Public speaking and preparing to present

Last year I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone -after all it’s a good way to learn and challenge yourself - and I signed up to speak at an industry conference.

Here’s how I went about shaping my content, and a brief rundown of how I approached the day in the nine months leading up to it.

I started by saying ‘yes, but…’

When the conference organiser approached me (as they sometimes do from LinkedIn), I wasn’t sure the conference agenda was right for me. The slot was called ‘Winning Content’, however they wanted someone to speak about digital content marketing.

I probably could have covered that topic, however marketing’s no longer my area of specialism and not a subject I feel passionate about.

I offered to speak on the condition I could tweak the agenda and subject matter to make it more relevant to my role (Lead Content Designer), and the organiser was more than happy to oblige.

Whilst the twenty minutes slot felt daunting, the fact I could tweak to my own agenda was good. So I learnt not to be afraid to suggest alternative agenda items, often conferences just want people who will speak with passion about something that’s useful to their audience.

I put pen to paper

It sounds really obvious, but before I even started putting slides together I spent a long time working out what I wanted to say. As I’m naturally a writer, I started by writing a (long) article about all the things I wanted to get out of my head on the topic of my presentation.

I then jigged about the order (so that I could create a story). I wanted to ensure that one section flowed into the next.

Once I had the initial article in shape, I began to think about how that could translate it into a presentation.

I got help from a friendly designer

I didn’t want to overwhelm my audience (or distract them from what I was saying), so I turned my content into slides with a few keys words and a visual, with the help of a kindly visual designer.

The words from my article were plopped into the ‘speaker notes’ to start with, for me to cut down later. This also helped the designer understand what I was trying to say and I was so relieved that the visuals brought this to life in a way I wouldn’t have been able to do. It’s true, one image does speak a thousand words sometimes!

I learned from TED

I watched a few TED talks, including a couple on how to tell a story through presenting. This helped me to approach my presentation with two key bits of insight:

  1. Throwing in some personal stories will give warmth to your presentation and gain some more empathy from your audience. That didn’t come naturally to me but I managed to squeeze in one or two personal anecdotes!
  2. Presenting your content with a ‘problem then solution’ can help the flow and cadence of your talk. This is a great one from Nancy Duarte.

I took these onboard and it helped me to re-shape my content once again. It was tricky to keep re-ordering but I finally got to something I was happy with.

I did some warm-up gigs

My next step was to see how my content sounded out loud, and test the flow on some willing guinea pigs. This was the most useful thing I could have done. I started with my raw slides and talked people through the content and flow. Their feedback (and constructive criticism) helped me to re-jig the order (again) take out bits, and add in more where they wanted to know more.

I find it hard to present in front of colleagues who know what I do. I’m not sure why – perhaps I feel as though I’ll be asked a tricky question and won’t know the answer and people might think I’m not actually as good at my job as I think I am. I knew if I could do it in front of them, the strangers would (hopefully) be easy!

As well as refining my content and structure, with each practise I was also able to ‘learn my lines’ and reduce my speaker notes with each run-through. It also meant that I would be more prepared for questions on the day.

I tried to keep it cool

By the time my big day arrived, I was well-rehearsed. However you can never account for the unexpected. On arrival at the event, not only did I need to run through the technical set-up (of course my Mac didn’t connect to the projector first time!), but I had to get the feel of the room.

My tip would be to arrive early and watch the other speakers. It was a large room but with an intimate set up and good acoustics that meant I didn’t mean intimidated by the size of the audience.

However, I was thrown somewhat off-course when I was asked to stand in for the compere for the afternoon and present the other speakers. By the time I came to present I was worried that the audience were sick of my voice!

When I felt myself rush my speech I stopped, took a sip of water and let my voice (and hands) stop shaking before I re-started.

At the end no one asked any questions but I put that down to the fact it was late afternoon and people just wanted to get home! Either that or I’d covered everything they could ever have wanted to know about content!

Afterwards I felt great — my presentation had gone without hitch and I only forgot to say one or two things. You’ll always forget to say one thing and kick yourself later, but don’t beat yourself up about it!

I did it, so can you!

The moral of my story is that it’s normal to feel scared about something like presenting. But with enough pre-planning and practice you can put yourself out there and be a little less frightened than you thought you would. I realised I had a wealth of knowledge to share with other people, and once I’d done that, I also felt more confident in my own abilities.

And whilst I wouldn’t say I’ve got the public speaking bug, I’ve already signed up for another (smaller) event. Best get practising!