an educational event in 2014, which had nothing to do with cybersecurity. I was contacted via LinkedIn to speak at ULCC FOTE14 purely because they realised their event lacked female speakers. My keynote presentation was on ‘Promoting positive role models to bridge the technology gender gap’. I’m proud to say that this topic is still close to my heart many years later. Fortunately, the gap is definitely getting narrower every year.

When deciding on a speaking topic, there are multiple ways to choose one. Speaking to a mentor or someone who has an enormous influence on your life and career can be a great place to start, but from a confidence perspective, knowing your topic is vital.  When distilling ideas, discussing what’s happening in the world, and bouncing ideas around to see how you can add value to the topic is a useful exercise. See what’s happening on Twitter/LinkedIn and what other professionals in your industry might be talking about. Don’t bite off more than you can proverbially chew. You’ll feel better on stage or on camera with a topic that you understand well and are able to answer questions about should there be time at the end of your talk.

It’s important to remember that just because you know a topic inside and out, it doesn’t mean everyone else will. Everyone has to start somewhere, so if you are talking about a basic issue, it could be helpful for someone just entering the scene. Or it could be someone who’s never heard about this topic from a certain angle, so make sure to include more details and be sure to explain acronyms and any slang or colloquial terminology.

Consider the audience (when possible, sometimes you might not have the luxury of knowing who they’ll be) – what do they do, what’s their previous knowledge of the topic, and what do you want them to leave with at the end of the session. There’s no point showing up in a classroom of five-year-olds with a 100-slide deep dive on calculus.

Speaking on a topic you are really passionate about will shine through as you speak. I always try my best to ensure that every talk I deliver is engaging, educational, and includes an element of humour because that’s my preferred method of delivery and ultimately how I speak in real life too. But don’t forget, too, that words matter, and your talk will potentially imprint on many people, hence the importance of passion and knowledge in your speech!

Top tips on preparing to deliver a talk

Think about the story flow

Great stories always have a well-balanced beginning, middle, and ending. Start with a synopsis to set the flow of the presentation and let the audience know what you will discuss and what they can expect to learn or take away. Ensure there is a story that flows throughout the presentation and your speech. And, as any story should, there is always a summary with key takeaways at the end, which is why people attended your talk. You may choose to have either statements or questions at the end, and I always enjoy having a back-and-forth with the audience – but set the expectation early so people know when they can get involved. Practising timing is really important, and nerves will inevitably make you speak faster, but that said, there’s nothing worse than overrunning and not being able to get your points across.

Prepare your own slides

A lot of preparation goes into putting the presentation together, and I always tend to do my own slides, in the latest corporate PowerPoint if I must, but to keep my presentations engaging and authentic, I don’t rely purely on the company’s marketing materials. Engaging with the audience is key, so use your slides as a visual cue, avoiding large chunks of text or information on any one slide. There’s no limit to how many slides you can have to make an impact but be prepared to let go of the ones that don’t fit the flow, even if you thought they were brilliant. Don’t be afraid to critique your own presentation, and think about the end goal – what do you want your audience to take away from your presentation? If pretty PowerPoint isn’t your forte, get some design help once you’re comfortable with the overall flow and thought process. A badly put-together slide can distract the audience from what you’re saying, so don’t be afraid to ask for help with formatting.

Don’t panic about following a script word-for-word

Finally, don’t worry about memorising the whole script because something might happen that will sway you off course. However, try remembering facts and numbers because someone might want to quote you. Often, you’ll be able to use a comfort monitor or see your speaking notes on your screen, but don’t rely on this being there. Cue cards or printed notes are an important backup. When you want to slow down, take a sip of water to calm the nerves and collect your thoughts. Even if you mess up, you are the only person who knows that, and it’s okay to go back to previous slides if you suddenly realise that you missed something. If you start to feel like you’re wobbling inside, which can happen to the best of us from time to time, remember that you’re up on stage for a reason, and you have earned your place there. Imposter syndrome can rear its ugly little head when you least want it, including when you’re talking, but if you’re well prepared it’s much easier to push those feelings away. 

Hone your final preparation rituals

I certainly have these, and a lot of the folks that I’m friends with definitely have theirs too. Mine aren’t anything too obscure, but they help me get in the zone nonetheless. About 20 minutes before I go on stage, I like to do a final flick through my slides or notes, visit the loo (there is nothing more distracting than a full bladder when you’re mid-talk!), check I’m comfortable with how I look, and have a tiny little pep talk to the me I see in the mirror. I’ll have some water (a dry mouth when talking isn’t ideal), whisper a final reminder to myself of any stats or words I want to make sure I get across, and acknowledge that any last-minute nerves really are just excitement in disguise.

Speaking at an event can feel intimidating, especially if it’s for the very first time. If it’s something you want to pursue, there are plenty of people who have been around the block and are happy to help share tips and advice. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to public speaking, but I hope it’s of help to those folks just starting out in their speaking careers.

Community events, such as BSides in the cybersecurity space, offer lightning talk tracks for rookies and sometimes free workshops to get you started. A lot of smaller events will offer the option of a mentor too, who will provide a safe space to figure out ideas, review slides, and practice timings and delivery. My best advice if you’re thinking about putting yourself out there and getting involved in public speaking really is to go for it! You won’t get it perfectly right the first time, or even the tenth or twentieth time, but you’ll learn along the way and meet new friends in the process. And speaking at events is a fantastic way to inspire others to do the same.