Speaking at Conferences

I’ve been asked a lot of questions recently about speaking at conferences, mainly at the recent New Adventures in Web Design conference. I ran into a lot of curious people at the after-party who either wanted to get into speaking or were just curious about how things worked behind the scenes, so I thought it might be useful to note down my personal process and some insights into the Conference world.

Starting point


A page of scribbles from my notebook for New Adventures Conference – yes, I’ve spelt some stuff wrong.

A talk always starts in the same way for me, notes. Hundreds of scribbles, pictures and ideas that eventually form the basis of the talk. I generally have an idea in my head, or have to adhere to perhaps a theme the conference organiser has in mind, generally I’m asked to speak about iPhone related stuff, as that is what I specialise in, but I was, and always have been, first and foremost a designer, so in the case of New Adventures, we were encouraged to think about new twists and brand new topics to expand the mind and pull away from our comfort zones a little.

I had my topic in my head from late November, I started reading books, lots of books, over Christmas – in relation to what I was looking to speak about. Little paragraphs jump out, I circle them and look to explore them further, find quotes and always ensure they back up the message I’m trying to relay. I normally make sure I have at least 10 different ideas and sections to explore and then pick those that I feel are the strongest. I’m also slightly different (from what I understand other speakers do) in that I type out my entire talk first, almost like a script, I then annotate sections where I feel a slide would be appropriate or something might need explaining a little better and read and re-read this until I start to form definite sections.

In the book “Confessions of a Public Speaker” it is apparently a conference “no-no” to start your talk with a large section about yourself, what you have achieved and what your pets name is, a brief intro is fine. I have a bit of a problem talking about myself anyway so I’ve always adhered to this as much as possible. The reason Scott suggests shortening your introduction is that it dilutes your message, stalls the start of your talk and if anyone is that interested, they’ll always ‘look you up’. However, I know plenty of people who start this way, there certainly is no golden rule – just my personal preference to always leap straight in, where possible.

As an estimate, but perhaps I’m slow, my talks generally take me 2 weeks to create, design slides for and rehearse. For New Adventures, I allowed time for this over the Christmas period and did chunks throughout December prior to that.

Practice

You need to practice your talk. After talking with a lot of the speakers at New Adventures, I was surprised to hear that not many rehearse in the traditional sense of the word, actually walking around talking to themselves.

I do. I feel stupid, sure, but it always highlights a weakness in my talk, and I would rather find this out infront of my dog than 650 attendees. Again though, it’s whatever works for you, other speakers, far more eloquent than me, don’t use this method, but I would encourage you to talk out loud if possible, at least once.

Only last week, whilst rehearsing, I realised that my habit when speaking, wasn’t the traditional “um” it was “and” – which in a way, is far worse. At least “um” is a pause, “and” means you actually have to follow up with something significant and meaningful. Knowing your weaknesses before you get up there, is a huge bonus.

Another weakness of mine is being thrown by technical problems. For those who saw me at New Adventures, you would have seen I’ve become quite good at thinking on my feet when this happens, I’m referring to the microphone problem (which was entirely my fault!). However, every single venue I spoke at last year, was different. You would think this wouldn’t throw you but it can take some getting used to.

Sometimes we have multiple monitors on the stage, one showing the slide the attendees are seeing, another with the timer and another showing the slide that is coming next. Sometimes you will find yourself in a traditional lecture-style hall, with the attendees high above you, and the screens out of view, other times, you’ll find yourself on a stage, looming over the attendees. I personally find the lecture hall style quite daunting, because you can literally see every fidget, tap of the laptop and person checking Twitter, there is nothing to cast your eyes over to concentrate on. The monitors can sometimes fail, your clicker to advance the slides can fail, or in the case of New Adventures, I forgot to bring it onstage altogether and it sat in the pocket of Dan Rubin the entire time – confining me to a talk, mostly behind the lectern.

Then comes the dreaded Keynote dual screen, the bain of every speakers talk. Dual screen in Keynote allows us to see presenter notes that we may have written whilst outputting only the slides to the attendees. Even the most experienced of speakers sometimes rely on these for “key facts”, especially in longer presentations. It should be just plug and go, the truth is, it rarely is and much fiddling ensues.

It’s said though, that you should be prepared for everything to fail – including your slides, and be able to speak with just your talk. It’s always something I keep in the back of my head when designing my slides, as frightening as it might be, Andy Clarke told me it was very nearly a possibility at An Event Apart once when some generators failed.

During your talk

New Adventures 2011
Thanks to Toby Howarth for the picture

Many factors will try to affect you. The hardest talk time is known as the “snooze slot” right after lunch, when attendees are full of grub and finding it hard to concentrate. I’ve had this slot plenty of times and it’s never as bad as I think. To be honest though, you’ll go into a kind of auto-pilot mode when doing your talk, you won’t be too aware of much and if something does happen that snaps you out of your flow – take a deep breath and remember although a couple of seconds feels like a minute to you on stage, it’s better to recompose yourself, find your feet and then start speaking again.

