30 July 2014

An extensive list of what helped me present

Dealing with anxiety
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse... rehearse. I thought rehearsing too much would make my presentation sound like a "script" but I was wrong. The parts I had rehearsed the most (and I rehearsed a lot) was probably the ones I delivered the best. The reason, I think, was I could relax and only focus on delivery.
  • I skipped the session before mine and instead went to my room and gave the presentation to the bed, chairs and curtains (in other words, no crowd). That really helped me relax. Also I noticed in my recorded rehearseals that when I gave the presentation a few times in a row, the first time was usually the worst. So I figured rehearsing once right before the actual presentation would make the actual one better and I think it did. If I interpreted Clair Moss, who delivered a kick ass presentation as well, correctly, she seemed to have had a similar strategy.
  • It may sound weird/impossible but I decided it wasn't that big of a deal to present at CAST. I think this was simply a matter of convincing myself by repeating the idea over and over again. When I was actually there it seemed to work cause I stayed a lot calmer than expected and never really felt that "this is insane" feeling.
  • I found it important to remind myself I presented to impress myself, nobody else. That made the whole thing a little less stressful as worst case suddenly became me being disappointed in myself rather than half the testing world being disappointed in me.
  • Smile! It's weird but it really eases stress (for me)!
  • I found there is a huge mental difference between "I'm scared and nervous, but I can do this" and I'm scared and nervous, I don't want to do this". Once again, repeat to yourself until it sticks.
  • What if I lose track? Once again: rehearse and it gets less and less common! Rehearsing also helps in case you actually do lose track as you can much easier find your way back (losing track is not necessarily a bad thing by the way).
  • Being a presenter is a possibility and only a possibility. I strongly believe (don't correct me, it would make me a lot more nervous .) people rarely remember a bad presentation but good ones stick. As a presenter those remembered presentations open doors, lead to insights (and good in that sense could mean an utterly failed presentation you learned a lot from), help you connect with people and raise your confidence. Bad ones are forgotten by everyone else so learn from those presentations (make them good) or forget them like everyone else.
  • I try to always get to the location where I'm about to speak before my audience. For me it's a mental thing; if I'm there first it feels like they enter my turf, if I'm not it feels like I'm on someone else's and the former just makes me less nervous.
Dealing with being "in shape"
  • Eat, drink (water!) and sleep. Sounds simple but easy to miss, especially when you're getting nervous.
  • Beware of jet lag, try to get there a few days early to adjust.
Dealing with language
I'm not a native English speaker so I had an additional challenge.
  • For every day spent in the US my English got better and better. So arriving a few days before the conference was a great.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!
  • I found it much easier to spot weird things I said when listening to them in retrospect, so recording my rehearseals really helped improving my language. I didn't ask any native English speaker to listen to my recordings and comment on typical linguistic errors I make, but that could had been useful.
Dealing with creating the content
  • I took on a way too big topic in the first draft of my CAST abstract, the one I finally sent in was focusing on only one of seven parts described in the first draft and still I had to shred a lot of content and could even had focused the entire presentation on one of the four parts I talked about. So beware of too broad topics!
  • Peers are invaluable! Having someone reviewing my slides, content and even a rehearseal was key. The feedback I got from Helena was invaluable! And without Maria's feedback when preparing my abstract, I can't imagine I would had been selected to talk!
  • Questions I asked too late that forced me to basically rethink my whole presentation was: What's in it for the people attending? Why should they be there? What do I want them to remember? What do I want them to feel? How can I make that happen? Before I asked those questions the presentation was fairly focused on me and what I thought was interesting not what I thought would be valuable to someone else.
  • Rehearse! It's the only way to see if the amount of content fits the time given.
  • Keep adding content all the time! It's much easier to shred or compress content to fit a time slot than to fill gaps.
  • Not allowing my ego to take content decisions helped me a lot. People don't care much about how great I am but they seem very curious about my mistakes, embarrassments and problems.
