Overcoming The Anxiety of Conference Speaking, Tips From A First Time Speaker

I accidentally fell into my first speaking engagement last week at WordCamp Columbus 2014. I have many friends who are well-known speakers in the software development and design community but I've never stepped up and submitted a talk myself. I've had a crippling fear of public speaking since I learned it was a thing people do, and I allowed that to dictate a lot of my decisions over the years. And I nearly let it keep me from accepting this opportunity as well, until I didn't.

What made this time different was that everything came up so quickly and naturally that it just seemed kind of silly not to do it. With only a couple days to prepare, nobody expected us to have a well-polished slide deck or even a solid talk. My co-presenter Deborah Edwards-Onoro and WordCamp organizer Angie Meeker were both very encouraging. I felt supported, and when I thought about it, there really wasn't any reason to be anxious about it. Not to imply that anxiety is ever really reasonable...

And I felt better after I agreed to do it. I remembered my awesome speaker friends and the Accessibility experts I know and reached out to Jon Gibbins, who I had a great Accessibility discussion with at Brooklyn Beta last year, and asked if he had any suggestions. He pointed me toward the WP Accessibility Plugin and mentioned that many WordPress sites still use tabindex badly and it would be good to address that. Deborah had a lot of that info in her post that we used as our reference point for the talk as well. I summarized some of the other things we talked about in my post earlier this week.

I also drew inspiration from this great post from Kathy Sierra I read a while back about focusing on the message rather than your presentation skills:

When you design for a user experience, you quit focusing on your skills and start focusing on their skills. What experience can you help them have? Can you give them a more powerful perspective? Can you give them a new idea with immediate implementation steps they can't wait to work on? Can you give them a clear way to finally explain something to others that they've been feeling but could not articulate? Can you give them a new tip or trick that has such a high-payoff it feels like a superpower? Can you give them knowledge and insight into a tough topic, so they can have more interesting, high-resolution conversations in the hallway?

It's hard for me not to quote that entire article. It contains the best advice I've ever read on public speaking. Essentially, it's not about you. It's about facilitating a good experience for your audience members. As in the quote above, "good experience" covers a LOT of ground. There's no need to micro-manage the experience you want people to have in your talk. Let them get out of it whatever they want. And if they vote with their feet and leave your session, don't take it personally and focus on why they left. Focus on delivering your message to the people who decided to stay and listen and do the best you can.

But I'm not an expert!

This trips a lot of people up, myself included. What if an audience member asks a question and you don't know the answer? What if you wind up not knowing something that people feel is really basic to the subject matter? So what?! It's fine. "I don't know" is an acceptable answer. So is "That's outside the scope of my talk." Even if you are an expert, it's not like you can convey all of your knowledge to audience members in a single conference talk.

What you do have to share is your perspective on whatever it is you've decided to talk about. And your perspective is unique and informed by the collection of experiences and knowledge through which you interact with and understand the world around you. That's what people show up to your talks to receive: your perspective.

Jen Myers also has a really great talk on How To Not Be an Expert that addresses a lot of this. That link includes the slide deck, video of the talk and a transcript as well as most of her other talks. There is a wealth of goodness there. She also has virtual office hours available mentoring new speakers, especially women.

And finally, there's a great book I would recommend to new speakers that guides you through a self-paced workshop on every aspect of conference speaking by Russ Unger and Samantha Starmer called Speaker Camp. I'll be going through that as I write my first actual talk, which is coming up sooner than expected.

I'm planning to submit a talk for CodeMash 2015 by the end of the month. It's a pretty ambitious talk that has been brewing in me since CodeMash 2014 and will likely center around the (sad) state of tech support in general and my ideas to improve it. The work I'm doing with INN right now will likely be a large part of it as well, and I'm really excited about all of it.

So to summarize, if you've got a message to deliver, there are likely people who want to receive it. And if you have a lot of anxiety around public speaking, you certainly aren't alone. Many people fear public speaking more than death! Every speaker who gives a talk has gone through this to some extent (and most of them still do). So ask them about it. The best advice I can give for overcoming the anxiety is to reach out and ask for help. I'm sure you'll be surprised by the support you receive when you do.