The Page, The Stage

EVERY YEAR I give a new talk at An Event Apart. And every year I panic.

After nearly two decades, public speaking no longer frightens me. But deciding what needs to be said gets tougher, and more terrifying, each year.

In 1998, when Hasan Yalcinkaya hired me to give my first public web design talk in, of all places, his glorious city of Istanbul, I wrote a speech for the occasion and read it aloud from the stage.

The following year, when Jim Heid hired me to keynote Web Design World Denver, I intended to do the same thing. But a fellow Web Design World speaker named Jeff Veen (who was also a colleague on The Web Standards Project) persuaded me to throw out my speech and “just tell stories.” I did it, it worked, and I’ve done it ever since.

For all my An Event Apart presentations since starting the conference with Eric Meyer in 2005, I’ve designed slides outlining the parameters of what I intended to talk about, and then spoken off the cuff.

But this year, inspired by the rigorous (and highly effective) speech preparation regimes of my friends Karen McGrane and Mike Monteiro, I’m once again writing a speech out word for word in advance. I will polish it like a manuscript. Only when it is perfect—logically structured, funny, passionate, persuasive—will I design accompanying slides.

I may read the speech out loud, word for word, as Mike sometimes does, or I may revise and practice it so often that I no longer need to see it to say it, like Karen. Either way, my talk this year should be tighter than any I’ve given in the past decade. Hopefully, that’s saying something.

I’m grateful to all my friends for their inspiration, and delighted that the panic and terror I felt at the start of this year, while contemplating creating a new AEA talk, has turned into the inspiration to approach the task a different way.

How do you approach public speaking? And if you don’t speak, what part of you is holding the rest of you back?

25 thoughts on “The Page, The Stage

  1. Fascinating—I’ve taken the same structured off-the-cuff approach to my AEA (and other) talks for years and years, but this year I’m taking the same preparation approach for my new talk as you are for yours.

  2. I learned public speaking by watching other people speak, especially Jeff Veen.

    I used to not prepare — I’d make some slides (or not) and just go. Then I got caught out by that, at SXSW no less, and I retreated from the stage for a while.

    Only to get dragged back onto the stage by work. I learned to practice, something I’m far worse at than just extemporaneous speaking. I decided to start “telling stories” like Jeff Veen (and you) do. I build slides first so I can see the talk in my head. I practice at least three times, timing myself, crossing out slides, getting the pacing just right.

    The last thing I do? Write the talk. On paper. Usually just the outline is enough, but I do write it that way. I’m a very visual thinker, and as a “mind palace” trick I create a link between the written page and the slide I’m looking at. It keeps me from forgetting anything important.

    But I’m still very extemp, and I still fly by the seat of my pants. I’ve blown entire slide decks up hours before I was supposed to present. I wish I could say that I hate it, but honestly, being in front of people telling stories and presenting ideas is what makes me happy. It’s one reason I moved towards interaction design the last few years — design is nothing but selling the story.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Jeffrey. I’m a few months away from my first conference talk. I’ve been panicking over the slides-or-no-slides and rehearse-or-write-out questions for a bit. I could see using slides as a way to ensure that I don’t forget anything, but I worry that it might disjointed talk (which sometimes, but not always, happens in class). I also worry about going on a tangent and saying “um” a lot.

  4. Sam: You will be great. Relax and take deep breaths. Rehearse, but don’t rehearse so much you kill the spontaneity. Practice a few times in front of friends, then go in there and see what public speaking in front of a real audience is like. Don’t worry about saying “um.” Some of my favorite speakers do that, and nobody (but me) notices, because everyone is paying attention to their ideas. Speaking is an act of generosity. People appreciate it. It’s also an act of courage, especially for a beginning speaker. The public will be with you! Have faith in yourself and in the kindness and compassion of your listeners. I hope one day soon I get to hear you make a presentation. All the best!

  5. Dylan: Some of my favorite speakers throw out their decks ten minutes before going onstage. Everyone is a perfectionist in his or her own way. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be in this business!

    I also identify with the happiness you feel telling stories onstage. I love that part. Once I know I have worthwhile material and can begin to relax into it, I absolutely love the speaking experience. It’s the putting material together part that slays me.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. I can only talk from experience of a talk that did not go well. I was flown out to Portugal’s LXJS to give my first talk (at least, to more than 15 or so people). I’ve never had stage fright, I used to be shy but when I was about 11 I started acting in pantomimes.