After your talk

Layabouts
You’ll be relieved, even if you were looking forward to it. You’ll then be filled with dread, grab your phone and check the back channel of Twitter. This has become such ingrained behaviour with speakers that frequently the conference organiser will tell you, before you’ve left the stage, what the back channel is like to just give you a heads up. Both Ryan Carson and Colly have done this with me, but I’m not sure if this tends to be done because I’m more susceptible to people commenting inappropriately. The back channel, will never be unanimous, neither will the countless reviews from attendees that follow, sometimes weeks after, but the important thing is, you should be able to gauge some kind of feedback from this, learn and reiterate for next time. It’s always genuinely lovely and heartwarming to get people say they loved your talk, but listen to those that have constructive criticism too. You’ll also have to gauge what is constructive criticism and what is said nastily without context or back up of argument, take the latter with a large pinch of salt – they have their own, bigger issues to deal with first, it’s nothing to do with you.

You’ll have to grow a thick skin very fast, and coming from a very sensitive girl who is susceptible to crying at the smallest things, I’ve had to grow a double thick layer.

Remuneration

Rarely will you be paid. If you go into speaking for the money, you’re going in for the wrong reasons (lather, rinse, repeat). Generally, your travel expenses will be paid, including your hotel and flights (if appropriate) – sometimes a speaker fee is offered but if you assume you will speak for free for a long time before this happens, you can be pleasantly surprised when it comes along. Again, if you are going into speaking for the money, you’ve not got anyone’s best interests at heart, least of all the community with which you are trying to inspire.

Perks


You’ll meet some awesome people within the industry, you’ll also get to see and experience places you would never have visited before. You’ll normally have a wonderful speakers dinner at a nice restaurant somewhere and get to enjoy the company of friends you rarely see. Speakers goodie bags are a new, but welcome addition. I received a massive bottle of Baileys and a box of my favourite sweets – Malteasers, at New Adventures as a thank you for speaking – just this personal touch can mean an awful lot. Carsonified do a similar thing and leave sweeties in your hotel room, and also include “resolve” headache remedy for the conclusive “morning after the after party” headache.

Obviously the main perk is inspiring and uniting the community, like I said before, you’ll never do this unanimously – that’s part of the challenge, but you’ll certainly be able to gauge whether you are improving or not. I feel like I have improved in the short time that I’ve been speaking (I started at WDC late 2008) by not getting too precious about my talks and learning from feedback. This is by far the most valuable lesson I have, and continue to learn.

I’m going to wrap up here as this has become a far longer post than I anticipated, but if you have any specific questions, I’m more than happy to answer them in the comments.

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  • Nice post Sarah, great insight into how you go about constructing your talk. Do you not find it difficult to stop yourself saying “and” all the time? I’m a typical “err” person and would find it very difficult to not do it. Especially infront of loads of people (being slightly nervous). But hey it happens to the best of us. Next time you listen to David Beckham speak, clock how many times he says “You know”.

  • Wonderful post, Sarah.

    I personally haven’t had a chance to talk that many times, but I agree with you in the main points:

    1. I also feel writing the script works wonders.

    2. Practising is so hard at first, but at the third or fourth time you get used to that awkward feeling of talking to your white wall. Or your dog. It’s invaluable. Testing with friends is good too, if parts of the talk are dull they’ll look as bored as anyone else.

    I found Scott’s book extremely helpful. And looking at videos of good speakers and write down some notes on how to improve my own way of presenting.

  • Great post Sarah. Very interesting to see an in-depth look at things from a speaker’s point of view, something I have no direct experience of, but as the tech producer of a number of conferences I’m familiar with the various issues. I’ve always placed a speaker’s comfort and calmness at the top of my priorities, and would hope that each conference does the same. Apart from the very rare, but mostly very unlucky, issue of complete power failure, you shouldn’t need to worry at all about the way in which your machine is setup, whether the clicker works or anything else unexpected that could catch you off-guard on stage. It’s totally our job to worry about these so that you can concentrate on giving your talk 🙂 (Granted, not all conferences have the budget to have a complete A/V rig and technician on hand so there are of course exceptions).

    • Sarah

      Greg –
      You have always been so wonderful and especially, so kind to me. I couldn’t have done some of the larger conferences last year without you. You’ll be sadly missed.

      Sarah

  • Hi Sarah,

    Firstly thanks for using my photo and secondly thank you for the behind the scenes on your talk.

    I real enjoyed your talk and felt you spoke with real conviction and confidence, I was especially impressed with the marketing techniques you used and it has been one of the things that has stuck with me since the conference.

    I am disappointed for my gender and profession for they way you were spoken to and feel that this behaviour let’s the male community down in this industry (although only a select few).

    Anyway thank you again for the talk and hopefully I will hear you speak again soon.

    Toby

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  • Hi Sarah – just wanted to chime in with my opinion on remuneration.

    I completely agree that it’s not something you should do for the money, but whether you’d expect to be paid depends on the type of conference. Obviously, with any conference that’s community run, everyone is pitching in their time for free.

