6 Lessons Learned from My First-Time Speaking at a Large Conference

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Public speaking is scary. Talking in front of large amount of people or being the center of attention isn’t necessarily my thing. I also admittedly talk fast and wasn’t blessed with the natural charisma of awesome public speakers that I look up to like Brene Brown, Gary Vaynerchuk and Scott Stratten.

Yet, I’m not one to succumb to my fears often. When you give into your fears, you stay in your comfort zone and don’t learn anything new. If you ask me, that’s a pretty boring way to live. I like to challenge myself. So when an opportunity came up to speak at CMXSummit, a conference for community professionals, last week, I took it even though I was admittedly terrified.

Sure, it was a lightning talk and only 10 minutes in length (compared to a longer keynote) with a short Q&A with my 3 fellow lightning talk presenters afterwards. But, I mean I was still going to be speaking in front of 300 people. The most people I have ever spoken in front of previously was maybe 30 or 40. These 300 people were also my peers – i.e. fellow community professionals. I instantly started envisioning the worst things that could happen on stage like:

  • Forgetting my entire presentation the minute I got on stage.
  • Tripping over my own two feet and eating it.
  • Or worse falling off the stage.

Luckily, none of those things ended up happening. <insert huge sigh of relief.> Overall, I think the presentation went fairly well. And, I learned a ton from the experience, which I’m going to share with you below.

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During the Q&A portion of my talk at CMXsummit. CMX does their Q&A a little differently, by grouping a few speakers together for the Q&A.


Start preparing early. 

There are so many things you can procrastinate on. Preparing a talk shouldn’t be one of them. Once you know you are a confirmed speaker, immediately take the time to create an outline or maybe a mindmap of your entire talk.

I found that outlining the key takeaways that I wanted attendees to get from my talk early on – helped me able to hone in and focus my presentation.


Stop tweaking your slides a couple of days before your presentation. 

First, the conference organizer will hate you. As someone who has organized a conference or two before, organizers have a million other things to do in the week before a conference. Having to bug a presenter for their slides shouldn’t be one of them.

Not to mention the more you change the slides at the very end, the more likely you are going to be nervous and not know your presentation as well as you would like on stage. Do yourself and the conference organizer a favor and hand in your final slides at least a few days beforehand.

 

Memorize “the beats” not the entire presentation. 
This tip comes courtesy of Evan Hamilton, who is not only a good friend but also the CMXsummit organizer. It took me a little while for this tip to really sink considering I spent the first couple of days after writing my talk trying to memorize it word for word. Even though I was only preparing a lightning talk (10 minutes), it was still proving to be a daunting task. After all every time I forgot a word, I found my mind going blank and then frantically trying to remember an exact word.

When I started to memorize just cues for key points and transitions in my talk, the process became so much quicker. As someone who is pretty new to public speaking, I even added some cues in my slides. (Sidenote: I know experienced speakers will probably cringe at this, but having a few subtle cues in my slides helped me considerably.) Sure, my presentation varied a bit each time I rehearsed it, but I found myself tripping up way less practicing my talk and even more so on stage.

 

If you are scared you are going to forget your entire talk, memorize the opening paragraph and deliver it while looking at the back of the audience. 
This kind of goes against the previous tip, but is a surprisingly effective tip that I got from Richard Millington. Hands down the most daunting part of the talk (for me at least) is the very first few seconds when you are standing on stage in the bright lights and everyone is looking at you. This is when I knew I would be the most likely to stutter or freeze up. By memorizing the first paragraph cold (and having a back-up of it line by line in my hand which I didn’t end up using thankfully), I was able to start my talk more confidently. I used that plus the energy from the audience to gain confidence throughout my talk.

 

If you have more than 4 bullet points on a slide, you have too many.  
There is no bigger public speaking sin than having a wall of text across all slides. After all, if you have a bunch of text, the audience will spend all their time frantically writing everything down instead of paying attention to you.

The more visuals you can incorporate logically in your slides, the better. By visuals, it doesn’t have to be photos, it can also be charts, graphs, screenshots, etc.

 

Practice your talk in full multiple times and in front of at least 3 different people. 
A funny thing happens. The more I practiced, the more confident I got with delivering my presentation. While I was still very nervous before going on stage, once I got started delivering the talk on stage it felt easier (since I already rehearsed it a bunch)

While rehearsing, it helps if at least one of those people doesn’t know much about the topic. They will be able to spot things that may seem obvious to you but aren’t so obvious to everyone else.  It also helps if you choose people who aren’t your best friends to sit in and listen to you practicing your talk. You want people who are going to give you critical but constructive feedback, and your friends are probably going to be more prone to sugar-coat it.

While I don’t think my speech was perfect (nothing ever is, really), following these tips definitely helped me avoid a disaster on stage. Read: I didn’t forget portions of my presentation or like fall off the stage. You might think I’m joking, but these were legitimate concerns of mine.

In case you were interested, my lightning talk at CMXsummit was all about measuring online customer support communities and how one particular metric  – deflection – can be very misleading.

 

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About the author

Jessica Malnik

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