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.

Speaking On Accessibility At WordCamp Columbus 2014

Last week, a Twitter conversation started with Deborah Edwards-Onoro about web accessibility after we both retweeted this eye-opening post on An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues from the Pastry Box. About an hour later, I had agreed to speak two days later at WordCamp Columbus 2014.

Deborah wrote a blog post about the experience of agreeing to do the talk as well as another blog post the morning of our talk that outlined all that we wanted to discuss. This was my first conference speaking engagement, and tomorrow I'll share more about what I learned and offer some tips for overcoming the anxiety of being a first-time speaker.

Our Accessibility Roundtable was in the first round of talks after the introduction in a small room that held about 20 people, and we had a few fewer than that. It was a very friendly group, and while many were fairly knowledgable about Accessibility in general, everybody seemed to learn something from our talk.

We used Deborah's post, much of which centers around issues addressed by the WP Accessibility Plugin, as our visual aid for the talk rather than quickly cobbling together a slide deck.

We also discussed the following suggestions at length:

  • Add captions or transcripts to videos and podcasts (also great for SEO!)
  • Add meaningful text to links rather than simply using "Read More" or "Click Here" for people arriving at those links without visual context
  • Spell out acronyms the first time they appear on a screen
  • Make focus visible for keyboard users

In addition to her outline, I mentioned JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a tool that translates screen content to audio or braille for the visually impaired that I was introduced to when I worked at Nationwide Insurance. Because JAWS is expensive, it's primarily used by corporations for testing and by libraries for patrons rather than for personal use. There were a few people interested in looking into JAWS for their workplace.

And for people with Macs, VoiceOver is built right into OSX with support for refreshable braille displays. There are many options to help people see sites from a different perspective. If nothing else, just unplug your mouse and try to navigate your site once a week or so. It's cheap, effective and eye opening.

Since it was an informal talk, we had a lot of discussion and took questions from the audience. Between the two of us, I felt like we were able to either answer the questions presented, or at least point them in the right direction for further research. That addressed another fear of mine when I agreed to speak on Accessibility. I'm far from an expert on the subject. I'm more of a champion of empathy in general, and feel that it's important to empathize with people who experience the web in a very different way than most. But it's not about being an expert so much as it's about sharing your perspective and hopefully broadening the perspective of those in the audience as well.

I'm grateful to Angie Meeker, the organizer of WordCamp Columbus, for the opportunity to speak, and to Deborah Edwards-Onoro for her work, encouragement and support. She is a wonderful citizen of our community and I highly recommend you follow her on Twitter as her feed and blog are a wealth of helpful information on a variety of subjects including WordPress, User Experience design and Accessibility.

7 Emerging Digital Trends For 2013

INN's Technology Director Adam Schweigert presented at the Kiplinger Program's Social Media Summit in November. This is a summary of his presentation.

Everyone wants to know what the next big thing will be. The temptation is to hand this crown to the latest, shiniest object, but for organizations with limited resources (which is to say, nearly any organization), it’s important to avoid jumping on every bandwagon. Being able to quickly evaluate and decide which new tools, sites or apps are a good fit for you and which are better ignored.

Contrary to what some tech blogs may lead you to believe, you don’t need to be on every new social network, to download every new app or to spend every last waking moment in front of a screen.

Identifying Trends

Last week I gave a talk about emerging social media at the Kiplinger Program’s Social Media Summit at Ohio State University. In my talk, I identified a few larger trends in technology and social media:

  1. The Pinterestification of Everything - The rapid growth of Pinterest and the outsized impact a relatively small site in absolute terms has had on the design of today’s web.
  2. Visual Publishing Comes Into Its Own - How the wide adoption of mobile technology and tools like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr have democratized the publishing of visual content in the same way blogging democratized the publishing of textual content.
  3. Conversations as Content - The rising popularity of forum and discussion sites and experiments seeking to elevate the quality of discussion on the web.
  4. Open Alternatives - A number of experiments with open source, community-driven alternatives to incumbent social media behemoths (particularly Facebook and Twitter).
  5. The Power of Small Numbers - The move from mass to niche as reflected in the proliferation of apps and tools that seek to do one thing particularly well (instead of trying to do everything) and the development of niche communities around increasingly narrower interests.
  6. Context is King - It’s no longer enough to just create great content. Increasingly it’s important to think about how, where, when and on what device content will be consumed so that you can tailor the content appropriately to fit the context.
  7. Wearable and Embedded Computing - Powerful computers are moving off of our desktops and out of our pockets and into our homes, cars and even our eyeglasses.

You can see more examples of each of these trends in the slide deck from the presentation:

With how quickly these trends are moving (and sometimes in different directions) it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So I spent the second part of my talk outlining some ways to choose how best to spend your limited time, attention and resources.

