Confessions of a not-so-public speaker

If you want the tech community to have diversity, you need to be the change.

Empty Stage by Max Wolfe, on Flickr One of Web 2.0 Summit
memorable moments came early, when program chair John
Battelle was gently but earnestly admonished by anthropologist
Genevieve Bell
for not having more women on stage that day. Cue
lots of applause from the audience. John rejoined that he wouldn’t
discuss the number of women who had turned him down.

Part of my job here at O’Reilly is to encourage women, people of color, and other folks often underrepresented at tech conferences to be speakers at our events. I can really empathize with John: I’ve been turned down a lot, too. During that moment at Web 2.0 Summit, I wondered how many women applauding Genevieve’s comment are regular
tech conference speakers themselves. It’s one thing to say we need role models and a very different thing to actually be one.

And that’s exactly the intersection I find myself standing in now.

I worked in fundraising for many years, and it wasn’t until I became a donor myself that I truly understood how to overcome the challenges of getting people to open their wallets — not to mention understand how good it feels to give to an important cause. Similarly, I know I won’t be able to be a true agent for diversity in our speaker rosters until I step up and become a public speaker myself.

You’d think it’d be easier being in the conference organizing biz, but for me, it’s the opposite. The quality of speakers I usually see — engaging, humorous, knowledgeable, and at one with their slide decks — can be a bit intimidating. While I don’t think I’ll be a speaker at Web 2.0 Summit any time soon, the biggest issue is just
taking those first steps toward the speaker side of the street.

So, I’ve resolved to start my speaking journey. Some people are naturals on stage, and others, like me, need some encouragement. Make that a lot of encouragement. I’ve been fortunate to have two accomplished speakers
cheering me on: entrepreneur and writer Jessica Faye Carter and
investment book author Cathleen Rittereiser. They’re helping me put together an action plan for becoming a public speaker.

In the hopes that it inspires more than just me, I’d like to share their excellent advice more broadly — below you’ll find five tips for launching your own public speaking effort.

Join an online speaking organizationLinkedIn and MeetUp are rife with speaking groups; SpeakerMatch and Speakerfile are two fairly new social networking sites.

Join a speaking group in real lifeToastmasters and National Speakers Association (NSA) are two of the largest and most active. NSA’s online magazine has great resources for speakers.

Read — Dale Carnegie’s “The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking” still gets high marks today. Take a look at “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” “The Confident Speaker,” and “Slide:ology.” [Disclosure: “Confessions of a Public Speaker” and “Slide:ology” are O’Reilly titles.]

Start low-key — User group meetings and Ignite events are usually supportive places to get your feet wet. Scott Berkun’s Why You Should Speak (at Ignite) presentation (embedded below) is an inspirational and succinct primer for newbies, and it helps answer the pesky what-the-hell-do-I-talk-about question.

Team up — Take the stage with a more experienced speaker. Even if you just push the button on the slide clicker, you’re still putting yourself in front of an audience.

Come along with me, won’t you? Even if you’re not part of an “underrepresented group.” It’s good for our careers; the communities we represent; the causes we espouse; and hey, I’ve heard it can be fun, too.

I’d love to hear from you. How did you get started speaking? What are your suggestions and resources for honing preso chops? What do you get out of speaking in public? If you’re an event organizer, what steps are you taking to diversify your participants? If you’re a regular on the conference circuit, what do you do to mentor and
encourage others to take the podium?

Please share your advice and ideas in the comments area.

Associated photo on home and category pages: 224/365 Mic by thebarrowboy, on Flickr. Photo at top of post: Empty Stage by Max Wolfe, on Flickr.


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  • I made a film and companion book of interviews with the top presenters in the nation, including Nancy Duarte, Seth Godin, Dan Roam and many others. The Kindle version of the book is a free download at

    Here’s what I’ve learned after 400+ speeches; Don’t forget to smile, don’t forget to breathe, beta blockers do help, and split bulleted slides into separate slides.

  • I would say do it often and rewatch your own talks afterwards. I have to speak publicly quite a bit, and I wouldn’t say I’m good at it, but after a while you learn to stop focusing on yourself and more on the ideas you’re trying to convey. At the end of the day, that’s what people are there for, the exchange of information.

    Also, understand that charisma can’t be faked so the best thing to do, IMHO, is to be yourself, be authentic, and speak to what you know.

    A number of speakers are selected for how dynamic and engaging they are, an equal number are selected for what they’ve done that qualifies them to be on a stage. The rest, the rare-breeds, have the qualifications and the charisma (the best TED Talks for instance). But having spoken at, and watched talks all over the world, it’s these the last group who are exceptional and far from common. So don’t beat yourself up if you miss the mark, people will listen anyways.

  • I apologize for the double posting. I clearly need to read more O’Reilly books on how to use computers. Earned my Der Badge for today.

  • @Ron: Not your fault at all. Our comment system sometimes gets bogged down.

  • Thank you for this excellent article. Although I recognize that your focus was on public speaking, much of you said could be extended to the effort it takes for introverts of every variety to put themselves out there in all sorts of public forums, including the Internet.

