How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Giving a Talk

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I’ve attended many conferences in my time and watched every single speaker with admiration, because just the thought of getting up and talking to an audience myself leaves me in a cold sweat. However, at the beginning of October I gave my first ever talk at a local PHP user group and I actually enjoyed it! Riding high on that sense of achievement, I’d like to outline why I think speaking is a good thing, why everyone should try it, and how to get started.

Whilst we were discussing our first company retreat back in 2015, Brad asked if anyone wanted to speak at WordCamp Miami, the conference the retreat was planned around. Speak!? At a conference?! My brain immediately went into fight-or-flight response mode and, like the rest of the team, I politely declined. Brad had spoken at the previous year’s WordCamp in Miami, a Boston meetup, and along with hosting a podcast and being a respected WordPress community member, speaking seemed like a natural fit for him, but for me, no way!

Why On Earth Would You Want To Speak?

So by no means am I an introvert, but I certainly wouldn’t call myself an extrovert. Talking to a group bigger than 5 normally rattles my nerves somewhat, unless they are a group of friends. I did a bit of speaking at school, at various workplaces, and a couple of (very nervous, alcohol fuelled) best man speeches – but speaking has never appealed to me or been something I considered myself good at. So why do people do it, and why did I decide to take the plunge recently?

Sharing Is Caring

Speaking about a topic is like writing a blog post: it’s a great way to share what you know, something you have learnt, or challenges you have faced. Chances are, someone else will find it useful. WordPress is really only 20% code and 80% community (a tweetable quote if ever I read one) and so speaking about WordPress at events helps give back and adds to the community. WordCamps would be very different without the speakers!

Push Yourself Forward

This was probably the main reason I decided to sign myself up to speak at an event. It was an itch I needed to scratch. Even after weighing up how I felt about speaking, I decided it would be good personal development. But it goes deeper than having another string to my bow, or just to say I spoke at an event. If we only focus on the things we are good at then we never move forward. Giving a talk or speaking at an event is like learning how to do anything: we don’t necessarily get it right the first time, but trying and doing helps us become better. Or as Jake the Dog puts it:

Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something

Verbal Content Marketing

When you give a talk, no matter how much you know about the topic, you are building your own personal reputation and authority around a subject. That is great marketing! If you are a freelancer then speaking and writing about topics around your work is a no brainer for establishing yourself and generating leads.

It works the same for companies who employ people that speak. Typically speakers mention where they work, and more often than not, speak about a topic that is related to the work they do at the company. Personally, the work I do for Delicious Brains is great material for both blog posts and potential talks. Recently I saw a talk on Employee Evangelism by Melinda Seckington at re:develop. She outlined how, as a company, empowering your employees to share the great stuff they do by writing or speaking is an awesome way to showcase your company and advertise what a good place to work it is, which in turn helps to hire more amazing people:

employee-evangelism

But Speaking Is For Experts

This is a common fallacy that needs to be dispelled if you are to get up and start speaking. Conference speakers are not necessarily experts that know more than you. They are just people who have stood up! Imposter syndrome is a very real thing in our industry, and it probably affects most people from time to time. Inside the WordPress community there are a number of high profile people and companies that are given VIP-like status, and in comparison to them your work, success, and perceived value can seem insignificant. This is also a fallacy and simply not true.

It’s ironic that I’ve linked to a post by Chris Lema earlier, as Chris is considered by many as a ‘celebrity’ within the community. However, there is no denying that his reputation is built on hard work. He writes a blog post every single day and has a prolific record of speaking at WordCamps. At some point in his career he decided to get up and speak. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Anyone can do a talk, regardless of your background and skills – you have something to offer. Take a look at the typical format for a WordCamp – they normally have 2 or 3 tracks of talks, with each track focussing on a different theme such as business, marketing or development. This means the talks normally cater to most people in the audience, and therefore means the speakers are a real mix as well.

Getting Started

Right, let’s assume you are slightly intrigued at speaking and feel like it might be something you want to do – go on, admit it! So where to start? People love “jumping in at the deep end” with new things but I’m not sure that’s the best approach here. For example, I certainly wouldn’t want to submit a speaking proposal to WordCamp London right now. I think it’s best to start small and find your feet.

Start Small

Talking in front of a large audience is certainly a large mental blocker for most people and gets the nerves going. Mitigate that factor by finding a small local meetup to speak at. There are so many out there, more than likely one is nearby. If not, then why not set one up? It’s a great way to further the community and meet people. Put it this way: it’s easier to talk to a small group of people that you already know!

Your first talk doesn’t have to be long. Give a 5 minute lightning talk so you can get used to the process of speaking. If you know where you will be speaking, go check out the venue or better still, see someone in action speaking before hand. That way you know what to expect and will worry less about those details.

Choose a Topic

Another speaking myth is that you need to know a topic inside out before you can get up and talk to people about it. There’s no one checking your credentials at the door! The thing about knowledge is, there is always someone who knows more about a topic than you. But that also means there are people who know less. One of the greatest things about giving a talk is actually what happens afterwards – questions and conversations with the audience can be thought provoking and brilliant for getting other perspectives.

Conversely it can be a great idea to propose a topic to speak about that you don’t know a whole lot about. This means in preparing the talk you are doing research and learning yourself, which is a great excuse to dive into that new JavaScript framework or get your head around a programming pattern. Alternatively, turn to a tried and tested topic by taking a blog post you have written and convert it into a talk. This way the content is more second nature and another thing not to worry about as much.

Slide Secrets

Well, these aren’t secrets as such, but a really helpful set of tips for your slide deck inspired by a talk by Chris Sherry that was coincidentally given as a lightning talk right before I spoke. It’s a comprehensive guide to giving a good talk, one I wish I’d seen before giving mine, especially as my slides contained a few things I would have changed in hindsight. Here are some of Chris’ key points:

  • Write first, design later. Don’t get caught up in the design before the content.
  • Sometimes a slide can speak for itself. Avoid reading everything out from on screen.
  • High contrast colors for higher visibility on projectors.
  • Avoid screenshots of your editor. Highlight relevant code snippets.
  • Go easy on the gimmicks. Keep cat GIFs to a minimum.

In summary, speaking is great, try it, now! Wait a second, that’s not what I’m saying. Please don’t let my enthusiasm come across as forcefulness (nobody mention my obsession with PhpStorm). In all seriousness, speaking at my first event was a positive experience which I am pleased I pushed myself to try. If you are thinking of giving your first talk or have been encouraged to try, let me know how it goes.