The designer's guide to public speaking

There are all sorts of reasons for giving talks at design events. But for A List Apart editor-in-chief and content strategist Sara Wachter-Boettcher, it begins with passion: "I started speaking because I was angry. Seriously. I felt like there were all these really important things no-one was talking about, and eventually decided that instead of feeling irritated by what other people weren't doing, maybe I should get up and speak instead."

She says speaking is satisfying, forcing her to think much harder about what she does and why she does it, and it helps others expand their thinking: "Helping people see beyond their individual niche is essential for collaboration — and collaboration is essential to deal with the complexities of the web."

Sara Wachter-Boettcher started speaking because she was frustrated no-one was talking about industry topics that were keeping her up at night

Sara Wachter-Boettcher started speaking because she was frustrated no-one was talking about industry topics that were keeping her up at night

Fostering a sense of community is a common goal among others who regularly give talks. Web designer and speaker Brad Frost says he is a "firm believer in sharing what you know," and, along with sharing his experience and expertise, enjoys "getting valuable input from the audience" that then influences his own thinking.

Clearleft managing director Andy Budd says he's making a living doing something he loves "thanks to amazing people who shared their knowledge through blog posts, magazine articles, books and conference talks". He feels a sense of debt and gratitude, which he aims to repay by sharing his insights with others.

Start a conversation

Managing director of Rachel Andrew is keen to point out she believes public speaking is the start of a conversation more than a lecture: "I'm something of an introvert and not great at starting conversations in a big group. When I speak about something, though, people come and discuss that with me afterwards. To me, that's one of the best things about speaking."

Web designer and developer Ethan Marcotte concurs: "I love meeting people at conferences. Hearing what problems people are working on and how they approach difficult problems - there's honestly nothing more invigorating. I love learning from the audience."

It's clear, then, a key point to take on board prior to getting into public speaking about the web is one of inclusivity. It's more community sharing than schoolroom drudgery - a chance to share experiences and widen thinking, in part through the varied backgrounds of those in the industry.

"Having formal training in print design and years of experience in illustration means my perspective will differ from a web designer with another background," says designer and illustrator Geri Coady. "That’s what I love about the web industry — there are so many different career paths, and we can all learn from each other."

I speak at conferences because when I solve a problem, I want to help others do so

And as Wachter-Boettcher rightly states: "We aren't born understanding responsive images or web fonts, and universities rarely teach this stuff. It's a community of passionate web workers who want to see the industry rise together. I speak at conferences because when I solve a problem, I want to help others do so and focus on the next challenge."

Think small

If you're convinced you want to take a crack at public speaking, a common recommendation is to start small, perhaps at a local meet-up or event. "Make it a short talk, which is harder to mess up - and if you do, it's less painful for everyone," advises UX expert Aral Balkan.

"Also, watch other speakers, copy the bits that work, and note what doesn't. Imitation is how everyone starts out, but temper that by filtering what works with you, what feels authentic, and what fits your personality. Don't be lazy - evolve, learn, grow and share."

Wachter-Boettcher says you should then practice, iterate and market yourself: "Having a decent video of you speaking can go a long way when looking to get more official gigs. This industry is built by passionate creative people, and everyone has something to contribute."

Make it a short talk, which is harder to mess up - and if you do, it's less painful for everyone

She also notes you shouldn't feel down if a submission is rejected: "There are a lot of people who want to speak, but also a lot of conferences. You’ll find your fit." But Frost warns that while conference calls for speakers are increasingly commonplace, you should always "beware of shady events that are just out to get speakers for free".

Calm your nerves

Naturally, those first few talks can be nerve-racking, but that's something Rachel Andrew says will fade in time: "You only get better and learn to conquer nerves by getting up there and giving it a go. I know because I used to be terrified of public speaking and now travel all over the world giving talks. If I can do it, anyone can."

Don't make the mistake of feeling you need to be the world's leading expert on any given subject. As we've already said, it's unique perspectives that add value, "and that can come from people at every level of their careers," explains Wachter-Boettcher.

Budd agrees, and reckons the most important thing is being able to "explain a subject in an interesting and engaging way". This could even be something very old tackled in a new manner, or just outlining your own experiences. "Don’t forget there are always new people coming into the industry who need to hear the basics," he adds.

But the best way to calm nerves is to leave less to be nervous about. Designer and strategist Luke Wroblewski says "practicing by giving talks makes you a better speaker," so "plan on practicing a lot". Ethan Marcotte reckons rehearsing in front of a mirror or friends can help "get you used to a presentation before you're in front of an audience."

Whatever your methods, just ensure you put in the effort. "I'll usually spend a couple of weeks coming up with a talk, honing the message and perfecting the delivery," says Budd. "By comparison, a lot of novice speakers bang out a bunch of bullet points in an afternoon and think that sufficient. The thing is, a bad presentation can tarnish a reputation and hinder your speaker career before it's even started."

Plan for success

So once you've gotten that first big invite and settled on a topic, you really need to knuckle down and spend a decent amount of time working out what you're going to say. "You need to write your talk out," says Marcotte. "Whether in prose or bullets, get the talk down on paper before you start making slides."

Whether in prose or bullets, get the talk down on paper before you start making slides

For many this can be a somewhat chaotic time. Marcotte admits to a "scattered" process. He'll generally know the practical elements he wants to touch on — design strategies, coding tips, and so on — but loves having some sort of framing narrative.

"So over the course of a few months, I start collecting quotes and interesting photos, and picking out common threads." Coady considers her approach initially similarly "messy", with an "unorganised Evernote file full of relevant quotes, bookmarks, ideas, sketches, and photos". From there, she creates a short explanation of each point she wants to talk about, which evolves into a rough outline. The talk is then drafted from a rough script.

Identify your argument

Wachter-Boettcher's first step is to identify her argument - the perspective she wants you to come around to: "It's all about taking an idea that's interesting to me and asking 'why' a bunch of times. Why is this important? Why should my audience care? Why do people need this information? Asking these things helps find the kernel of an argument behind your talk idea."

And if you’re visually oriented, you may find Budd's approach works, with longhand notes dumped as quickly as possible into Keynote: "This is where a talk really takes shape for me, because I pair images to a message, and then move the order of my points to create a hopefully entertaining narrative."

With some hard work, planning, practice and a little confidence, you should be on your way to becoming a great public speaker. And Warren says you'll then end up in one of the best places to be: "When I give a talk, there's this glorious moment when I get over all my nerves and realise everyone in the audience is totally jamming together on this thing that I really dig, and we are all just a bunch of design nerds geeking out together. It's a great feeling!"

Words: Craig Grannell

Craig Grannell is an editor, writer and designer

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