I spoke at a conference for the first time last month. It was an exhilarating and educational experience, and because in my preparation I appreciated several posts and articles about giving presentations, I suspect sharing my observations may be valuable to somebody, somewhere.
I’d set it as a goal for myself to give some sort of talk this year, but submitting abstracts to ThatConference seemed like a long shot. I figured maybe I could speak to a user group, or, if nothing else, I could wrangle some colleagues into a conference room for twenty minutes some time.
It was a long shot. And it didn’t pan out. Until it did. I submitted three abstracts and all three were rejected. Which was a bummer, but not a surprise. Little did I know that my company‘s sponsorship of the conference included a speaker slot, and it wasn’t spoken for. (And many, many thanks to them for trusting me enough to give me a crack at it.)
So I was in. I cheated, but I was in. I’ll take it. I even got to pick which of my three abstracts I would use.
(I could say something about writing abstracts, but there’s better material out there on that than I could write here. And mine were rejected, so you probably don’t really want my advice on such things anyway. I will say this, though: I chose topics and wrote abstracts that I thought would appeal to me, if I were attending a conference.)
So I had a slot and I had an abstract but I didn’t have my content. At that point, the content seemed like the hard part, too, so I gave myself the majority of the three or so months before the talk to work out an outline of just what I wanted to say.
Fortunately, months earlier I had started collecting and stashing thoughts, references, quotes, etc. (The collecting wasn’t done with a particular topic or even a talk in mind. In fact, I actually came up with my topics based on the stuff I’d deemed important enough to jot down.) So I already had a list of things I thought were worth sharing. I worked it into an outline and sat on it for a while, thinking the meat of this project was done and feeling pretty good about it. (Oh, for that month back.)
Eventually, I turned my outline into slides. And when I went to do that I thought, oh crap, this is the hard part. What works as an outline doesn’t work with the sort of one-after-the-other, temporal flow that slides require. An outline has a structure you can see at a glance. When you deliver the same content via sequential slides, the flow of one point into another is much more important. Not only that, but my precious outline included several bullet points that needed to be split or combined to work in slide form. It was a lot more work than I expected, and I wonder now if that outline step hurt more than it helped.
My next mistake: No visuals. I think slides should be secondary to spoken content, and my early slides took that line of thinking a bit too far. Each slide had a simple heading or a short quote related to what I would talk about. Simple text on a simple background. What I’d actually say would be in the notes. I convinced myself that this would force me to make the spoken content great. Even when my wife saw the slides and gently encouraged me to include some pictures, I brushed her off.
Maybe constraints like that would work well for a great speaker. I’m not a great speaker.
And that’s what I found when I finally got around to doing a practice run, about a month out, to an empty room. It was terrible. Absolutely awful. I didn’t know my content, my flow was nonexistent, and — here’s the biggest takeaway — everything sounded good in my head and looked good on the page, but just didn’t sound right when spoken aloud. It felt like I was trying to write with my off hand, or parallel park on the left side of the street. Or some better metaphor.
I panicked. I had a trial run scheduled with some colleagues the next day. I canceled it. Maybe this is the hard part. Or, hell, they’re all hard parts. I needed to do some serious rewriting and practicing, simply to not look like an idiot up there. And I had a month.
So I hunkered down. I spent a lot of time on the thing. Even worked on it during a vacation, much to my family’s chagrin. I also watched some good talks to see how they handled all the things I did badly. My savior was Scott Hanselman’s productivity talk at Webstock 2012. Scott used pictures, and he used them extremely well, not leaning on his slides, but using them to punctuate and enhance what he was saying. He also moved quickly through slides and he made them funny. Very engaging. I was inspired. I did the same. It was a ton of work, as it meant finding appropriate (and preferably humorous) visuals for every point I wanted to make, but it worked out.
During all that work, I was painfully conscious of the fact that I wasn’t practicing. I knew that my previous practice run had been terrible, and that a lot of that was due to my delivery and the words not sounding right when spoken aloud. But it’s hard to stand up and speak aloud to an empty room. I knew it would sound terrible. In retrospect, I put it off way too long, and my eventual presentation would’ve been better if I’d taken much more time to practice.
About a week out, I finally did the heavily revised talk for a group of colleagues. I warned them that this was my first time through the slides since a painstaking rewrite. I had a whiskey beforehand. And it worked much better. It got some laughs. The flow still wasn’t great, and I realized that some of the content needed to be changed, moved or removed, but it was a start.
And so the next week was all about practice runs. I did one for my wife, and several for empty rooms. Each one made it better, shining a light on things that didn’t quite work. The night before the talk, I did two full run-throughs in my hotel room, and by that point I actually felt pretty good about it. (That was amazing to me at the time. It still is.) Ready enough. I slept well.
Day-of, I went straight to the room. My talk was after the keynote, and I could hear it in the distance. I paced. I made myself a drink. I ate M&M’s. I did the power pose. I made myself another drink.
People slowly filed in. It was exciting to see them showing up. It meant my abstract wasn’t terrible, at the very least. (There were three concurrent talks I’d have gone to over mine, based on the descriptions.) It was especially exciting to see the folks I knew who came out — looking out at smiling, forgiving faces, I’d quickly learn, can do a lot to calm your nerves when public speaking.
At 10:30 exactly, I had no choice but to accept my fear and start, so I dove in.
It went okay. According to my notebook from that day, I felt “75-80% happy with the content, and about 60% happy with the delivery.”” People laughed at some of the jokes. Even some of my screw-ups got chuckles, and I was able to recover from a few of them to turn them into laughs. (This seems like a big deal to me now. It means I was comfortable enough to think clearly up in front of people.) I’d been afraid to take questions and comments at the end, but did it anyway, and people were kind and shared cool things. I think I even made decent eye contact for the first time in my life.
There were some tough things, too. Looking out and seeing people on their phones while you’re talking can be discouraging. Seeing people get up and leave can be even more discouraging. I knew those things were coming, and I’d told myself not to take them personally, but they certainly weren’t positives. (The upside: I took them in stride and didn’t get flustered.)
I toasted the crowd at the end. Being done felt great. A few people came up to chat after, which I’d thought would be awkward, but really wasn’t, because they were really just eager to talk about stuff I care enough to speak about. A woman came up and showed me that she’d sketch-noted the talk, which was extremely cool. Some internet acquaintances had nice things to say about the way I used my slides to highlight the content instead of being the content. A colleague who’d seen my practice run a week before commented on how much better the actual talk was. A guy even stopped me in the hall later on and told me he enjoyed my presentation. Success!
I was (am) incredibly lucky to be surrounded by supportive people during all this. I’m not sure I could’ve gotten through it with my dignity intact without them (and I surely wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to begin with). A couple of coworkers talked to me later in the day about my content, relating it to their own lives. The boss’s boss even suggested I give the talk at the upcoming branch meeting. That makes you feel good. Humans are pretty great sometimes.