My first public speaking - apply, prepare, deliver and...was it worth it?
Updated: Aug 3, 2022
Since the following are very personal impressions, the original text was written in my mother tongue, German. The English version was translated afterwards. Thanks for your understanding for any mistakes in the English version.
9 June 2022 was a special day for me. It was the day of my first public speaking at a major conference, EuroSTAR.
But how did I get there and how did I prepare for the big day? I have often been asked these and other questions over the last few months. I am happy to share my experiences (the good, the bad & the ugly) with you here and would like to motivate you to share your knowledge as well, be it with lectures or in other forms.
Call for Papers – the application
I am writing these lines because I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experiences. I also enjoy exchanging knowledge, learning and inspiration. These were the main reasons for applying to speak at a conference. The fact that I was applying directly to Europe's largest conference in the field of software testing was a negligible fact at the time. I wanted to tell my project story with all its ups and downs. In September 2021, EuroSTAR had inspired, carried away, encouraged and strengthened me during 4 days of online conference in such a way that it was clear to me - I want to go there!
On a foggy day in early November 2021, I had the necessary courage and ease to just apply. Looking back, I described this moment as "a fit of madness"...but more on that later.
When I saw the page-long application form, I had a lot of respect. Convinced of my story, I did not let myself be put off by the many questions. Paragraph by paragraph I argued why my story and I undoubtedly belong at this conference in June 2022 and how my topic addresses the conference theme "Shaping Testing".
DO: Many conferences have an annual theme - look at it. Think about how your contribution relates to the conference theme. What parallels could you draw? Show how your story integrates with the theme.
DON'T: Ignore the conference theme and submit a one-fits-all application. The organisers have thought of something - take the time to respond and show respect for their commitment.
Often there is the possibility to submit several papers. I have submitted two different ideas. Whether it is generally good or bad to submit several applications is something I cannot judge conclusively.
My assessment is that my two applications have given the organisers a broader impression of me. I think this is an advantage especially for (still) unknown speakers. However, I would only submit several applications if I really had several topics that fit the event and the theme.
DO: Submit several applications, if there is the possibility and you have several relevant contributions that fit the theme and event.
DON'T: Submit multiple, similar applications to increase the sheer number - this only annoys those who have to review the applications.
You are in - the confirmation
At the beginning of December 2021, on the day of our company Christmas party, the eagerly awaited email arrived:
“Congratulations! You have been selected by the 2022 Programme Chair Graham Freeburn and Committee to speak at the 30th EuroSTAR Software Testing Conference in Copenhagen next June.”
I could not believe it. I was actually selected. I would be speaking at EuroSTAR. There was more than one mulled wine on that evening.
With the official announcement of the programme in mid-January 2022, short videos of the individual contributions should also be published. So I spent the holidays racking my brains for the coolest possible pitch. This is what I came up with:
DO: Be yourself, stay authentic, don't think too complicated - often the simplest is the best. Think about why the audience should come to your talk. What's in it for the audience?
DON'T: Compare yourself with others, try to copy others, pretend. If you don't like video as a format, don't do it. Get in touch with the organisers. Maybe there are other formats to promote your contribution.
In mid-January this year, it was finally time to officially share the great news. I was inundated with congratulations and I was inundated with questions. Questions like "Aren't you excited?... Aren't you afraid to speak in front of so many people?...Have you seen how big the location is?...? Why are you putting yourself through this stress?..." to name a few. For the next few weeks I floated on a wave of pride, nervousness, anticipation and excitement. But after a while, everyday life caught up with me and the conference slipped into the distance.
Although I still had months to go, I began to consciously work on presentation skills. The following books and authors helped me a lot:
Rob Lambert (https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertlambert/)
Port, Michael: Steal the Show. 2015.
Biesenbach, Rob: 11 Deadly Presentation Sins. 2014.
Davies, Graham: The Presentation Coach. 2010.
DO: Specifically look at presentation skills - what makes the difference between bad, good and excellent presentations?
