On Speaking

Back in 2004, Christopher Schmitt asked me to share a CSS panel at SXSW alongside Doug Bowman and Dave Shea. I was terrified. I’d never spoken in front of a large group of people before, and frankly the very idea of such a thing had always made me tremble with paralyzing fear. But when you’re asked to speak with Bowman and Shea, you pack your bags and you go do it.

And I survived.

We did it again the following year, and I survived again. I remember thinking, “well this isn’t so bad, no lives are at stake here”. So I started saying yes to other events, eventually constructing hour-long talks and workshops that could be repeated in various cities around the globe. I survived those too, and hopefully I was able to entertain and share some thinking around designing websites with web standards.

View from the stage

I’m taking a hiatus from speaking in 2011 to recharge and focus on other things, but thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned from speaking over the last several years, from someone who isn’t a naturally-born speaker or expert in speaking, hates flying, and generally get anxious about combining those two activities.

Some of the follow points might be obvious for some, but they’re all important bits I try and keep in mind before every talk. I’ve learned most of them from other speakers, articles and advice from colleagues and event organizers.

  • Say yes. If you’re asked to speak, by all means say yes. The people that get up to speak in front of an audience are no different than the people sitting in the audience. The only difference is that they’ve said yes. In some cases they’ve taken a risk, or agreed to something out of their comfort zone, but I can attest than anyone can speak if they just get up there and give it an effort.
  • Get paid. I’m of the mind that if the conference or event is turning a profit, so should the speaker. Don’t be afraid to ask for a speaking fee if the event is profitable. You’ll deserve it. If it’s your first time speaking and you’ve traveled across continents or across town, you should be paid. Even if it’s a small amount—it’s a good principle to stick to.
  • Practice. Contrary to the preceding point, there are plenty of non-profit events to practice at. Local meetups, Refresh groups, etc. This is where you can practice without the pressure of making paying customers happy.
  • You’ll never please everyone. No matter what the event is, the audience will always be a diverse mixture of folks from many disciplines. You’ll forever have to attempt to strike a balance between being too technical or not technical enough. That’s OK. Some will take away, others won’t. If the feedback is overwhelmingly negative because the content of your talk didn’t jive with the skill level of the audience, blame the conference organizer. No really. It’s their job to assemble a program that hopefully has the talks working in concert with each other. Beware of invitations that say, “speak about whatever you’d like. We don’t care”. Conference organizers should be proactive in editorializing the talks to create a cohesive flow. Great conferences will do that.
  • Take your badge off. The audience knows who you are, and it’ll swing and bang the microphone and make noise. Plus, no one can pull off wearing a conference badge and look cool at the same time. Except maybe Jeff Veen.
  • Drink water. And don’t worry about pausing to take a sip. Pauses are fine and no one notices them. It took me a long time to realize that. If you have a good (or bad) joke and the audience laughs, this is a prime opportunity to take a drink without disrupting the flow.
  • Tell stories. Stories are interesting. Stories that relate to what you’re trying to convey will not only make your talk more interesting, but also help the audience absorb your topic. Example: instead of starting off, “I’m going to talk about CSS3 selectors”, you might begin, “The other day I was working on a client project where CSS3 selectors came in handy. Here’s how.”. The audience wants to hear how you relate to the topic.
  • Use a remote. I like to be mobile on stage, and the remote is key is making sure you can get out from behind the podium. I’ve been using the Kensington Wireless Presenter for years after Eric Meyer had recommended it. A USB remote (like the Kensington) will have a far better range than the standard Apple Remote.
  • Share experiences instead of dictating. The talks I enjoy the most are usually always based on the speaker sharing their experiences and their point of view on a particular topic. The talks I dislike the most are those that preach one specific way of executing something. Talk down to the audience and it’ll make it harder to win them over.
  • Embed interactions. If you’re demonstrating interaction with a website, capture that as a movie file and embed it in the presentation. Keynote is particularly good at this (just drag a .mov file to a slide and presto). Conference wifi can be unpredictable, and it’s best not to rely on a live connection to showcase web pages. Embedding screencasts makes for a smoother presentation as well, keeping the flow in a single application. No need to switch in and out of your slides to show something else. I use iShowU to capture stuff on screen with good results and I’ve heard positive things about ScreenFlow as well.
  • Spend little time on introducing yourself. Most of the time, the audience has already had a chance to check out who you are, so lengthy intros about yourself are often unnecessary. A few links and ways people can contact you and learn more at the close of the talk can be more efficient. Start right in with the meat of the presentation. Starting with a story can help (see earlier point re: stories).
  • Attend the event. I try and attend as many of the talks as possible. People pay good money for an event, and you, as a presenter, have the opportunity to listen and learn for free. It’s also important for camaraderie amongst fellow speakers and the event organizers. But most important of all, there’s an immense amount you can learn about speaking by watching how everyone else does it. See what works for others, their style, the way they deliver, how the audience responds. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, watch the other speakers as a learning tool to make your own speaking better. For free.

This list is far from exhaustive, and again it’s not coming from an expert. Just some things that helped me along the way, and will hopefully be useful to a few of you out there.