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Working for a mid-sized, international company as a junior level software engineer, I will occasionally be asked to give presentations to the entire company. Public speaking is a source of great anxiety, and it is something that I am not comfortable doing.

These presentations are approximately 10-15 minutes just recapping what my team had accomplished during our sprint. The audience is anywhere between 50-200 people depending on the meeting. There are only about 30 people "in the room," while the rest are online.

I understand that many employers have the expectation that employees will be able and willing to give presentations upon request. I further understand that some positions will have this expectation regardless, such as management roles, product owners or scrum-masters. I do not believe that it should be an expectation for someone in a junior level engineering role to give presentations to large groups.

What are the best ways of excluding oneself from the responsibility of presentations/public speaking without negatively impacting co-workers or relationships with co-workers and management alike?

This is in regards to the larger-scale company meetings and not within smaller groups, such as my team meetings.


Related: How can I deal with stage fright in business settings? This question discusses how to overcome anxiety. I am asking specifically how to avoid being in the situation where you will need to use such techniques.

11 Answers 11

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This answer is based on the additional question added in the comment:

to see if there's a way of getting out of public speaking in less than intimate settings without limiting (or harming) my career.

No, there isn't. You can get out of public speaking, but it will definitely limit your career. Communicating your work is part of software development, even for a junior dev.

So you have a choice to make. Are you going to accept a fairly severe career limitation, or are you going to take steps to get past it? If you have a degree in CS, I'm surprised you didn't have to take public speaking classes and do presentations before. If you haven't taken a public speaking class, do it at your local community college. Or join a local group that teaches how to do presentations and public speaking. And practice, practice, practice. Yeah, it's scary. It gets better the more you do it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Dec 9 '15 at 17:04
  • If you haven't taken a public speaking class - What helped me a bit was taking some acting lessons. The public speaking classes didn't really help me at all. Though it could be that I just had a much better acting teacher, then public speaking teacher. – Zoredache Dec 9 '15 at 17:59
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    "Communicating your work is part of software development, even for a junior dev." The most important part. – coteyr Dec 9 '15 at 19:09
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    I mean I've never had to give a room to more than one meeting room full of people so I can't really agree with any of this answer. – user42272 Dec 9 '15 at 21:17
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    @Chris, it really depends. In my experience, presenting to a small group of people I know well can be more nerve-wracking than presenting to a large group of strangers. But it stands that the only way over it is through it. And practice helps immensely. – Seth R Jun 21 '17 at 17:56
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The way to get out of it, is each time you are asked, you decline. This may end up incompatible with continued employment in the long term, but you can do it. When someone asks you to prepare a talk, you say

I'd be happy to put together some slides and examples, but I don't want to deliver it. I can work with whoever will deliver the talk

When you're in a meeting and someone "throws" to you for an impromptu presentation, you can decline

My apologies, but I can't speak to that here and now. Perhaps [specific person] could?

If it's truly your intention to do this each and every time, regardless of the topic and the amount of notice you're given, then the first time you decline you can also mention that this is part of a larger decision. For example

I really am not comfortable preparing and delivering these presentations. I'd be happy [etc as before.]

Your boss may tell you, in fact almost certainly should tell you, that this is a career limiting move. If you had asked about how to reduce that anxiety, how to be better at presenting, why visibility matters, why presenting is a vital skill for everyone, including junior developers, or how to do things you don't see the point for -- there are lots of questions here on these topics and you can learn a lot. But I'm answering what you asked. How can you get out of it? The answer is that whether someone says "I need you to present on X" or "can you present on X?" or "I'm assigning the X presentation to you", you can answer as though they asked, and say "no thankyou" while offering to do whatever part of it you're comfortable doing. You can announce that this is a new position on your part and you're going to say no thank you every time, but you don't have to. You can go to your boss for advice about how to be happy and comfortable saying "yes please" instead of "no thankyou" to these opportunities, but you don't have to.

Do be sure your resume is up to date. You may have to look for a new job soon. And this time, ask in the interview about these sorts of presentations and make it clear you don't like them. There are many many developers who are never asked to do this. They work in companies that are different from yours (for better or worse) but a job without presentations does exist.

  • +1 for using my favourite phrase to describe these sorts of actions - "career limiting move" – user9158 Dec 10 '15 at 2:30
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    Much more reasonable than my "fake a brain aneurysm each time you are supposed to present" idea. – PoloHoleSet Jun 21 '17 at 18:48
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Whether or not you believe this is an appropriate task for your role, your boss might genuinely disagree, especially if "clear communication skills" or "ability to clearly present concepts and ideas to team members" were part of your job description.

