On Speaking

I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I am a professional public speaker. While I don’t consider speaking to be the core of what I do, my speaking and workshop schedule suggests otherwise.


Getting Into Speaking

A lot of people looking to get into speaking ask me how I got into it. Here’s my general advice:

  • Start writing – I highly encourage everyone to have their own blog, even people not looking to speak in public. Sharing what you know and what you’re struggling with gives people an idea of what interests you, and might get you invited to speak about your interests. That’s what happened with me anyway. Thanks, Jason and Val!
  • Speak at meetups – Local meetups are fantastic for a whole number of reasons as my friend Val explains: a casual environment, familiar faces in the crowd, sense of community, etc.
  • Keep your eyes open for calls for speakers – My first speaking gig was at BDConf Nashville as part of their Fresh Squeezed Mobile (read: lightning talk) series. A lot of conferences have shorter talks, and this can be a great way to get your feet wet. Be careful though, because some jerkface conferences take advantage of newbies and eager speakers to essentially run a conference without having to pay anybody. Don’t let that deter you, but definitely keep an eye out for unscrupulous events.
  • Ask your employer – A lot of companies love having their star employees on stage at events. They might have connections or slots at conferences that might be a good fit for you. When I was at R/GA, I spoke at a few events on behalf of the company.

Prepping Your Talk

  • Know Your Shit – I agree with Chris when he says to pick something you feel comfortable talking about. I’ve started writing talks about things that interest me, but that I don’t have a lot of experience in. These are dangerous waters. Talk about something you know inside and out, and that you’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about.
  • Ignore the voices in your head – “This has been done before.” “Everybody already knows this.” When you spend so much time close to the subject matter that interests you, it’s easy to lose perspective. Not everyone spends their time glued to their Twitter feeds, and reading every little update about responsive images, performance, flat design, or whatever you’re talking about. Ignore the voices that tell you that your subject matter isn’t original or groundbreaking. There will be plenty of people who will learn something, even from a web design 101 talk.
  • Create visuals – speaking is a performance, and visuals are a really big part of a performance. Spend time designing your slides, show examples, and for code-related talks definitely show what your code accomplishes.
  • Practice in a way that you feel comfortable  – I’m not a practice-in-front-of-a-mirror kind of guy. It’s important to practice in some way to get a gist of how long your talk will be, how it all flows together, and how you feel while presenting it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean speaking out loud in front of all your stuffed animals. I run through things in my head and will occasionally say some things out load to get a flow down. I don’t like word-for-word memorization, and sometimes I feel some talks fall flat because the speaker is sticking to the script too much. Again, do what’s comfortable for you, but be careful about practicing verbatim too much.
  • Stay out of the command line – “All you need to do is simply type ‘cd project/ mkdor…” Someone in audience: “It’s MKDIR!” Speaker: “uuuhhhh…” Audience “Line 7!” I feel a lot of speakers who spend a lot of time in the command line do it to flex their muscles, but from an audience perspective it’s absolutely insufferable. Find other ways to demonstrate your points.
  • Don’t live code – This applies to everyone except Lea Verou, who is an absolute beast and created her own presentation framework to hide the boring bits from the audience. Live coding can be useful in a workshop situation where others are following along with you, and can certainly demonstrate a point, but so many things can and do go wrong that it’s best to demonstrate your points in other ways. And if you do live code, hide the irrelevant bits from the audience, and make sure you have a backup of a finished demo or something in case things go south.

Before Getting On Stage

  • Insist on a tech check – This is a big one, and I’ve been burned in the past when tech checks were skipped. Make sure your slides, your mic, your remote, your computer audio, your demos, your whatever, are all working properly before getting on the stage for real.
  • Position your mic – You need to be heard, but you don’t want to be breathing into a mic the whole time. Find the right mic position so that you’re audible but not annoying.
  • Use this remote – Seriously. Buy it and don’t screw around with anything else. This is the best.
  • Close out of your programs. – All of them. I’ve gotten popup reminders from Google Calendar reminding me that I’m speaking while I’ve been on stage.
  • Don’t rely on a live connection – This happens a lot when HTML slides or demos are involved.
  • Run through your slides one more time – but resist the urge to swap things around last minute. I do this all the time and it always screws me up.
  • Take off your lanyard, zip your fly, and make yourself look presentable – Look your best, or in my case, look “passable”.


As a comedian, you have to start the show strong and you have to end the show strong. Those are the two key elements. You can’t be like pancakes… all exciting at first, but then by the end you’re fucking sick of em.
—Mitch Hedberg

  • Be yourself – This sounds new-agey and lame, but I can’t stress this point enough. When I got into speaking I didn’t know what I was doing, so I emulated others that I saw on stage. That worked for the most part, but I felt awkward and that awkwardness showed in my presentations. It was after (what I felt was) a bad performance at a really high profile conference that I decided “screw it, I’m just going to get up there, be my goofy self, and have fun.” I haven’t looked back since. Do what makes you comfortable. Don’t feel you have to tell jokes if you’re not a joke teller. Don’t feel you have to wear a suit because you’re on stage. The more comfortable you are, the better chance you have at delivering a great speech.
  • Entertain – Yes, people are in the audience to learn something, but in order to hold the audience’s attention you must keep them entertained. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean having them ROFLOLing, especially if that’s not your style. But think about showing demos, videos, or other entertaining things to break things up and add a little flavor to your talk.
  • Answer “Why?” – I can’t tell you how many talks—especially Javascript talks—that talk so much about the What, but never explain why people would ever want or need to do things in the first place. Tell success stories. Tell horror stories. Give real world examples of the techniques your demonstrated. Help people understand why your content is important.
  • End definitively – There’s always something awkward a great talk that ends by simply fizzling out. Say “thank you”, then pause for applause. Once the crowd sits down and wipes the tears away from their eyes should you ask for questions, or let them know where to find you online.
  • Repeat Q&A questions – During a Q&A it’s important for people to hear the questions being asked, so repeat them back to the audience, even if you feel like everyone heard the question.

Speaking Resources

Dave Shea’s speaking tips was the first and only post I read about speaking when I got into it. Chris Coyier just wrote some great speaking tips, and he recommends Confessions of a Public Speaker, which I’ve never read but a lot of people recommend. For speaking day, I’d recommend Christian Heilmann’s tips for speakers.

Go For It

Speaking in front of an audience can be extremely challenging and nerve-racking, but it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences you put yourself through. I talk to a lot of people who say “oh, I could never do that,” but I’d encourage everyone to try it at least once. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about you, the way you dress, or what font you use in your slides, but rather about the information you’re sharing with your audience.