How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking

The earliest presentation I can recall giving was during my junior year of high school. I was in front of my U.S. History class, accompanied by two of my classmates. The three of us had prepared for our talk, and it was my turn to present. I recall the stagnant classroom with two doors in the back, begging me to run through them and escape the horror that was in front of me. I started talking and was immediately broadsided by an anxiety panic attack. I froze and didn’t know what to say, so I turned around to one of my classmates and quietly asked them to fill in for me. I was utterly embarrassed and confident that I would never give another presentation again.

At the end of my freshman year at the University of Washington, having just finished the second introductory programming class, CSE 143, Stuart Reges contacted me and asked me if I would like to be a teaching assistant (TA) starting fall of my sophomore year. The thought of presenting to 20-25 students twice a week for an entire quarter was horrifying, but I knew I had to take the opportunity — I knew that having a presentation phobia would limit me in my career. You might be thinking that my logic doesn’t make sense; why would I want to put myself in an uncomfortable situation? I did this because the only way to become comfortable with something is to challenge yourself, to put yourself in the uncomfortable situation over and over again until you’re finally comfortable with it.

If you fear public speaking, then the only way to overcome your fear is to practice public speaking. The way I overcame my fear was by becoming a TA and presenting to 20-25 students twice a week for two years. The first few sections I taught were horrifying; I lost my train of thought often and probably did a poor job of explaining the course material. With time my sections became better and my confidence stronger. But how did I cope with the first few sections? I learned about cognitive therapy from a wonderful book my mom recommended.

Cognitive therapy will help you pinpoint your discomfort and teach you how to cope with it. The trick to coping with discomfort is to learn exactly what makes you uncomfortable.  Are you scared of making a mistake?  Are you worried that you don’t look good?  Are you scared that you’ll lock up and look like an idiot?  You should ask yourself questions like these and try to pinpoint exactly what bothers you most about public speaking.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t like it.”  No.  You have to pinpoint your discomfort.  My discomfort was the fear of vomiting in front of people.  For whatever reason I had a primal fear that my audience would see me vomit or would be weirded out if I had to suddenly leave the room never to return.  I know it sounds stupid, but this is what genuinely worried me.  “What if I have to throw up?  I’ll just politely say that I’m not feeling well and that I have to end class.  What if I don’t have enough time to pack my stuff up and end up puking all over the classroom?  I can’t do this presentation.”  This is the thought process I used to go through, and once I realized what my fear was, it was just a matter of learning how to calm myself down and combat my fears.

Combating your fears takes preparation and practice. I would take notes of my thoughts immediately after a worry streak and reflect on them later.  It’s natural to forget your thought process during a worry streak, so writing your thoughts down is very important.  The next step is to examine your thought process and realize ways to combat your worries.  In my vomiting example, I would think about the amount of times I have thrown up in my life, which made me realize that throwing up is not a common thing.  After drinking slightly too much one night, I also realized that the urge to vomit doesn’t come out of nowhere.  If I really had to throw up, then I would feel nauseous, dizzy, etc, and these feelings would come gradually and with warning.  These two facts allowed me to fight my worries in a very rational way, but often my worries would exceed all attempts of being rational.  In cases like these, I would try my hardest to think rationally and explain to myself that my worries were unwarranted given the facts.  Eventually I was able to not let my emotional worries take control of me by immediately considering the logical implications of my worries.  It took time and practice, but eventually logic outweighed emotion.  It’s also important to realize that you can’t try to say to yourself that your worries are just worries and are therefor irrelevant.  This will dig you into a deeper hole, because you’ll realize that if your worries are irrelevant, then something must be wrong with you.  Nothing is wrong with you; lots of people worry.  Think of combating your worries as a personal challenge, one that once overcome will be gratifying to say the least.  Before a presentation, try to mentally put yourself into an uncomfortable situation and practice the ways that you will combat it.  You’ll start being able to combat your worries, and then, after lots of practice, you won’t get many worries at all.

