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Why You Should Stop Stalling and Start Presenting

Why You Should Stop Stalling and Start Presenting

My last post generated a bit of buzz when it was posted to HackerNews recently, so I figured I’d take this opportunity to reiterate something I’ve been saying on Twitter for a while now.

If you have never presented a conference before, make this the year you change that.

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1. It is an incredible experience that makes you better at other things

Being a good speaker is a skill that will serve you throughout your career. Part of being a good speaker is projecting confidence (even if you secretly feel like you’re going to shit your pants at any moment.)

The ability to project confidence is absolutely invaluable, when speaking to clients, meeting with co-workers, negotiating for a raise, pretty much everywhere.

2. You will meet great people and learn about their experiences

My favorite part about speaking at conference is after I’m done speaking, when people line up to ask questions, and I get to learn more about them and their unique challenges.

A great example of this was at dotScale in Paris last month. I was giving a presentation on risk and security, and once I was done with my talk, I got to speak to a handful of people who enjoyed my talk but have challenges I didn’t address in my presentation. (To be fair, my presentation was only 18 minutes long – there were lots of things I couldn’t address in that time slot.)

One of the things I learned was that in France, there is even more of a challenge with getting companies and users to care about security, because when a breach happens, absolutely nothing is done about it. No one sues, no class-action suits. No credit monitoring. Not even bad PR for the company. It doesn’t even make the news.

As an American, it had never occurred to me that a company could be breached and the public could find out, and not so much as an angry email would be written. Granted, in America,  no one really cares either, but at least we put on a better show of it. OUTRAGE!!

You can definitely meet great people without being a speaker, but when you’ve established yourself as an authority on a topic, the conversation tends to be different than when you’re just making casual conversation with other attendees. People seek you out for your expertise to address the problems they haven’t been able to solve on their own, and that’s a pretty great feeling.

And the best part is that each conversation you have after a talk is an opportunity to make your next one even better.

3. Even if you suck the first time, it really is okay, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time

I’m a pretty good presenter these days, but I want to tell you about a time when I wasn’t.

My first presentation was for an auditorium of about 250 District Attorneys in Southern California. I was in my early 20s, and I had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING.

And I was awful.

No, really. Awful.

I put a lot of work and research into my slides, thank god, because I’m pretty sure I read them verbatim (which by the way, is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing when you present.)

I had no memory of the presentation after I finished. I’m not even kidding. I remember walking up to the stage, and walking back from the stage, but I have no idea what happened for the hour I was on stage. I like to imagine I channeled Tony Robbins for those 60 excruciating minutes, but something tells me it was far less inspired.

Skip ahead in time to last year, when I was fortunate enough to be present for my friend Kimberly Stedman’s first public speaking appearance – and was unfortunate enough to have to follow right after her. She absolutely crushed it, despite the two of us having alternating panic attacks as we waited our turn. The conversation before we went up went something like this:

Me: “Oh my god why did I sign up for this? I can’t do this! I’m going to throw up.”
Her: “Stop it! You’re going to be great. You KNOW this stuff.”
Me: “Okay….”
*3 minutes later*
Her: “Oh my god why did I sign up for this?? I can’t do it. I’m going to let them know I’m out.”
Me: *armsmack* “Knock it off! You’ve GOT this.”
Her: “Okay….”

Within the first 10 seconds of her presentation, anyone watching could tell she’s a natural at it. She seemed a little nervous at first, but then something changed. Her body posture actually shifted so that her stance was more solid, she bent her knees as she was talking, and from that point on in her presentation, she was on fire, oozing charisma and humor, and the audience was eating out of the palm of her hand.

Her first time was pretty different than mine, but even though I sucked my first time and she was great her first time, we’re both still here. Nobody died because my presentation sucked. My reputation wasn’t ruined. Nobody lost their job. No bitcoins lost their value, and God didn’t kill any kittens. Everything was actually okay.

And it’s so important to remember that. What’s your absolute worst-case scenario? Really? The worst-case scenario is never really that bad, when you set aside the panic and think it through – and you’re never as bad as the worst you will imagine.

We’re both still speaking at conferences, and we’re both still getting better. And she pushed through that fear and realized that HOLY SHIT DOES SHE LOVE PUBLIC SPEAKING. Absolutely LOVES it.

Of course it’s terrifying. At least the first few (dozen) times. I’m a pretty social, extroverted person, and I still sometimes suffer the occasional panic attack before I get up on stage. But part of the euphoria I get after presenting is knowing that, once again, I kicked that fear right in the harbls and got my ass on stage and did it. And no matter how your presentation goes, that’s an incredible feeling.

4. It’s great for your career

This one is kind of obvious, but when you present on topics, that means that enough people consider you an expert on those topics that they want you to share your knowledge with other people at their conference. That plus the networking you get out of it will connect you with people you might not otherwise have had access to.

5. If you are part of an underrepresented minority, your peers need to see you on that stage

I think I covered this pretty throughly in my previous post, but I believe it’s critical for underrepresented minorities (women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc) to be on that stage, showing off their expertise in their chosen field. Not as a token, but as a role model.

6. Your audience is actually far more forgiving than you imagine

While you’re on stage (or talking yourself up a tree before you go on stage), it doesn’t feel that way, but I promise it’s true. With very few exceptions, they know it takes balls to get up there, and they respect you by default because you’re the one on the stage.

