By all accounts I am an introvert. I can often be shy and quiet in groups and I have INTJ characteristics (one for the psychologists). I’ll save you a full blown psychoanalysis, but it’s safe to say that I don’t possess the personality traits that you would usually associate with a conference speaker. An SEO by trade, I started speaking less than a year ago, but in that time I’ve gone from speaking at meetups with audiences of around 50 to speaking on the mainstage at BrightonSEO to an audience of over 1,000. I want to share my fledgling experiences of public speaking in the hope that it will inspire fellow introverts to get up on your soapbox and share what you know.
Why Did I Start Speaking?
Just over a year ago I was in the midst of my final interview for a job at DeepCrawl, when my would-be manager casually asked if I would be interested in speaking at conferences. Keen to show my enthusiasm for the role, I agreed albeit with the hope that this would come to nought. How wrong I was… Within a week of joining, my new manager had put me in contact with the organiser of a well-attended digital marketing meetup saying that I had “some interesting content that I’d like to share” (bloody marketers!). I came up with an idea around changes in the importance of link building and the meetup was arranged in a few week’s time. Despite having a good understanding of my chosen topic, I’d had no public speaking experience and was dreading the experience. To make it worse, I was to be the only speaker at the event and 150 people had signed up. No pressure! After a few sleepless nights in the lead up, the day of the talk came around and I gave my talk to an audience of 60 (including a dozen of my new DeepCrawl colleagues) fumbling my way through a Q&A. While it wasn’t the smoothest of presentations and included a ton of verbal hesitations, I had nevertheless given my first talk and taken a significant first step into public speaking.
What Have I Learned From Speaking?
In the following months I was fortunate enough to speak at a number of SEO conferences and have gotten progressively better with more and more experience. Last Friday, I reached the pinnacle of my infantile speaking career when I spoke on the mainstage at BrightonSEO to a crowd of over 1,000. Don’t get me wrong I’m still very much a work in progress rather than the finished article, but I’d like to share the lessons I’ve learnt along the way that have most aided my progression. https://www.instagram.com/p/BiFuga7lJ51/
1. Don’t overthink your slides
As an introvert, I have a tendency to focus too much on my slides and making sure they look perfect because I find this more enjoyable than working on what I’m going to say and practicing in front of others. I’ve learnt that good slides will only get you so far in connecting with people and having your talk make a memorable impression on your audience. Good delivery, compelling stories and engaging metaphors are infinitely more important and this is where all speakers should focus a disproportionate amount of their time. Your slides should be used to reinforce your message. Keep them simple, distilling down your message to one or two pertinent points which are easy for your audience to digest and can act as a trigger for you to expand on.
2. Practice until you don’t need slides, but not so much that they bore you sh*tless
Some people are natural speakers who need little preparation before they can nail a talk. For the mere mortals among us, practice is key. I’d recommend knowing your talk well enough that you could give it without looking your slides. Obviously you’re going to perform better with the visual triggers that your slides provide, but getting to a level of familiarity where they aren’t required is ideal. On the opposite end of the scale, don’t practice your talk to death. Don’t script your talk, it doesn’t sound natural and people will switch off. Be in the bloody moment will ya!
3. Seek the support of your team
I’ve benefited immeasurably from the support I’ve received from the team at DeepCrawl. Whether it’s the marketing team who seek out, organise and promote my speaking opportunities, the management team who help shape my ideas or the rest of the team who give (sometimes brutally) honest feedback, their support has been invaluable. I cannot stress the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive people who want to see you succeed.
4. Run your talk by the uninformed
My mum knows bugger-all about SEO, she thinks a canonical is an important weapon in pirate warfare. While she might not know about the nuances of hreflang or appreciate the futility of sculpting PageRank, my mum has helped me prepare for my talks. I’ve found practicing my talks in front of people who don’t know about the topic I’m speaking on to be a valuable exercise. While they might not follow the talk completely, they can provide you with more general feedback about the delivery of your talk as well as helping you to better explain subject matter rather than launching straight into the esoteric. While your audience is likely to have an understanding and hopefully an interest in your topic of choice, it is nearly always worth starting with the basic concept and building up to the more complex meat of your content unless your presenting exclusively to a room of industry experts.
5. Connect with other speakers before the event
Reaching out to other speakers at a conference you’re going to be attending can also be helpful. Before speaking at my first conference I got in contact with Ronell Smith who helped put me at ease with some really helpful tips from his years of experience. When I actually got to the event, it was amazing to meet all of the other speakers at the dinner the night before and hear their experiences as well as getting to know the conference organisers.
Post talk pointers
Once you’ve finished your talk give yourself a pat on a back, (not on stage, that would be weird) you’ve done something most are too scared to. Once you’ve basked in the glory of your achievement, take note of these pointers which have helped me over the past year.
1. Silence your inner critic
Immediately after my first few talks I came away feeling pretty sh*tty about how they went. While they were by no means perfect, I have a tendency to let my inner critic take hold allowing relatively minor mistakes to be magnified, thus distorting my overall perception of the talk to the extent that it didn’t match the feedback I received. If this is the case for you, have a word with your inner-critic and shut that arsehole down…at least in the immediate aftermath of your talk. Often your faux pas’ won’t be picked up on by most of the audience so it’s not helpful to obsess over a detail that didn’t go to plan. Celebrate the fact that you’ve given your talk and soak up the knowledge to be gained from the other speakers. On the flip side, if you’ve had the misfortune of going on stage with your flies undone then you have permission to freak out. I know of one speaker who learnt this lesson the hard way, but like Voldemort, they shall not be named!
2. Get ALL of the feedback
While I’ve found it helpful to ignore my inner-critic to some extent, it’s also useful to get as much feedback as possible whether that be from audience members, conference organisers or fellow speakers. This is the best barometer to gauge how your talk went. Sometimes people will approach you of their own accord and give you their twopence, but make sure to actively ask people for their opinions. I’ve found that I’ve gotten the best feedback at conference after parties. People (especially the British) are far more willing to tell you what they think once the social lubricant that is alcohol is coursing through their system.
3. Watch your talk back
After the event is over wait a few days, and then watch or listen to yourself back if its recorded. I’ve found this to be an incredibly cringeworthy experience but hugely worthwhile in terms of gaining a more objective perception of how things went on the day, as remembering the talk can often be a bit of a blur. By watching myself back I’ve been able to pick up on various verbal tics and gestures that appear when I’ve got an audience. Being aware of these is going to help you stop doing them in future talks. From watching my previous talks I’ve noticed that from the ‘ers’ and ‘erms’ of my first talks have evolved into ‘so’ and ‘as you can see’. My fillers have become more articulate but it’s a game of whack-a-mole I am yet to win.
4. Get back on the horse and go again!
My final pointer is to make sure that you dust yourself off and go again, no matter how your last talk went. It’s the only way you’re going to improve, so make sure you apply for your next talk soon after you’ve finished your last one. Practice makes perfect!
5. Sharing is caring
I hope the above was an insightful look into my entry into public speaking and hopefully it will encourage you to give it a go yourself if you haven’t already, Manyminds host a brilliant event solely for new speakers. I’d be really interested in carrying on this conversation on Twitter, so drop me a tweet and let me know what you think. What’s your biggest barrier to getting involved in public speaking? If you’re already a speaker, how did you get into it and do you have any funny stories from your first experiences?