Time to get up on stage: Tips from a first-time speaker
This is a guest post by Sara Soueidan, freelance web developer, writer and speaker from Lebanon. She is known in the CSS scene for her great demos and in-depth writing for A List Apart, Dev.Opera, Codrops and others. At this year’s CSSconf US in Florida, Sara gave her speaking debut – which turned out to be a great success. She offered to share her experiences with us, and pass on her learnings to inspire other first-time speakers.
(Photo of the CSSconf US party by Dudley Storey)
The talk I gave at CSSConf US in May 2014 was my first, and hopefully not my last. It was a whole new experience on many levels, and I want to share some of that experience with you today, in an attempt to inspire you to do the same. In this post I want to share with you some tips that may help you if you’re a first time speaker – tips that I got from others too when I was preparing for my talk, and some that I got before, during, and after the talk. I hope you find them useful and inspiring.
Before The Conference
Up until the day of my flight to Florida, the whole “speaking at a conference” idea felt surreal, even while I was preparing my talk slides.
I worked on the slides for about two weeks before the conference. The slides were simple, design-wise, and different from the writing I usually do. When writing tutorials and articles, I get to elaborate on a lot of ideas, but when preparing the slides, I had to keep in mind not to write a lot on the slides in order to avoid reading from them! On the other hand, I wanted to make sure that the slides were structured well so that they can be useful on their own, with and without the talk video. I did my best and thankfully ended up with a set of slides that was way more popular than I expected it to be.
A couple of days before the talk, I had doubts about the quality of the slides, but I did my best to ignore that feeling. Everyone tends to start undermining their work when they get nervous. If you ever get that feeling before a talk, try to ignore it and tell yourself that it’s probably already too late to start working on a new set of slides anyway.
If you’re speaking for the first time and happen to be a first time flyer, try to get as much advice as you can from people with more experience. I did that, and am so very grateful for all the tips I got. The web community is great, and the amount of support you can get from Twitter and other networks is beyond amazing. They won’t let you down!
Flying do’s and don’ts were most helpful for me, since I was indeed a first time flyer. It was my first visit to the United States as well, so I had no idea what to expect. Some tips which worked for me: Prepare well for the kind of weather you’re about to experience, and prepare for the flight itself. Carry less stuff but also carry enough to help you get through emergencies, e.g. hour-long flight delays that make you miss a connection get you stuck halfway in a hotel (I did!). Bring some snacks in your handbag. Airplane food isn’t the most delicious, so having some of your favorite snacks if you expect to get hungry on the way to your destination helps. Also make sure not to carry a lot of stuff that will slow down your passing through security. It was great being able to just ease through the process without having to stop like so many others did who had to take off their shoes and such to keep moving forward.
Depending on the airline, you may or may not be able to use your laptop on the plane, so don’t rely on that to work on your slides last minute. If you’re flying halfway across the world, you might be too tired anyway to do that on the plane. My trip to Amelia Island was around 30 hours from Beirut, counting all the delay and the night I had to spend in Miami because of the missed flight, so having the slides 100% ready before I started the trip was a huge plus.
Before, During, and After the Talk
I’m gonna be honest: I was dead nervous before the talk. I was a lot more nervous when I was in my room prepping for the talk than I was when standing on stage. Nervousness can really get to you if you let it, especially if it’s your first talk. I learned that even if you’ve been speaking for years, the nervousness before giving a talk almost never goes away, you just learn to deal with it better with time. Having someone or something to calm you down and support you before the talk is a must. Talking to other speakers and conference attendees helps a lot because you’ll almost always get amazing support from them. Speakers will give you tips based on their own experience that can help you while you give your talk. Chatting with attendees also calms you down because they are usually super awesome and supportive, especially if it’s your first time!
Make sure to test your laptop and presentation before your talk, early in the morning. It took about 10 minutes to set up my presentation, and it would have been very awkward if we had to go through that just in time for my talk. If you have any doubts whether your presentation is ready, or if your laptop has everything it needs to be set up to the projector, then by all means do test! Plus, getting up on stage for the test gives you a taste of what it feels like to stand up there, in front of all the people, with that strong light hitting your face and almost blinding you! That helps you to get a “feel” for the stage and start preparing yourself for the “real” deal.
When I stood on stage for testing, I had mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness. My mind went all blank, and I forgot every single word I wanted to say!
One thing a friend I met at the conference told me is “The audience wants you to succeed”. When I first heard that it felt foreign and I couldn’t “sense” it, but when I was on stage and I got one of those blank moments again and I just stood there, not knowing how to continue, I saw the faces of some attendees and they had “it’s okay, go on, take your time, you can do it” written on it. That’s exactly when I realized and sensed the meaning of that sentence. The “push” the community gives you is amazing. Advice as simple as “just remember to breathe” goes a very long way.
Speaking about your own experience with code, about bugs and weird code issues that would usually cause you to bang your head against the wall is always appreciated. I found that speaking about the bugs when dealing with CSS and SVG was one of the parts everyone was most interested in. If you’ve come across a code problem, then you can bet that so many others have come across it too. You can also bet that many of your listeners may have not been able to find a solution or workaround like you did, so do share any solutions that you know. Also, never count on everyone in the audience knowing everything you’re going to say. That will put you down and make you feel like your talk is worthless (don’t let that happen!), and that’s most likely not true. I was expecting almost everyone to be familiar with the topics I presented, but ended up learning that most people were new to it – even the more experienced developers. Never underestimate the knowledge you have. Not everyone gets to work and focus on everything all the time, and there’s always something to learn from someone out there.
The best part about speaking at CSSConf US was getting to meet so many people I’ve always wanted to meet in person. I especially loved how down-to-earth all of the (yes, I’m going to say this) “code celebrities” are when meeting them face to face. There always seems to be a kind of a barrier between an “average” web developer and a “celebrity developer” on the internet, but these barriers break down at conferences. I met Nicole Sullivan, Jenn Schiffer, Zach Leatherman, Paul Irish, people I’d already known on Twitter, and others I just got to meet at the conference. And everyone, whether you’ve known them before or not, are going to be there for you and support you all the way. You can count on that! (Check out the feedback I got.)
Speaking at CSSconf was awesome and I want to do it again. Everything starts with a small step, and every experience starts with a first time. If you love teaching and have something to share, please do! Submit a talk proposal, speak and share what you know. Don’t underestimate your knowledge, and don’t overestimate other people’s knowledge. I want to speak again, and I hope to hear you do so too!
by Sara Soueidan
The CSSconf EU Call for Speakers is open for submissions until July 1 2014.
Submit a Talk Proposal