    So I thought I would be perfectly fine giving a talk. After all, I do JavaScript on a daily basis and am writing a book about the same things that were supposed to be in the talk. But I was not prepared enough.

    Firstly, I had no backup plan and had not discussed in depth the talks of the other speakers beforehand. Two things went wrong. I was not able to have my demo ready on time. Also, Michal Budzynski did an incredible talk covering everything that I had planned to talk about (he did it far better than I could have done!).

    My talk was dreadful, but I ended up discarding many of the slides (since they were to do with my demo) and instead made something up on the spot. That started quite a few nice discussions at the after party.

    I would like to give more talks at some point but I would like to talk about things I am passionate about rather than just based on things I’ve been working on. That way it will be far easier to make it interesting and to talk about.

    One thing that I will make sure to do more of, as you mentioned, is speaking out loud, before speaking publicly. I only read it over in my head, which is quite different to sounding out the words. Before I started acting I had a lot of speaking difficulties, so although I’m quite a bit better now, practising out loud will almost definitely improve my public speaking.

    Oh, and better structure too. Everything I do, whether speaking or writing (including this comment!), usually have lax structure… one thing I took away from going to Handheld was that all the great speakers have it all planned out very well so that there is consistency throughout. I especially liked Mark Boulton’s technique of basing it around history.

  7. Well, I’m doubtless an idiot, but I just don’t seem to be able to construct my talks word for word tight. It just don’t fit my ramblings, which might mean that I should stay off the scene in the first place. For me, speaking in public is tailored not only to whatever I might presume about the audience, but also to how the audience reacts. That can be hard, because as Jeffrey no doubt’ll testify, Scandinavian audiences aren’t exactly prone to spontaneously applause nor sudden cheers; they’re a restrictive and quiet lot, and they’re the bulk of my audience most of the time. (Sidenote: I’d love to speak more abroad, you’ll understand why in a bit.)

    Now, Jeffrey did a great job at MakingWeb in Oslo, Norway, last year, where I was also speaking. The audience was reserved, but great and pretty high-end, as these things’ll come. This makes it easy to speak. However, Norwegian audiences (this one at least) share a lot with Swedish ones, being quiet and reserved. I’ve spoken at other places where cheers erupt from open source lovers (I tend to stroke them the right way…) at every other sentence. There are cultural differences at work, and I’d love to take that into account in the few appearances I make each year, but doing so would require both being more in attendance (no time), and doing more speaking gigs (also possibly no time, and in some parts of the world, lack of invitations).

    I tailor my talks to audiences I don’t really know. Or perhaps I do know them, but I don’t know their mood that particular day. I try to prepare, but in the end it’s me, a topic, some slides, and a handful of one-liners wrapped in whatever wisdom and/or madness I can share. It’s great fun. The point being: A talk with similar slides in Norway might not play out the same in the UK or US. But that’s obviously just me, a different kind of person as the perfectionists mentioned in this post, by necessity or character. It’s the only way that works for me, not an universal truth, nor something guaranteed to work. I do wish I could do it the Zeldman way, because Jeffrey’s talk at MakingWeb was great and I’m sure there’s a link for it somewhere around here.

  8. It’s been a while since I did public speaking at all, but I’m tentatively slated to sound off at OSCon. My plan is to outline my ideas, design my slides, do a couple of dry runs with local-ish folks who have enough in common with the audience, and apply what I learn to the OSCon talk.

    …Wish me luck? Or rather, instruct me to injure a limb?

  9. “And if you don’t speak, what part of you is holding the rest of you back?”

    I like public speaking! What’s holding me back is the fact that most conferences are a rather elitist thing and only the same 10 or so people are speaking everywhere. It’s too much ass kissing for my taste to get a slot at a big conference. At one conference last year the organizers put me on and my talk was immediately voted best of the year or something. Still doesn’t satisfy other organizers.

  10. Jeffrey I heard you for the first time live last year and enjoyed it thoroughly. I like the approach of a set of slides and then you can expand in the moment on each extemporaneously.

    For myself, since I am not a lecture learner, and learn more hands on, my ideal presentation is to involve the audience in a mini activity based on some parameters I suggest and then get them to share their ideas. I like it when this involves some action and movement.

    I love using analogies and building simple images with one or two words that capture the essence of the idea, and I can go off on this or get audience participation. I like the “we” of a presentation. Because what “we” do “we” remember. If we don’t take away action tasks, then the talk ends right there and nothing changes. I like changing people’s lives through action. So I go simple, make the analogy memorable, and turn it into action and get people trying it. This is not like giving a speech – I’m more of a cheerleader. Thanks for the chance to share.

