Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How to be a confident speaker

Zach Holman posted an excellent article on tips and tricks for public speaking, which got me thinking about my own experience. I have given a few speeches now, and I'd say the most important thing is to be confident. I know, that's like saying you need to breathe in order to stay alive. So here are some practical tips.

Practice until you are comfortable, but not more

I have heard many contradicting advice on practicing: practice until you memorize your speech, don't memorize your slides because the presentation will be stiff, record your speech to find things to improve, etc etc. Truth is, everyone is different, so the rule of thumb is practice to the point you feel comfortable.

Personally I never write down what I plan to say, for I fear that I will miss a sentence when I'm on stage. Instead I use my slides as guidelines and talk over them. This gives spontaneity to my talks, makes them lively. I also don't do speaker notes, but some people swear by them. Again, do what's comfortable for you.

Have a mock session

Now, how do you make sure you don't over-practice until you beat the life out of your speech? Schedule a practice session! With a solid deadline you will have to stop practicing and actually give your speech.

When you give your mock session, do it for real: hook up your laptop to a projector, and speak to a live audience. This serves many purposes:

  • Time your speech. How many minutes do you take to go over a slide?
  • AV issues. How do you change the resolution of your laptop? If you are playing video, where does the sound go? How is the contrast on the images? Font size OK?
  • Learn to look at your audience. Connect with them, speak to them, clarify if they look confused. Chances are, you will feel encouraged by their approving nods, and forgot that you were nervous.
  • Stumble onto random problems, and recover from them. There is never a perfect speech, but knowing that you can get yourself out of a situation is very reassuring.

Most importantly, the practice session proves one thing: you can talk!

The audience assumes you know more than them

You've done your practice session, now you're ready for prime time. It's natural to be nervous, but remember, once you stepped on that stage, you are the expert. People come to listen to you because they want to learn from you. They could go to another talk, chat in the hallway, or stay home to watch TV. But no, they chose to come to your talk, because they believe you can teach them something.

The scale is tipped in your favor because you are on stage. Everybody wants you to shine, so whenever you have self-doubt, remember that.

It is okay to say I don't know

You gave your speech, and now comes the terrifying time: questions! I used to feel like if I don't know the answer I would disgrace myself in front of a crowd. But guess what, it's not a test! You are there to share what you know, not to be a walking encyclopedia. If you don't have a ready answer, just say so. Turn the question to the audience and ask if anyone knows. Usually an interesting discussion will unfold. If not, have them contact you afterwards, and promise to follow up.

Just do it

You cannot learn to ride the bicycle by reading a book. Start small, give a short talk at a local meetup. Be yourself, and go with the flow. You will be alright.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dutch Mobile Conference

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce that I am now an international public speaker, for I just came back from Amsterdam after giving a talk at Dutch Mobile Conference.


Since I just got started in public speaking this year, I had no idea how conference proposals are selected, and I was submitting to pretty much every conference that I have something to share. Android conferences are obvious, but I even submitted something to Fluent Conf, a javascript conference. Now, the normal thing to do is to propose a javascript talk, since I did work on web development for a year and a half. But no, I ended up drafting a talk on embedding a WebView in an Android app and writing a javascript bridge to call native Android functions from a web page. I wasn't expecting it to be accepted, but I thought I'd try anyway.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I was browsing Lanyrd for Call for Speakers, and stumbled upon the call for Dutch Mobile Conference two days before the submission deadline. DMC focuses on mobile web apps, so a talk on bridging web and Android with a javascript bridge sounds pretty relevant. Copy-and-paste I went, submitting my Fluent Conf proposal. On a fine morning in February I got an email from the organizer for DMC. They accepted my proposal!


I did not prepare my talk until May, a few weeks before the conference. At the point I was panicking a little, because I don't use WebView in my day-to-day work, and I didn't feel comfortable giving a talk about it. I was speaking at AnDevCon III around then, and Stephan Branczyk asked me to repeat my session at his Android meetup. I told him that I'd rather give the DMC talk since I wanted to rehearse, and he liked the idea.

As I prepared the slides, I discovered that I am actually describing the Android implementation for PhoneGap. More panic ensued. After all, they could just use PhoneGap, so why bother listen to me explaining how to roll your own? I thought about not giving the talk at all, but flights and hotel have been booked months in advance, and I really couldn't get myself to give up the chance to see Amsterdam. I went ahead and give my talk at the Alameda Android meetup, and the audience found it interesting. One of them was using PhoneGap, and he was happy to learn the inner workings. That gave me back my confidence, knowing that I am still sharing valuable information.


Comes June, and off to Amsterdam I went. DMC ran alongside DPC, Dutch PHP Conference. The same conference pass was good for both conferences, and I ended up going to quite a few sessions on the PHP side. They were not strictly PHP talks though, but rather related technologies that are useful to PHP developers.

Scalability talk
Scalability talk

For instance, Thijs Feryn gave an overview of scalability, and many of the same technologies can be used for a Django or Rails server.

Frontend and backend
Frontend and backend

My talk was in the afternoon on the first day.

I reviewed my slides the night before my talk, and realized that I prepared it for the Android meetup, but this audience probably little or no experience in Android development. I did not really have time to prepare more slides to give an Android overview, so I just added a slide with the Android logo, and talked over it.

At the beginning of the session I warned the audience that it was going to be very heavy on the Android side, and invited them to ask me to clarify if anything was not clear. I was very happy when the questions got raised, because it meant people were following along. And they seemed to like the talk, according to feedbacks on joind.in. Yay!


The organizer took great lengths to make sure that everyone enjoyed the conference. There was a social gathering for all the attendees at a bar after the first day, and I stayed until 3am, chatting with everyone.

As a speaker there were even more events. The day before the conference we met in the hotel bar to get to know each other, then went to dinner at a restaurant next door. On the first night there was a speaker dinner, where we were presented our speaker gift - an Arduino!

Arduino Uno
Arduino Uno

That was the perfect gift for techies like me. I have wanted to tinker with Arduino for a while, but didn't get around to order one. So I am very excited about this gift.

Overall the organizers took really good care of the speakers, and I had a wonderful time. A big thumbs up to the everyone running the conference!