The below illustrates some of the emotional rollercoaster of pulling together a presentation for a conference. It is designed to help others recognise that it’s not easy to do this and how much of a role organisers play in increasing or reducing anxiety. It is not based on a single experience, but a few experiences over the past year. It is a bit rambly. It is not all inner monologue. This is Medium after all. I’d love to hear how this resonates for you.
I get an email. Someone has reached out asking me to speak. I feel so flattered. How did you find me? Why did you pick me? Do we know the same people? Was it a recommendation? Have you heard me talk? Met me in real life? Why me? Who cares. I’m flattered. I feel valued.
So, what’s the angle of your conference? Who will be there? Will I get any work from it? Or is it an ‘opportunity to raise my profile’?
I really want to go to X and speak on stage at that conference. I want to meet people who work in field Y. I want an excuse to chat. My talk is the ultimate icebreaker. I’ve busted icebergs to get here. People will speak to me. Or at least I’ll get some buzz on twitter.
Right then. So what am I going to talk about. Does one of my previous talks fit? Or do I start from scratch again? I think I want to try something new. I’m bored of that last talk. Never liked it anyway. But then Andy said it would be arrogant to assume everyone has heard my talk. And I should be practiced like a comedian. Just with less gags. Fuck it, i’ll try something new. Something that fits the audience, the conference and the theme. I care about that.
So what’s the hook? What’s the pressing need? What’s my experience? Is this a case study? Probably not. I can’t really talk about my projects in such depth. But I can sprinkle a few anecdotes around. Is it a research piece where I interview lots of people? Nah, that too ages that time before. I’ll probably ask for a few views and reflections once I have an angle.
Ok, so I’m writing the blurb. Crafting the hook. Wait a second, I’ll be right back. The rest of my work life and life life is calling.
A few weeks pass… Fuck! That submission. Oh bollox. The deadline is in 3 hours. Is that 3 hours my time or their’s? Better knock something out. Explain the need, frame the message. Craft some silly, link-baity title. Send.
The wait for acceptance
A week or two passes. Did they get my message? When are they announcing who got accepted?
A month or so passes. Life and work continues. I forget that I submitted anything.
A couple of months pass. ‘You’ve been accepted’. Amazing. That’s fantastic. I get to go to… Wait a minute. That’s in a few months. I’ve got all this work on. And we’re meant to be on holiday just before then. Can I get out? What did I submit anyway? What’s the conference about? Oh, I have to pay for my travel. My accommodation. And my ticket? What? Oh no, I get the ticket free. Ah, that’s a relief.
The build up
Every bit of downtime I get, I’m thinking. Sketching little notes. I don’t get much downtime. There’s while I’m on the toilet (sorry, but I think dads may appreciate this). Or lacking sleep at night. I start an Evernote note. Then another one because I couldn’t find the first. I chat to people.
Me: I’ve got to do a talk. It’s about manipulation.
Them: What? Right. You probably shouldn’t talk about that.
Me: Oh. It’s in the submission.
Them: Why don ‘t you say persuasion instead? Er… Because it’s about manipulation.
I expand. I eventually get good feedback and views. I even put emails out to people I respect and get great stories. But plenty of people trying to reframe my whole topic.
I go into crisis mode. I haven’t got time for this. Is this talk helpful? To me? To others? What’s the point again? I’m drowning in research, viewpoints and ideas.
Every minute of headspace I once had is stolen. Outside of nappies, potty training, hustling for work, delivering work, meeting people. It invades everything. My mind is buzzing for months. Not always in a good way.
I negotiate getting some headspace and time from my family. I need a day at the weekend to work through this thing. Why? What’s it about? They ask. Manipulation? Er, what? You can have a few hours after you’ve taken the kids to soft play. Thank you.
This happens a few times. And I edge closer. I take to post-it notes and a big white board. Structuring the messaging and the arguments. Making sense of it all.
I feel like I have got somewhere.
