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.
When I spoke that Saturday morning, everything went smoothly. Supportive friends sat in the front row, and their smiles and thumbs ups were a great energy boost. I wore red pants, cobalt heels, and a blue polka dot button-down, which I felt comfortable in. I drank a cup of water, and sipped slowly on my coffee (usual ritual: chug coffee), and ate grits from the conference’s awesome grits bar. These little rituals weren’t pre-planned, but felt natural. I noticed this and realized that my own natural instinct was there to protect and prep me for the talk. That confidence paired with the encouragement and advice from multiple people I admire, allowed me to share what I was there to share that day.
I got a lot of great feedback from people. A lot of other educators shared the same frustrations I did, non-higher ed folks and I chatted about ways we could resolve the gaps between the classroom and workplace. I felt good about the content covered. However, I remember looking at the time when my talk was done, and realized my rehearsed 30-minute keynote took 21 minutes. I must have sped up due to the awesome energy in the room, or natural nerves, or excitement about the topic. I wish I had built in more of the pauses Dan mentioned (I only built in one). I also felt a bit vulnerable—in a good way. I felt like I had shared a lot with the audience and learned a lot about them, even though they didn’t speak.
I was happy I spoke, and knew that I need to do this more. Speaking and writing are fears I’ve really wanted to get over for a while, and in many ways I’ve spent much of 2014 getting over those fears, or at least working towards them (I’m looking at you, blue level ski trails in Colorado). I hope these are things I continue to work on for the rest of my talks in 2014, and beyond. I hope that in sharing these fears, perhaps it will be helpful to someone else who wants to speak. If you’ve ever read any of my previous posts, you know I’m a hoarder of links. So, naturally, I have a list of links that I found had great advice and helped me in some way or another for this talk and the talks planned for the rest of the year. If you’ve gotten over the fears of public speaking, please share your experience in the comments. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading and letting me share this story.
Links I found extremely helpful
Daniel Mall’s “Get Comfortable”
Rachilli’s advice on speaking
Jenn Lukas’ formula for speaking fees ; this post also has a ton of resources at the end.
Scott Berkun’s plethora of resources and posts about public speaking
Chris Coyier’s speaking advice