  11. With time, I am finding TED talks less and less appealing. They sound and look so rehearsed that they become too perfect non-personal.

    Please don’t give another TED talk.

  12. I do love hearing about people’s experiences with speaking. It’s not something I every pictured I’d do…

    If I condense down my experiences to date it’d be that it can take a while to find your voice. Much the same as it does in writing. The first talk I did, at a BarCamp, I was a mess in front of ~20 people. Though some trial an error and the good fortune to have people give me the opportunities, I’ve been able to practice. I’d never consider myself a ‘speaker’, just someone that gets to speak from time to time. Nothing really prepared me for an audience like at FOWA the first time…

    What I found is that I’m not someone comfortable with being too scripted but what I need is just to know my narrative, really know my topic and be comfortable with when I can ramble/digress. I need to know what my point is and focus on that. I know I’ll get distracted. I know I won’t be as slick as some speakers. I’m OK with that. I can hope that if I’m passionate about my subject and manage to get the main point across people will feel its worthwhile.

  13. Jeffrey, thanks so much for sharing your process. I’ve been “public speaking” since I was a kid, going back to cooking demonstrations as a 4H’er at the county fair. I had 20 minutes on stage in a hot, dusty open air hall with a roving audience and buzzing flies. Deep August in upstate New York was a far cry from March in air-conditioned Austin, but the challenge was the same: I had to attract and maintain my audience’s attention by helping them to solve a problem. I had to give them something they could go home and do differently.

    Over the past few years, I’ve explored different ways to meet that challenge. I like to zero in on the problem–the thing that keeps people up at night–and then discuss solutions through stories: case studies, research I’ve done, interviews I’ve conducted with experts. I’m scared I’ll sound didactic, so I tend toward saying “we can” and “I do” rather than “you should.” And in a swiftly evolving industry, can one person really be so arrogant as to tell a whole audience what they should do?

    Somewhere in that fear I lost the lesson from the county fair: I stopped giving people concrete instructions for what they should do differently. And if speaking is an act of generosity, it’s because people expect that direction in exchange for their time.

    So this year, I’m blowing up my process. I’m refocusing on how I tell a story to move my audience with clear direction for change. I’ve learned those concrete instructions separate our self-indulgent stories from the stories that comprise good talks. Some stories move from point A to point B, but the stories that move audiences help them move from point A to point B.

  14. Jeffrey,

    I used to approach public speaking from a here’s-a-cool-thing-I-worked-on perspective. But I started noticing as an audience member that I would get impatient with being on the receiving end of them.

    Now when I put together a talk, or give others feedback on their talks, I try to come at it from a what-should-the-audience-take-away-from-this perspective. I find it helps focus the message regardless of whether you read from a script or speak off the cuff.

  15. Helpful to hear your back story Jeffrey. My own method for public speaking happened after a couple years of being frozen on stage and not knowing what to do.

    1) I read Presentation Zen and it helped massively.

    2) I knew I was great at design presentations to my clients, and so I realized I just needed to treat my audience like a huge stage of clients. It worked well to help me calm my nerves and have the simple expectations I needed to do great work on stage.

    3) I’m not speaking now because the travel demands are too much for a father of three young kids, but I can”t wait to have the opportunity to do it again. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind, and look forward to sharing them with what I think is the best industry on the planet :)

  16. I gave my first technology presentation in 1987. Needless to say, my approach has changed over the years. My current practice is:

    1. Write a paper on the topic. At the end of the presentation I’ll include a link where the audience can download the paper. The paper goes into greater depth than what I could cover in the time allocated.

    2. Pick the important points, and create a slide deck that brings them out. Slides contain things like code samples, animations of processes, pictures, sometimes just a single word. (For a recent presentation I had a slide that said, “Will there be math?” followed by one with a big “YES!”) I go over the slides many, many times, refining as I go.

    3. Rehearse in front of fellow team members at least twice. Revise the slides and the material covered based on their feedback.

    For the actual presentation I don’t use any notes beyond the slides. Because of the preparation, I can just go with the flow.

  17. This is interesting! I recently gave my first talk ever and was struggling with the same questions of whether I should write it all out and read from cards, or go off the cuff, or some mixture of the two. I thought back to the times I gave presentations in college or have had tough meetings and I’m the kind of person who will panic and skip all of my main points if I don’t have them at least written down somewhere.

