The first season of the Ladies in Tech podcast is in the books! As we get ready to kick off season 2 this Thursday, we want to take a look back at one of the questions from Season 1:
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received on public speaking?
We had such a fun time asking our podcast guests this question and got so many different, great tips that we’ve asked some of our other friends and public speaking experts to share with us their answers.
CEO and Founder, Brain Traffic
The best advice I’ve ever received about public speaking is this: Think of the people you’re speaking to as your community, not your audience. That mantra does one of two things, depending on my frame of mind: it either lifts me up (“I am not an impostor—these people are my people, and they are excited to hear me share my ideas”) or keeps me grounded (“I am not here to impart otherworldly wisdom—I’m only one of my hundreds of people here with unique experiences, and I’ve been given the humbling opportunity to share mine”).
I was in Denver to deliver my first-ever keynote address. The show was Web Design World, curated by Jim Heid. Joshua Davis, Dori Smith, and Jeffrey Veen were among the other speakers. For weeks, I’d labored over every word of my speech. The night before the conference began, I went out to dinner with Veen. I knew Jeff through the internet—we were co-founders of The Web Standards Project—through his book, The Art & Science of Web Design (http://veen.com/artsci/), and through his work at Webmonkey, a pioneering web design and development magazine. But he was a San Francisco guy, I lived in NYC, and we had never before had a chance to spend time together.
As our dinner ended, I began worrying about my presentation, so I pulled my 12-page speech out of my shoulder bag. “What’s that?” Veen asked. I told him it was my perfectly written, perfectly timed 60 minute speech. “Aw, don’t do that,” he said. “Just get up there and tell stories.”
I don’t know why I took his advice. Maybe it was his assurance. Or the friendliness that convinced me he was on my side. Whatever it was, he sold me. I tore up my speech. The next morning, I just talked. It went well. Nobody laughed (except when I wanted them to). Nobody died. Nobody threw tomatoes. I’ve given hundreds of presentations since then, and I still do the same thing: familiarize myself with the points I want to make, then go onstage and just tell stories. It can work for you, too.
Stef. Sullivan Rewis
Director, Web Strategy and Marketing Technologies, www.contatta.com
I’ve done a large amount of tech writing and speaking over the years. While I have no trouble teaching in a way that really helps people “get it”, there’s always more to learn. The best advice I ever got was from my boyfriend (now my husband), Greg Rewis. Greg has done dev evangelism and speaking for about 17 years and he’s one of the best I’ve seen. His advice was two-fold. Most importantly, tell a story. There’s nothing more boring than someone droning fact after dry fact. Find a theme or thread you can weave through your talk. As simple as this sounds, for me, it’s tough. After all, facts is facts and tech is serious!
The second piece of advice relates to your slides. Make them interactive where you can, but make your demos “fail-free”. Whatever program you use to create them, take the time to learn how to do nice transitions — intros, outros, fades between bullets. Don’t just plop the bulleted list out all at once. People will read ahead of your talk and miss what you’re saying. Fail-free demos are demos that you’ve either created and commented parts out so that you can uncomment in real time, or where you’ve saved the snippets that need to be added (step-by-step) in a text program so that you can paste the code chunks in and discuss them. Don’t trust your brain to do live coding outside something super simple. You don’t think the same way on stage, with nerves in full-force, as you do at your desk. And the simplest typos are hard to spot and can cause your demo to fail.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received (which I use in speaking) was from Ron Campbell. He’s a brilliant physical actor and anyone in the Bay Area should go see him as Bucky Fuller at the San Jose Rep this winter. Anyway, he encouraged me to visually record the audience as much as my performance and to notice when people were touching each other or looking at each other. That’s because we feel the urge to connect when something resonates. It’s a great bit of room reading advice and part of how I learned when material and performance moments were working even when the feedback wasn’t auditory.
I focus on how to read the room pretty heavily in UnPresenting workshops that I teach as well as being comfortable being yourself in public. Because what’s really going on with you in the moment and the room and connecting the room is where all the unique juice is. And it’s the thing most people focus on the least in speaking when it’s actually at the centre of making a great moment happen. When people start creating first with slides they generally have everything follow the slides. It increases their self-consciousness. And it gives them something else to draw attention away from them. One of the great ironies to me is how much geeks understand about what it means to have information on demand and what the powerful difference is between broadcast and participation. Then they make conferences and do the exact opposite of what they get about a networked world.
Conference Organizer, Environments for Humans
Speaking in front of people can be anxiety inducing.
One of the reasons is that people have impostor syndrome — where people don’t value their accomplishments or knowledge. Very reasonable for someone to think they aren’t worthy to also feel like they are wasting people’s time. No respectful person wants to waste another person’s time.
In talking about this anxiety a long time ago with my friend Molly E. Holzschlag, who has written countless books, spoke at countless events, and pioneered a lot in our industry, asked me, “Are you there to help people learn?”
If the answer is, “yes,” — and it should be, I believe — it means you want the audience to walk out with a new piece of information or verify what they thought. Then you aren’t wasting their time — you’re providing a great service.
Founder & Design Director at SuperFriendly.
“The most important thing is authenticity. Once you can fake that, you’ve made it.” Jeremy Keith said this to me.
Don’t forget to listen to every episode from Season 1 to see what advice and public speaking tips our guests shared as well! Not to mention to hear about the craziest things to ever happen on stage and general thoughts on women in technology. Here are some previews of the advice:
Val Head: “Be yourself” (Listen to the full episode)
Jenn Lukas: “If you ever get really nervous, stand on one foot” (Listen to the full episode)
Brad Frost: “Be entertaining” (Listen to the full episode)
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: “Focus on slowing down when I speak” (Listen to the full episode)
Rachel Lovinger: “Practice” (Listen to the full episode)
Stephanie Hay: “Create an arc” (Listen to the full episode)