Meanwhile, I’m still talking to people. Useful anecdotes, bigger reframing. I have a structure now. I need to go with it. But they have a point.
I finally get into slides. I like making slides. It’s like I’m a designer again. I used to be good at it. But these days, everyone’s slides are so good. Dramatic type on black backgrounds. Rich imagery, or even video backgrounds.
I make far too many based on my structure. I labour on a few killer slides. I have a few too many killer slides. What’s the point of this again? Who cares? I have killer slides. They’re killing me anyway.
I continue to tweak and hone. Going back to my original submission. What a load of crap I wrote. Does it still fit? Almost. That’s good enough for me.
I have no idea how long this talk should be. Let me check the programme. Oh, they have changed it from a 45 min to a 30 minute talk. I guess that’s easier to rehearse. 30 minutes is good.
Let’s try and run through it. I’ll record myself and listen back. I don’t listen back. Not this time. I get a sense that it’s too long. I edit, I prune. I add. I tweak the slides.
I rehearse again. Maybe in chunks. Maybe the whole lot. I try to rehearse the night before. And the morning of the talk. In my hotel room at like 6am in the morning. I feel sorry for my neighbours as I bellow design bollox to myself. I can do it in the time. All is fine. Yes. It’s actually pretty good. It’s not going to get any better at this stage.
Testing the setup
This is all non-linear. It starts several weeks before…
Can you tell me what aspect the ratio is? What’s the room size and shape? How many people? They’re probably thinking i’m being high maintenance. I’m just trying to make sure my slides are readable.
Can you confirm if I have a lapel, a headset or a handheld mic?
And then partial answers.
Them: We think it’s 16:9 but we’ll need to check with Dave from AV. Can you send the slides in advance?
Me (thinking): Er, no. I’ll be tweaking to the last minute.
Me (actually): I’d rather not. What do you need them for?
Them: (no answer)
Me: Can I come in and test the setup the day before?
Them: You can come in the break just before your session?
Me (thinking): Sorry, no good. I need to test the video works. The type is readable from the back of the room which I have no idea of the size and shape of.
Me: It would be really good if I can test some stuff out way before then, so I can adjust anything in advance.
Them: Well, we are setting up early in the morning. Maybe check then. But we’ll be setting up the Keynote speaker.
I go in early. It’s disorganised. I can’t find the right people. I stand around a lot. Eventually we test, and it’s ok except for a few slides. I go away and tweak.
There’s a few talks before mine. Luckily i’m not at the end of the day, or at the end of 3 days. That’s rubbish. Everything I hear before my talk sort of drifts into the ether. I take notes, but nothing goes into the brain unless it relates to my talk. I tweak again.
There’s applause for the previous speaker. They’re running late. And there’s some questions. Will I get my full time? I need it. I rehearse my opening. I know not to ad-lib too much. I probably will.
I get up. My first words are the hardest. Do I say hello? Do I introduce myself? Does the host say my name wrong? Do I correct him? Do I just launch in?
There’s a little humble Jason hello, or hi. I’m human for a second. Then in.
The intro goes well. I’m over the worst. I lock in on a few interested people. Or someone I know. Oh, they’re chatting to someone else. They’re on their phone. I hope they’re tweeting. Find someone else. Maybe I should imagine them all naked. No. How is that going to keep me focused?
Wait. Slow down. They’re all taking pictures. Shall I pose. Do I move out the way. I haven’t made time for this. I hope they got their shot. I hope they tweeted it. Maybe I should have said that I am sharing my slides. They’ll probably keep taking pictures anyway. I would.
I carry on. I’m tired. I need some water. I feel like i’m stumbling over my words. It’s probably worse from my perspective I tell myself. I realise I’m probably talking too fast. I go and grab some water. Oh no. Not yet. I need to take some sips while I’m on a killer slide. But they’re all killer slides. Maybe when they’re next taking a photo. I take a sip.
