Tech Life Let myself freak out a bit

Very Important Strangers

A few weeks ago I spoke at the excellent re:build conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. While it was my first time in Indiana, the setup was familiar. 200+ attendees, great venue, single track, and conference coordinators who know how to put on a great conference. (And one surprisingly gotham-y gorgeous building.)

I was the last speaker of the conference, which means I had a lot of time to sit in the green room and watch speakers go through their respective speaking pre-games. These observations resulted in a short list of pre-game activities that I believe are important to standing up and telling stories to groups of very important strangers.

Own your pre-game

You’re nervous. This is normal. The act of standing up in front of a room full of strangers and telling stories is not normal. Moreover, if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you’re also likely a nerd-type person, which means your people skills are… unique.

To compensate for this nervousness, I give myself the illusion of structure by following the same pre-game for the two hours before a talk, and it looks like this:

  • In the hotel room, put on some music and lay out the outfit, which consists of a black button-up collared shirt, jeans, and my favorite black boots. If you’ve seen me speak in the last few years, you’ve seen this outfit.
  • If it’s an afternoon talk, take a shower.
  • Post-shower, primp, get dressed in the outfit, and keep rocking out.
  • With roughly an hour and a half until talk time, it’s time for a real drink. Via a bar I’ve already discovered (often the hotel bar), I have a double kamikaze, sit at the bar, and write. This is roughly a 30-minute activity, after which I head to the venue and start the serious obsessive compulsive preparation, which I’ll finish in a moment. First…

Reduce as many variables as possible

The downside of obsessive compulsive speaking prep is that when something unexpected goes wrong, you lose your shit. I’m following a well-designed workflow in the moments that lead up to me starting a presentation, and when that workflow is broken, I’m disproportionately aggravated and distracted. This is why I take every single precaution to make sure things can’t go wrong. My job is is to eliminate variables. This is why I start every presentation with the following slide:

Rands Intro Slide

I have this slide available in both current Keynote and Keynote ’09.1

When this slide is displayed at the venue, you can eliminate the following variables:

  • Are all the typefaces in your deck on the presentation machine? (Note: I use Futura Std, which you might not have. Its purpose is to trigger the font error message you’ll get when you open this. This is a problematic error message.23)
  • Is it the right typeface? (On my slide, I took a screenshot of 36 point Futura and placed it next to the Futura formatted in Keynote. If you don’t get an error and yet these look different, you’re sporting the incorrect Futura.)
  • Are your slides being cropped? (Can you completely see all five circles?)
  • Are your slides being stretched? (Are your circles circular?)
  • Is the color correct? (Are your colored circles the correct colors?)

Finally, I have a disaster prevention bag nearby, which holds:

Most conferences are well equipped and have all of this gear (and backups) on hand. They have this gear readily available because they are disaster specialists. But because disasters do frequently occur their gear has the ability to simply vanish. Fact: I use something out of this bag every single time I speak.

All of this preparation helps, but disasters still happen and my advice is easy: chill out. Remember that you are surrounded by well-intentioned people whose job it is to make sure things go smoothly, and who have likely seen your particular disaster recently. Ask for help. Their infectious calm can be helpful, which makes my next set of advice a little confusing.

Give yourself 30 to 60 minutes to panic

I arrive at the venue 30 to 60 minutes before the talk, take a glimpse of the venue to get a sense of the audience if they’re there, head to the green room or equivalent, and then I let myself panic.

The point again: standing in front of a bunch of strangers and baring your soul is not a natural act. There are humans who stand up there up and make it easy, but I know two things about these humans: the first time they did it, they were terrified, and the best ones are still a little terrified.

