We’ve all seen these tech talks before. Whether it’s a TED talk on YouTube or a co-worker giving a talk at a local meetup, this format of presentation seems to be everywhere. It has become so ubiquitous that people have started to poke fun at it with some hilarious results.
Why would somebody get on stage and present anything? To some, the idea of going on a stage and being seen as an expert can cause sweat to bead on their forehead. Recently, I got the chance to give my first main-stage conference talk, and I want to talk about why I did it, and what I learned from it.
Storytelling is something that has always inspired me. Living in Austin, Texas for seven years gave me the opportunity to see lots of great SXSW speakers in my own backyard. People like Al Gore and Elon Musk drew in the crowds and offered a young UX designer like me a front-row seat to the best storytellers in the world. To me, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools that a human can master. From the artful delivery to the passion you can see brimming at the surface, seeing someone that is truly practiced in the art of public speaking is electric.
Early in my career, I realized that the people I looked up to were all very good at crafting a story. As a UX designer, part of my job is to look for the story that my user is trying to tell. Through years of usability tests and research, I realized that every user seeks a story. I resolved to get better at storytelling myself, and this landed me on a stage in Istanbul at UX Alive.
Maybe you’ve seen a truly inspirational talk and thought, “I could do that”? If so, then this article is for you.
1. Practice your tech talk at least three times for smaller crowds
Practice, practice, practice. Before you get in front of the conference crowd, make sure that you have given the talk publicly at least three times.
That’s right, I said PUBLICLY. You should practice it as many as ten times privately, but practicing it publicly will really help you evolve the talk to a point that’s ready for the main stage. I would also recommend giving it to your colleagues at work. Call it a “Lunch & Learn” and invite as many people as will fit in your main room. Have people bring their lunch and ask them to grill you afterwards (pun intended).
I got incredible feedback from my colleagues, but that’s no surprise because they are an extremely bright group at CareerFoundry. The candor your co-workers offer will help you gauge the effect of your talk.
2. Don’t be afraid to try something new
I know, I know — I said practice your talk at least ten times, but nobody wants to watch you give a talk you’re already bored with.
Throw something new into the talk every time you give it. You never know what might be a hit, and you can use these experiments to build a talk that is much more enjoyable. You don’t go to see your favorite DJ perform and expect the same experience every time, so why should you expect that from a speaker?
3. Know your audience and adapt your talk to them
As a UX designer, I’m used to creating user personas, but I would encourage you to do a similar amount of work on the type of people that will be watching your talk.
My talk was on voice user interfaces, and it centers mostly on smart personal assistant technology. I was giving the talk at UX Alive in Istanbul, Turkey, so I looked up the availability of smart assistants in their country. Turns out, they don’t yet have access to Amazon Echoes or Google Homes, so I spent extra time explaining how these devices work. I found out later that several audience members are doing pioneering work in VUI design for the Turkish audience, and their perspective really broadened my understanding of the industry.
Don’t be afraid to make last minute changes to your slides because your audience will really appreciate the personalization.
4. Be playful with the format
The format of conferences can become so routine that the audience’s attention lags, and anything different will gain lots of focus from your crowd.
I always enjoy a speaker that tries to shake things up a little. Now this is something that really takes guts, but it is so worth it. I’m still very new to giving presentations, so I haven’t really explored this properly yet.
In my talk, I asked the audience to close their eyes and focus on the demographic information you can hear from my voice. I tried to talk to them in a soothing hypnotist voice, and it was fun to watch the conference-goers close their eyes and then understand the wealth of information hidden inside the human voice. It’s a simple thing to ask of an audience, but any break in routine will cause an instant perk in your audience.
5. Know Your Shit
When you present on stage, you are presenting yourself as an expert on your chosen topic, and you better be prepared to answer questions after a speaking event.
Lots of talks at conferences have Q&A sessions afterwards, and these can be brutal if you don’t know your material. I have walked away from a few talks with cheeks that burned from embarrassment. Use your three public practice runs to get all the obvious questions out of the way, and you will be prepared for whatever comes on the main stage. As a rule of thumb, I would recommend knowing at least five times as much as what you actually present in your talk.
6. Always do a sound check
If you don’t do a trial run or at least acquaint yourself with the stage, you are setting yourself up for disaster.
When I first arrived at UX Alive, I was so busy finishing up my daily work at CareerFoundry that I missed the sound check. Because I didn’t do the sound check, I ended up doing my talk without any presentation notes. This was absolutely terrifying at first, but my practice runs paid off. Despite messing up a few things (some really important stats on visually impaired people that I misquoted) I think in the end it really helped me to focus on the audience.
Smiling while you present will really help you connect with your audience and put them at ease.
Speaking on the stage is the equivalent of meeting a whole group of people at once and first impressions really count. You would never introduce yourself to one person without a smile, so why would you do it to a group of people? When you smile on stage, you’re letting them know that you are enjoying being up there, and that will put everyone at ease. Conferences can sometimes feel very isolating, and a warm smile says, “Hey, I see you and I appreciate you.”
As someone with resting sad face™, this can be a really difficult thing for me to do, and it’s something I failed to do in my talk. To combat this, I’d recommend you invite a few friends along to your practice run-throughs and ask them to sit on the front row.
A fellow presenter from Berlin was nice enough to sit on the front row during my talk, and his presence put me at ease throughout the presentation. It may seem a bit terrifying to invite a friend to your talk, but their support will make you much more comfortable and allow for natural reactions like a smile to shine through.
Ok, so why should you give a talk?
I know what you’re thinking: “I’m just too busy at work doing work to think about sharing what I know with others.” Not everyone has an employer that will let them take time off work to travel and speak at a conference. It certainly helps that my employer, CareerFoundry, was already doing research into VUI design, the topic of my talk. This research into VUI design offered me a glimpse into something that excited me, and luckily I am in a position to pursue that interest.
What sort of work are you doing at your job? Is there an area of your work that people are always asking you about? If any topic just sprang to your mind, then that is a prime area for a presentation. Find that interesting topic at work and try to master it. Spend extra time outside of work crafting a story that will teach others what you have learned.
Try it, it’s free…
Giving talks can be a powerful tool for your career. This tool doesn’t come with a yearly subscription fee like Sketch. It doesn’t require anything but your time. It’s free but the knowledge that you can gain from doing the research for a talk has no price tag. As you prepare for these talks, you will enhance your expertise at work, and the act of presenting something will help establish it in your memory. Hey, it might even land you a job or a promotion!
Thanks for reading, and check out the talk I gave here:
Jeffrey Humble is a Texan residing in beautiful Berlin. He currently heads up design at CareerFoundry, an online education company that helps people change their career to UX, UI and Web Development.
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