I say this only to encourage you to have a conversation with your boss with the mindset of "an honest misunderstanding" or "a good-faith difference of opinion" vs. a chip on your shoulder about how the request is "inappropriate" or "unreasonable". Your attitude going in can vastly impact how the conversation goes.

I would go in with a positive attitude and explain that you are happy to step up and go the extra mile to help your team, but that public speaking has never been your strong suit and you honestly believe that such activity doesn't allow you to make your best contribution to the team. THEN I would suggest other activities or efforts you can contribute in terms of helping someone else present.

Do you possess skills or knowledge where you can help craft the presentation itself behind the scenes, or help coach someone in preparation to present (maybe not coaching in terms of presentation skills, but in terms of the underlying facts/data/project/etc.)? Can you help a co-worker who does want to present by assuming some of their workload as they prepare?

In short, a positive attitude, a willingness to help and a proactive suggestion as to other ways you can contribute.

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    These conversations are ongoing, but I feel as though I'm not being taken seriously when I explain that this is truly a pain point for me. I agree that the positive attitude goes a long way, and I did write this question while frustrated (Which obviously shows) – silencedmessage Dec 8 '15 at 23:28
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This will not be the answer you are looking for. Nevertheless, I think it will be helpful.


First, no, there is no way of getting out of presentations without harming your career. You write of presentations:

I do not believe that it should be an expectation for someone in a junior level engineering role.

On the one hand, yes, this is an expectation even of a junior. Others have explained that very well. On the other hand... just why is this expected of a junior? It's expected of a junior because it is expected of a senior, and juniors are expected to grow into a senior role.

Presenting one's work it an absolute necessity. How else can you show people that what you are doing is worthwhile and should continue to be funded? And not all such presentations can be in small, intimate settings.

You may be able to get out of presentations once, or twice, or for three months, or even for two years, using the techniques others have suggested. However, if you and your work are not visible, and if you actively avoid visibility, promotions will not come your way. The very best outcome would be that you would stay in a junior role for your entire career, unless you find an uncommonly accommodating employer. And when layoffs come, and they inevitably will come at some point, you will be one of the main targets for cost reduction... because people will have a hard time even remembering what you do all day long.


Second, here is what I think is helpful. You sound like you have full-blown social phobia, or social anxiety. This is a recognized medical condition. It is most emphatically not a question of "stage fright", it should not be taken lightly, and you have a much better chance of dealing with it with outside help than trying to deal with it on your own.

I think the other answers so far have not identified and addressed this aspect clearly enough.

The good news is that social phobia is extremely amenable to classical cognitive-behavioral therapy. I would strongly recommend that you see a psychotherapist. The therapist can work with you to address your problems with speaking in front of an audience. And it will help. No, you will likely never start enjoying speaking in front of thousands of people... but if you work with the therapist, do the homework and the behavioral exercises, you will be able to do your short presentations without the extreme stress symptoms you have right now.

I know that you asked how to avoid presentations, not how to deal with your anxiety. (Avoidance of the feared stimulus is a common symptom in phobias, understandably enough - but it's not a solution.) However, given the likely large impact avoidance could have on your career, as well as the good track record of cognitive behavioral therapy, I think this is definitely the way to go.

You may (!) want to include your manager in your therapy, telling him that you are extremely uncomfortable in larger presentations but that you are working on it with outside help. (Given the still-prevalent stigma on psychological issues, it may be better not to use the words "phobia" or "disorder".) Ask for any accommodation you may need. Your manager will probably be delighted to see that you are working to overcome your problems and be helpful. I'd recommend discussing whether and how you want to involve your manager with your therapist first.


I have given similar advice at Academia.SE in the context of social phobic grad students here and here. Apparently people thought this way of looking at things was helpful. In addition, I have some very slight professional familiarity with social phobia from some studies I collaborated on.

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ODAA - Other Duties As Assigned

I'm not saying this to be snarky. I'm saying it because it's a fact of work life.

Effective communication is a key skill that you will need to develop and work at. It does not come naturally for most of us, and most employers know this. They will have you present so that you can first be bad at it, then below average, fair, average, above average, and hopefully one day great at it.