With my double kamikaze, black shirt, and panic, I find somewhere quiet and start playing that Sigur Rós song on repeat. I pace and let myself freak out a bit. Yes, I’m nervous. Yes, I am going to screw up in some unexpected way. Yes, there will be some unexpected disaster that will mess with my flow, but I also know that nervousness is normal and authentic. I know that every screw-up is an opportunity to improvise and create something new. I know there are helpful people hiding everywhere to fix disasters. But most important I remember my last thought…

Understand that they are you

The advice they will give you is: “The audience wants you to succeed”. This is correct, but only partial truth. I’m working on a talk about presentations for a future conference, and one of the aspects of speaking that I believe is part of the weird power dynamic that occurs between the speaker and the audience is the uncomfortable – perhaps even subconscious – understanding that the audience knows it could easily be them up there baring their souls.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the past 10 years is one I can tell you, but you will not understand. I’ve only become an okay speaker by being myself. I’ve only become okay when I started to believe that I’m up there with a few close friends – we’re shooting the shit – and, for now, it turns out that I happen to be telling the stories.

I’m a stranger to most people in the audience. Yes, they don’t want me to fail, but the reason they don’t want me to fail is that’s them up there. Ever been to a big concert? When the band is the stage, are you worried they’re going to fail? Nope. A speaking venue is different: they chose to attend this particular conference to hear a particular story, and you were chosen to be that storyteller. It’s more intimate. It’s more personal. We’re all humans – not rock stars.

The audience wants you to succeed because, weirdly, your failure would also be theirs. They’re invested in your speaking success and that helpfully makes them less strangers.


  1. This version of the introduction slide is based on fork by Tim Brown from my original concept
  2. There is a stunningly annoying bug in the latest Keynote that gives you warning when you don’t have a font installed used in the presentation (good), but Apple gives you absolutely no means for easily fixing this problem (bad). 
  3. Rowan Manahan has a slick work-around for font replacement. Use Keynote ’09′s font replacement feature to get rid of pesky residual fonts. Nice. 

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7 Responses

  1. Robert Zeh 3 months ago

    How do you know the audience wants you to succeed?
    Think about your reaction when a presenter screws up at a technical presentation. If you at all identify with the presenter, and you probably do, when the presenter messes up you cringe and start looking for exits, *just like the presenter*.
    Think about your reaction when a presenter knocks it out of the park — you’re happy, right? Not just happy for them, but happy. A live well done technical presentation gives you some of that “I’m on top of the world” glow.
    The audience wants you to succeed because they’re just like you, and you want the presentations you attend to succeed.

  2. This is brilliant and generous, no surprise coming from you.

    But, one thing: Until Apple gets its act together (about versions, fonts, etc.), my rule is simple: my presentation runs on my computer. Not yours, not some centralized machine.

    If the event organizers care enough to have professional speakers get on a plane to come present, they should spend the tiny amount of time and energy it takes to let us run our decks from our own machines.

    You’d be amazed at how much of an event is dictated by caterers, facilities managers and others that have no real stake in anything other than efficiency. If the talk is the heart of the event, honor the talk…

    Perhaps if we all insisted, the problem would go away.

    • rands 3 months ago

      My preference is to run my deck from my computer and an increasing amount of conferences are fine with this. The glitch seems to be bizarre AV set-ups where they’re splice’n’dicing video in strange ways that require a specific set-up. If this is their requirement, I make sure I get a walk-through in the venue with my slides where I can check the presentation and see the speaker notes.

  3. Kaldek 3 months ago

    Thank you. Right now, today, this means more to me than you could believe; I’m heading back into being a presenter (of week long IT classes) and this was a great reminder of how to handle it.

  4. The most effective speakers show their humanity and vulnerability when they are on stage; you have done the same with this post. Congratulations, I enjoyed it very much.

    While I don’t ascribe to everything you do – I’d rather pound back the double Kamikaze after my talk and, though I love the song, the Sigur Ros theme from Vanilla Sky is too slow for my “pump up” music – I also know that every speaker prepares differently.

    Your “disaster prevention bag” reminded me of my own logistical preparations. For years, the night before a speech or presentation, I would take out a sheet of paper and writer down all the things I needed (or that I remembered I needed). One day I thought, this is stupid. There has to be a checklist somewhere. I searched the Internet and couldn’t find anything suitable. So I thought, stuff it. I’ll create one myself.

    The result is this comprehensive one-page checklist: http://wp.me/pwfa1-1Lz

    There is no way that you will need all of these things all the time, but you can go through it and tick off what you do need without worrying that you’ve forgotten something. There are even blanks for you to add other items.

    Hope you and your readers find it helpful.

    Cheers!