A First & Next08: Notes of a Public Speaking N00b

Last Thursday I stood up with Leisa Reichelt in front of at least 100 (could’ve been more, didn’t have time to count) intelligent people (an assumption I know, but I’m an optimist) at the next08 conference and we told them what we think. As my first ever conference speaking experience it was faintly terrifying, but more than that it was enjoyable and exhilirating, and even better, I learned a few things from it. If you’re also just starting out with public speaking, I’ve got a few recommendations which might be useful.

[Update] Although this article has little to do with the content of our presentation, you might want to have a look at the video of our song & dance below.

Start Early

The morning of the conference saw Leisa and I sitting in a café gluing slides together over coffee and pastries. Leisa’s a smart and fun lady, so I enjoyed this collaborative process, but I reckon we would’ve both enjoyed the day and our talk even more had we been further along when the day began.

Tip: organise your thoughts and hack your slides together by the night before the presentation. Start the day confident that you’re on top of your subject and that you’ve got a flow which works, and you’ll avoid plenty of unnecessary stress.

Am I Smart?

In the seven years I’ve been an art director at Sinnerschrader, I’ve presented to potential and existing clients countless times, usually with large sums of money hanging in the balance. When doing this I rarely sweat or twitch or stumble over words.

Just thinking about our next08 presentation beforehand made me sweaty and twitchy, and when our talk started, I had to hold my microphone with both hands to keep my shaky hand from dropping it.

At first I didn’t understand this at all. The only clear difference was the size of the crowd and lack of financial pressure, both of which didn’t bother me at all, but I couldn’t figure out what did. Leisa has much more speaking experience than I do so I asked her. “The only thing you’re afraid of is that you might be stupid.” she said. I realised that I’m used to presenting things at arm’s length, essentially asking the audience questions like “is my company smart?” or “is the work our team’s done smart?” At next08 I talked about my own opinions, ideas and passions, so for the first time I was asking a far more personal question: “am I smart?” The answer has a far more personal impact.

Tip: rest assured that if you’ve got ideas that excite you, and somebody’s invited you to present them, you’re smart enough. No matter what you do there will be a few folks who’ll get up and leave before you’re done. Forget them. Focus on your own passion, and bring it across in your talk, and there will also be a huddle of folks waiting to chat with you afterwards. Which leads to…

Find the Fan

Our talk began with technical problems, so when we started we were 10 minutes behind schedule and off balance. Anything we’d sworn to remember to say we’d forgotten, and any feeling of security our rehearsal might have brought was washed away under the adrenaline wave. After we’d gotten relatively smoothly through our introduction and I spit out the first real point I wanted to make, a guy in the first row smiled, nodded, and nudged the guy next to him. And I thought to myself, “hey, this is going to go okay.”

Tip: once you get to the meat of your presentation, scan the crowd for nods and smiles. Those are your fans. Focus on them as you talk, especially if you stumble — their reactions will keep you confident. Plan B: brief a friend or colleague in the crowd to play fan, just in case. For extra credit: seek out the fans afterwards and have a chat. They’ll springboard you to new thoughts and you’ll end the day with ideas for your next talk.

Don’t Mess With the Wires

An important part of Leisa’s presentation was to demo the Silverback alpha, which was installed on her laptop. I’d massaged our Keynote slides on my laptop. We decided we’d switch the projector’s cable from hers to mine in the middle of everything, and then switch back, instead of simply copying everything to her machine. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know either. Although why the techie helpers insisted that wouldn’t work is still a mystery to me, it was also somewhat silly of us to even want to try it, and we lost those 10 minutes at the start because of it.

Tip: never assume you can do anything complicated with your technology. Instead, remove as many technology dependent variables as you can. If you must do something tricky, test it before you start with the actual setup you’ll be using.


As a result of our talk, I’ve been invited to submit to another conference, so I’ll be thinking quite a bit about how to present better. Have you ever spoken at a conference? Do you remember your first presentation well enough to know what you’ve learned since then? Help me and all the other n00bs out, and leave your tips in the comments.

[Update: Removed the ugly, bloated video embed from exxplain and uploaded our talk at Vimeo.]

next08: Real Time Design from Matt Balara on Vimeo.


  1. Stephan says:

    First: you did great, so don’t worry. 🙂

    I once spoke at a conference at the beginning of my career (my boss forced me :-). I didn’t have much experience on the subject nor on presenting. I thought I’d wing it somehow but failed horribly. I stuttered, talked nonsense, saw people shaking their heads in disbelieve. It was horrible. But it taught me a very valuable lesson. Since then, whenever I talk in front of an audience (however big/small/important or not) I remember this day and I force myself to practice, practice and practice again. Some people assume presenters just have a natural talent which allows them to seem witty and smart. But the truth is they “just” practiced a lot. Nobody just wings a presentation. Another tip: Most people in the audience don’t notice how nervous you are. So don’t beat yourself up. And: If you pause to collect your thoughts it may seem you’re not saying anything forever when in reality it was just a few seconds. So pause, think about what you’re saying, give your audience time to reflect on what you just said.
    But in the end: practice!