In early 2013 I made a personal pledge: Every time I was offered to speak, I would say yes. With a few exceptions, brought on by becoming a parent and not traveling to war zones, I have largely succeeded. I have since given more than 50 talks in 12 countries. It has been both terrifying and thrilling and I’m ready for more, if you’ll have me.
At first it was a trickle, speaking at local events in classrooms and at meetups over pizza and beer. But every appearance, every keynote, let to something else. I met great people, got better at presenting and found a voice and a style that made me feel more comfortable on stage.
It began around Denmark, then expanded to Sweden but thanks to the power of the internet, and my work making things, I was suddenly being invited to speak in other countries. I remember the first time I was flown out and picked up at the airport by a guy holding a sign with my name.
It’s humbling to speak in front of an audience and have people listen, but even more so is the efforts of organizers to move you around the world in order for you to participate in their event. Thanks @drewwilson!
I soon learned that going to conferences as a speaker is a wildly different experience than going as an attendee. In some ways, it’s everything I love about events, multiplied by a factor of ten. If you make an impression on stage, people feel connected to you and you feel that instantly. You’ll feel it on stage, you’ll feel it at lunch break and you’ll feel it at the inevitable after party. If it’s a multi day event, you’ll feel it increase exponentially. It’s a strange and wonderful thing: Most awkward barriers that usually keep people from talking at these things are replaced by a sense of relation, because they spent time with *you* while you stood there sweating over your keynote. Being on the receiving end of that emotion is amazing. A sincere and heartfelt presentation is often met with genuine conversation and new friends afterwards. At events where I spoke I met ten times as many people and had ten times as many interesting conversations.
Getting to go to more conferences also meant that I got to meet other speakers and see them in action. I got to hang out with them in the hotel bar at 2 am and exchange notes (I’m looking at you Verne Ho & Phil Hawksworth), crash a korean funeral (caught in the wrong restaurant with @house, Louis Harboe & Brad Ellis) or get lost in the streets of Florence (with Christopher Downer & @TimOliverAU). Meeting wonderful and talented people is addictive. It attaches stories to those floating heads in my twitter client and each of those encounters adds a healthy (and humbling) perspective on the crazy industry we’re part of.
Public speaking, like design, is a skill that is learned with practise and iteration. There’s always something to improve and the best way to become a better speaker is by giving more talks. This is certainly not something that can be learned in a vacuum. You have to fight anxieties and sweaty palms. Record your talks and review them like game footage (seriously). Take feedback from viewers and adjust your slides if something isn’t working. Give the same keynote multiple times if possible. Watch others do their thing and study their methods of structure and delivery. Try new stuff and play around with the medium (I often include games or video snippets in my presentations). Balance humor and sincerity. Build confidence and be proud, but have self irony and humility. Find a formula that fits your personality then challenge it. Rinse and repeat.
My growing side job as a traveling keynote speaker started to make sense on more levels. I felt like I was applying truths I had learned from my design career to my venture into public speaking. On stage, I’d talk passionately about ‘Doing what you love’ in relation to work as a designer — while at the same time attempting to do the very same thing with my keynotes. In the same vein, I learned that you need to speak about what you’ve experienced and what you know. It seems like an awfully obvious thing, but the best talks I’ve seen and given have had some personal story in them. Recounting personal stories breaks up bullet-point advice, makes it more relatable and brings your audience closer to you. It also has the simple benefit of being much easier to remember by heart on stage, which in turn makes it feel less stilted.
As time went on, my talks focused even more on things I was passionate about. I gave a talk in San Diego about how most of my career had been guided by fun and how to work with ‘fun’ as a concept in your projects and your life.
And last year I toured London, L.A., Florence & Amsterdam with an hour long 80'ies inspired talk and workshop about one of my great design passions: App Icons.
I’m currently very much interested in the future of television and designing for these new platforms and that could become a talk one day. As I sail into my thirties I am also finding it rewarding to speak to students or people new to the industry. I’m working on a borderline motivational talk (I know, I know) that dives into some hard earned truths I’ve learned over the past 10 years about the compounding effects of choosing your path and how to work on things that matter to you.
After more than 3 years of saying yes to speak at (most) events, I feel like I’m just getting started. I still get nervous before I go on stage (but getting better at hiding it) and I spend a crazy amount of time on my slides (even though most of them are only shown for less than 10 seconds). I feel like this quest to become a better speaker is making me a better designer. It forces me to think hard about what it is that I want people to understand, think or feel and then trains me in delivering those points. I feel like it humanizes and contextualizes a job that much too quickly consist of staring into a screen for 10 hours each day. It allows me to meet people and see more of the world and it makes me want to be better at just about everything.
I wrote this piece, not only to deliberate on what I think has become a wholly worthwhile addition to my career and personal war-chest of stories, but also as an open call: If you would like to hear me talk about any one of my passion topics, please let your favorite event/organizer know that I have talks, and I will travel.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org — Hope to meet you out there.