On Speaking: My Personal Experiences and Advice for Getting Started

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May 3, 2014

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Since I started speaking at web conferences around the UK, I’ve been asked a lot about my experiences with it and how others can get started. I’ve written a chunk of this on trains to and from York, where I spoke at the first DotYork conference. It was a brilliant event, put on by two lovely people - Jonic and Rick - and I had a great time. But I thought it was about time that I started to share what I’ve learned from speaking. So here goes!

Getting Started with Speaking

When I first started working for myself and went freelance in September 2012, I also took on one other challenge: starting to speak at events and conferences. In fact, I think it was within the first couple of weeks that I gave my first two talks.

I remember initially that I had seen many other people I admired speaking, really looked up to them and felt like I finally had some sort of message I wanted to get across to others in the industry. My main reason for wanting to speak was that I wanted to try and give back in the way that so many had done for me.

Call for Papers vs Getting Asked to Speak

I’ve been asked for advice on what to do when submitting call for papers submissions for talks. I’ve only ever submitted one proposal for a talk that has been accepted (and I’ve only ever submitted a couple) so I’m not too experienced in this part of speaking, and all other talks I’ve been asked to do directly by the organisers. The only advice I really feel comfortable giving is to be honest and really think about your talk topics. Don’t try and big your talk up if you know you won’t be comfortable and truly happy including topics you don’t really know about. Just make sure you stick true to what you want to talk about and learn how to really sell what it is you want to talk about. Something that speaks true to the audience is also really important - after all, you wouldn’t want to submit an iOS dev themed-talk to a CSS conference.

What the heck do I talk about?!

This is one topic that I know I really, really, really struggled with when starting to speak. What on earth do you talk about?

Many people specialise in particular topics with their work (designers might be great with Sketch, a front-end developer might be a Sass wiz and so on) then it’s quite easy to come up with talk topics for those sorts of things that you know a lot about. The best advice that I can give you is to ensure that you stick with a topic that you’re quite comfortable with and that you know inside out, particularly for your first few talks.

However, I’ll be honest now, when I first started speaking I was in a bad place, I wasn’t very confident and didn’t really believe in myself. I was terrified of speaking and I was scared stiff of speaking about anything technical in case anybody started to poke holes in what I spoke about.

So with that, I started to think about what it was that I could talk about and what would - hopefully - get people interested. As it happened, I started to think about talking about how to have confidence and what makes each of us special, and that sort of thing. I was going through stuff at the time having unexpectedly started freelancing and working for myself, so I knew that I’d be able to give the advice in a way that made sense and seemed really relatable. I also started tweeting at this point saying I was interested in speaking at events, if anyone would have me.

I have to say now, I’m super grateful for the chances that Kimb, Richard and David gave me in offering me speaking gigs at The Digital Barn and MK Geek Night. Their belief in me from the very beginning has helped me go on to do more and more talks in the past 18-19 months and I’m so grateful.

My first talk was at MKGN on a Thursday evening, followed by the headline spot at The Digital Barn on the Saturday. I don’t really remember much about these two talks. It’s a complete blur. I was so nervous and so shaky and jittery all I remember is that people seemed to really enjoy what I had to say, and for that I was eternally grateful. And even through the nerves that I felt, that feeling of joy afterwards when somebody told me that they really enjoyed what I had to say made it all worthwhile.

…Where next?

I’ll be honest, I was exhausted after doing those two talks. And to be honest, although I’d read all the articles and books I could find under the sun about preparing for talks, what to expect, how to create my talks, etc…I really didn’t know what I was doing still.

But, I kept on and I started looking for more places I could speak at. I knew that not speaking about anything technical limited me in some ways, as I would be quite a break from the sorts of subjects that a conference organiser might be looking for, such as the hot topics like responsive design, Sass, etc.

It was around the end of September when I started thinking about speaking more, but I also knew I was quite busy with work until the end of the year. I had a break planned in January though, for the last New Adventures conf. It was when I was looking at the NA stuff when I noticed that there was a call for talk submissions for Second Wednesday, an evening event in Nottingham, that was teaming up with NA for the night before the conference.

