Taking to the stage – talking at your first conference

I sang.

During my very first presentation as a speaker at a web development conference I actually sang.

The title of the song escapes me now as a good few years have passed since my baptism of fire into the world of public speaking. Nor could I provide any hints, clues or insights into the genre, pitch, octave or key of the musical outburst.

Before you start forming pictures in your mind of the event in question, let me first put you at ease. I wasn’t opening up the presentation with a few verses from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’, and I’m fairly confident it wasn’t any song performed by Aqua. What I can tell you is that it was only a short line or two, and murmured in such a way as to be comical enough to get a laugh at a crucial point in the first few minutes of my very first foray into presenting.

The “why” I can answer quite easily. I was nervous. I had been sat in the audience all morning watching other speakers, well-versed and wise in the ways of presenting, strut their stuff and impart knowledge for the duration of their speaking slots. During this time I had been safe, tucked firmly in my seat.

Now, however, I was finally up on stage, the microphone clipped to me like some audio-transmitting parasite, the 200 people sitting in their chairs, all 400 eyes looking directly at me. I was exposed and no longer able to hide. During my brief introduction I mentioned that it was my first time speaking in such an environment. I made a passing mild-mannered comment that thanks to music college I was more used to singing to a crowd of people, telling them not to be surprised if I broke into song. A mild chuckle from the audience put me at ease and I carried on.

A few minutes later it happened. A short burst of something slightly musical escaped from my mouth. It was nothing more than a defence mechanism over some live-coding spelling mistake, but the truth remains that I sang.

Forty-five minutes later the presentation was complete and I had survived intact. Since that day I have spoken at numerous conferences and user groups around the world and enjoy every moment of each one.

I haven’t sung at any more.

Exposing yourself needn’t be a scary situation

I tell you this not to scare you off speaking in public, but to assure you that presentations are never perfect, mistakes happen and sometimes problems arise that are just simply out of your control. I’m not alone here in my story, and many conference regulars can tell you horror stories of their own. At a recent conference I was involved with, one of the speaker’s had a crushing blow when his laptop decided to die mere minutes before he was due to go on. Luckily backups were available and a laptop was obtained to replace his brand new paperweight of a dead machine.

The most important piece of advice I can give is to create copies of everything. Back up your presentations and any assets you may use with it. Use Dropbox to sync them, email them to your Gmail account, upload them to a subversion or git repository and transfer them onto a USB stick or your mobile phone.

Broken equipment can be borrowed and replaced. Lost presentations cannot.

Practice speaking. Have a run through of the slides and wander around your office / bedroom / shed as you recite your thoughts and plans for the presentation. You may feel slightly awkward doing so, but it really does help cement certain ideas and helps you find any possible weaknesses in both the content and your speaking style.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself fine-tuning the slides up to the last minute. Having seen the type of attendees at the event, you may also find that some content needs to be altered to better suit the general audience demographic. Tweaking can also help keep the content fresh in your mind.

Turn up to your session with plenty of time to go – if you’re rushed you won’t feel ready. Introduce yourself to the organisers or compère if you have not already done so – they may be looking out for you. Say hi and introduce yourself to the sound engineer too before they feed a microphone cable down your back, and thank them for their help after your talk when they take it back out again.

Once on the stage, don’t worry about the audience – you won’t get lynched for anything so just be yourself. You’ll more than likely find that autopilot will kick in and you’ll be flying through the content without any worries or feelings of self-conciousness.

Above all else, have fun! Speaking is a fantastic way to meet lots of new people and something that you should find rewarding; a sense of achievement should accompany the sense of relief you feel after every presentation. Be confident in who you are and what you know, and once on stage don’t be afraid to sing if you feel the need to!


The above content is taken from an article I had written for Web Designer magazine, published in issue 186 back in 2011.

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