After sitting in the audience at the Business of Software conference for four years watching all of the speakers get on stage and do their thing I decided it was time to step up to the plate and give it a try with a Lightning Talk of my own. It was quite terrifying I will admit. But it was also one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
Here’s how it all went down.
At BoS 2011 I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about doing a lightning talk in 2012. She said, “Oh geez.. are you sure? BoS is a tough crowd”. I said, “Hmm.. maybe you’re right. I will think about it”. Then I sat there the rest of the conference thinking how wrong she was. The BoS crowd is not tough. They just have high expectations. I can live up to them if I work really hard at it. Anyone can.
A few weeks before the application deadline for 2012 I mentioned it to another friend whom I knew would give me gushing support. He said something like, “Oh my God that’s awesome! You will be perfect! The audience will LOVE you!”. He then went on to provide me with the much needed feedback, morale support and practical guidance to actually do a good job. Lesson one: If you want to step outside your comfort zone seek support from someone who will not only be there to push you off the cliff but also be there to help you avoid a crash and burn.
Then I chose the topic, “Living Fearlessly”. This was actually pretty easy because it fit the most important criteria: I was passionate about it and the audience, being a bunch of entrepreneurs, could totally relate to it.
I submitted my video application a few days later. I did this in a couple of takes. It was a less than 1 minute video of myself in my kitchen talking to the camera on my laptop. I stated who I was and why I was passionate about my topic. My video was 100% genuine. I spoke clearly, smiled a lot and tried to be confident and humble. I didn’t over think it. I just delivered my message like I really cared about it. I really did care.
When I received word that I was selected to do a presentation, I got to work IMMEDIATELY. I was honored and flustered. I wanted to be the very best I could be but I was nervous as heck. I had done a few speaking engagements in the past but I was by no means a professional or even a highly experienced amateur. So I went back to the basics and got some training. Here are the two most helpful resources I used. I highly recommend both of them.
- Effective Public Speaking. A simple and helpful guide by Lynda.com
- How to create a Fast Ignite Presentation by Olivia Mitchell
Once I had my outline prepared I started practicing the spoken delivery and I recorded myself. It was nothing fancy. I used my laptop microphone and recorded the screen with Camtasia so I could see the slides when I played it all back. I hauled the full length mirror into the living room and went to town figuring out the right gestures and facial expressions to use at certain points in the presentation. It felt pretty corny but it was effective.
After I got the timing sort of right and a few takes under my belt I sent the really rough video to a friend for feedback. In addition to the usual advice about too many ums and ahs I also received these amazing tips:
- Don’t thank the crowd when you open. They are not there to GIVE YOU anything. You are there to GIVE THEM the gift of your story. Be confident that you are the expert on your material because YOU ARE.
- At the very beginning of my presentation I mention a “little slip of paper”. My friend advised me not to show the slip of paper until the very end. It would be like the little surprise that makes the whole story suddenly real. I think it worked pretty well.
- You don’t need fifteen stories or data points prove your message. Just choose one or two little stories to tell within the big story. I chose the “boyfriend leaving” and the “overcoming sales call reluctance” to prove how how I could deal with my main topic of “living fearlessly”. It worked pretty well.
Overcoming the nerves
As the event drew closer I had to overcome my nerves. The night before the actual event, and the morning of, I practiced a few more times in my hotel room. I showed up early at the conference center and stood on stage and imagined what it would be like full of people. In the session right before mine I sat in the front row and turned my chair sideways so I could see all the faces fill in and stare back at me. About two hours before my presentation I sneaked out of the conference center and treated myself to a McDonald’s cheeseburger and french fries to clear my head.
Then it was go time.
I got up there on stage in front of 400 or so of my idols, peers and mentors, and another 3,000 remote people watching me over the internet. Judging me. I had approximately 8 minutes with auto advancing slides. I was sandwiched in between real professional speakers in that slot they reserve for the amateurs (BTW, there is nothing like being labeled an amateur to build your self confidence). I thought I was going to faint. .. But I didn’t.
I muscled through. I acted like I was relaxed and confident. I went on auto pilot and delivered my presentation better than I ever had before. You can do that when you are prepared. Instead I worried about stupid things like my hair, my shoes and if anyone saw me eating french fries outside. It was glorious and fun. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
When it was all over I got a ton of “congratulations” and “good jobs” from the audience members at the break. It felt amazing. I had successfully delivered an important message to the audience and to myself that day. I will never forget the experience and I will never again have to wonder whether or not I could do it. Now I know.
Need help? If you are preparing for a presentation or a lightning talk of any kind and would like feedback or help please give me a shout. I would be glad to provide free advice or morale support to anyone who is willing to step outside their comfort zone. Seriously. I want to see you succeed! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to my good and gushing friend, Patrick Foley, for the support and feedback.