Instead of working at trying to exclude yourself from it, let me suggest that you work at how to become better at it. One of the first things I would suggest is prepare. You'll probably be nervous, and that is natural. If you are prepared, then you will be a lot less nervous because you'll know what is coming.

If you've ever seen a comedian performing their stand up in front of a live audience, and you were awed by their ability to make stuff up while standing there on stage, don't be fooled.

It can be truly disappointing to see a comedian after having seen them in the recent past because you're realize it's all the same stuff. They rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse, and then they rehearse some more. That's what makes it seem spontaneous, and it's no different with public speaking.

Next time you have to present, go talk to all of the members of your team a few days before and get a brief overview from each one of them what the team accomplished during that sprint. Rely upon their insights and wisdom. If necessary, go talk to the PM, BA, or someone from the Business Unit and get their perspective on team accomplishments. Take notes, summarize, and condense it down into a 10 minute presentation. Then give the presentation to yourself in the mirror at home.

By having notes and practicing it a few times, you will likely be better prepared than most. As such, you may discover that you can get up before the group, present, and be a rock star at it.

5

Briefly - yes, there is likely an acceptable way to exclude yourself from presenting most of the time

Specifically, given the size of your company and scope of the presentation (sprint related progress), I would assume that you absolutely can get out of giving these presentations - or at the least, you can do it less often. And this works for a lot of presentation requirements at a lot of companies, too.

First, prepare your manager. Suggest that you have one of your stronger team members give the presentation next time. Help that person prepare for the presentation, introduce them as the speaker when it's time to present (or maybe even do a short portion of the presentation), and then leave it to them! Provide feedback afterwards.

Next, mention to your manager that you should probably "allow" another team member to present next time. You can rotate across the entire team, only presenting occasionally on behalf of the team yourself. You may find eager team members to do this for you most of time, or it will simply become an expectation within your team, and maybe a model for other teams.

If your manager directly asks if this is a way for your to "avoid" presenting, address that directly by saying, "yes, I do not want to present. However, I heard that other companies and teams do this, and I think it will help the company and my team members in the following ways..." (see the list of "Pros" below). A manager would be hard-pressed to deny the benefits of team members participating in presentations, but it still may be denied.

Please note:

Pros:

  1. You give your team members a chance to get visibility outside the team, which they may really appreciate and therefore work harder than before.
  2. You are evaluating and preparing a replacement for you - in case you "get hit by a bus" or whatever.
  3. Your whole team can contribute to developing presentation skills; both yours and theirs.
  4. It will provide variety that the rest of your company may appreciate.

Cons:

  1. This is not always appropriate based on management expectations.
  2. Your subordinates may have the opportunity to "out shine" you in front of everyone (at least, as far as presentation skills go).
  3. You may make it more obvious that one of your team members is a more appropriate choice for advancement than you are.
  4. If you do not handle yourself gracefully while doing this or actively avoid presenting at all times, it may hinder your advancement opportunities.

This gives you a chance to be a presentation coach, so if that sounds worse than presenting, maybe you should find another job without any presentation requirements. Good luck!

4

You asked a very clear question but people are digressing a bit. I'm sure everyone is trying to be helpful. But I'm also quite sure you don't need to be told that your phobia will put limitations on your career, "Duh." I'm sure you are more aware of your fear and how it affects you than any of us.

1) Don't try to "manage" your manager. Don't recommend alternate management methods or suggest cross-training someone else. You are likely the one being cross-trained even if it hasn't been communicated to you clearly. And honestly your manager very likely does not want your advice on how to manage the group. By trying to re-direct the focus you run a very high risk of alienating your manager.

2) Get a medical diagnosis! It won't be hard to get diagnosed with any number of panic disorders. Tell the Doctor the whole truth and I guarantee you they will help. You don't have to be on any medication, you only need the diagnosis from a doctor and you need to submit it to your HR Department. This is a legal, acceptable excuse for not giving large public presentations. Just make sure you are a Rockstar in your small meetings to "make up" for it. If you have a medical diagnosis they legally cannot force you to give public presentations.

Note: The only reason I suggest "making up" for it is because even though your are legally protected that obviously doesn't do anything to control peoples perception of you.

Legal Note: In California they cannot legally force you. I do not know about the specific laws in other states and countries.

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I think something that may not be obvious to you now is how bad most people are at public speaking and how much it scares them. It often outranks death on lists of fears.

