Many of you would be aware that I was brave enough (and I do feel I was brave!) to put my name forward to speak at Microsoft Ignite Australia this year (2015) and I was lucky enough to be picked as a speaker. This was an entirely new challenge for me, and something that I got an immense amount out of…and I wanted to share some of what I learnt about preparing to speak, about speaking (and also about myself!)
So without further ado, these are some of the things I felt I should share about the whole experience:
Know how you speak
This was a pretty cool one, actually. Learning how I spoke, listening to myself and re-listening to myself. Learning if I talk fast (which I do…) and how I talk was really beneficial. The more you listen, the better you get at being able to control *how* you speak. One tip I can pass on – to slow down your speaking repeat this phrase: “I’d like a proper cup of coffee, in a proper copper coffee pot”. You can’t say it fast. It helps reduce your pace and can be really good to utter to yourself a few times before speaking! I used this a lot while practicing mine and it did help me to slow down.
Know your own idiosyncrasies
You may not think you have them, but you have them. There are things you’ll repeatedly say or do while talking that you won’t even be aware of. The um’s and ah’s. The number of times you say a particular word – I’m partial to “hilarious” myself at the moment! Other things, like the way you move when you’re in front of people. The way you pace. Be aware of *all* of them. Learn which ones work for you and which ones you’ll need to change! This is one of the reasons why you need to practice!
Practice makes perfect
I can’t repeat this one enough. Practice, practice and practice again. I can’t tell you how many times I practiced my speeches…many, many, *many* times. It paid off. It meant I wasn’t looking at my notes all the time. It meant I was able to look at the audience and hold their attention. It meant I was able to joke and laugh because I *knew* what was coming next. I also recommend practicing at least once with an audience of some kind – be it a group of friends, your family or your co-workers. Speaking to yourself or to a mirror is great, but it’s just not the same.
Don’t be afraid to deviate from your planned speech
Following on from the “practice” part is that you don’t always have to stick to script. In fact, it flows much better and sounds far more natural if you don’t have a prepared and planned speech. Use dot points so you know what you want to discuss or talk about, but let the words flow around them naturally. Every single time I practiced my speeches, they were different. Every. Single. Time. I tried to ensure I kept them around the same time limit each time (for my big speech, they always fell between 50 & 60 minutes) but the words used, the phrases, even the order I mentioned things was somewhat different each time. It’s always nice to mix it up!
There is no shame in asking for help!
If you’ve never spoken before, there is absolutely *nothing* wrong with sticking your hand in the air and saying “I need a bit of help, can someone take a look and make sure I’m on the right track”. There are two ways it can go – you can either get some really great constructive criticism on things you need to fix up, which will help you feel more confident; or you’ll get the big thumbs up saying it’s great, which will *also* help you feel more confident. Either way – you feel more confident. It’s a win/win! I did this and it seriously helped my confidence – I only ever got great feedback that helped feed into my speech and make things even better.
Know your content
Don’t stress too much about this because chances are, if you’ve been asked to speak, you know your shit. But there will be people there who also know about your topic of choice, so you’d better be sure that what you’re speaking about is accurate! Brush up on things, use it as an excuse to learn more! The topic I spoke on was something that was passed on to me by a few people, so I wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about – I did at least 2 or 3 days worth of research of some of the stuff I was speaking on, just to be sure I’d covered my bases.
Be prepared for questions
Following on from the “know your stuff”, is the “be prepared for questions”. You can’t always predict what people will ask, but the fact that you’ve been asked to speak means you must know *something*. So just be prepared for it – and remember; there is absolutely *nothing* wrong with saying “I don’t know”. Phrase it in such a way that the person asking can come to you later so you’ve got time to find the answer for them e.g. “I’m not 100% sure on that, I’d need to look that up, come have a chat with me after”. I was very lucky with this, and I didn’t have this happen to me – but it was one of my big fears!
Basics: sleep well, go to the toilet before etc.
I know, I know – it’s boring and common sense and all that shit. But it’s worth repeating. Make sure you get a good nights sleep. Make sure you go to the loo before hand – and if you’re pre-wired in, make sure you’re muted while you’re in the loo!. Take a water bottle with you so you’ve got something to drink. Depending on how nervous you are, skipping food until *after* you’ve spoken might be a good idea. It certainly was in my situation – was concerned I’d be a tad sick!
