When I was asked to be a keynote speaker at ConvergeSE—a conference that brings together designers, developers, musicians, and other makers for a few days of merging ideas—I instantly said “yes”. I had already fallen in love with the conference series, after attending ConvergeFL in Jacksonville the year prior. I learned more than I could imagine at the event, and met friends in the web industry that I will forever hold dear to my heart. Talk ideas started to ruminate in my head.
As ConvergeSE drew closer, my outline turned into notes, notes into sentences, sentences into speech, and speech into slides. I knew what I wanted to say—mostly. I found myself preparing for the talk just as I would for a class lecture: well-structured and planned out, yet open enough to allow for the mood in the room or a random question to sway the conversation. I thought I was ready. And then, suddenly, I panicked.
Unsuccessfully trying to control my nerves:
“Does this sound better?”, she asked her cats.
I was still in Austin when I panicked. I played it off at first, joking about it and local Austinites, like Elyse and Trent, and my former student Veronica, were all encouraging. But, eventually, the panic became more real. What was I panicking about? Speaking at a conference where the other keynotes are people who I admire and who wrote the textbooks I teach from. Just making a fool of myself in front of 300+ people. Feeling that no one could learn or benefit from what I had to say. Falling off the stage. Spilling coffee on myself. The list goes on. I started seeking out a lot of advice, thinking it would be helpful. My close friends encouraged me. I ran main points by my sister, who is a much better public speaker than I and also knows first-hand exactly what I wanted to cover in my talk (she, too has seen the challenges of trying to bring emerging practices in web design and development into higher education settings). She (and my cats) heard every single version of my talk, and she knows how scattered I can sound sometimes, and she’s honest enough to tell me when I can. That was also extremely helpful. I was still worried.
I couldn’t shake it, even after I got to the conference. I felt like I needed more advice and that I was unprepared. I think deep down I wanted to make sure I covered all bases and asked every single person what their advice was. I didn’t want my first time on a stage by myself to be a bust. So I asked Dan Mall, who has an amazing speaking style, what his advice was on conference talks. Since I asked on Twitter, I expected a concise reply, but Dan replied that he would email me in the morning. The next morning, I woke up early, as I usually do when I’m nervous about anything. I opened my computer as my hotel coffee brewed, and found an email sitting in my inbox from Dan. It’s like he knew each of my fears and had solutions on how to get over each one. The advice Dan gave me was not only helpful, but it extremely awesome of him to do so. People like Dan make this industry a better place. Recently, Dan shared his advice on his site. The best parts of Dan’s advice were the parts where he suggested getting comfortable, scoping out the room prior to the talk, and building in pauses. In hindsight, those were the most helpful to me.
Doing a talk is like improvisational jazz. Jazz musicians improvise, not because they don’t know the song, but because they know the song so well that they know which spots allow them to deviate and when to come back to the theme.
tags: conference speaking articles writing education