Over the past year, I spoke at 11 conferences, lectured at 11 universities, gave a presentation to the newsroom of the New York Times, gave another presentation to a hundred or so folks at the State Department, and spoke to the NPR Board twice.
This was new for me, and a bit scary at first. When the year started, I had only spoken occasionally and had a deep-seated fear of public speaking. This started in 6th grade, when we had to recite all of the prepositions in front of our class — you know, aboard, about, above, across, against, along, amid, among, around, at, etc — and I knew them cold.
I got up in front of my class and blanked. Completely. Just sat back down at my seat. It wasn’t the last time I completely blanked out on something I knew. For many years, I would get so nervous speaking in front of people that I would physically shake, feel like I was going to throw up, and sometimes forget everything I was going to say. This is why I always preferred radio to other mediums, and writing jokes to doing stand-up comedy: the person writing the jokes gets to sit down in the audience.
Last year, I decided that I could no longer sit. First, part of my job has always involved experimenting with stuff and then explaining the results to an audience. And second, I get most ideas by bouncing off other people and building connections between different fields. So I was losing out on possible ideas and possible experiments by not getting over my fear.
I write my entire speech out ahead of time. I include inflections and phrases and say my speech out loud three or four times in my head and 2-3 times in front of other people. By the time I’m talking, I’m not actually looking at the speech. But I tell people where to look for it while I’m speaking: this helps people who are hard of hearing or who don’t speak English as a first language, and it gives them something to focus on that’s not me.
I realize no one is as critical as I will ever be. They don’t care if I pause or stutter.
I try to focus on 1-2 people in the audience and only look at them.
I acknowledge my nervousness.
I always offer to follow up with a written email synopsis of the speech.
I tell jokes.
I try not to be boring because I know how bored I get during lectures. Interactive moments are key. Ask questions. Pause. Etc.
It will all be over soon. The longest I’ve spoken so far is an hour which seems like an incredibly long time but even that passed with not-too-much trouble.
It’s okay to Skype if you don’t want to or can’t travel. I Skyped into several events this year. It allowed me to speak and sleep in my own bed. As an introvert, I really appreciated this.
Giving speakers a quick guide on how to facilitate sessions is a really, really good thing. At #mozfest, every speaker had to attend a short session on how to facilitate a session before the conference started. There, we were asked to find someone else in the crowd outside of our subject area and explain our topic, which helped make everyone’s presentation better for a general audience. This is really smart.
I always like to start my presentations by asking a question. This makes the audience more comfortable and also makes you more comfortable. Depending on the size of the audience, you can go around a room or ask people to just raise their hands.
If you’re facilitating a session, you’re also responsible for making sure no one in the audience monopolizes the session. I like to start sessions by saying, “I want to make sure everyone who wants to speak gets a chance to speak. If you’d like to continue the discussion, we can use this hashtag on Twitter” and then I give out a hashtag.
It’s always good to ask someone to be a scribe or notetaker and take note of all of the interesting websites / tools that come up, so it can be shared externally later. Both #SRCCON and #mozfest put all of these notes up online. Some people cannot attend conferences and should still be able to partake in the knowledge sharing within.
Erika Owens is the master of running an intentional conference. One of the best things she does is write to you afterwards and ask, “Who should have been here — who doesn’t look like you?” She leaves the ‘doesn’t look like you’ part up to you. It can mean geography, gender, race, income level, etc. and moves conferences beyond the network + one degree removed model very quickly.
You don’t have to wait for a form. I tell conference organizers about people who should be there. I tweet about people who are missing from conferences I attend. Social media is the best place to find people who don’t look like you. If you find yourself continually engaging with folks like you, whatever that means, you can be proactive about finding people who don’t, whatever that means.
I really appreciate when conferences have a quiet space or quiet spaces. As an introvert, conferences drain me quickly and I frequently need to recharge. If I go and sit by myself, it’s usually because I’m happy just observing for a bit.
It’s great when there are activities that are not lectures, workshops, etc. At #ordcamp, I played Killer Queen (an arcade game built for 10 people) which was a nice way to be social without talking. Ways this can be achieved: volunteer room, arcade room, puzzle room, etc.
Several of the conferences I went to were very intentional about making sure first-time participants socialized and felt comfortable with people outside of their circles. Getting people to leave their primary social circle is hard. Gamifying the meeting experience is helpful. Over the weekend, I played a game at Ordcamp which involved, in part, meeting 15 people I didn’t know before. This was great and made me comfortable approaching people I wouldn’t have otherwise approached.
Badging is important. Badges can include names, Twitter handles, and a section called “Ask me About” with suggestions for conversations. This allows people to approach people they don’t know well. I would also include a section about preferred gender pronouns.
One of the toughest things to do at a conference is follow up with people you’ve met. I don’t carry cards, usually — and while I love Twitter, I’m sure it’s not the best way to follow up. It’s always great when conference organizers publish a list of attendees, with preferred contact info. My friend Shannon developed an app for RootsCamp which I personally think is the best app I’ve ever seen for attending a conference and following up with someone after. (You can keep a running list of attendees you’ve met within the app.)
It’s okay to duck out for a bit. At newsgeist this year, I was a bit overwhelmed and ducked out to walk around Phoenix for a bit with two friends. At ONA, I brought A along and we took an architectural boat tour one evening. It was great and revitalizing. I never feel the need to stay superlate at conferences. I’m a morning person. I realize a lot of activities happen at night, but that’s okay. I approach conferences the same way I approach the Internet: there are some things I am going to miss and that is okay.
Speaking of which, I have conference buddies. Meet Kaeti and Millie. They’re people with similar personalities and we attend a lot of the same conferences. I trust them, I like them, and I know when I’ve had enough, they probably have too.
Bring water, earplugs, a notebook, a charger, a deck of cards, a good book, hand sanitizer, lotion, tissues, Advil and good socks.
Take direct flights, if possible. Ask me why.
If you want to change something, approach an organizer. It’s very easy to think “I wish this were here” or “I wish the conference worked this way.” The organizers may not have attended a lot of conferences and your knowledge will likely make the conference better.