In the beginning of this year, I submitted a talk to some conferences and … it got accepted! A yeey and oh dear moment in one. Talking was a great experience and I will continue to do it, but it was also difficult at times. So I thought I would cover some aspects of preparing for public speaking that helped me a lot. Let’s start with the most difficult thing: finding a topic.
One good way to find a topic is to look at problems you have and where you can find very little advice for online. The other one is to find a subject you have some general knowledge about, but you want to take a deep dive into it. I wouldn’t recommend submitting a topic someone knew absolutely nothing about, especially if you just started this whole ‘public speaking thing’. Don’t get me wrong, some speakers do it and get fantastic results, but it can also easily turn out completely different.
Start by introducing yourself, make sure the audience have a sense of who you are, what you like to do.
Giving a talk is like telling a story: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. After you did that for your general talk, go over ‘the middle’ and divide it into beginning, middle and end again. Keep repeating until you have your content included! (This is starting to sound like a cooking recipe)
This way your content gets divided in blocks and you can freely add or remove them depending on how long your talk has to be without loosing the flow of your talk. And if you forget something, it won’t be that noticable too ;-) Which brings us to another difficult thing to master as a speaker:
One of the most difficult things is getting the timing right. 45 minutes may seem like a long time, but it is really short for giving a talk. The most important thing I learned from giving a talk is: during the talk you always talk faster than when you are practicing.
Time yourself when you are practicing the separate blocks and write down how long they take. You can keep that with you during the talk, so you can skip one if you are running out of time.
Also time the entire talk length, because once you get into ‘the rhythm’, you talk a bit more fluent and the duration of the separate blocks don’t always add up to entire duration of the talk.
One thing is for sure after just a few talks: every audience is different. You can ask this to any speaker and they will tell you the same thing.
Giving a talk for a meetup and for a conference are very different. When you give your talk at a conference, you get a mic strapped on and a camera pointed at your face. For me, speaking at a meetup was much more relaxing and less stressful than speaking at a conference. People pay to go to conferences and I wanted to do an excellent job. Ironically, this made my talk at a conference a bit worse. ;-) I’m still looking for a way to be less stressy about a conference talk. If I have to guess, I think just do a lot of talking at a conference might get me there.
For me, the questions were the most scary part. Specifically the thought that I would loose track because I was being interrupted by them and the notion that there might be questions that I would not be able to answer. And yes, that happened!
There were questions that I couldn’t answer, and I just told them. And I’m still alive! ;-) There is no problem in telling someone you don’t know the answer. I told them that if they got in touch with me (how to get in touch was on my slides when I introduced myself), I would be more than happy to look into it and try to answer it.
If you don’t want your talk to be interrupted by questions from the audience, tell them that there will be time at the end of the talk to answer any questions that they have.
Something which helped me a lot during preparations was to ask a seasoned speaker for advice on my talk. I had a topic in mind, which would be very interesting to talk about, but I had no idea how to start. So, I asked someone with experience in creating a talk if we could Skype and go over my talk.
There are many ways to create a talk and not every speaker will give you the same advice, but after a while you will find your own style of doing this.
Practice makes ‘perfect’
Join a local community that offer their attendees a chance to learn how to speak. Some meetups promote lightning talks or invite local members to present their talk. For me that was SoCraTesBE and DDDBE. They gave me a chance to practice my speaking skills and my talk and provided me with some helpful feedback! I am very happy to be part of these communities! <3
And don’t forget:
Enjoy it! Because it really is super fun to do :-)
(note: there is a lot more that I could say about public speaking, but I’ll keep that for another blog post)