Do things *your* way
I had a few people critic my talk before I gave it. Some of them wanted me to include extra information or to talk about something more in-depth that I wasn’t overly familiar with, or to expand on a topic I’d only planned on devoting a minute or so to. Remember, it’s *your* talk. Do it *your* way. Your the one who’s going to be up there, you’re the one who’s going to be evaluated and critiqued on it, you’re the one people are going to be listening to – this is your talk, no one else’s.
Put your nervous energy to good use
You will be nervous. There is no escaping it – but put it to good use. If you’re a nervy person, use that to help psych yourself up, not down. Be positive!
Show up early to where you’re speaking, get familiar with the layout
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to be prepared. Getting there early, or if possible having a dry run in the room you’re going to be in!) is a great idea. It gives you time to be comfortable with where you’re going to be presenting. Get a feel for how far you can pace, what you can lean on (I know I’m a leaner…), how the AV systems work. Spend some time becoming friends with your AV guy – mine was really lovely and spending 5-10 minutes with him and being comfortable with him made the whole things so much nicer.
The audience wants you to succeed!
This is probably the biggest one that was repeated by so many people when I was asking for advice regarding talking. The audience wants you to succeed – they’re there to see a good presentation/demonstration/talk/whatever it is you’re doing. They don’t want you to suck or to fail, or to fall apart. They want you to be awesome! The audience will always have high hopes for you, so don’t think they’re there just to see you fail – which I did. Don’t be a pessimist! They really do want you to knock their socks off – so do it!
Audience participation is great
You want to engage with your audience: ask them questions, make them laugh, get them involved. If they’re involved, they’re not bored. Having them participate in some way will also help them retain the information you’re trying to impart, so use it to your advantage!
Get feedback: both before and after!
You want feedback. As much of it as you can get, both before and after. You want people to look over your work, so you have a bit more confidence before you speak; but you also want feedback after, so you know where you can improve – and there is *always* room for improvement! So make sure you ask for feedback. The other thing is – you get to choose which feedback to listen to. Some of it will be great. Some of it will be not so great. You don’t have to take *everything* on board.
Don’t take feedback personally
Now while most people will want to provide you with constructive feedback about things you could do better, you will always have people who like to be mean and vindictive, especially if the feedback is anonymized. DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY. There may be something constructive you can take out of it, but if it’s cruel are hurtful, brush it off – it’s not worth stressing over. An example – the very first comment I received for speaking was something along the lines of “First talk I’ve walked out on for this entire conference, language was totally unprofessional”. I said “shit” twice. As a female, we’re obviously not allowed to swear. FUCK. THAT. As I said to a few other people – for my first talk, I was up there for nearly 20 minutes and didn’t say “fuck” once. That’s like a record for me.
Pay attention to anything constructive, use it to make yourself a better speaker – Equally as important as brushing off the hurtful stuff is taking on board the constructive stuff. Sometimes, it might be hard to swallow, or it might highlight something about ourselves we didn’t really want to admit. But if we want to get better, we need to take these comments on board and perhaps modify a few things – it might be how fast we talk, the fat we use too many acronyms, if we used demonstrations in our talk (or the lack thereof :P), if we paced too much, things we could’ve explained better etc. Use it to your advantage.
And lastly – be confident, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! This is the biggest one for me. I honestly thought I was awful. I thought I was going to be a really bad presenter, because I’d never done it before. Who wants to listen to *me* talking? I’m sure there are people in the audience who’ll know more than me. What if they ask me tricky questions to trip me up? What if I completely bomb my talk, rush through it, and everyone thinks I sucked? What if everyone thinks I’m a *fraud*?!
Ignore all those thoughts. Push those doubts aside. If your abstract got picked, if you’ve been chosen to talk, if you’ve practiced your talk, if you’ve had some feedback on your topic and speech, if you’ve comfortable with what you’re doing and you know your stuff – You will be awesome.
I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped me with my speech – to Macca, who originally put me forward for speaking because he thought I could; to my better-half, who said “You can do this, you’ll rock it!”; to my work mates who supported me and sat through my practice run through with only a few yawns; to my Twitter friends who were super encouraging and of course, to those who attended, who smiled at me, who were encouraging, who provided such awesome feedback.
Thanks to all. Hopefully I’ll get the courage to be brave soon and put my hand up to speak again!