Very often these days, I receive questions about how to give an effective speaking presentation, or how to start on the tech speaking circuit, and I’m never loathe to tell the truth – even though I know I run the risk of sounding overly flippant or rude telling it, because the truth is: “I don’t have a fucking clue.” I honestly don’t feel confident that I have figured it out yet enough to explain it. Despite the decent number of past speaking gigs on my list, the facts remain that, at this point, I haven’t even been doing it for a full year and that I began doing it at the invitation of others, not my own initiative. It went something along the lines of the opportunity being suggested to me and my response being, “Well, why not?”
My personal philosophy about speaking is not as an expert imparting knowledge and wisdom. I’m not an expert. I’m not sure if I want to be. It seems a little boring. In any case, it’s a moot point, because I have an amazing amount still to learn about virtually everything. Instead, I approach speaking as an opportunity to share a topic I’m interested in and probably still trying to formulate my definite opinions on. It’s a chance to start a conversation. My talks are generally less one-way lectures and more of loosely-structured classes, open to audience input. I value immediacy, spontaneity and authenticity. No one’s thrown tomatoes yet, so I’m guessing enough people enjoy this approach that I can continue to practice it.
So, while I’m not sure how to dispense formal advice that will win you tech speaking success and fame across the board, I can tell you how I use speaking as a tool to have fun, share ideas and meet interesting people. Beyond that, you’re on your own.
The talks I respond to most easily and which I retain the most information from are those that don’t seem like talks. They feel like a smart, friendly person just happened to have a particularly well-structured conversation to introduce to me. And a set a slides on hand to help prove her point. It’s not about pretending to not be giving a talk; it’s about not pretending at all. Be prepared, but be aware that anything overly rehearsed or performed runs the risk of constructing a wall between you and your audience. I’ve seen technically perfect talks that lost my interest within a few minutes because I felt I was being talked at instead of talked to.
There’s a factor of taste in this, admittedly. Some people may prefer more formal talks. Unfortunately, those people will probably not enjoy mine, because I usually choose to err on the side of informality, openness and humility rather than acting like I know what I’m doing when I don’t, which is most of the time. However, judging with a rule of thumb of authenticity will also help separate the wheat from the chaff of speakers who give talks not to share and further ideas but to prop up their own egos. While differences in taste are acceptable, a speaker who cares more about inflating her own reputation than enriching or at the very least entertaining her audience is not.
Just be honest. Whatever you lack in expertise or polish, honesty will make up for. You have experiences and perspectives no one else has, and that’s what you offer as a speaker. If you can make your talks an authentic expression of yourself, you may have already achieved more success than those with names more well-known than yours.
Spend time with people
I speak often, and travel often, and I do it as a full-custody single mother. Every time I speak and travel I have a bundle of childcare arrangements and schedule juggling to do. Because of this, sometimes I don’t get to spend as much time at conferences as I would like. But I try hard not to be a speaker who breezes in to speak and then leaves again, duty done and interactions avoided. Conversations with audience members after my talks are the best part. That’s where I’ve made the most valuable connections and learned the most about other relevant subject matter. So make sure you answer questions, exchange Twitter handles, email follow-ups and pursue opportunities. If you frame your talks as conversations, it only makes sense to continue the conversation after you’ve left the stage, and the entire experience will be that much more rewarding.
A corollary to this guideline: be visible. If you’re a woman or other minority in tech, you have an unique opportunity to make even more of an impact when connecting with people. I’m often one of the few female speakers on the speaker roster; I’ve spoken at conferences where I was the only female speaker. I’ve received feedback from other women, especially beginners, that my visibility was an important inspiration to them. All it took was standing up and reminding them there’s no reason they can’t do the same.
Let people show you up
After one of my very first talks, an audience member asked a question that was an absolutely perfect, if not outright necessary, topic to address in my talk - and one that I had never thought about once. I felt a little sheepish at first, but it was a great lesson in the end. There are smart people in your audiences. If you engage them, and make it clear from the beginning you value their input, they’ll collaborate to make your talk better. Then you will have gained both goodwill and new information you can take to other talks.
Although I’ve never organized a large-scale conference, I’ve put together enough unconferences, classes and meetups to know organizing is hard. It takes a huge amount of time and effort to create conference speaking opportunities for you. Taking the time to get to know your conference hosts is a cool thing to do, including introductions and thanks. It also helps build your reputation as a pleasant, thoughtful, reliable person who would be nice to accept again to future conferences. Putting a little good karma into the world is never a bad idea.
Completing a talk is never the end of that particular topic for me. There’s always another path to branch off of it, always another question to answer, always another related topic to explore. This is what makes speaking so interesting to me. I see it as an open channel of communication. Not to mention it puts you in the path of regularly seeing other people present, and constantly being able to absorb more new ideas and approaches. I find new tools to try, new books to read, new people to talk to. If you’re doing it right, the learning never really ends.
This advice is mostly pretty squishy – it’s entirely understandable that if you’re trying to get started as a speaker, you need some specific pointers. Fortunately, there have been some great articles on just this topic recently:
Remember what I mentioned earlier – you have experiences and perspectives no one else has. Bring them to conference organizers and tell them what you can offer. Don’t try to edit and censor yourself to fit what you think they already want to see, and don’t wait for them to ask you to show it. I made that mistake in the beginning, but I don’t anymore, because I’ve seen how well people respond to me by simply being myself. It’s a valuable skill, and it will get you a lot farther than trying to be anyone else.