You can – and should – read up on ways to become a better public speaker, but the reality is that if you goof and say “ummm” a few too many times, it’s really okay. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s your first time, and you’ll get better every time you do it.  Most audiences are pretty forgiving.

7. You’re smarter than you think. Things that are obvious to you are not obvious to everyone else

When I was speaking at Macworld/MacIT earlier this year, I was really worried. My presentation was (once again) on risk and security, and I was terrified that my talk would be too basic, too much of a high overview, instead of deeply technical and actually useful to my audience.

I assumed it was basic because it’s what I did every single day. The things I was talking about in my presentation were obvious to me, but anything but for everyone else in the room.

You take for granted what you already know and are good at. It doesn’t seem that inspiring or new to you, because you’ve been doing it a while. There are always going to be people out there that aren’t there yet, and that’s where you can add real value to their lives.

If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome like I do (and so many of my colleagues), repeat this one over and over. Don’t try to conquer your entire Impostor Syndrome all at once for this. Baby steps. Just remember that you definitely know some stuff that other people don’t know, and it’s great to help people learn.

8. It feels really fucking awesome talking about stuff you care about

In my experience, the only bad speakers out there are the ones that don’t care about what they’re presenting on. The audience can tell, and even if you’re a rookie, your enthusiasm and love for what you do will show through – you can’t stop it.

I would rather watch a newbie on stage who is passionate and knowledgable about what she’s talking about than a seasoned presenter who fell out of love with their topic a decade ago.

Some pre-speaking panic-aversion tricks I’ve picked up

There are tons of articles that talk about how to become a better speaker: try not to use filler words like “umm”, don’t read your slides, try not to use your hands too much because it’s distracting, use your hands because it shows you’re engaged, blah blah blah.

I’m not going to regurgitate those tips. It’s important to make an effort to become a better speaker, but the stuff they never share with you is how to stop from freaking the fuck out before you even get on stage.

Remember that it will be over soon. I know that sounds like a terrible thing to think, but it helps me a lot in calming down right before I get on stage. If my talk is 45 minutes long, I say to myself “For better or worse, it will be over in less than an hour.” It actually does work in calming me down and putting things into perspective, so I can walk up onto that stage more clear-headed.

Start small if you have to. Consider presenting at your local users group before presenting in front of 1,000 people. Or don’t. It’s really whatever you’re comfortable with, but meet ups and users groups can be a great way to test out content and get more comfortable presenting to people in a more casual setting. No shame in starting small and working your way up.

Power poses. I’m embarrassed to write that because it sounds too new-agey-Shirley-MacLaine-what-color-is-your-aura for my tastes, but it actually works. When you assume power poses, it actually changes the chemistry in your brain and makes you feel calmer and more confident.  Check out this TED talk by Amy Cuddy to learn more.

I stand with my feet shoulder-width apart, with my arms outstretched all the way, making myself as big as possible. I do this for about 20 seconds, 5 minutes before I go on stage, and it makes a difference. I look like a tool, but I walk out on stage more confidently, and that’s what matters.

Presenter View OWNS. Both Keynote and Powerpoint have a feature called “presenter view”, which allows you to view a smaller version of the slides that will show up on screen, the slide that will be coming up next, your (non-visible) notes, and a timer. All of these things are invaluable as you’re presenting, as you learn to adjust your timing based on the amount of time you have left.

Notes are really helpful for making sure you’re not reading off your slides. Keep your slides minimal, with visual highlights, but make a bulleted list of the stuff you want to cover in your presenters notes. It will make you look more comfortable with the material.

Review your slides the night before. I tend to put off finishing my slides until much later than I should, but that’s not how you should do it if you can help it. Definitely run through your slides the night before your talk, from start to finish. Practice the run through, using presenter view and your notes, so you’re really clear on how long it will take and get the pacing down.

So… What are you waiting for?

Yeah, it’s scary. But kicking scary stuff’s ass is how we become stronger, better and more confident. Get on it!

Start looking for open CFPs. And if your topic doesn’t get accepted, don’t take it personally. Organizing a conference is hard work, and it’s always challenging to pick topics that are diverse enough but also on-point for the event. If your CFP doesn’t get accepted, it could be as simple as the fact that they’d already got a few other CFPs with the same topics.

And ladies in tech, be sure to check out @CallbackWomen on Twitter. They retweet CFPs for conferences looking for talented female tech speakers to increase speaker diversity.

And also make sure you check out Speaking.io, a great site by Zach Holman of Github. It’s got tons of great practical tips for real people, including putting together your CFP, the software you should use, etc.

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About snipe

I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist, and the former CTO and CSO at a business innovation agency in New York City. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...
  • iansltx

    Presented two nights ago at AustinPHP. That was my first solo presentation in awhile and I wasn’t as prepared as I would’ve liked, but the crowd was accommodating of my brain-dump-on-slides (http://ian.im/paslides if you’re wondering) and I daresay that it turned out reasonably well. Well enough that I threw a couple abstracts onto the ZendCon CFP later that night. I’m sure that all three topics will be covered by primary sources on the material rather than me. But hey, it feels good to give people information that they care about, even if it involves public speaking :-)

  • Jeff Smith

    My wife gets very very nervous about public speaking – but she’s VERY decent at it. The most effective pep-talk I can give her is #6 – the audience WANTS you to succeed. They all know how scary it can be, and will always put less pressure on you than you put on yourself.

    That being said, the most intimidating thing for me is to present to a room of my co-workers/peers. I put the audience on a pedestal that’s impossibly high for me to reach.