After a fair bit of encouragement from my friend Dan I submitted a talk idea, which was a more evolved version of my talk from the previous year, about how “Everybody can be a Superhero”. And still to this day, I remember the shock, excitement and nervous energy I felt when I found out that Chris and Lucie wanted me to speak there!

Nerves. Oh no.

It was on the night of Second Wednesday that I realised that the thought of getting up on stage to talk in front of people makes me super, super nervous. I felt it on the night of MKGN, but as that was my first ever talk I thought that was normal…and it was over after 5 minutes. And on the day of The Digital Barn I was actually feeling terribly ill, so I don’t really remember feeling too nervous up until my talk.

But on the night of 2W, I was terrified. Consider this also a public apology for Chris - I was so worked up, I felt short of breath, I felt dizzy, and I stood at the back of the room pacing back and forth and shaking like a leaf as Rob was on stage, absolutely killing it. Seriously. Everybody was laughing and loving it. Imposter syndrome kicked in and I thought to myself “What on earth am I doing here?”

Before Rob’s talk, I’d managed to speak to a few good friends who helped to calm me down a little bit. In the end, I was up on stage and was so grateful to see those friends smiling back at me. It definitely pays to have people you know and love nearby for the first couple of talks, to relax you! 🙂

But in the end…I was okay. And once I’d finished my talk, it took me about 35 minutes before I could get back to the back of the room and get a quick drink as so many people wanted to say thank you for my talk and chat to me about their views.

I will say it now - THAT is why I speak and give talks. As long as one person finds something useful from what I say and manages to find it in them to come up to me, say hello and start chatting then I’m the happiest person in that room. I still get nervous - to the point of almost being physically sick - every single time I give a talk, but it makes it all worthwhile if you can help just one or two people out. Luckily for me, I seem to help a lot more than that, and I’m so pleased I’m able to give back in that way.

Advice for Dealing with Nerves

Now the above is only how I feel when I give a talk. I know many, many other people that I would consider total professionals at speaking - think of some of the really big names in our industry when it comes to conference line-ups - that still get nervous about giving talks.

Nerves aren’t necessarily a bad thing though. I think if you’re nervous, it shows that you really care about what you’re doing. If you’re cocky or arrogant, I (personally) think that you might be a bit more careless about it. Nerves very, very quickly turn to adrenaline once you’re on stage anyway - so it’s not all bad.

Here are my top tips (from my own experience) for dealing with the nerves:

  • Familiarise yourself with the venue and the stage. From my experience, any good conference organisers will want you to tech-check your computers and make sure the audio is working fine for each of you before the conference. Take this time to also allow yourself to walk around on the stage, get a feel for the space you have that you can use and just get comfortable with it. This helps me, as I get an idea for the size of the room and what to expect instead of jumping on stage and being terrified by the amount of faces staring back at me.
  • Take lots of deep breaths. This might sound silly, but when I get nervous or worried I tend to start holding my breath and I don’t even pay attention to it, until my breathing becomes a bit more uneven and I notice it. Now, I actively focus on my breathing and if I start feeling nervous or feeling those pesky butterflies appear, then I stop, take a big deep breath in and slowly breathe out. That one action calms me down quite considerably, and I then continue to focus on my breathing some more, to keep it under control.
  • Think of giving a talk as a performance. Now this one is due to my singing background. I love to sing and had singing lessons when I was younger. I gave a few public performances (mostly at school) from around the age of 9 or 10 up until I was 16. My singing teacher always taught me that nerves were a good thing as they showed that I cared about what I was going to do. However, I knew from my experience singing in public that I was good at putting on a performance and that nerves can quickly turn to adrenaline. And if I can miss a whole line of a song and make up for it with nobody knowing, then I can sure as heck get through a 45 minute talk without issue.