How To Decide

When evaluating any new tool you can start by asking a few simple questions to start to understand whether or not it might be a good fit for your organization:

  • Who do I want to reach?
  • Where do they spend their time?
  • What do they do there?
  • When are they online?
  • How can I contribute in a meaningful way?
  • Why does this make sense from a business perspective?

Answering some of these questions is a bit harder (and more time consuming) than others. You might have to do some surveys, research the demographics of various social media sites or even spend some time using the sites yourself but rest assured that the time spent in advance of launching yet another social media channel that you will then have to maintain is well spent and will likely save you time and money in the long run if you learn early that a new site or tool may simply just not be a great fit for your organization.

Once you feel like you can answer these questions, one other test you can use that works particularly well as you try to answer the last question about business purpose is called “The 5 Whys."

The idea is simple: Ask “Why?” five times. You'll better understand the motivations, underlying beliefs or the root cause of a problem.

So if someone at your organization says, "We need to be on Pinterest!" You'd ask:

Why?
Because we know our potential customers (e.g., readers, consumers) spends a lot of time there.
Why?
They find it useful as a way to discover new products they might like to buy, or content they would like to consume and share.
Why?
They follow people who have common interests and share cool stuff.
Why?
They want to be viewed as tastemakers.
Why?
It’s cool to be a trendsetter.

By drilling down, you gain insight to help you tailor your approach.

If you had asked why only once (or not at all) you might have decided that since your prospective customers are on Pinterest, you should use it as a broadcast channel to push your content out and get it in front of people who may want to consume it.

But drilling down a bit deeper your approach might evolve and become instead to reward your most loyal fans by allowing them to participate, to help curate and share content on your behalf and to be recognized as trendsetters so that they feel more connected to your organization.In this way you have accomplished not only your primary objective (get content in front of prospective consumers) but also gotten more bang for your buck (or maybe even saved time and money) by rewarding your most loyal current fans by helping them feel more connected to your organization and to each other.

Social Media is NOT a Strategy

As you make decisions about where to spend your time and money, make sure you understand the difference between strategy and tactics. You should be engaging in strategic thinking, and not just reacting to a changing environment. Employing tactics without a clear guiding strategy behind them is like trying to kill a rhino with a butter knife. Your strategy should be a grand plan, in line with your mission, that doesn’t really change all that much. It should outline a problem and how you intend to solve it. Tactics are the specific measures you use to push this plan forward. These tend to change frequently and are particularly shaken up these days by changes in technology. So nothing about your strategy should be technology specific. “Launching a Facebook page” is a tactic you might use in service of a broader strategy to become more connected with your customers but it is not a strategy.

Establishing Goals, Metrics and Targets

Once you understand your audience, have a strategy and have selected the tactics you’ll use to bring that strategy to life, you're ready to establish goals. Select the metrics you’ll use to track your progress towards those goals, and then set targets for each metric that will determine whether your efforts are a success.

Goals: What do we want to accomplish?
Be as specific as possible and make sure defined in terms that allow you to measure your progress.
Example: Increase the depth and frequency of conversations around our political content.

Metrics: How will we measure our progress?
Some common web metrics might be pageviews, unique visitors, new vs. returning visitors, time on site, conversions, etc. and your choice of the metrics you use will depend on the goals you set. There are a number of excellent books about using web metrics, but one word of caution: Make sure the metrics you choose measure what you think they measure. Every website visitor didn't read your article in its entirety, and all of your Facebook fans and Twitter followers probably didn't see your most recent update.
Example: Number of comments on an article per thousand non-bounce visitors.

Targets: What does success look like?
It is really, really, really important to have clearly defined targets. It's easy to get excited and say, “We have more followers today than we did yesterday so our efforts must be working!” But unless you use meaningful metrics, set clear targets, and evaluate trends over time, you will have no idea whether the amount of effort you’re putting in is really paying off or if the trend you’re seeing should actually trigger a change in your approach.

Be as specific as possible and make sure each target has not only a direction (e.g., increase, maintain or decrease a quantifiable measure you hope to achieve) and a date when you hope to reach this target.
Example: Increase the average number of comments per post per thousand visitors in the politics section of our website by 10 percent by Nov. 31, 2012.

Conclusion

Here are a few key points I hope you’ll take away from this post:

  • Try lots of little experiments, with an eye towards how new tools and approaches might fit into your bigger picture strategy.
  • Ask a lot of questions. It’s the best way to dig deeper and understand your audience — and your own motivations.
  • Set clear, specific goals and targets and regularly evaluate your progress.
  • Remain flexible, Iterate frequently, but know when to say no. It’s perfectly alright if some of your experiments fail, but you need to recognize what failure looks like (and also when to double down on a promising effort).
  • Celebrate successes. Another great reason to set clear targets is you get to reward yourself when you blow them out of the water.
  • Spend more time outside because there’s more to life than the Internet and inspiration can be found everywhere.