DON'T: Underestimate the effort required for a professional presentation.
In addition, my employer, Zühlke, provided me with personal coaching in presentation skills. I had the pleasure of preparing for my big performance with the professional support of Sabine Stücheli. Ms Stücheli is not only a very likeable and open person, she also quickly recognised what I personally needed in order to successfully master my presentation. It helped me a lot that we worked more on my inner and outer attitude. The exercises made it easy for me to anchor myself in the room, on stage and with the audience. This grounding was essential for me.
DO: Get help, find a coach.
DON'T: Underestimate the effort required for a professional presentation.
Parallel to the coaching, I compiled the set of slides for my presentation. I had to hand it in 6 weeks before the conference. From then on, I couldn't change anything. That really stressed me out.
Moreover, I was rather reluctant at first, because I'm not a fan of text on slides. I prefer to work with pictures. I thought about it for a long time and then decided to support my presentation exclusively with talking pictures and short headlines. I only put my key take-aways in a short text on each of the last slides. This way, putting together the slide set was really fun for me.
Working with images and very little text gave me great freedom in terms of the spoken message until the end. For me, this put the stress caused by the early deadline into perspective. So the flexibility was very good for me. But I know that this is certainly not the case for everyone. I.e. think carefully about which materials support your presentation and what you feel most comfortable with.
DO: Use visuals or other materials to support your message.
DON'T: Use text slides as cheat sheets - why is the live audience there? Certainly not to see you reading off your slides.
The slides were set and so I sat down at my desk again and thought about the concrete text of my presentation. My picture story helped me not to lose the red thread. So I started writing everything down exactly as I wanted to say it. In the end I had five A4 pages full of spoken text. That was the ideal starting point for me. For my first rehearsals I didn't have to think, I just read from the page. That way I got a feeling for the length of the speech, pauses, slide changes and punchlines.
Up until 3 weeks before the conference, I concentrated hard on my written text. I could almost do it in my sleep, but only almost. Every time I had a hang-up, I had to find the corresponding passage on a sheet full of text. Not as easy as I thought. And besides, did I really want to be on stage with the text? My coach did an eye-opening exercise with me. First she took my text away from me. Then I had to briefly outline the core message for each slide in no more than 1-3 bullet points. This exercise was extremely challenging and at the same time detached me from my text.
Until the conference, I only worked with keyword cards. I knew what I wanted to say and how, and the cards were only a backup to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything important (to me). Pssst: The audience does not know what you have forgotten. No one knows what's on your cards.
DO: Find out what supports you best in your practice and stick with it.
DON'T: Underestimate the effort required for a professional presentation.
As at most conferences, I was also confronted with (unknown) questions following my presentation - the so-called "Q&A". 15 minutes were scheduled for this. In order not to get into the unpleasant situation where nobody asks a question and a strange silence spreads in the room, I thought of questions in advance. These questions were related to parts of my talk about which I could provide more detailed information. Areas that I intentionally kept short in the talk, but with which I felt comfortable and could start the Q&A round relaxed. Of course, I shared these questions with the organisers, which went down very well - "you're really well prepared".
In addition, I asked a good friend to come up with the most difficult, annoying, tedious questions possible. He confronted me with them (at my request) 10 days before the conference. This exercise really challenged me and at the same time made me feel very relieved. I had been put in an awkward situation by this exercise. I did not immediately know how to react, how to respond to a certain question. This experience in a safe setting gave me the certainty that on day X I would react more calmly to difficult questions.
DO: Think about 1-2 questions you would like to be asked to start the Q&A round in a relaxed way.
DO: Think about the worst, stupidest, most annoying questions you might be asked and practise how you want to respond.
DON'T: Go into the Q&A unprepared. This involves great risk that is absolutely avoidable.
The last 10 days before the conference are definitely among the most exhausting of my life. Every day I practised my presentation, always with the stopwatch next to me. Sometimes with slides, sometimes without slides. Sometimes with an audience (my husband almost knew the talk by heart before the conference) and sometimes without an audience. Sometimes into my camera, sometimes to soft toys (great audience, always attentive and no tedious questions in the Q&A 😄).
