Nick Loe-Startup
Aug 9, 2017
10 mins reading time

(Also A) First Time Speaker

I recently spoke at Agile in the City. Honest! Here look at the programme, it’s me! agile-in-the-city-programme

It’s the first time I’ve spoken at an Agile conference. I was determined to do it this year having been to conferences over the last couple of years and thinking “we do that already” or “we’ve already learnt that and implement that better”. It was time I got out there and started to talk about some of the great stuff we do in the Web Team at Holiday Extras.

Before I set about writing this blog, I re-read this excellent post Liz wrote about her experience last year being a First Time Speaker. A lot of that rang true for me:

  • Not feeling prepared
  • Wondering if people would be interested in what I was saying
  • Not being able to truly concentrate on other talks before I’d done mine
  • Knowing I knew what I was talking about, but still worried that wasn’t enough
  • Leaving too much to the last minute
  • Not wanting to share too much with others before I went.

Perhaps I should have re-read that blog before I left for the conference and I might have been a bit more prepared!

It’s fine I know it

The talk was a case study, and one I’d already partially delivered at the Holiday Extras Conference Day (an internal Tech conference). That talk had gone OK and given it was a case study, I felt confident I could do the subject matter justice - after all it was just talking about my own experiences.

Even the week before, weekend before, day before and on the day, I’m still convincing myself that I’ll be fine. I knew the subject well, I could talk about it without any problems right?

To an extent this was true. But knowing your subject is one thing, having that in a logical order, knowing what’s coming next and knitting it all together is another.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I started to put the talk together a couple of months before the conference. Start early, be ready early.

As the weeks went on, I managed to make progress on the presentation. It took a while to be happy with a consistent design, but once I got there I was able to transfer over a lot of the presentation from our Conference Day. I’d topped the presentation with the introductory information needed for Holiday Extras and I knew how I wanted to end it.

Then, time marched on. At some rate! It marched on to the extent that the conference came round quicker than I expected. I finally got to a point I was happy with the presentation 2 days before I was due to present it.

Without practicing I decided the presentation was too long, there were too many slides. I had over 40 slides and about 35 minutes to speak. So I started to strip a few out. Get it down to 35, that’s 1 minute a slide, and I’ll be fine.

Speaking of practicing, I did book in time to practice the day before the conference. A few fellow Agile Coaches were primed ready…….until I lost my room booking and ended up giving a summary to them in half the time.

So I arrived knowing my presentation inside out, but I hadn’t really done a run through (other than when I’d delivered a version of the presentation some months earlier).

Too nervous to mingle

At the conference, all I could think of when I arrived was what the setup was, where the room was that I’d be presenting in and trying to get myself settled in. I did try and attend a couple of early sessions, but spent a lot of time still fine-tuning my slides. The first one I attended had to cope with technical issues, which didn’t exactly help my nerves!

I also had a brainwave during one of the early talks. I knew I had 45 minutes to fill, around 35 minutes to present to allow time at the end for questions and answers. I decided to mark slide 10 with a ‘10’ in my notes, 20 with ‘20’ and 30 with ‘30’. This was aimed at allowing me to judge if I was on track time-wise - given that I had no true idea how long the presentation would take.

During lunch, I went in the room I’d be presenting in. I looked at the HDMI cable and panicked. There was no way that was fitting in my laptop! I recalled the speakers pack had spoken about bringing the right adaptor. What to do now? In blind panic I tried the cable anyway. Oh, it does fit - panic over! So, I’d plugged in my laptop and I started to see if everything was OK, while people started to enjoy the excellent food outside. At this point I found out that an in-slide video wouldn’t work with their tech. This meant a quick rebuild of that section and a bit of jiggery pokery to be able to display it.

OK, everything seems to work fine. I can wander around, my clicker works, the slides look great up on the big screen. Let’s have some lunch: agile-in-the-city-food

Going ‘second’

A requirement of sessions being back-to-back in a room, was that the presenter going second has to attend the first in order that there’s a smoother transition. The presentation before me was excellent. Great! It really kept the audience engaged, wasn’t a boring lecture and got everyone thinking. The secret was marshmallows - a gimmick, but a really effective one to prove a point and create discussion.

The session also overran, with people asking questions of the presenter at the end (distracting her from unplugging her laptop and getting out of my way!). Not quite what I needed before I was about to get up in front of a room full of strangers.

It’s actually happening

So the time came, I plugged in and got going. I cracked my first joke in the first minute or so and the audience seemed to appreciate it and were engaged. My technical hitch on the video was navigated well and people seemed to enjoy seeing around our campus here at Holiday Extras. The video ends, a list of my most recently watched videos appears in all its glory. Some I’d watched for work, some for pleasure and some with my 6 year old son. It wasn’t ideal, but I joked about it and it relaxed me and the room a little.

So I was underway. I could see nodding and photos of slides being taken. This was going well. I’m cracking on through the presentation. Slide 10, I’m 5 minutes in. Slow down. Slide 20, I’m 10 minutes in. Seriously, slow down! It’s at this point I realise how foolish I was for not forcing myself to get the presentation done earlier and, therefore, having time to practice it.

What happened as a result was a bit of ad libbing and attempting to expand on points. This was unscripted and probably not the horror show it could have been. I’m lucky that I’m able to speak clearly and confidently on subjects I know a lot about, so despite the last minute additions I managed to just about pull it off.

I came to the end of the presentations and answered a few questions. This was one of the things I was worried about; would I be able to answer any questions thrown at me? Thankfully, I think I did.

It’s done

I got a nice round of applause and a few people asked me subsequent questions while I was packing up. I also had people speak to me throughout the rest of the conference to say they’d enjoyed the session, which was nice. I had a conversation with one person who attended the session to ask how often I spoke at conferences and seemed genuinely surprised it was my first one, which was really nice.

A learning experience

I learnt a lot about presenting at conferences from this experience, the biggest being that you may think you’re prepared, but make sure you are - and make sure you practice in front of others so that they can confirm you are ready.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, however, learning from the sessions I attended that I enjoyed the most, I can take away loads regarding how to keep an audience engaged and find value from a session. On the flip side I can also see how to stop people falling asleep and from leaving (thankfully not in my session!). It’s given me a lot of food for thought about how we can continue to get out there and talk about all the great stuff we’re doing here, but also how to make it an engaging and rewarding experience for those attending.

I also should have spent time with those in the business who have spoken at conferences before. I wish I’d learnt more from their experience and taken all the advice I could get. Perhaps I was a little nervous about feeling like an amateur - but everyone has to start somewhere.

I also think in hindsight that I should have spoken to the organisers before writing the presentation. This was a conference we’d not sent anyone to before, so I had no idea what level to ‘pitch’ the talk. Was the room likely to be full of experienced practitioners (as it seemed to be), or those looking to get into Agile. They may not have known this information (and it was probably a mixture of both), but it could have provided me with a better understanding.

So my advice to others would be have a chat and talk through what you’re looking to do, as early as you can. Chat to those who have spoken at conferences before and those in roles who would have an interest in the talk if they were attending the conference (and those who might not!). Don’t shy away from feedback, it will be so valuable when you actually have to deliver the talk. Prepare early and deliver practice runs early. Knowing content is one thing, knowing the order that content comes in is just as valuable.

Tags agile