    For conferences that are commercially run, those conferences should be paying their invited speakers a fee. And to be clear, as far as I’m aware they all do. So my point of disagreement is this: if you’re speaking at a commercial event, you *should* expect to be paid.

    What you wouldn’t expect is that fee to come anywhere close to covering the amount of time that you sink into developing a presentation. But ideally it should cover the time it takes to deliver it 🙂

    The bit the conference organisers get for ‘free’ is the days/weeks of effort you invest in creating the presentation for their audience – or look at it another way, that’s the bit you trade for the privilege of speaking at their event.

    But absolutely, expect to put the hard work in speaking at community events and practising your act where you don’t get paid before you get invited to speak at the big commercial conferences – and I guess that’s really the point you were making. In fact, my recommendation would be to do just that – community events are great fun, and well worth volunteering for in their own right.

    I really enjoy speaking at conferences (Lanyrd tells me I’ve done 18, even though I don’t feel like I’ve really nailed it yet). You get to meet some great people, visit new places and enjoy some of the conference too (the bit after you’re done talking). I’ve not got any speaking gigs booked in this year, and I’m actually feeling a bit disappointed – I miss it. I clearly need to think up some more interesting things to say 🙂

    Drew.

  • Stuart Poonawala

    Sarah,

    Really good useful and informative post, thanks for sharing I may need to use your advice sometime.

    Regards

    Stuart

  • Great article Sarah and good speaking with you at New Adventures.

    I’m thinking of submitting something for Inspire and this really helps with some of the unknowns I’ve already started thinking about. Hopefully this will help other people thinking about speaking to try and take the plunge.

  • Nice post Sarah, a great wee insight. I personally enjoyed your talk at New Adventures and thought it was great to get into some interface details and feedback amongst some of the more conceptual talks that were delivered.

    I like the idea of one day speaking, I have lots of design opinions but fear I would’ve nervously boshed all the Baileys and Maltesers before hitting the stage!

    Thanks.

  • I’ve decided that I should start trying to speak more at things (at least more as an actual speaker and less as a heckler), and this is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

    (Plus, getting paid in booze and sweets? Heck yeah!)

    Also, I thought your presentation was particularly awesome, especially when you brought up all the cultural possibilities in design.

  • I saw your talk at New Adventures and thought you were great. In fact all the speakers that day were great, very inspiring to watch.

    I could never stand up infront of 600+ people and coherently talk for 30 minutes, its an amazing skill you guys have, and shows how you are passionate about your work. Its also very refreshing to see a young beautiful woman take centre stage at a conference like that, goes to show its not all about beards and checked shirts. Just realised you were wearing a checked shirt – must be the designers look of 2011!

    Hopefully Colly didn’t just pay you in Bailey and Malteasers though?!

  • Nice post with some great insight into the speaking process. I have to agree with the approach of writing it out in full and practicing out loud several times. Something can read well, but be convoluted when spoken.

    One question: how did you actually get started? How did you go about landing that first speaking gig?

    • Sarah

      Hi Andrew,

      I got started at WDC2008 in Bristol, Alex Older contacted me and asked if I would like to speak. It was an easy transition for me as I was used to being on the stage, so I jumped at the chance, it then went from there really, it’s been a fantastic whirlwind, very hard work and terrifying at times but totally worthwhile.

      Sarah

  • Whilst understandably a tad nervous at first, it quickly dissipated and you delivered an interesting and concise talk, very well.

    I don’t recall any microphone issues or particularly notice your lack of clicker, I think I assumed it was by choice; it certainly didn’t affect the quality of your presentation- and goes to show which bits are memorable, the content.

    I didn’t realise WDC08 was your first speaking event, it was the first web conference I attended. New Adventures struck appeal with me mostly because I’d seen a few of you guys there 3 years prior and not since, so I knew it’d be good. It was great to have a chat at dinner afterwards, the frog spawn/lime poppadom dip was.. interesting.

  • Thanks Sarah,

    I recently started teaching a multimedia course at the local college here in Cranbrook, BC. Canada and the first thing I did was get the class to create twitter accounts and follow some of the movers & shakers in the industry, yourself included.

    How nice to see two weeks later that you and many of your cohorts are coming to the area (in Canadian terms) to Vancouver in June to speak. I’ve signed up already. Looking forward to what you’ve prepared for that.

    Cheers.

  • Great post Sarah, it’s so good to see things behind the scenes. A great inspiration and a great talk at NAConf.

  • Mike

    Sarah,

    To re-iterate what everyone else has said – thanks for the great post. I’ve been asked to co-present a paper at an upcoming conference this year and have never done so before. It was helpful to see how you prepared and some ideas on practicing.

    Thanks also for the link to “Confessions of a Public Speaker”. The book looks like it may have some more great info. If you have any other favorites or recommended resources I would love to take a look at them!

  • I’m coming back to this post because I can’t shake off the wish to find out more about how package / layout influences what we buy (the supermarket line in your note). Could you recommend a book or link for more info on this?

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