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  • July 26, 2012

So Why Should I Speak Publicly?

No matter who you are or how much time you’ve spent in the field, you have unique experiences that have shaped you and helped you to grow. And you may not realize it yet, but you can have a tremendous impact upon others just by sharing your expertise. Its time for you (yes, you) to enter the realm of public speaking. If you can find the right audience, they will eagerly listen and learn. Decorative Illustration

Let me give you a few examples. Perhaps you just finished your first year working as a junior web developer. Chances are that you were nervous and unsure about what to expect from your new career. You were undoubtedly met with unique and unexpected challenges. Maybe there were things you didn’t learn in college that you needed to tackle and master quickly at work. So consider heading back to your alma mater and sharing a talk with design students about “Five Things You Need to Know About the Field that I Learned the Hard Way.”

If you’re a seasoned professional, what is it that you’ve learned in the past five, ten, or twenty years that’s sharpened your design skills? What mistakes have you learned from? What was the most successful project you worked on, and why? You won’t have to do much digging to come up with some ideas that you can impart onto others.

You may be thinking, as I once was, No one wants to hear what I have to say. I don’t have anything worthwhile to share. Not so. Our colleagues in the field are hungry for knowledge, new ideas, and stories. From user researchers, to developers, to project managers, our field is teeming with passionate and energetic people who want to produce the best possible experience within the parameters they’re given. I learned this for myself firsthand. If you have something to say, they will come.

Happy Cog has always encouraged me to speak publicly. At first, I resisted a bit. I was scared and intimidated. Who would want to hear me speak, anyway? What was I going to say that everyone else wasn’t already saying? How was I going to learn how to get up in front of a large crowd, possibly hundreds of people, without fainting and/or freezing in horror? I never thought anyone would want to hear me speak about designing for a female audience.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve given my talk, “Designing Experiences for Women” almost a dozen times. I’m now asked to speak on this topic regularly. I’ve also given a talk about user experience called “Useful, Usable, and Desirable,” which has inspired many non-user experience practitioners to adopt best practices in experience design. If it gets to the point where I have to turn down requests to speak, that’s a good problem to have.

You might be thinking, what’s the benefit of speaking publicly?

Most of the benefits speak for themselves, but ultimately, public speaking is a tremendous way to build confidence, in both your professional and personal life. By overcoming your innate fear of public speaking, you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone in a very healthy way. The skills you acquire translate to increased confidence in the workplace as well as improved communication skills with clients and stakeholders. This makes you an even more valuable asset to your team. You’re also educating your peers, or at the very least, inspiring them to do better. And lastly, in the spirit of leading by example, you’ll encourage others to speak as well.

How do I get started?

Like anything, public speaking is a skill that can be practiced and learned. And there are a wealth of books, articles, and communities to get you started on your journey. Here are some tips for beginners:

Plan & Practice

Even if your topic is near and dear to your heart, knowing your content is crucial. Do your research to make sure that you’ve covered all bases. What do the naysayers say? Do you agree or disagree? How will you address that in your presentation? Also, consider the scope of your presentation. Will you be presenting high level ideas, or will you be detailed and specific? Last but not least, how will you frame your narrative? How can you structure your content in a way that builds excitement but conveys information coherently?

Once you’ve got your presentation down, practice, practice, practice. Rehearse alone in front of a mirror. The goal isn’t to memorize everything word for word, but to get comfortable enough with your presentation that you can deliver it confidently and naturally. After you’ve nailed this down, do a dry run with anyone who will listen. Schedule a lunch and learn at work, or ask a trusted colleague to Skype with you and provide feedback. Be sure to elicit critical feedback.

Start Small

You don’t have to give your first talk in front of 300 people at SXSW (but kudos if you do!). Start with local volunteer-run organizations. Maybe there’s a nearby JavaScript group or content strategy meetup. Share your new presentation with the local community. They’ll learn a thing or two and provide great critical feedback if you ask for it. Once you’ve gotten this experience under your belt, start submitting proposals to your favorite conferences.

Get Your Employer On Your Side

Tell your boss that you want to speak publicly, and ask if your organization will support your efforts. Any employer worth a hoot should be on board with you 100 percent. Even if your employer can’t pay for all of your expenses, ask if they’ll meet you halfway on the cost, or ask for paid time off to speak at a local conference that doesn’t require lodging or travel.

Invest in Books & Articles

I’ve found these resources to be indispensible, and I consider them a must-read for any new public speaker.

  • Confessions of a Public Speaker This book does a tremendous job of putting our fears of public speaking into perspective. It also discusses the logistics and granular details of public speaking that you’ll want to know and get right. The end is packed full of bloopers and other “oops” moments to put you at ease and help you realize that the audience will be very forgiving of you, as long as you’re prepared and respectful.
  • Slide:ology This is a fantastic guidebook for designing beautiful and compelling presentations. From seasoned graphic designers to Photoshop-phobic left brainers, this book will help you create dynamic and enjoyable presentations. Ugly PowerPoint decks, beware!
  • Writing a Good Conference Presentation User experience practitioner Adam Connor put together this brief but helpful list of tips for structuring and delivering your presentations.
  • Technical Women – It’s conference submission season! There’s been a big push for more women to speak at tech conferences. This article is a great inspiration for both women and men, with great pointers on how to get the ball rolling.

Go Forth & Speak!

Now that you have what you need to get started, there’s no excuse. It’s not a matter of whether or not you can speak publicly; it’s simply a matter of what you’ll speak about and when you’ll get started. Our field is known for its passionate and outspoken practitioners who’ve enacted compelling change. It’s time for you (yes, you) to become one of them and keep the momentum going.

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