What I Learned From My First Speaking Gig

About six months ago one of the organizers of a local meetup group asked if I could give a talk.

"We just need more development centered talks."

This was a hell of an opportunity for me to expand as a developer, and in the process help fellow colleagues learn. Of course, I agreed. I didn't realize at the time that six months was not a whole lot of time. With a full time job, and other responsibilities, finding time to sit down and work on my slides was a challenge.

My talk was about process, and the importance it plays in an agency. The topic was at the front of my mind due to some changes happening at work. Some processes were falling through the cracks, and it was effecting everyone. I wanted to remind myself and everyone around me how important it is to stick to process, and how detrimental it can be to stray from it.

I was able to get work done here and there. A couple slides one week, complete with speaker notes, another one the next. When it came down to a couple months before the talk I figured I needed to buckle down. Fast forward a couple of sleepless nights, and a weekend of pounding out slides I was finished. The slides weren't anything complicated, but I had the content there to talk about.

Now, I'm going to admit that I think I'm a pretty sketchy public speaker. I could definitely use some improvement, but I was hopeful this experience would help me do that. Because of that fear of public speaking, I looked over my slides constantly. I tried to memorize my notes, added some clarification here and there, peppered in some gifs to keep people interested. About a week before the talk I began practicing with people I know. My girlfriend was kind enough to let me use her as an audience and give me some feedback. A few friends did the same. I thought I felt pretty darn good.

A couple days before the talk I had a shroud of doubt cast over me. I was looking at my slides for the ten thousandth time, and the flow was off. It didn't look like what I was talking about followed any coherent path. I thought I was jumping around from topic to topic without really explaining the main point. I freaked out a little. What would it take to change the slides? Perhaps I should just scrap it all.

That clearly wasn't the right choice. I took a minute, closed my laptop and realized I had been looking at the slides for too long. I'm curious if most speakers get to this point, or if this was a product of my own making. Either way I was able to step back and take a fresh look the next day.

The night of the talk I gave the slides one last look, practiced what I was going to say to a few co-workers and headed off.

The talk went great.

I opened up with some classic Steve Ballmer. That got everyone interested pretty quick. The talk proceeded and I felt like I knew what I was saying. Everyone seemed pretty interested. I slipped up here and there, caught myself say "um" a little too much, but kept going. At the end there were lots of questions too, which gave me a large bit of relief. People were interested and engaged. Everything ended up pretty well.

The moral of this, and the advice I'd pass on to future first time speakers (even if it is in a small setting such as mine), would be to just follow your gut. You know the topic. You've been asked to speak based on what you know and that's awesome. Regardless of how many times you look at your slides, or if you second guess what you're writing, you know the topic. The slides are the hardest part, don't overthink your notes, and trust your knowledge. Practice as much as you feel you need, but don't stress over it, you know what you want to say, and you'll find the right way to say it. The Design and Development Community is an amazing one. And most every person you meet will be happy to help you learn.