At a certain point in many professionals’ lives they get asked to speak to a crowd. I got exposed to this fairly early on when I was working as an editor at Nolo Press. I wrote my first book for Nolo a couple years after I started working there, and I honestly don’t remember if I had written the book at this point or not, but in any case I was asked to be part of a panel of editors at a Learning Annex workshop for aspiring authors. There would be about 200 participants/students in the audience, and we would share with them advice on how to get an editor’s attention, how to put together a winning book proposal, etc.
I was asked if I’d do it and I said sure, and probably didn’t ask many if any questions because I had no idea what it would be like and just blanked on anything to ask.
That was my first mistake (more on how it turned out in #2 below), and I’ve made more. I’m barely comfortable public speaking, but I’ve done it enough now that I have a few tips to share. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the things that tend to be a theme for me as I’ve built my patchy public speaking résumé.
1. Remember to ask questions before saying yes to the gig.
Start with the topic: What do they want you to speak about? You’d be surprised how easy it is to misunderstand this important detail, but it happens. You might assume they want you to talk about the things you’re actually knowledgable about, and you might be wrong.
Once I was asked to give a presentation to a crowd of 600-some attendees at some small business conference in Florida. Someone in the marketing department at Nolo asked me if I’d do it, and at first I assumed the event organizers wanted me to talk about the small business topics I am savvy about: business structures, developing systems, contracts, using technology, etc. It turns out they wanted me to talk about employment law. If they had looked at my small business books, they would have seen I hardly talk about employment law at all, and it’s no accident why. I don’t know much about employment law; I repeatedly refer to other books on the subject. I have no idea why they sought me out to talk on that topic.
I am SO THANKFUL that I clarified the topic before saying yes, and declined the gig, otherwise I would have been in the terribly uncomfortable position of either 1) backing out once I realized they wanted me to talk about something I wasn’t knowledgable about, or 2) realizing too late what they wanted me to talk about and ending up blathering to 600 people while slowly dying on stage. Thank bejeezus it didn’t end up this way.
2. Some formats like panel talks are easier than others.
The Learning Annex panel turned out fine because the panel format is pretty easy to handle. With a panel discussion there are other people up there too, and depending on the format and moderator it is often fairly conversational. You’ll typically introduce yourself for up to 5 minutes, then take questions from a moderator and the audience. I’m always the most nervous when I have to just “talk” without any audience questions or interacting with other panelists, but you just do your best to remember to breathe and dive in and do it. The interacting part is usually easy so I’ve always liked doing panel-type events.
If you want to do public speaking but feel nervous, see if you can find a panel event and become a panelist. It’s good practice and will get your feet wet, and you can decide how much you enjoy or benefit from public speaking after all.
3. Make sure you know important details about the audience.
Besides knowing what the event host wants you to talk about, the top most important detail for you to be clear about is who is in the audience. Is it people at a conference with multiple speakers, or are they there to see you and your specific topic? How much did they pay to get into the event? If it’s an art competition, who are the participants: adults from a local correctional facility or high school students? You’ll want to cater your talk to their perspective.
4. Find out about the equipment: microphone, podium, white board, projector, etc.
This can make or break an otherwise well-prepared presentation. If you don’t have the right adapter for your computer to hook up to the projector, you’re fucked. If your slides somehow got jumbled, you’ll be janked. If you come with a stack of notecards then realize you need to hold a microphone and a remote control for the projector, you’ll be fumbling your whole talk and feel like an idiot. I’ve been there.
Ask in advance about the set-up, and adjust your presentation accordingly.
5. Bring a photographer friend to take pictures.
Chances are you’re cleaned up and looking sharp for the event. You may assume the event will take photos and will share them with you, but this hardly ever happens. It’s funny in this photo-saturated world how often I’m involved in events, either work-type events or music shows that I play in, and have no photos to show for it afterwards. Sometimes that’s fine, but sometimes you’ve worn an awesome outfit and dammit if it wouldn’t be nice to have some good photos documenting it.
Solve this problem by asking a friend to come take photos. Depending on what’s going on in your career it could even make sense to hire a professional photographer for something like this. Thankfully my husband Turtle happens to be a professional photog, so I sometimes press him into duty (as I did this past weekend for a very cool high school art competition hosted by our Congressional Rep Michelle Lujan Grisham). For most situations, a friend with an iPhone will do the trick.