I used to be horrified of public speaking, and now I love it.  Since my public speaking phobea discovery in high school, I’ve given lots of lectures to 20-25 students, 5 lectures to 50+ students, 3 lectures to 100+ students, and 1 lecture to 200+ students.  I was nervous for many of those lectures, but I knew how to combat my nervousness and give the talk regardless.  I put myself in a position where I had to practice my public speaking, and I armed myself with skills to combat worry and overwhelm my emotions with rationale (cognitive therapy isn’t the only solution!).  Becoming a TA might not be in the cards for everyone, but there are plenty of other ways to practice your public speaking.  You can sign up for a public speaking class at a community college, or you can join a local public speaking club.  Try to practice public speaking with subjects that you enjoy; it’s much easier to present something that you’re passionate about.  Plus, chances are good that you’ll be presenting something that you’re very familiar with whenever you’re required to speak publicly.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’ll take some determination and hard work to get there.  You can do it!

Bill Gates: Software Isn’t Going Anywhere

I attended Bill Gate’s talk entitled “Software, Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Giving Back” last week at the University of Washington, and I must admit that this talk was not nearly as interesting or enlightening as the Dalai Lama’s talk a few weeks ago.

The talk began with the showing of a video depicting his last day at Microsoft.  Take a look:

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After the video Bill went on to discuss his view of the future of software.  He foresees technology surfacing in our day-to-day life even more.  He believes that one day all of television will be interactive and targeted.  You will be recommended different TV shows to watch, and you’ll have the opportunity to see what your friends are watching, rate shows and movies, etc.  He also said that television advertisements will one day be targeted just as Google’s text ads are targeted.  He also claimed that one day we’ll no longer have normal mirrors, whiteboards, or desks.  Instead we’ll have computer screens in place of these things that are interactive and customized.  He said the rise of these items will also make us think differently about user experience and interaction in a similar way that the iPhone has.

This portion of his talk was rather interesting.  He commented on Bubble 1.0 and 2.0 and wasn’t worried at all about Burst 2.0.  He claimed that new technology will always create bubbles and that new bubbles will be created shortly after the burst of another.  He said, and I quote, “Software is the most interesting thing in the world.”  This made me really happy, though I suppose it wasn’t too surprising.  I definitely agree that software is an incredibly creative and exciting intellectual practice, and it makes me happy to hear others who are also as passionate about the field as I am.

The remainder of his talk focussed on his foundation and social issues.  He said that large foundations must partner with foreign goverments of the developing world to ensure progress is made in healthcare, environmental sustainability, education, and vaccination.  He claimed that having a healthier society decreases the birth rate.  His reasoning for this was that parents will have less children if they know their children have a high chance of survival.  He claimed that foundations need to think critically about incentives, because the incentive system of a particular project will determine its success.

I’m again grateful to have been given to opportunity to listen to such an influential person.  This talk convinced me that worrying about computer science jobs in the short term isn’t worth it and that the software industry has plenty of growing to do.  It’s rather exciting, actually :).

Cellarspot: Why It Failed

Some classmates and I launched a social network for wine lovers called Cellarspot, which was my first pseudo-business endeavor. We had about 90 registered users within the first week of launch, and now, about nine months later, we have about 100 registered users. I thought some other young internet entrepreneurs would be interested in hearing why I thought it failed and what I would change if I did it again.

Before diving in I should spend some time describing Cellarspot. The main purpose of the site is to allow people to become friends and share taste notes, bottle collections, and blog posts. There are a few other smaller features as well, but the core of the site focuses on taste notes, collections, friends, and blogs. I worked on Cellarspot in class and also outside of class with a few of my classmates.

Problem 1: UI
The largest problem is the UI. Our original thoughts were that we should focus on a functional site and not on an aesthetic site. We thought that as long as features were discoverable and intuitive that they’d be used and loved. We were wrong. According to Google Analytics, our overall bounce rate is roughly 70%. That is, of all the users that come to our site, 70% of them leave after viewing the first page that they landed on.

