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:
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:
- power brick and power cord
- international plug converter
- presentation clicker
- video cables specific to your computer (VGA to mini DVI, DVI to mini DVI).
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.
- This version of the introduction slide is based on fork by Tim Brown from my original concept. ↩
- 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). ↩
- 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. ↩