But anyway, I now think of getting up on stage and giving a talk a performance. I’m a natural introvert so for me, it takes a lot of effort to do it. But I love to talk and I love to spread my message and ideas. I think I could do a whole post on this topic alone, so I’ll save most of this for another time - but if you’re getting nervous, think that you’re almost putting on a performance - though a genuine, heartfelt, knowledgeable one - for those that are there to watch you and listen to you. Think of your favourite speakers. Are they quiet, mumbly and stand in one spot? Maybe some of them are, but the majority of really successful speakers that I know of are animated, excited, passionate and get the audience really involved and into their mindset.

On top of everything else, never think that you’re alone with feeling nervous before talks. I get really nervous, and even seasoned pros do. Two among them are Mark Boulton and Bruce Lawson, who are both brilliant speakers. And as you can see from these recent tweets, nerves affect them too.

Planning your Talk

So now back to the actual talk stuff for a bit. Planning your talk is something that to be quite honest, until you actually get to writing your talk, you won’t really know how is best for you.

Some people I know prefer to write essays and then split these down into themes, chapters, parts, etc (I did this for my first talk - never again!) and others I know prefer to dive right into Keynote and get creating slides and moving them about that way.

Personally, I prefer to start using my favourite mind mapping software, MindNode, and start planning out my talks that way. I create map after map, with tons of branches for every thought I have about a talk. I then start to collect them and organise them, and create a new mind map for any particular branch I think needs more thought or expansion.

Once I’ve got my basic thoughts together, I do then start to go into Keynote and create one slide for every major point I have. Sometimes you might have several slides in quick succession to make a point, sometimes you might only need one slide for a chunk of time.

I find that it’s whatever floats your boat with this really, and whatever is most comfortable for you. The best thing you can do if you’re new to it, is try what seems most ideal for you when creating a talk and then go on from there - if you find that planning out a talk in Keynote is for you, then go right ahead! There’s no right or wrong way to plan a talk here, as everyone’s methods are different.

Presenters Notes

Now this again is another one that seems total personal preference. Some people hate the notes and don’t use them (I admire those people!), some need just a few bullet points and some (like me) tend to need more detail on there. As I said, I’m super admirable of the people that can roll without notes - as being still semi-new to this I feel I’d lose my way completely without them.

That said, I want to try out going the bullet-point way and making sure I just have a minimal amount of notes that help jog my memory of the point I want to make for that slide. At the moment I use a fair amount of text, which can be pretty difficult if you ad-lib and lose your way when you look back at your slides for a pointer on where next to go. So I’ll be trying to tone that down on my next talk.

The Best Speakers Tell a Story

Now this is purely my own opinion. Love it or ignore it at your will. But personally, I think the best speakers can tell a story. I’m still getting there with this but the people I most admire that I’ve seen speak from our industry do this amazingly well. I think one of my all-time favourite speakers is Mark Boulton and he does this perfectly. When I started speaking, I also started paying attention to other speakers that I had the privilege to watch, and I looked closely at how they worked their magic. Mark is a big inspiration for me with speaking, because he weaves a story through his talks from beginning to end. At least the ones I’ve seen anyway. 🙂

But telling a story is important - I’ve found my best talks have been the ones where I’ve been really honest, I let my guard down and I really talk and try to connect with the audience. I tell them stories about myself, my worries, what I’ve done, then I (try) to tell them funny ones too to balance it out. It’s all about building connections with the people that you’re talking to, and telling stories is one of the best ways that you can do that.

Presenting your Talk

There’s always something to be said about how you should present yourself - or your slides - at a talk. Like with much of the above, I don’t think there’s a particular right or wrong answer. But my take on it is below.

