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5 tips for a first-time speaker

Dan HealyDan Healy, one of our mentors, is a regular public speaker and with our upcoming Lightning Talks event, he has some tips and tricks for any first-time speakers.

What’s your experience of public speaking?

My very first experience of public speaking was at school when I was 16 or 17. I’d always been a very shy kid and my English teacher talked me into doing it for one of our parents’ evenings. I was terrified and felt like I was going to faint or throw up – possibly both. Until the moment that I started speaking, I didn’t think I’d get through it. It was awful.

I did get through this experience (without fainting or throwing up) and this taught me that you can push yourself to get through things even if, at the time, they seem truly horrible.

Since then, I’ve spoken in front of hundreds of people at conferences and meetups including: Collaborate, Bristol; UX Cheltenham; UX in the City, Oxford; UX Scotland; and Learning Technologies. You can catch me next at UX Wales on 19 April.  

I still get that same feeling before I get up in front of everyone, but I’ve learned to cope with it. This has taught me so much about myself and made me realise that you can choose to be confident and brave, even if you don’t think that you are. Plus, a huge thanks to Miss Gupta for convincing me to take those first tentative steps all those years ago!

Top 5 tips for a first-time speaker

1. Try it.

As almost all public speakers will tell you, they still get nervous before they get up to speak but, by doing it more and more, you get used to coping with the nerves. Also, once you get through it – the rush of adrenaline makes it worthwhile. You’ll want to go back for more – I promise you.

Seek out your local UX meetup and give it a whirl. It’s a great way to get started and many have short slots for lightning talks of just 5 or 10 minutes.

2. Enjoy it.

Talking in front of a crowd is a unique privilege. You have the opportunity to tell your story and you know what? People will actually listen.

The UX community is a wonderful crowd to speak in front of. It’s full of intelligent, respectful, thoughtful, and empathetic people.  In the years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been heckled, and you won’t either. Also, if you’re not great at networking at conferences (I’m not), speaking at a conference is a great way to make sure that you will have some awesome conversations with people.

3. Prepare.

If you’re going to speak in front of people, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve thought through and you’re comfortable with what you’re going to say. If not, the nerves will be much worse.

I like to prepare by performing my slides in front of my family in the week running up to my talk. Saying your content out loud really helps and doing this just two or three times should do the trick. It’ll let you edit out any clumsy phrasing, work out if your jokes are actually funny (Mrs H is a harsh critic), and uncover any gremlins in your slides.  

4. Don’t work with children, animals or conference Wi-Fi.

The thing about doing lots of public speaking is that you get to watch lots of other public speakers too. This has taught me that conference Wi-Fi (despite what the organisers might say) is evil. Truly evil.

Don’t rely on a decent Wi-Fi connection for any of your content. Download everything before your talk and make sure it’ll run from your desktop. One of the most painful things I’ve ever witnessed was watching a poor presenter try to do a 45-minute talk when all of their slides were hosted in the cloud. Take heed!

5. Don’t over-prepare.

OK, so, before you say that this contradicts point 3, what I’m trying to get across here is that things will often go wrong (see point 4 – did I mention that conference Wi-Fi is evil?) and this is outside of your control. How you react is in your control.

If something doesn’t work, your slides are in the wrong format or being projected in a worrying green, the microphone cuts out or something else happens, try to take it in your stride.

I’m a self-confessed control freak and so when things go wrong, I often take it personally. Too personally. This is because I’d invested so much time in trying to make things perfect. Having kids has meant that my preparation time for talks is much more limited than it used to be. This means that I can never try to make things perfect – there’s just not enough time! These days I have to cut myself some slack and settle for good enough. Oddly enough, life feels much more relaxed.   

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