How to become a public speaker


How to become a public speaker

This article was first published in Net magazine: Issue 294 July 2017.

Have you ever thought you could talk about UX, design or development in public? In this article we’ll give you some reasons and tips to make this year the one where you stop talking about talking at an event and make it happen.

Every spring we hold a one-day ‘un-conference’ for people involved in UX, user research, interaction design and other related fields. The event is run in a bar camp style and through the day we have around 50 presentations, workshops and discussions put on by attendees. Many of the presenters are first-time speakers. All of them survived.

Speaking in public can seem daunting and scary as much as it is rewarding and fun. To encourage you to give it a go we asked speakers at this year’s UX Camp Brighton for the tips they’d pass on.

Reasons to present

Why would I want to stand up in front of my peers and potentially embarrass myself? We hear this a lot so let’s start with five reasons to give it a go:

1. At every event we hear from previously nervous presenters the satisfaction and joy they get from engaging an audience with their thoughts.

2. You get to explore your chosen subject, there’s nothing like talking about a topic to force yourself to think about it in more detail.

3. You get to practice a new skill which is a vital one to help develop and accelerate your career.

4. Speaking at a public event looks good on your CV - even if it may go slightly wrong on the day!

5. It provides the chance to give something back to the digital community you’ve probably learned a lot from.

How to make it happen

Now we’ve got you thinking about why you might present in public, let’s give you some tips on how to go about it.

Stop thinking, start doing

Rebecca Hugo (@becstex) was a first-time and accidental speaker. She says “If you’re thinking about trying it - go for it. Put your name down (or accidentally purchase the wrong ticket, like I did) and just commit. There is absolutely no pressure for you to provide the revolutionary talk of the century. If you’re uncomfortable or unsure about speaking directly, think about facilitating a workshop, instead, and use the session to probe the minds of the professionals at your disposal”.

Don’t let inertia or over-thinking get the better of you. Find an event you like the look of and apply. If it's a bar camp get a ticket. If it’s a conference make a submission to the organisers. Only when you know you have a date and a time slot do you need to spend time writing your presentation and crafting your slides.

Most conferences and meetups only require you to provide a title and brief outline for them to evaluate your proposal. This saves you time and is useful to get you to focus on the key points you want to communicate.

Once you have a place let people know you’ll be speaking. Tell your colleagues. Broadcast it on Twitter. Saying it in public will galvanise you to see it through.

Start small

When you think of presenting it is easy to conjure up an image of being a small figure in a vast auditorium. This does not have to be the case. Michal Mazur’s (@mazi_mazur) advice is to find the size and style event that suits you, “I have given my first talk ever during the UX Camp Brighton 2017. The crowd is very encouraging and non-judgmental. It allows you to start small”.

Peter Winchester (@Hello_Im_Peter), a returning speaker and offers the interesting analogy to how “presenting should be considered like gigging. Start with a tiny venue, play a few small open mic nights then you'll end up at the UX equivalent of Wembley”.

Good places to find events to start speaking at include Meetup, Find UX Events with its international calendar of events large and small, and Paper Call which lists conferences that are currently open for submissions.

Find a topic you care about

Reluctant speakers often say two things that hold them back: ‘What should I talk about?’ and ‘Why would anybody be interested in what I have to say?’

On this topic Rebecca Hugo said “My worry became whether what I wanted to talk about held any merit. Would it be interesting, would I be telling professionals what they already knew, would it all sound silly”.

This is a common concern. Al Power (@alpower) counters with his advice “Don't think you have to be the expert or present something completely new. The audience are your peers and you are just sharing your learnings, and as people choose which talks to go to, they wouldn't be there if they weren't interested”.

Michal Mazur agrees with this approach “Express yourself, tell people what you care about and it will be natural and easy”.

Kathren Neuss (@kathyneuss) talked to others to help find her angle. “My personal blocker was fear of not being insightful. Through voicing my fear to other people who had presented, I realised a perspective can be just as insightful, if not more so, than the topic under discussion”.

You don’t have to be the world’s leading expert in a subject to talk about it.  As many speakers find out a passion for a subject and a personal perspective will always be of interest to an audience.

Talk to anyone who will listen

As UX designers we are adept at exploring multi-design ideas, iterating and refining with feedback. Presentations should be the same. Create an draft and road test it to whoever (or whatever) will listen.

Peter Winchester suggests you “start practicing your talk on people from it's earliest possible conception to anyone who'll listen. You'll be amazed at how different it sounds and runs out loud, rather than in your head”.

Seasoned presenter Adrian Howard (@adrianh) starts by writing a series of thoughts on individual cards. “Once I get a sequence of cards that I think make a good talk I give it to the wall, one of the dogs, my partner. If something doesn't flow or it runs short/long I tweak the cards and repeat. What I’m trying to do is tell the story”.

So speak out loud to help you to find your unique voice and style. Hearing the content will also help you to ensure your key takeaway messages are clear and well articulated.

Do it over again

Like all new skills you get better the more you do them and even better with a little reflection. It’s not iteration if you only do it once.

To discover where you can improve, simply ask your audience. A tip from Adrian Howard is to “make feedback easy and anonymous. Tape a large bit of paper by the exit doors, divided in half for positive/negative comments. Sprinkle post-it notes around the room and encourage folk to stick something up in both categories as they leave”.

Then a few days after your session, when the euphoria has died down but the memory is still fresh “make notes on what worked and what you need to do better next time”. This personal retrospective will help you develop both your specific session as well as your presentation style.

Your turn to speak up

Now it's time to go and find an event to speak at and share your interests and experiences with an audience who are waiting eagerly to hear you talk.


This article was first published in Net magazine: Issue 294 July 2017.