  • My topic was sort of an experience report. The great thing about experience reports is you're sitting on all the facts and information. That also fights anxiety as "I know what I experienced and if your experience differs we can discuss it but mine is still valid (just like yours)" thus, you're always right as long as you stay truthful about what you experienced.
Dealing with delivery
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!
  • I recorded myself rehearsing and when I listened to the recording for the first time it just blow my mind! I thought I was varying my tempo and volume as I was presenting but realized ... I wasn't. My voice was monotone, I sounded uninterested and pauses were non-existent. Next time I will record video as well. (didn't video record any rehearseal this time, simply due to discomfort and laziness). If you feel like recording yourself is complicated, think again! I used basically the first free app I found for my smartphone and it worked beautifully!
  • I forced myself to try very long pauses just to see the effect. That helped me realize the power of pauses (even though I felt I forgot that a little bit during my actual presentation). And the power? Personally I feel a well timed pause can help attendees digest my information and be ready for more and no pauses is a bit like reading a text with no space between paragraphs; it's exhausting and you lose some valuable structure.
  • Listening to myself also helped me identify where I tended to ramble.
  • I have three kids. As a way to prepare myself I read or made up stories for them and tried to tell them with as much energy as possible. Good way to practice storytelling.
  • Actively using my body (using my arms to express something, move around, shrug, express what I'm saying with my face etc.) helped me "get excited"/get in my presenter mode.
  • During rehearseals I sometimes found myself speaking faster and faster. The most efficient way I found to battle this was to just stop, make a long pause and kind of "reboot".
  • As I rehearsed, I experimented with different ways of describing things, change order and vary the tempo. For me that led to some interesting insights, mostly related to pauses (already mentioned) but also how I could add energy to certain parts by raising the tempo/volume or better emphasize certain parts by saying keywords slower and and with a different volume (sometimes louder, sometimes softer, depending on context).
Dealing with remembering the content
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!
  • Rehearse without slides
  • Rehearse without any other tools (private notes etc.)
Dealing with making people come
I'm not much of a marketing person but...
  • I wrote a couple of blog posts about the presentation. [1, 2]
  • I spook with people at the conference.
  • I spoke a bit about it on Twitter before
  • I didn't do like Huib Schoots but god I wish I had! [1, 2]
Dealing with technology
  • Rehearsing without the slides a lot helped me prepare in case the technology would fail me. Also I think doing this helped me to, with slides, look less at the slides while presenting.
  • I booked a conference room for 1 hour every morning during the last 2 weeks before the conference. Being able to present with all the technology in action really helped, for instance I realized my computer was not well configured for attaching an external monitor. Also I got to test switching slides using my wireless mouse which took a little practice to get right (damn you scrolling wheel!).
  • Triple check technology... and then check it once again.
  • Oh, and US don't have European power sockets, luckily I thought of that.
Some CAST (CAST-like conferences) specific insights
  • Everyone is there to learn so everyone wants you to succeed! May sound a bit strange but I've rarely felt more support as a presenter than I felt during CAST.
  • K-cards may seem like a scary thing but in reality they are a great tool for me as a presenter to get valuable feedback and learn. Realizing that made them a lot less scary. The open season helped me understand if people liked the material, what parts seemed more interesting, things I might need to tweak/think more about, I got new ideas on how to improve the content etc. That gave me comfort!
My Top 3
  1. REHEARSE! Thank god I spent so much time doing that!
  2. Record yourself and analyze the content.
  3. Presenting is an opportunity/privilege, not a punishment (usually), so don't make it so!
Last word
I wrote this post just under a year ago, on my way back from CAST. But I never published it as it seemed kind of silly for a first time conference speaker to share advice on how to prep an awesome conference talk. A few weeks ago I picked it up again and since it still made a lot of sense I decided to share it.

However, I would love comments from both experienced and inexperienced speakers on what I got wrong (in your opinion) or maybe even right (in your opinion), just to improve both this post and my own ability as a speaker.

Take care!

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