10 tips for rookie speakers

I’ve had the pleasure and honour of mentoring a couple of people through their first rookie talk experience at Bsides. Through this process, I probably ended up learning more about the process than the speaker. These are 10 rookie commandments I somewhat developed through the process:

1. Start with why
People speak at conferences for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s to overcome the fear of public speaking, achieve that notch on their CV, use it as a platform to kick-start a speaking career and so on and so forth.

I do believe it’s important to have a reason and to bear that in mind when preparing your talk. Speaking just for the sake of speaking usually isn’t a good idea as it doesn’t provide that focus that is needed. As the saying goes, you can’t score without a goal.

Share your objective with your mentor – they should help you keep on track.

2. Mentor-Mentee relationship
It’s important for both mentor and mentee to commit to the relationship. Everyone is busy and has their own work schedules – but it’s important that you interact early and often.

The precise nature of the relationship will vary. Sometimes a first-time speaker needs assistance with a broad range of tasks – other times they just need someone to bounce ideas off.

It is very tempting for a mentor to impart their style of delivery onto a mentee. That shouldn’t be the case – rather a good mentor should help nurture the style and delivery that is best-suited to the speaker.

3. Know your topic
Deciding about what topic to present on can be a bit of a dilemma. As a first time speaker, you may want to drop some awesome 0-day or release some cool bit of research and start off your speaking career with a bang.

That can work for some people. But for most – I’d recommend choosing and sticking to a topic you’re very familiar with. There is a lot to think about and concentrate on when delivering your first talk – having to worry about a new topic is additional stress you probably don’t need.

4. Keep it simple
Simplicity is key to delivering a good talk. Make sure the structure flows in a logical and easy-to-understand manner. I like to break a talk down into a typical beginning/middle/end structure.

The added benefit of keeping it simple and on a topic you’re familiar with is that it becomes really easy to answer any qustions that may be thrown your way.

5. Practise
It’s important to practise your talk – get familiar with the flow and the order of the content. One of the most useful exercises I find is speaking it out loud. It can be a weird sensation hearing your own voice out loud so the more you practise the more natural you’ll sound… and not get out of breath.

6. Slides
I only start pulling together my slides once I’m happy with my content and flow. I know some people who start it earlier so find a way that suits you best.

The important thing to remember is that the slides are there to support your talk and add context to it. They aren’t meant to be the entire talk transcript of be overly distracting.

Try sticking to a clean and simple style that is easy to read. If you can get hold of a projector or big screen, see how your slides look.

7. Move
Moving around the stage will help you generate some energy and engage all parts of the audience. It can be tempting to ‘hide’ behind the podium and deliver your talk from there. If you’ve practised your talk and are familiar with the flow, this should be no problem. You don’t have to spend your entire talk pacing up and down the stage – but walking out every now and then to reinforce points can help build confidence.

8. Inject your personality
Don’t be afraid to be yourself up on stage. If you think to some of your favourite speakers, you get to see their personality shine through. Throw in some personal stories, anecdotes and share some feelings. It will help connect you and the audience.

9. Interact
One of the biggest advantages speaking on stage has over all other mediums through which you can impart knowledge (blog, whitepaper, video, podcast etc.) is the fact that you can interact with the audience.

The feedback you get is immediate and honest. When you make a statement you can judge from the body language whether people are agreeing or not with you. Sometimes they’ll laugh at your mild attempts at humour and sometimes they’ll get defensive when you expose an uncomfortable truth.

Feel free to ask people for feedback, questions and if you feel like the interactive Q&A is providing value don’t be afraid to go off script.

10. It won’t be perfect
Your first talk will never be perfect. You’ll realise you spoke too fast or too slow. Parts which you thought you could deliver with the smoothness of Morgan Freeman will stumble out. The Steve Jobs style pause just made you looked confused or you lost control of a heckler.

These are a natural part of any talk. I’ve spoken numerous times and I’m never happy with how I perform. The important thing is to learn from these experiences and improve every time.

A useful way is to have your mentor and maybe another trusted friend listen through your talk and give you honest feedback about what did or didn’t work well and how you can improve it.