####(You won’t believe number 2!!)
As a new speaker, I am on a very steep learning curve right now. I’ve given small talks to small meetups here and there, but at this point, I’ve only spoken at three conferences. So you might think “how is she even qualified to give tips about speaking?” You’re probably right. I have so much more to learn, that I can only imagine what it will be like to read this post a couple of years from now. But my answer to your objection, at least my answer for today, is that as someone super new to the experience, I’m able to remember the FIRST lessons.
These are not tips to polish your keynote address at a huge conference. These are tips that no one told me, that I now tell myself as I am preparing for my fourth and fifth conference talks (at Ancient City Ruby and RailsConf respectively).
1: Remember that the audience wants to enjoy your talk
This might seem like more of a cautionary tip than an encouraging one, but stick with me. The audience isn’t sitting there hoping to be bored. As each new speaker begins, they are hoping to hear a talk that they will find interesting, entertaining, and stimulating. They aren’t there expecting “this is going to be just awful.” No one will be as critical of your talk as you are, so approach it as if speaking to your biggest supporter or cheerleader.
(Granted, there can always be a few bad apples in every group, and if you’re speaking about a controversial topic, then you might have some dissenters. BUT the people comprising the audience are mostly there because they chose to be. So deliver your talk with grace, appreciation of their attention, and with confidence.)
2: Be mindful of your wardrobe decisions on speaking day
Without getting too in your head about this, remember a few things: there will be lots of people, and you will be their focus. And there might be video. Still with me? (Please don’t panic.)
So when you are the number one focus for an extended period of time, having a wardrobe malfunction is pretty low of the list of things you want to happen. I’ve come up with a short list of things to avoid or check before going on stage or to the front of the room:
- If you are wearing a button front top, ensure all your buttons are buttoned and aren’t puckering/gaping.
- If you wear super “granola” deodorant like me (no antiperspirant) or are a nervous sweater, consider wearing a dark top.
- If you are going to be speaking on a stage (it’s probably worth finding out if this is the case), don’t wear a short skirt or hi-lo hem UNLESS wearing REALLY opaque tights.
- Without some kind of waistband, it can be difficult to fasten a wireless microphone. Be aware!
- If you are wearing a skirt, make sure it isn’t tucked into your waistband. (I’ve seen this happen to a speaker. 😑)
- Go ahead and check for those slipping bra straps (if applicable) while we’re at it.
- Or if you are wearing zippered pants… yeah. You know what to do.
If you think all of those are obvious, well, you’d be surprised at what your brain will (or won’t) do when you are in nervous mode.
3: Don’t hide behind your jokes
This is a little related to #1, but stands on its own. Unless your talk is purely humorous, it can be easy to rely on funny slides to ensure your audience’s attention. I’ve been working on scaling back my funny gif use… and it is painful. Having an audience laugh feels really great. But I was given some great feedback after my first delivery: “your points are too good to dilute with so many gifs.” I was humbled and so appreciative of that feedback. I realized that by worrying whether my talk would be received well, I had inserted too much fluff.
Keep your audience entertained, by all means. But also give them the benefit of the doubt. If you are saying something important, let it stand on its own. Trust them to understand and to listen.
4: Hydrate, but don’t over-hydrate
Maybe this tip is just for me since I’m a nervous run-to-bathroom-er. But lots of conferences have water and coffee and soda and juice just available for the drinking at all times. And doing something, anything before you go on can be really appealing (nervous hydrating? sure.). So I actually make a hydration plan for the day. I know how much water/coffee is reasonable to drink, and at what point I should probably stop consuming liquids. I also schedule my final bathroom trip. If you are able to move freely, I recommend a trip 5-10 minutes before going on (or meeting A/V). If not, make sure you’ve made a trip during the break before your talk.
5: Keep your throat and voice happy
Perhaps you are speaking at the very end of a multi-day conference when your voice has basically quit. Or maybe you’ve just gotten over, or are just catching a little cold. Whatever your situation may be, speaking for an extended period of time can be rough. Even just a tickly throat can be debilitating.
Peppermint tea to the rescue! While keeping #4 in mind, peppermint tea can be miraculous in soothing an angry throat. If you need an even more thorough solution, add some honey to the tea. Note: I’m not wild about this flavor combination, but I can attest to its potency.
6: While writing/researching your talk: write everything down
Remember scratch notes while doing math problems? Have scratch notes for your research and ideas. And keep them. Forever. I use Google docs for this, and will maintain a massive document with every link, quote, gif, and idea that I come across that seems remotely interesting or tangentially related to my current talk in progress. Not all of these items will be used, but it’s great to have a large palette of options if you ever get stuck with writer’s block and need a reminder of your larger and smaller goals. What’s leftover might even get rolled over into a new talk. You never know!
7: Practice starting your talk from random points
Brain farts happen. They can come out of nowhere. You’re cruising along with the audience in the palm of your hand when suddenly 💥. Your mind goes blank. You look at your slide. At your speaker’s notes. Still nothing. The curtain falls, and you are not-so-gently hooked off stage.
Only you can prevent brain farts.
While doing practice deliveries, try starting at random points of your talk. The intro is probably your most rehearsed part, which is good because the beginning is definitely when your nerves are the most raw. But take similar time and care for other parts of your talk. Your brain will thank you.
Hopefully one or more of these little tips will make your next conference talk a little bit easier.
I should probably add a #8: don’t let yourself be distracted while preparing for a – or several – conference talk(s) by writing blog posts about giving conference talks.