Anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely love web conferences. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend many of them across the US and UK to learn new skills, find inspiration, and make friends with like-minded, passionate people.
Naturally, I was thrilled when Go Beyond Pixels, a conference for designers and developers, was announced by local designer Levin Mejia. The lineup was full of heavy-hitters — Jeffrey Zeldman, Ethan Marcotte, Jeremy Keith, Aarron Walter, and Josh Clark. Also in the schedule was an additional talk by Frédéric Harper and a Hackathon hosted by Thomas Lewis, both Microsoft Evangelists.
A couple of days later, Levin called me up and asked if I was interested in speaking, too, to represent the community in Newfoundland and Labrador. I was flattered, but my immediate reaction was to say no. I’ve presented to clients and taught kids how to make websites, but that was the extent of my public speaking experience. The thought of speaking in front of 200 designers and developers was scary, and let’s face it, I never dreamed in a million years that I’d be doing my first talk in front of Jeffrey Zeldman. But, I said yes anyway.
My talk was to be 20 minutes in length — half the length of talks from the more seasoned speakers, which was a great way of getting my feet wet. A 40 minute talk would have been much more intimidating to write and deliver with no previous experience.
The very first thing I did was to write a general outline of my talk to give me an idea of the topics I wanted to discuss. At first, I was hoping to focus on colour workflow from start to finish — taking it from project brief to working website. Once I got writing, though, I realized that 20 minutes was just too short to talk in detail about something so complex — so I changed direction slightly and went for a more digestible, tip-based format. In the end, I called my talk “Colouring the Web — Four Things to Remember When Working in Colour.”
I did the bulk of my writing in bits and pieces over the period of two months. I used a Words to Time Calculator to give me a rough idea of how many words I needed to have to fill up a 20 minute talk, speaking at a “slower than normal” rate. I weaved each topic together into an essay format, paying close attention to flow. In the end, the calculator was not completely accurate, and I found myself needing to trim points to stay on track for time. Looking back, I suppose I could have timed myself while reading a book and taking note of the word count.
When I felt comfortable with the content and length, I gathered images and screenshots and fired up Keynote. I took every bit of my writeup and plugged it into the presenter’s notes in my slides — not to read word for word or memorize, but to help me during practice.
Practice Makes Perfect
I “finished” my slide deck about two weeks before the conference day (tweaking was inevitable, and I even made minor adjustments during Ethan’s talk, which was the slot before mine).
I’m not the most eloquent person in casual conversation but it’s amazing what a few practice runs can do for a presentation. I practiced twice in front of two friends I felt very comfortable with. I also practiced twice in front of my mother, which I felt was a good way to get feedback on things like speech and body language, as she wasn’t judging the content of my talk. I recorded myself speaking and played it back later which helped me discover and work on fixing my habit of upward inflection. Each time I practiced, it felt more natural. I began shortening my presenter’s notes so I wouldn’t use them as a crutch.
While I was doing initial research and before I sat down to write, I remembered Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker, a book I’ve seen recommended in the past. Within minutes of opening the cover, I learned tips and techniques that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I would even go as far as saying that it was the best thing I could have done to prepare for my talk — it’s just a brilliant read.
Having friends who are speakers meant I already had a good idea of how things work behind the scenes, too — I’ve often seen how they run through talks in the final hours before getting on stage. I’ve seen them get nervous and the things they do to deal with it. The fact is, even the most experienced speakers get nervous. Stage persona is often just that — a persona. Knowing this helped me accept that being nervous is expected and okay, and accepting it made me feel more comfortable.
I did one final practice of my talk the night before and headed to bed early. One of the tricks mentioned in Scott’s book is to get up early on presentation day and exercise to release any pent-up tension. I’d planned to do this, but didn’t sleep as well as I’d hoped, so I skipped the treadmill in lieu of extra rest. I had a light breakfast and drank water throughout the day. I expected to feel anxious and sick as the afternoon approached, but I was fine. I even managed to eat lunch!
There isn’t much to be said about the talk itself, as it seemed like it was over in an instant. I felt completely comfortable on stage and I thought I paced myself well — I finished up at exactly 20 minutes. I had a slight stumble once, but I don’t think anyone noticed. I asked some friends to record it so I could have a look later, but unfortunately their phones ran out of space.
I received a lot of positive feedback — I had a few people come up to me and ask me questions and told me that they learned a lot. Many told me that they didn’t believe that it was my first talk, and some even told me that I seemed too relaxed. I’ll take those as being good signs!
Overall, I learned an incredible amount and I can’t thank Levin enough for inviting me to speak. I had an absolute blast, and while at times I was under major stress over the thought of giving a talk, I’d do it again in a heartbeat! If you’re afraid to speak but want to, just go for it — you’ll probably be glad that you did.
Note: I haven’t uploaded the slides from my talk — I have plans to elaborate further and write some articles based around them to share, instead. Watch this space!