Conquering My Fear of Conference Speaking | Lessons From a 40-Something First Timer

Conquering My Fear of Conference Speaking | Lessons From a 40-Something First Timer

If you’d have asked me five years ago the chances of presenting at a conference, the answer would have been a flat out no. Even the very thought of standing in front of an audience is enough to make me feel a bit queasy. I’d been asked to speak at conferences before, but somehow I had always managed to wriggle out of it. I’ve done countless presentations to a room full of clients, but it pales in comparison to a conference.

However when Shopify asked me to present at A Day With Shopify about my experience running a business with my husband 5 Tips on Mastering the Art of Collaboration I knew it was something I couldn’t say no to. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am not lacking in confidence by any stretch of the imagination. However, I’m much more comfortable in the background, letting Gary be the front man that he was born to be.

Trying to fit my presentation around getting the kids ready for going back to school, taking on a few new clients and training up some new employees was hectic. The combination of responsibilities certainly didn’t help to minimise my stress levels and to say I was nervous would be an understatement. I became convinced that I might actually wet myself on stage, and felt this was a good enough reason to spare myself the shame and pull out. I knew that these feelings were entirely irrational, and forced myself to focus on the task in hand.

As part of my preparation, I watched hours of TED Talks and Shopify presentations. I then spent the next few weeks preparing an outline for Shopify to approve. Creating the talk was a challenge in itself, as I knew I had to tell a story rather than simply present data. Up until the week before the presentation, I was still tweaking my talk. In all honestly, I was still making last minute edits right up until the morning of the presentation - not something I would advise!

We arrived in Birmingham the night before for a get together with some of the Shopify team and other speakers. I was relieved to hear that everyone was as nervous as me, and no one had actually finished their talks. Suddenly a feeling of serenity came over me. My nerves had been replaced with the realisation that I’d done as much as I could, and things would work out the way they were supposed to.

"The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send, but by what the listener receives." Lily Walters

The morning of the presentation, the previous night's fleeting moment of serenity was now replaced with nervous adrenaline. I remember asking myself why I ever thought this was a good idea in the first place. It was my first time standing on what felt like an enormous stage. It was just me, my laptop, a podium, lights, a huge screen and over a hundred people.

It didn’t help that I had the impossible feat of going directly after a keynote presentation from the very experienced Brandon Chu, Director of Product at Shopify. Needless to say, his presentation was flawless, and I became increasingly conscious of the fact that there is no way I would even come close to his high standards.

Too late to back out now! I saw my name on the big screen and knew there was nowhere to hide. After what felt like an eternity, my laptop was plugged in and I was faced with a sea of eyes waiting for me to get started. For the first few minutes I could feel myself rambling a bit, I missed some of my lines and started to get flustered. Thankfully my nerves seemed to magically disappear and before I knew it I was done!

The sense of relief, combined with feeling proud of myself for not passing out on stage, was quickly followed by exhaustion. All I wanted to do was totally put it out of my mind and decompress for a few hours. In some ways, it’s comparable to giving birth. First time round, you have no idea what to expect, and the thought is terrifying. Second time round, you know what’s ahead of you, and it’s terrifying in a totally different way.

I wanted to share some invaluable lessons I learned after my first presentation experience. 

1. Prepare

Creating a rough outline is the best place to start, and you can build your presentation from there. If you decide to use presentation slides, one slide per minute is a good guideline. Make sure you introduce yourself, congratulate the previous speaker, and give a brief overview of what the audience can expect to hear. At the end, try to round-up with a concise summary and actionable take away points. Avoid making it sound like a self indulgent advertising pitch, and focus on providing value to the audience.

2. Natural

Remember, this is a talk not a blog post, so it needs to be natural and easy to follow. Steer clear of any technical jargon, you want your talk to be relatable to a wide audience. Above everything, you need to be yourself. Check out some Ted Talks online and decide what presentation style works for you. I knew a powerpoint would give me an excuse to focus on the slides rather than the audience, something I noticed from watching other people’s presentations. So I decided last minute to ditch it. 

3. Humour

Rather than seeing it as a presentation, think of it as telling a story. You don’t need to be a stand-up comedian, but a combination of personal experiences, stories, recent events and humour make for a more engaging presentation. Data can be boring, and more often than not people will remember a funny anecdote or story over a list of facts.

4. Practice

It’s true what they say, practice makes perfect. Give yourself enough time to practice and tweak your talk. Make sure you get a second pair of eyes and ears on your talk. As awkward as it might be, record yourself doing the presentation, focus on making eye contact with the audience and controlling how quickly you talk.

5. Confidence

At the risk of sounding too clichéd, dressing for success does make a difference when it comes to projecting confidence. Whether than means getting your hair done before the talk or getting a new outfit, when you look good you tend to feel good too. Chances are you might not be able to get much sleep the night before, so pre-plan your morning and leave yourself at least 15 minutes in case something unexpected pops up.

6. Support

Bringing your some of your team along is always a great idea. You don't fully appreciate the value of a smile from a familiar face, until you're standing in front of a room full of strangers with all eyes on you. Even just a supportive smile of reassurance, when you’re trembling behind the podium, is enough to give you a much needed boost. They can ask you a question during Q&A, giving you the opportunity to include something you might have missed in your presentation. Another advantage is that you can invite them to jump in during Q&A, taking the focus off you for a few minutes.

7. Nerves

Nerves are an inevitable consequence of doing a presentation, no matter how experienced you are, but once you’re on stage they actually wear off pretty quickly. Don’t be too hard on yourself, or put yourself under the unnecessary pressure of trying to memorise the talk. You’re the only one who knows if you’ve missed a line. It’s completely natural to get nervous at the thought of having to stand up in front of group of strangers, without making a fool of yourself. As Mark Twain says "There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars."

8. Promote

Make sure you prepare a condensed blog version of your talk, and publish it the day of your presentation. The blog should be a comprehensive article, focusing on the key takeaway action points. At the end of your talk, encourage people to share your post and leave feedback or comments. By making your talk digitally accessible, you also have the option to promote it across social media and forums. Find out event-specific hashtags in advance, pre-schedule your blog post, and engage on social media throughout the day.

"They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel." Carl W. Buechner

Above everything else, enjoy yourself! This is your first experience, so don’t judge yourself too harshly. Sure, it won’t be perfect, but who cares. It takes lion-sized courage to actually get up on stage, so embrace it as an opportunity to develop a new skill set. You never know, you might actually enjoy it.

Truth be told, even though the whole process really pushed me way beyond my comfort zone, it was actually pretty cool to be able to say I've done that. I haven’t quite managed to watch the recording back, but I better get my skates on as I was asked to speak at another Shopify event on 15th November.

A special thank you to all the team that coordinate the Shopify events, with you all behind me made it a really special first time speaking gig!