Slide Design

First up is designing your presentation and if you’re anything like me, it’s one of the tasks you find the hardest. I don’t know if it’s something I’ll get used to, but I find that canvas of a keynote really restricting and struggle thinking creatively. Hopefully I’ll switch this around soon. 🙂 Anyway, my top tips for slide design are:

  • Keep it really simple. Nobody likes to read tons and tons of text on a slide if they’re in the audience. It’s difficult, people have different reading speeds and levels and if you say something different to what is on the slide, then they’re either going to miss what they need to read, or miss what is being said.
  • Make one point per slide. I find it easiest to make one major point per slide. That doesn’t mean that I can’t expand upon that point and spend time on it when giving the talk, but I won’t confuse the audience by trying to make multiple points at once.
  • Don’t even think about the design of your slides until your basic content for your slides is complete. This is one thing I’ve learned the hard way. I once spent far too long on designing my slides and then had to rush to get them finished in time. The best thing to do is get all of your slides completed - in the most basic form/design template that Keynote offers - and then build on it once the full slide set is complete. That way, you can build on the animations (Fire animations, oh YEAHH!) and the colours, typography and design after. I find this kind of like wireframes and prototypes. Get the main body of content in their and structured well, and then start to build the design into it.

On the Day

Next up is how you present your talk at the conference, on the day. The most important thing here is to think about how you want to come across, how you want to be portrayed. I have a few tips that will hopefully help:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice your talk beforehand as much as possible. You’ll figure out what you flows best when you’re talking and what doesn’t make much sense when you read it aloud, as well as being able to judge the timing and length of your talk. That said, I can never practice a talk the full way through until the exact day that I do it. I don’t know what it is, but I prefer to run through my talks by practicing in sections and timing those to make sure the overall time is okay. I find I often come in under time when I practice at home, but experience has taught me that I get caught up in the adrenaline on stage and often start to ad-lib and add to my talk, so I know that I will usually come in on time during the real thing.
  • Speak slower than you normally would. This is one thing I got told when I was just starting out. I have a tendency to speak very quickly, so I knew that it was important to pay attention to this point. Don’t forget that an audience is having to pay attention to you, so slow down a little bit and make it easier for them to listen and take in what you’re saying.
  • Always stay true and authentic to yourself. Now I know I said earlier on that you should think of giving a talk as a performance. But that is not to say that you shouldn’t be yourself. That’s the most important thing. Be you, be your real, total self and let your personality shine through. If you’re a bit crazy then show it and don’t be afraid of it. Being your true self - and believe me, the audiences can see right through you when you’re not being - makes an audience love you more and helps them connect with what you’re saying more.

What to do After Your Talk

After your talk, it’s also super important to keep the audience engaged and listening back to what you had to say. Most people don’t take notes at conferences, so being able to look back on what speakers had to say can help trigger ideas and thoughts they have in their heads.

It’s for this reason (and I need to get better at this) that I think it’s really important to share your slides in some form. Even if it’s just a PDF sent only to attendees, if you’re giving the talk again somewhere else and don’t want it publicly out there. Anything you can do to help improve the audience’s interaction with you and your talk will be great.

Getting Paid to Speak

There’s been a whole thing recently about getting paid as speakers. As I’m relatively new to this, it’s not something I have a lot of experience with. I think I’ve been quite lucky to have the organisers I have though, as (just purely as an example) I personally have been paid by both the conferences I’ve spoken at this year.

However, there’s been a ton of advice I’ve seen come out about pricing and speakers fees over the past couple of days, some of which I’ve popped below. I’d definitely go have a read of these right after you’re finished here:

Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions

Whether it’s asking questions to your peers, that also speak, or asking questions to organisers of conferences you’re scheduled to speak at. Never be afraid of asking a question - or thinking that it will be a stupid one. Ask for advice on technique, style of delivery, slide design, etc. Ask the organiser(s) about the tech setup, audio setup, audience size, what format your slides should be in, where you laptop will be, will you have access to presenters notes, will there be an extra screen for you to view your notes from on stage as well as your laptop. All of these questions and more are absolutely fine to ask - and don’t be afraid to ask. After all, getting the answers to these will only help you with your talk prep or give you more of an idea of what to expect when you’re at the conference itself.

One Last Bit of Advice…

More than anything else…enjoy the time that you get to speak. It’s a privilege to be able to share your ideas and message with others and you should feel proud of yourself to be able to get that chance.

Join in the conversation!

Do you have any speaking tips for others? Pop them in the comments below and help share your advice to others just starting out. 🙂


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