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Confessions Of A Not-So-Public Speaker (O’Reilly Conferences)

By Suzanne Axtell (Technology Evangelist, O’Reilly)

One of Web 2.0 Summit 2011′s memorable moments came early, when program chair John Battelle was gently but earnestly admonished by anthropologist Genevieve Bell for not having more women on stage that day. Cue lots of applause from the audience. John rejoined that he wouldn’t discuss the number of women who had turned him down.

Part of my job here at O’Reilly is to encourage women, people of color, and other folks often underrepresented at tech conferences to be speakers at our events. I can really empathize with John: I’ve been turned down a lot, too. During that moment at Web 2.0 Summit, I wondered how many women applauding Genevieve’s comment are regular tech conference speakers themselves.

It’s one thing to say we need role models and a very different thing to actually be one.

And that’s exactly the intersection I find myself standing in now.

I worked in fundraising for many years, and it wasn’t until I became a donor myself that I truly understood how to overcome the challenges of getting people to open their wallets — not to mention understand how good it feels to give to an important cause. Similarly, I know I won’t be able to be a true agent for diversity in our speaker rosters until I step up and become a public speaker myself.

You’d think it’d be easier being in the conference organizing biz, but for me, it’s the opposite. The quality of speakers I usually see — engaging, humorous, knowledgeable, and at one with their slide decks — can be a bit intimidating. While I don’t think I’ll be a speaker at Web 2.0 Summit any time soon, the biggest issue is just taking those first steps toward the speaker side of the street.

So, I’ve resolved to start my speaking journey. Some people are naturals on stage, and others, like me, need some encouragement. Make that a lot of encouragement. I’ve been fortunate to have two accomplished speakers cheering me on: entrepreneur and writer Jessica Faye Carter and investment book author Cathleen Rittereiser. They’re helping me put together an action plan for becoming a public speaker.

In the hopes that it inspires more than just me, I’d like to share their excellent advice more broadly.

Five tips for launching your own public speaking effort:

  1. Join an online speaking organization – LinkedIn and MeetUp are rife with speaking groups; SpeakerMatch and Speakerfile are two fairly new social networking sites.
  2. Join a speaking group in real life —- Toastmasters and National Speakers Association (NSA) are two of the largest and most active. NSA’s online magazine has great resources for speakers.
  3. Read – Dale Carnegie’s “The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking” still gets high marks today. Take a look at “Confessions of a Public Speaker”, “The Confident Speaker”, and “Slide:ology”. [Disclosure: "Confessions of a Public Speaker" and "Slide:ology" are O'Reilly titles.]
  4. Start low-key – User group meetings and Ignite events are usually supportive places to get your feet wet. Scott Berkun’s Why You Should Speak (at Ignite) presentation is an inspirational and succinct primer for newbies, and it helps answer the pesky what-the-hell-do-I-talk-about question.
  5. Team up – Take the stage with a more experienced speaker. Even if you just push the button on the slide clicker, you’re still putting yourself in front of an audience.

Come along with me, won’t you? Even if you’re not part of an “underrepresented group”. It’s good for our careers; the communities we represent; the causes we espouse; and hey, I’ve heard it can be fun, too.

I’d love to hear from you. How did you get started speaking? What are your suggestions and resources for honing preso chops? What do you get out of speaking in public? If you’re an event organizer, what steps are you taking to diversify your participants? If you’re a regular on the conference circuit, what do you do to mentor and encourage others to take the podium?

Please share your advice and ideas in the comments area.

This post was originally posted on O’Reilly’s blog.

Photo credit: Max Wolfe.

About the guest blogger: Suzanne Axtel is a Technology Evangelist at O’Reilly. She oversees marketing efforts for all O’Reilly conferences. Sue is on a mission to help bring more diverse speakers and participants to our events, particularly women, people of color, and other groups traditionally underrepresented at tech events. She is interested in media, publishing, social networks, marketing, SEO, location awareness, and open source. I’m also an avid writer, crafter, knitter, reader, and pet lover. Follow her on Twitter at @SueAxtell.

  • http://www.adenademonte.com Adena

    I agree there need to be more women speaking at events, especially tech events. As the Director of Marketing at Badgeville, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a variety of conferences where I’m often the only or one of a few female speakers for the day.

    Public speaking at tech conferences is really scary because generally speaking a lot of the people in the audience or smarter than you are (or they think they are.) One thing that has helped me a lot is my background in theatre (which was my undergrad major in college.) Improvisation training is really helpful because it teaches you how to never say “no” to something thrown your way in dialogue, and how to think on your feet.

    Last year my company, then a really tiny startup, applied and was accepted to Twiistup down in Los Angeles to present. My CEO was ill at the time so I was sent as a replacement, and at that point I hadn’t done a lot of public speaking before in the tech world. I got on stage and felt the pitch went well, and then the judges decided it was their job to make me look bad because they didn’t want a Silicon Valley company involved in their LA event, even though we had applied and accepted. I was in a really tough situation then and could have fallen apart, as I wasn’t at all expecting to have this type of question thrown at me. I can’t say my answer was flawless, but I managed to get through it thanks to my training in improvisation.

    I know I still need to work on my public speaking — every event is a new challenge, but I always feel good about being one more woman on stage at these events, and hopefully showing the other women in the audience that you can be a young-ish (20/30-something female) and add a lot of value to these conferences. It doesn’t have to always be Web.2.sausagefest.