Tapir Fever: A heuristic on conference speaking

Four months ago my first proposal for a conference was accepted. It’s been an interesting journey in unknown territory. The conference is in two days.

Lately on Twitter there’s a lot of talk on the Speak Easy program and on gender inequality in tech conference speakers. To this I’d like to pass on some points to others doing their first conference presentation. “Preparation is your friend”, a friend told me. But what does that really mean? Here is a preparation heuristic for you:

  • Throw away the ideas that don’t work for you. Don’t succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. If you can’t get a hang on the topic or the angle doesn’t work for you, just let it go. Start over. Go with whatever you feel is interesting.

  • Accept feedback and criticism. People are trying to help you, so listen to their feedback and points. They are probably right.

  • Pause. Take a break. Start preparing early enough so you have time to leave your preparation alone for days or weeks. A critical distance will make it better.

  • Isolate yourself. Stop writing and talking to other people. Start talking to yourself, the mirror or the wall. You think you are going to “have a conversation” or a dialogue with the conference audience, but really it’s a monologue until the talk is over and discussion begins. So you need to practice talking without expecting or relying on feedback.

  • Research and review. Get to know your topic in depth. Who has written and said things about it? What theories are you using and how does that affect your talk? Are your sources all Wikipedia, blogs or academic papers?

  • Flow. Every time you practice and for every week that goes by, the focus and the presentation will change a little bit. Or a lot. Let it change because every audience and every context is different, so you need to be able to adapt.

  • Embrace creativity. Write everything down and then throw it away. I have no text in my presentation slides, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t written anything. I have written what could be a short novel, because I am most creative and innovative when I write. If your creative mode isn’t writing, then find out what it is and start doing that.

  • Visuals. Pictures, graphics and layout take time to find or create. I made simple drawings of my topics main elements and a friend (and cartoonist) drew the whole slide deck. I paid her with a good bottle of wine. So find someone who is good at layout design or drawing.

  • Environment and resources. Look around you. I’ve used my friends and surroundings as much as possible. We all know people that are specialized in some area: My sister is a designer (nice layout), my big sister coaches people in public speaking (yay!), my step mother is a consultant in organizational change (organizational theory), my husband is a developer (general discussions on test/dev relationships) and I have friends that are sociologists and philosophers (just smart people). And last but not least: my colleagues and friends at House of Test (test discussions)

  • Rehearse your talk. Find someone to practice with. When you think you know your presentation, find a colleague or a friend who will listen. The first 2-3 times are horrid but that’s okay. Now you can improve the presentation.

The last bullet didn’t fit in the catchy name of the heuristic. But here it is anyway:

  • Panic. When you panic and decide to quit because the mere thought of presenting to others freaks you out: Call a friend. Get a perspective on things and accept your fear as a normal feeling for any human being.

Good luck and I am looking forward to seeing you!


One thought on “Tapir Fever: A heuristic on conference speaking

  1. (this is coming out in all caps, I don’t know how to change it, it isn’t from my keyboard!)

    I especially like your tips on using the skills of the people around you, the people who can support you. When one is shy about speaking, it can even be hard to ask friends and family to help, but we need to do that.

    Also +1 on visuals. They help get concepts across.

    One point where I differ is that I don’t like to get up and just give a talk, then take questions. Reading Sharon Bowman’s _Training from the back of the room_ and trying her techniques convinced me that people don’t learn much from a lecture. So I work hard to get the audience to participate in some way. Even in a theater style room people can get up and move around, form discussion groups, do simple short exercises. Once I started doing that, I didn’t hate speaking nearly as much, and participants always tell me they appreciate what they learned and what they can go start experimenting with in their own work.

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