This metric implies that either the content being presented on each page isn’t useful, the content isn’t easily discoverable, or the look of the site doesn’t leave people wanting more. I think we got all three of these wrong. First off, the site is very unattractive. In fact, there isn’t a single image on the entire site – just plain text. I questioned some of our preliminary users about why they didn’t like the site, and most of them said that they didn’t enjoy looking at the site. We should have spent more time on an aesthetic UI, which for me means delegating the UI work to someone else. I’m confident in my CSS abilities, but I absolutely cannot make pretty looking layouts with images, design elements, awesome colors, etc. I think we did a good job of making data discoverable and useful, though.

Problem 2: Landing Pages
Landing pages are pages that people land on when they first view the site (in most cases this is the front page). We should have spent more time thinking about how people would access our site. It turns out that people won’t always land on the front page and might instead land on a bottle page. We didn’t even consider this, and it turns out that most of our traffic comes from organic search and lands on a bottle page. I’m sure that most people who land on this page say, “What the hell does this site do and why is it so ugly?” We should have included some descriptive text on the bottle page so people would at least be able to learn more about Cellarspot.

Problem 3: Understand Your Demographic
As much as we thought we understood our demographic, we didn’t; we were too general. For example, we said that our demographic was “wine lovers.” What does that mean? How old are they? Are they computer savvy? What background do the come from? Why are they going to be using our site? These are questions that we should have answered better. If I could do it again, I would build the site for young Web 2.0ers and not so much for older wine lovers. There are a few reasons for this belief. First, young people are less likely to have lots of wine, making their initial commitment to Cellarspot very small (they don’t have to type in lots of bottles and notes). Second, Web 2.0ers are easier to market to in that viral, internet-based marketing would probably do the trick. Generally you have to spend money on various ad mediums to attract less tech-involved people to the internet. Third, Web 2.0ers are more likely to understand design elements such as tabs, drop down arrows, etc. If we targeted young Web 2.0ers from the beginning, we could have catered the UI more, making the probability of it being used and spread higher.

Problem 4: Know Your Use Cases
We should have spent more time thinking about use cases, which go hand-and-hand with understanding your demographic. When a user is on page X, what are they looking for? Why are they on this page? What is the main thing they are trying to accomplish? By truly understanding use cases, you are more likely to create a site or feature that will be used. Don’t try to figure out these use cases on your own either. Ask questions to people that might be using your site at some point. I did tons of research for Cellarspot, where I spoke with young and old wine lovers about how they would use the site. I did a poor job of synthesizing those thoughts and understanding Cellarspot’s use cases.

Problem 5: Make Economic Decisions
I spent a lot of money on a rack-mountable Dell server thinking (knowing) that Cellarspot would be successful. I also spent (and still spend) too much money colocating that server, although now the server is actually being used by lots of other sites, including this blog. Start small with hosting and scale your hosting options as demand rises. Start with a standard web host or Amazon EC2 and buy your own servers later only if you have to. Don’t get me wrong, buying my own monster rack-mount and colocating it in a data center was awesome, but it’s absolutely not economic. Here are some bonus pictures of the server and data center:

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Robert playing with things.

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Tony, our network admin, hanging out in the data center.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Think; It Matters What Your Users Think
While rereading my post before publishing, I realized that I say “I think blah” a lot. This made me remember the words of a former professor of mine, John Castle. You can make claims about what your users will think, but you have no way of validating those claims unless you actually speak to your (potential) users. Prior to making a product, do some research. Talk to some people in your demographic. Ask them what they want in a product and how they would use that product. It doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what your demographic thinks. The best way to know what your demographic thinks is to interview them and find out for yourself.

Cellarspot was a failed business but not a failed experience. I learned an insane amount from pursuing Cellarspot, and to this day most of my interviews involve Cellarspot. I don’t regret anything about it at all, but I wish I had the time and motivation to launch a sweeter, more badass Cellarspot. Try your best to launch an awesome product, and make sure you learn as much as you can from the launch. In my case, the experience gained from launching a product greatly outweighed all other aspects of the product, especially the (negative) cash flow