And back in. There’s a mixture of expressions. Smiles. Nods. Blank stares. Frantic note taking. Excruciating pain. Oh wait. Someone’s fallen asleep. Maybe they’re listening intently with their eyes shut. They’re missing my killer slides. Shall I wake them? Maybe i’ll talk louder.
I sense the time is running away and I still have the last 20% of content with 10% of the time. I must not rush through it. The 5 minute card comes up. It is the shortest 5 minutes ever. I think I do it. I don’t get cut off. That’s got to be good.
‘Thank you’ And applause.
Generally, i’m too exhausted to do public questions and answers. But occassionaly I do. I’m just not very good at it. I try to listen to the question. Oh, it’s not a question. It’s a statement. It’s a provocation. It’s an opinion. Great, I love those. Do I rise to it? Do I bite back? I clock her for later — it was a good point after all. We’ll chat. Someone else says something. I understand nothing of it. I shrug. I move on. I don’t mean to dismiss what you said, but I need a drink.
More applause (Do I bow?. Probably not. I’ll just look away nervously)
People approach me at the end. I really need a drink. But this is what I came here for. Discourse. I just need that drink.
I find some time during lunch, or break, or at the start of the next talk to check my twitter. Maybe hiding in the toilet. Cocooning into your smartphone reading the likes, the retweets and the comments. Hoping for some specific feedback beyond ‘i loved your presentation. I’m new to the industry and I found it really helpful’. What about my peers? What about my heroes? What did they think? I see there’s 23 twitter notifications. Then 36, 42 tweets.This is good. I hope. Oh, it’s like 5 tweets retweeted. They’re mostly photos of my slides with some comments. Some messages saying nice stuff. Some misunderstandings of my points. The occasional little snipe. I retweet. I clarify. I thank. People outside the conference wade in. What was this about? Will the slides be available? Is there video? I dunno. It’s only just happened. Maybe we should have Facebook Live streamed it. I probably wouldn’t have signed up for that. Will there be a video? I dunno.
I think about whether to put up on slideshare. Are all the images’ rights accounted for? Did I get all the permissions for the quotes I used? Is this presentation career limiting? Will all my half-written notes in the slides get pulled into slideshare? Do I really have to tidy them up?
A few people approach me. We discuss one or two aspects. Others linger. I don’t get to speak to them. I wonder what they’d have to say. How can I bring them into this conversation?
Annoyingly, noone gives me good constructive feedback. Can they sense that I won’t take it well? I am a designer after all. But I need to know,
I get a cryptc comment from someone I know, There’s a lot there. You have a lot of content. Yes I know. Me: There were probably too many slides. It was good. But why? I think.
Someone says to me: ‘Do you do any actual work. Or are you always speaking at conferences?’
I wonder for a second. Of course I do. I just can’t talk about it. Does that mean it was good?
A few weeks later, I get a few tweets from the community — retweets of my retweets of someone else’s tweets. Some have found my slideshare or the video after it has been posted. ‘Great talk’. ‘I really liked ‘x”. ‘It has helped me in my career’. I’d really like to talk to you some time about it all. I feel valued. I feel like I have helped people. I get a few LinkedIn requests. I don’t usually accept cold invitations, but they’re warmed up with a sweet message. I accept.
Reflect and repeat
I’m exhausted and focusing back on other things. Like nappies. Like project work. Like hustling for more work. Or planning a new talk. Or workshop. I think about doing the talk again. After all, I put a lot of effort in. But can I go through the torment again? I need a rest. I get back to work and life.
I get a mail. ‘I wondered if you’d be interested in speaking at a conference we’re doing next year in <far out land nothing to do with my current work>’. ‘Yeh, sure — tell me more’. I feel so flattered. How did you find me? Why did you pick me? Do we know the same people? Was it a recommendation? Have you heard me talk? Met me in real life? Why me? Who cares. I’m flattered. I feel valued.