I am grateful that I have had a chance to do a lot of public speaking. Speaking at conferences and user groups has many benefits: You meet new people, you are introduced to different ideas, you often get to visit new places, and share your own ideas and experiences. I am particularly thankful for many wonderful memories where people have come up to me, sometimes years later, to mention they saw a talk of mine and thanked me for sharing my knowledge and experiences.
Over the years, I have also helped many people with their own personal journey of speaking at conferences or events. I found myself repeating several tips that, in this blog, I want to share with you.
1. You have something to say
People early on in their speaking journey often throw this statement up as their first mental hurdle:
“I have nothing to say”
What’s fascinating about this statement is the assumption that everyone has heard and learned everything there is in our industry. Considering that the technology industry is constantly evolving with its tools, platforms, languages and practices, there will always be someone who hasn’t been exposed to some idea or some experience. Everyday there are more and more people coming into technology, each with a different background, and there will be something they have not read, listened to, or learned yet.
You have an opportunity to share your own lessons learned. You do not need to be the expert, and you do not need to be a person who has invented an idea to share your own knowledge. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and as long as you attribute other people’s ideas, you should not worry about this.
For ideas for talk topics, consider:
- What problem did you solve in own environment, that others might learn from?
- Have you applied a certain technique/approach in a context where it is not so usual?
- In learning a new tool, framework or practice, what lessons and traps did you discover along the way?
- With a repeated experience, or practice, have you uncovered some general principles that work for you?
- Is there something that you found difficult to find information on the Internet? If you can’t find it, it’s likely that others cannot as well.
As I wrote in a previous post about preparing a proposal for a conference, experience is super valuable and attached to a relevant topic, or a slightly different spin about a technique or tool, you can offer others a different perspective, and insight.
Everyone has something interesting to say. Find a friend, a coach, or a mentor to bounce ideas off and see if there is an interesting experience you can share.
2. Start off small
I don’t know anyone who started their public speaking career by launching into a keynote, or presenting at one of the largest or most popular conferences in their industry. Agile software development teaches us to start small, gather feedback and learn to adapt and refine your talk.
Practice makes perfect – An age-old maxim.
I recommend first-time speakers start small, and practice giving their talks to groups as depicted in the below diagrams.
A lunch and learn (sometimes called brown bag) tend to be one of the smallest and safest places to practice your talk. Often held at a lunch-time, a lunch and learn talk often doesn’t require as much polish or preparation as other types of talks. You also have the benefit of knowing some of people who might attend, giving you a chance to get objective feedback to help you improve. Pro-tip: Ask some people attending in advance if they can give you feedback, so they can give you more specific and concrete observations as feedback.
As you gather feedback from a lunch and learn, you might then look to find a relevant user group to host your talk. A user group tends to be more formal than a lunch and learn, but are still often informal groups where you can test your talk for flow, and even discuss the talk with people who hang-around after a conference. This is a super-valuable source of seeing if you communicated your ideas successfully.
Rather than targeting a large conference, look for a smaller conference (<300 people) to submit your talk to. A smaller conference might have trouble attracting more well-known speakers, and give you less competition in submitting and getting accepted. See my tips for submitting a proposal here. You may be happy keeping to smaller conferences as you build up experience and confidence in presenting your topic. Smaller conferences offer you a number of experiences: Stepping on stage without being overwhelmed by a faceless crowd, or feeling like you can chat to people in between sessions rather than at a convention of 800+ people.
Once you master these smaller conferences, you might start to get invites or be accepted into a larger conference. These conferences are often multi-stage, or multi-day conferences which tests your ability to really perform on stage and appeal to a much broader group.
Finally, and it’s definitely not necessarily for everyone, you may even get an invite to keynote a conference. I am a big believer that keynotes are slightly different from your average conference talk. I see these as talks that should be inspirational, introduce a different idea to an audience and have a different feeling compared to other talks at the same conference. A really good keynote should be difficult to pull off, because it draws upon both your speaking experience and skills but also challenges the audience with a different perspective.
3. Discover your own style
Like many activities, public speaking draws upon many different skills and experiences. Everyone has a different approach to composing and telling their presentations, and it is this variety which keeps conferences stimulating. Over time, with more practice, you will discover your own style that resonates with your audience.
In the meantime, I recommend the following books to help you prepare:
- Presentation Zen (Reynolds) – Written by the person who worked alongside Steve Jobs for his famous apple keynotes and provides plenty of advice for composing and designing the presentation.
- slide:ology (Duarte) – Another great book that explores the difference of presenting information via slide decks versus other forms of documentation as well as many recommendations about effective techniques.
- Presentation Patterns (Ford, McCullough, Schutta) – The authors of this book are well-seasoned technical conference speakers and they draw upon the ideas of patterns and anti-patterns to describe and catalogue common advice and pitfalls for the first-time conference speaker.
As you build your experience with public speaking, and you really listen to your audience and feedback, you will discover your own style that works for you, and audiences will appreciate your authenticity.
Developing public speaking skills takes time and effort, but if you follow these the three tips above, you’ve got a good chance at starting on the right track.