Back in May, I signaled that I was looking to get more experience with public speaking and presenting. My first such experience at Ignite Boston 7 back in Marchwas exhilarating and terrifying — like skydiving, really. And once I had a taste of the rush, I wanted more. I declared 2010 “The Year of Speaking Publicly.”
So here we are in December. In the past three months, I have spoken at #140conf Boston, HighEdWeb 2010 in Cincinnati and Stamats Integrated Marketing and Technology Conference in Las Vegas. Back in May, I didn't see that happening. But, it happened — and it was amazing. And I still want more.
While things are relatively quiet, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on these whirlwind past few months.
Why is this important to me?
I think some people would be surprised to learn that I am shy, especially given how often I volunteer myself for public displays of varying types (like, uh, karaoke). Blame my Leonine tendencies. But for me, public speaking is very different.
When I do goofy things in public, my aim is just entertainment — both for myself and those around me. There is not a lot riding on it. But when I am presenting, people are relying on me to be valuable. In some cases, they’ve paid good money to sit there and listen to me, so I take that responsibility seriously. I can’t regurgitate crap. I have to be insightful and engaging. I have to be ready for questions. If I have weak links in my content, they will surely be exposed. And, dear God, what about the backchannel?? It’s a lot to worry about.
So, in pursuing public speaking opportunities, I want to share my knowledge and add value to my professional community, but I also see it as a personal challenge to feel confident that I have something to contribute and am worthy of that responsibility.
How did I prepare?
Solid preparation can defend against the pitfalls listed above. For my HighEdWeb/Stamats presentation, I spent hours doing research, poring over my sources, outlining, organizing, writing and making sure I knew what the hell I was talking about. For me, the real litmus test was the person who came up to me five minutes before I was scheduled to start and asked me to explain what I would be talking about, so she could decide which session to attend. It’s essentially the elevator speech for your presentation. If you can explain it well and succinctly, and you see the spark of comprehension and even of interest in her eyes, that’s a nice shot of confidence right there. And I think I passed that test.
The next step is the visual presentation. This is sort of a second step of the synthesis, as you try to translate what you’ve outlined and learned into a balanced aural and visual experience. I quickly learned how challenging this is — heck, I don’t think I’d ever created slide deck before this year. It’s challenging to learn how to use the visual space to complement and enhance what you are saying without distracting the audience, but I also think it’s a lot of fun. Because of my personality, my presentations were definitely speckled with humor and pop culture references, whether it was my “Spaceballs” shoutout at #140conf or the LOLCats and Legos I dropped into my content curation presentation. Some people play it straight, some people go for the personal approach, and I can’t help but fall into the latter category. Whichever route you take, you have to make sure that the whole package is clear and effective. (Presentation Zen provides some helpful guidance to that end, and I’ve also come across some great tips on designing effective presentations by Design Shack, 10,000 Words, Social Brite and Dan Schawbel.)
The thing I probably didn’t do enough of was demo the presentation for other people. Aside from one trusted friend, no one saw this thing before I took it on the road. I think this is because I was scared of being told it was crap. I did, however, do lots of solo runthroughs, to make sure I knew my talking points back and forth (though I did create a little crib sheet for the points at the heart of my talk). In the future, I’d like to get more human feedback before the real deal.
How did I feel?
I still remember how I felt before my 5-minute Ignite talk — more or less like I was going to throw up, possibly approaching the threshold of a mild panic attack. In the hours leading up to my 10-minute #140conf talk, which came toward the end of a full day of such talks, I fretted about the value of my talk, took a stab at memorizing it on the fly so I could be as cool as some of the speakers who roamed around the stage unbound by slides or prepared text (a plan I soon abandoned), but I did not feel ill or panicky. By the time I gave my second 45-minute presentation on content curation, I was nervous, sure, but not consumed. (Though giving the same presentation two weeks in a row was unexpectedly rough, if only because I felt like I had already gotten the presentation out of me the week before ) The all-consuming fear of speaking publicly receded each time I did it, survived and received positive feedback.
Sometimes, though, you need to tap your support network. The best advice I got came the night before my talk at HighEdWeb, as I confessed my nervousness to a couple of fellow conference attendees watching the Phillies game in the hotel bar. One of them reminded me that I was selected to present at this conference for a very good reason, so I should trust in the smart folks who made that decision. The second was that, when it comes to the topic I am presenting on, I am the expert in the room and people are there because they want to learn from me. Those two insights, while seemingly obvious, were extremely comforting to hear.
Is this real life?
I remember attending HighEdWeb back in 2006 and 2008 and marveling at the speakers. It seemed like such an unattainable goal and an incredible privilege to present at a national conference — on any topic. But what I’ve learned over the years is that good content always wins out in the end. If you have a good idea and valuable information to share, you’re halfway there.
The thing I didn’t realize before is that there are tons of ways to jump into public speaking and presenting. Whether it’s an Ignite event, a Podcamp/Barcamp/Wordcamp event, even a monthly meeting of a local organization (they often look for speakers), the opportunities are out there. Heck, how about your own workplace? Or, failing all else, try recording short videos on YouTube — you can’t see your audience, but at least you’ll get to look your webcam straight in the, er, lens and practice speaking directly and clearly.
But much like listening on Twitter before jumping in to engage, I found it very helpful to simply begin paying closer attention to presentations I was already attending. TEDxBoston in July was extremely valuable, not only for the content of the talks, but for the opportunity to learn from how the speakers delivered them. Whose slides worked, and whose didn’t? What made a talk compelling, and what made it fall flat? (Conveniently, lots of TED Talks are available online if there are no events nearby.)
Who can help me?
- Chris Brogan outlined some great ways to build your stage for public speaking and find professional speaking opportunities.
- Journalistics shares how to find and land speaking opps.
- Rohit Bhargava talks about why he gets invited to speak at events (and how you can, too).
- Chelpixie shares her six presentation tips for the the neophyte.
- Power public speaking tips from Jared Spool and Edward Tufte
- Lauren Vargas discusses rocking responsibilities as a presenter, panelist and attendee.
- Lifehack outlines the 11 paradoxes of becoming a better public speaker.
- Forbes offers tips on how to give a great speech.
- Tim Sanders shares how to give a pain-free, highly customized talk.
- Susan Murphy talks about how to overcome shyness and embrace public speaking.
- Beth Kanter relays some insights on conversational mechanics and “unpresenting.”
- SEOMoz reveals why most conference presentations suck.
- A few handy tips to give your presentation legs from Amber at Brass Tack Thinking.
More, I hope! The experiences of the past year have certainly lit a fire, and I am already building up a list of presentation ideas and possible outlets for them. But while this is exciting and fun and everything, I am not forgetting the most important question to ask: is this valuable? Not for me, but for the audience. If the answer is no, then I move on. But if the answer is yes… just hand me the clicker.
Photos by Michael Fienen from SIMTech 2010, Las Vegas, NV, Oct. 21, 2010
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