    I’m a writer who’s spent the past two and half years locked in a room (figuratively speaking) writing a book, and now find myself being told that you have to have a “Platform” in order to get anyone to pay any attention. I’ve been dutifully plugging away at building one (in part with the help of the folks here at O’Reilly Radar) but it’s not something that comes naturally.

    Wasn’t reticence once considered a virtue? In any event, thanks for the suggestions.

  • I happen to be writing a blog post series about this right now:

    Mostly about how to organize and plan presentations, with a dash of how to find your voice.

  • There are many different formats for “speaking” but its rare to see organizers invent, experiment or attempt innovation in the length and structure of the opportunities they provide for speakers. Part of getting more diverse speakers is creating more diverse opportunities for speaking.

    I used to run large events myself, and one format we had great success with was 99 second presentations. It helped raise the diversity of our speakers dramatically since it lowered the barriers for entry as low as possible (Also see:

    Unlike Ignite talks, which have a challenging structure and require more practice than people assume, we gave speakers 99 seconds to use as they wished. Slides, no slides, demos, its up to them.

    We recruited 4 or 5 ringers to kick off the session by doing a 99 second talk. And then let people, as they watched, line up off stage if they wanted a turn. The first time we did this, we filled 30 minutes. And in some cases, people lined up to go again to respond to another person’s 99 second talk.

    It was amazing how many people were willing to speak. And of those who did well, it was easy to grab them after and recruit them to do a full talk next year.

  • Suzanne: I really resonate with what you’ve said here. A few years ago, when I was big into writing about “web 2.0” I was asked to speak at a number of conferences, but turned down every request. Why? I didn’t feel I had anything important to say and besides, I knew my extreme physical nervous response would ruin any speaking engagement.

    Since then I’ve (1) earned a Ph.D. in my field and (2) gotten a prescription for beta blockers (Ron is right: what a difference!). That addressed my two biggest problems: too little expertise and too much physical nervousness. Now when I have the opportunity to speak in public, I take it. Based on your example, I’m going to look for more opportunities — thanks for the inspiration.

  • David H. Adler

    Speaking in public is harder than one might assume – especially if you’ve never done it.

    I did a talk at… the first or second OSCON, I think? It did not, in my opinion at least, go that well. Then, I was supposed to be on a multi-speaker panel a couple of OSCONs ago, but that turned out to be the only OSCON I ever managed to miss. Batting 1000, I am not. :-)

    A couple of things that can be helpful, however:

    Mark-Jason Dominus has made his Conference Presentation Judo talk available at and it is well worth checking out.

    If you are ever in a position to go to Damian Conway’s Presentation Aikido talk, GO.

    Neither of these talks will automatically turn you into a great speaker, but they *will* tell you a lot of what goes into giving a good talk (and what goes into giving a not-so-good talk, which is pretty useful information). Top tip: go to the bathroom before the talk but make sure your mic is off when you do so.

    Also, the idea that you should find groups that provide forums for giving talks is a good one. Until recently, we had a group here in NYC that provided a forum 9 times a year for people to give talks on Perl. It was a great place for people to try out talks on a relatively small audience before giving it to a large one. Many talks for a YAPC or OSCON were road tested there.

    I don’t know how useful any of that is, but I hope it at least reinforces some of the rest of this discussion.

    Heck, if nothing else, maybe this will get me to give a talk again sometime. :-)

  • I’m not a natural either, but I do a fair amount of speaking as part of my agency job. I worked my way up to a stage after years of pitching and presenting creative work to clients in small groups. The secret of a good pitch is to know your material intimately and to truly believe every word you say. When I have to talk in front of a large crowd, I try to pretend it is just a few people and they are going to love the ideas.

    +Scott Berkun — the 99 second presentations sound like big fun

  • Thanks for the mention, Suzanne. SpeakerMatch is indeed a platform for event organizers and speakers to find one another. For those who are looking for a solid resource, check out our linkedIn forum at:
    *There are thousands of emerging and professional speakers discussing presentation skills as well as the business of speaking.

    Your suggestion about joining Toastmasters is spot on. There’s few, if any, better places for a newbie speaker to develop and perfect their presentation.

    As for NSA… it’s a great organization, but to be a member you essentially have to be an experienced speaker. Just something to keep in mind when deciding which resources to pursue.

  • Go Suzanne! As a person who is relatively comfortable with public speaking, I find myself doing the same thing: encouraging those who think they’re “not qualified” to give public speaking a shot.

    I could cite a lot of things that have helped me along the way, but for all the parents reading this here is a really big one:

    Being forced to take piano lessons from the age of 5.

    Performing in recitals 2x/year throughout my entire childhood (and in even more concerts as a teenager) was absolutely terrifying for years, and I am SO glad I did it. I got to experience successes and failures in so many different combinations that gradually I learned at a somatic level that it’s not just about me. It’s a conversation with the audience, and the more I can relax into that the better everything goes.

    I know a lot of parents who want their kids to be successful at everything they do, and I understand that urge. But do your kids a favor, and make public performance part of their experience growing up. It is such a powerful skill to have, and will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. (P.S. My grown daughters are glad I made them do it, too.)