    I ended up writing everything word for word in bullet points for myself on notecards and stuck with simple one-phrase slides to go along with my points. I mostly read from the slides but when it was appropriate or felt right I would add in my own off the cuff thoughts. I think it’s really about tailoring it to what you know you’re good/bad at and what you want to try, in the end.

  18. Thanks so much for posting this, Jeffrey. Like Margot, I’ve regularly been in front of people since I was 3, getting called up to the front of the church by my pastor to play the piano and sing in front of a huge congregation. I’m still in front of people a lot, whether it’s leading a meeting with clients, playing in a band, or speaking. I get the same feeling every time: extreme alertness, needing to pee just a little, getting a little trembly… what I thought was nervousness. Recently though, I’ve realized that the feeling it’s nervousness; it’s adrenaline. They feel the same. Now, I love the feeling. I embrace it. I know I’ll be on point when that feeling arrives.

    From a preparation perspective, I treat it like jazz. Lots of people think jazz musicians can’t stick to the script and the improvisation is a general knowledge of the music without a specific knowledge of it. Quite the contrary: jazz musicians know their music so well that they know the absolute right moments to deviate—to improvise—and when to return to the theme. I rehearse my presentations so that I know them inside and out; then, I encourage myself to deviate from them where appropriate. If I’ve prepped a long section of the talk that I see the audience isn’t really into, I’m free to breeze through it. Conversely, if I can sense some body language that people are really into what I’m saying, I spend more time there than I anticipated. I see being on stage as facilitating a conversation, and I try to listen hard to the things people really want to talk about.

  19. I loathe public speaking. As a nearly deaf epileptic the idea of standing in front of a group of strangers is terrifying to me.

    That said, I also love teaching music so I had to get a grip on my fear and come up with a way to speak to large groups – or a camera- in a way that got the information across.

    What worked for me was simply saying, “to hell with it” and just doing my job. I almost never prepare for a workshop anymore because taking an improvisational approach just works better for what I do.

    Rehearsing never worked for me. It left me coming across like a robot. What worked was simply knowing my craft inside and out and treating the presentation as a chance to share something wonderful with people who will soon be my friends.

  20. DW: Speaking is what amps me too, although yes I am nervous, I honestly love it.

    I too speak off the cuff, however, I structure myself using the slide presentation. The presentation itself has hardly any content at all, just imagery, and key concepts in super short form.

    Not saying it is great, and after reading some comments, I think I might practice much more.

  21. I just finished writing every word and creating every slide for AEA Atlanta, where I speak first thing Monday morning. I’m sure I’ll revise the talk as the months go by, and I suspect I’ll deliver it more “off the cuff” a few months from now. But next week I will read it out loud and see how people respond.

    (Of course I’ll be reading the audience as well. It’s a live event, not a studio recording. Timing, emphasis, and quick improvisations will surely happen as I interact with the good people of Atlanta.)

  22. “And if you don’t speak, what part of you is holding the rest of you back?”

    An absolute terror of speaking in public. When I get nervous around people, there’s two extremes:

    1. I talk excessively without being able to switch it off; to the point where I actuall tire of hearing myself talk, but still can’t shut it down. So I end up rambling with no cohesive point.

    2. I maintain absolute lip-zipped silence in order to avoid #1.

    For that reason, I just don’t know that I could handle public speaking. Yet another reason to really appreciate Jeffrey and the folks that speak at AEA. If everyone was like me, there would be no such event to share such great ideas out loud. So, thanks for that.

  23. I loved reading this Jeffrey, thanks for sharing!

    The first presentations/talks I ever gave I had no idea what I was doing, and I figured if I could design a nice looking presentation that was coherent then surely I could talk along with it. That was pretty frightening to actually do in the real world, which led me eventually to the exercise of writing my entire talk out word for word in preparation. I don’t find that I actually stand up there and read it, but like Dan Mall’s jazz analogy, I think the writing part is me learning to play and learning about all the chord progressions etc., and once I’ve learned all that it’s so much easier to improvise well. So, for a while now all my talks begin not in Keynote, but rather in iA Writer (my text editor of choice) as a simple bulleted list or outline, which then leads into a bunch of notes, which eventually gets turned into a fully written narrative. It takes a lot of work, but it’s good work and it helps with the nerves part of speaking I find.

    Again, thanks for sharing this Jeffrey! It’s so neat to learn how other people who have done it so much approach these things.

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