My first conference talk was a keynote—by accident.
I’d prepared a deeply technical talk on web performance, heavy on the “how” of image and markup optimizations. I’d designed and timed my slides, gathered feedback from coworkers, and practiced over and over. I was nervous about going onstage and having a spotlight shining on me, but I was confident my information was accurate and helpful to a technical audience.
Days before the conference, I took a look at the schedule and realized I was slotted into the opening talk—the keynote, a spot intended to inspire a much more general audience than the one I’d planned on. Whoops. I tried to revamp my slides to be more approachable and to end with a bigger kick.
But that was just the first red flag. On the day of the conference, I stood by the side of the stage and braced myself for that spotlight. As the emcee introduced me to the crowd of 400, I heard a bio that wasn’t…mine. As the career highlights of not-me sank in, I realized the organizers thought I was someone else. I’m still not sure who they had meant to invite, or who they thought I was, but there was definitely a mistake.
The mess escalated. The organizers couldn’t provide water to the speakers, having gotten in a fight with the venue’s event management company. They forgot to turn the lights down, and my white-text, black-background slides became unreadable. I was thrown off too: during Q&A, I thought one person was joking with their question, so I laughed. They weren’t, and my reply went over like a lead balloon.
It wasn’t my best talk. But I went on to get comfortable giving dozens more, in many different countries before thousands of people.
Being onstage is an incredibly vulnerable act. It’s risky. And, let’s face it, public speaking is weird: we can’t really practice it without doing it—we don’t really have a way to slowly dip our toes in. More likely, we take the plunge into the spotlight, to be ourselves in a way people might not like.
What if I mess up? What if they don’t like what I have to say? What if they disagree, or worse, what if they don’t like me?
We all have fears about public speaking. That’s okay! Luckily, we also have plenty of resources to draw on that focus on how to write and deliver a great talk (you can find some picks in the Resources section). With this book, though, I want to reassure you. Consider this an introduction to getting comfortable with public speaking. Because you can do it. If I survived that bananas first keynote and kept practicing and getting better, you can too.
I want to help you learn about what you bring to public speaking: your expertise, your style, your fears, your strengths. Each chapter includes tips and techniques (from others’ experiences as well as my own) to ease you into different aspects of giving a talk. I want to help you figure out what makes you tick, gain more confidence, and maybe even have some fun when you’re up onstage.
I hope you’ll feel more prepared and excited to give talks. Most important, I hope this book helps you find ways to be yourself, rather than hew to any public speaking “rules” or givens. We desperately need more diverse voices in this industry speaking up and sharing their knowledge. I can’t wait to see what you do—I can’t wait for the rest of us to listen and learn from you.