Lessons learned speaking at my first WordCamp

Just over a week ago I had the immense pleasure of spending a day at WordCamp London 2013. It was London’s first time hosting a WordCamp and my first time attending one; on both counts I hope it’s going to be the first of many.

As well as being a first-time attendee, I also signed myself up to talk for half an hour on “Content Marketing for Real People”. The talk should be available shortly on WordPress.tv, so I won’t dwell on it here; instead I’d like to share what it was like speaking at a WordCamp for the first time and offer up some tips on how to be better at the whole speaking thing.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

So you’ve applied to speak. You’ve had your application accepted. WordCamp Wherever You Live is three weeks away. What happens now? You’ll never guess this one: preparation.

This is the place where one quotes all sorts of inspirational people on how failing to prepare is to prepare failing, but I shall restrain from doing so. It’s pretty simple, really, the better you are prepared, the better you’re going to be at delivering your presentation.

The huge collection of videos at WordPress.tv are your greatest friend here. Watch a bunch of them and just see how people who are good at giving presentations give their presentations and what you can learn from them.

Delivery is something to focus on later, so look at the things the pros do which you can replicate and emulate. How are slides done? How much information is on each slide? What is suitable attire? You get the idea. Watch a handful of videos; see how it’s done.

Write in advance, tweak in advance

This is obvious advice. Write your presentation well in advance of the WordCamp and you’ll leave yourself plenty of time to learn, refine and improve what you’re saying. I had absolutely every intention of doing this. I outlined what I wanted to say early on and started on a first draft with a good three weeks to spare.

But then, faced with an influx of essay deadlines (WordCamp London was in the middle of a two-week period where I had 10,000 words of essay due), finishing my presentation took a low priority up until two or three days before the conference, at which point I basically had no choice but to get it done.

That was bad, but it wasn’t the end of the world; I still arrived in London feeling confident about what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. However, as I spent the day watching other speakers, I kept on seeing little tricks they used and revising what I was going to say to get these little marginal gains in quality. I “finished” and exported my presentation nine times over the course of five-or-so hours.

The end result wasn’t a slightly higher quality speech, but my endless tinkering hindered the quality of the presentation. What I was saying was better, but I didn’t  know it as well as I would have done had I just left what I had and a lot of the flow was lost. Write in advance, refine in advance and learn in advance. Once you get there, there might be little things you can change, but the marginal gains aren’t worth it when the cost is losing the confidence you’ve got from knowing exactly what you’re meant to be saying.

Notes > speech

You’re all prepared, so all that’s left is getting up on stage and delivering your presentation. As a first-timer, it’s a little unrealistic to expect to be able to reel off this incredible note-less speech that blows everyone away. There’ll be a couple of people who’ll do this at WordCamp Wherever You Live and it’ll be incredibly impressive, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

Probably the biggest mistake I made was writing out a speech, sticking it on my tablet and then reading that speech off the tablet. On stage I spent too long looking down at what I was reading and not enough time really engaging with the audience.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking notes with you — and indeed, plenty of people do — but if you can condense those notes down into bullet point prompts about what it is you want to say instead of having every word written down, it’ll make a huge difference to the quality of your delivery.

Ask; people are great

And finally. For all the preparation in the world, there are going to be things out of your control which go wrong. I didn’t have the right cable to connect up my laptop to the projector. Literally the end of the world (note — bring a VGA cable).

A brief word with one of the organisers (in my case Siobhan was a great help), and I was told who would probably have the cable I needed and failing that whose laptop I could borrow. Crisis averted. People are WordCamps are unbelievably helpful and supportive; if you’ve got a problem, go have a chat.

Do it.

I’m incredibly glad I thought screw it, I’ll apply to speak a couple of months back. If you’re thinking about applying to speak at a WordCamp, definitely go for it. It’s a wonderful experience and really drives home the open nature of the WordPress community.

If you’re nervous about the speaking bit, hopefully the lessons I learned can offer some reassurance, and if you’re apprehensive for any other reason, that’s basically not an excuse.

My thanks again to everyone involved in helping make WordCamp London a reality, and hopefully I’ll see you all again next year. If you were at my talk, I’d love to get some feedback — say hi on Twitter.

Photo credits: Dani’el van den Berg / @dmvdberg

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