Don't be afraid to aim low the first few times out. Read from your script (and script every word), don't make eye contact, feel free to be terrible because most people are. Eventually, you'll become more comfortable and take an interest in improving. If you can manage to stare at the back of the room and speak more slowly than feels natural you'll be better than most.

Or move to a company where you don't have to speak. I work in an 8 person operation, my biggest possible audience is 8 people, and I know them all well.

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I also wish I didn't have to give presentations, because I have some speech issues. It can be difficult for me, but it's part of the job, so I have to do it. One of the ways I lessen my anxiety and reduce the chance of having issues is to minimize the amount of stuff I need to say. For example, I do a lot of design reviews, so I put as much detail as possible into the design document. Pictures, charts, data, wire frames, whatever it takes. If there are choices to be made, I present as much detail as possible for each choice, I do pros and cons, and I always make a recommendation as to which choice I think is best. If there are open questions, I call them out in the document so people can think about them ahead of time. The last thing I need is for a whole room of people to be staring at me waiting for me to make a decision!

This is a good idea in general for design documents and the like, but you would be surprised at how terrible some of the documents I get are. A lot of people, especially engineers, are really bad at writing with clarity. And some people purposely come in with really thin documents because they want to talk it through. I hate that! You end up with really long, aggravating meetings trying to figure out the details of something that the presenter should have already done. Come in prepared and your meeting is likely to be short, which is good.

The same can be said of any produced presentation, whether you are working with handouts or slides. Construct your presentation with the goal of having everyone rubber stamp it, without any questions, because you covered everything so well. That's practically impossible to do, but perfect is not really the point. All you need to do is reduce your anxiety to a point where you are comfortable. Do the work up front, and it will pay off in the end. The more prepared you are, the more confidence you will feel in your presentation.

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You have two options, the first (get over it) doesn't really address your question, so I'll focus on the second after a brief mention that you may be looking at it the wrong way in which case a simple attitude adjustment could work wonders for your future career. If you see it as a chance to showcase yourself in a professional light to 200 people in your industry and work hard at overcoming any issues you might have, this can be a VERY positive thing for you.

How to bow out from giving presentations.

There are several strategies you can use, I used to bow out as often as I could, not because of anxiety but because I couldn't be bothered and quite often a whole team can't be bothered so it gets pushed onto a junior.

Ask your manager if someone else can do it, explaining that you feel uncomfortable but you're happy to help get the presentation ready. This may work, but if it's seen as a chore to others it may not.

Or, inveigle someone else who is a bit more social into making the actual presentation. You may find someone on the team who would jump at the chance to make an impression. This would be my method if possible. Then approach management with both a problem AND a solution to it.

Thirdly, plead sickness on the day and hand the presentation to your manager.

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    Social phobia cannot be overcome by "a simple attitude adjustment". – Stephan Kolassa Dec 9 '15 at 7:21
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    @StephanKolassa Stage fright is probably different from social anxiety. Some people are great talking in small groups in a casual setting but have great difficulty in front of a crowd or giving a speech. – Brandin Dec 9 '15 at 16:00
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Not a particularly popular or acceptable way, but if you're going to be missing sleep for 3 days and having your health suffer every time it happens [1] you might want to get out of those situations ASAP and make sure they don't happen again.

Short of having a medical doctor [2] certify that you should not be doing this (even though going the doctor route is probably a better solution)

  1. Just tell them giving large presentations is not your job; you're there to engineer software and you're not comfortable / hate / get sick from / are terrible at large presentations. It's not in the job description and wasn't mentioned at all in the job interview and you just can't do them.

    If they think it's important enough to limit your career at the company, then they certainly should have thought it important enough to mention it somewhere prior to hiring and asking you to make these presentations.

    Of course, this would have been much more effective if you had stated it immediately after finding out about the presentations, before doing any of them. But maybe by now you're a more valuable employee that they'd like to appease to keep around, or they could be getting tired of you anyway which leads to point 2.

  2. [Optionally] Start searching for another job, there's likely a better one waiting where the software people don't give presentations to 200 people. Even if it's not as good a job on paper, the stress reduction alone is probably worth it to you.

    And if you're feeling particularly litigious you could even look into constructive termination &/or wrongful dismissal if things go sour.

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    There aren't a lot of good positions for software engs that won't include some kind of presentation.... – Patrice Dec 9 '15 at 20:17
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    Long gone are the days--assuming they ever existed--of sliding food through the slot to the cave where the developers lived. – Kennah Dec 10 '15 at 17:28

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