Shortly after the EuroSTAR confirmation, I knew what outfit I wanted to wear on my big day. I had a kind of intuition - no, nothing supernatural - I just intuitively had a very concrete idea of how I wanted to look on stage. In the last few weeks before my talk, I did every rehearsal run in this very outfit. That's how I got a feeling for the clothes, the shoes, the stance I have in those shoes. It is essential to feel good in your performance outfit. The audience notices if you are dressed up or otherwise uncomfortable. Rehearsing in the planned clothes gave me additional confidence and I felt completely comfortable in my outfit.
DO: Practise, practise, practise and practise again - even if you don't feel like it or have no motivation!
DON'T: Thinking that it will somehow work out with the time, the message, the slides etc. - No, it won't work out! Your audience senses when you are unprepared. The audience notices that you have not taken the time to prepare - appreciation looks different.
The big day – the stage is yours!
On the third day of EuroSTAR it was finally my turn.
It was "show time" at 3.30 p.m. and until the evening before, I thought I could spend the day at the conference easily until my performance. After all, I had never been afraid to speak in front of people. Besides, I was very well prepared.
I couldn't have been more wrong. It turned out that it wasn't my head that was nervous, it was my body.
My body had switched to emergency mode the night before my talk. Accordingly, my sleep was restless and not very restful that night. Then, at breakfast, an unpleasant feeling in the stomach area spread, followed by an oppressive feeling in the throat, nausea and a worrying racing heart. This had to be the notorious fight-or-flight mode. Everything in me screamed "run, now"! My mind was shut down and there was nothing I could do about it. If I had even suspected that my body, that I would react like this, I would not have applied. Never before have I felt so at the mercy of my body, so helpless, so out of control. I wanted to cry, to scream, to run far away and at the same time I wanted to be strong and deliver. I had worked too hard for this to now be overtaken by my primal physical fear. I decided to take back control.
First of all, I had to clear my head - the panic had to go. Luckily, my hotel and also the conference centre were right next to a huge green area. Walking in nature always helps me to sort myself out and literally clear my head. And so I walked through the landscape for a good 1.5 hours and cleared my head as much as possible. Back at the hotel, however, I found that my body was still restless. The longer I sat still, the more the symptoms of the morning returned. I therefore decided to go after it with more power, jumped into my sports clothes and went to the hotel's gym. Another hour of workout and 30 minutes of meditation later, I felt relatively well.
It was lunchtime and my stomach was completely empty. I had to eat something. I wanted to avoid a fainting spell on stage at all costs. And so I chose bananas. They provided the energy I needed and didn't put any extra strain on my irritated stomach. Those who know me know that I like to eat regularly and sufficiently. When I'm hungry, I'm no good. This day was completely different from what I had expected. I had to force myself to eat something.
No sooner had I regained control of my stomach than the lump in my throat and my heavy heart returned. The clock ticked relentlessly towards my performance. In one hour, in 60 minutes, I had to be on my way. Time for harder bandages. Time for bathroom karaoke.
My smartphone and I gave it our all. While I was getting ready, I sang out loud and danced wildly to one of my favourite songs. I hadn't thought about this song for a long time, but that day it was suddenly clear - this is exactly THE motivational song I need NOW. The endless loop was running and panic was pouring out of my body. With each repetition I felt lighter.
Last but not least, an exercise by my yoga teacher, Stefanie, came to mind. The exercise is called "shaking bones" and you do just that - you shake your bones. For as long as you like, but it should be at least 5 minutes. I like to do this exercise to wild drum music. It connects me well with my body and I can switch off my head. At the end of the exercise, all the tension and panic had fallen away. I had shaken it all off, sung out and danced away. I was ready to go - show time!
With my motivational song in my ear, I entered the empty auditorium.
It was the afternoon break at the conference, so I was able to familiarise myself with the room at my leisure. I walked up and down the stage, checked my slides, the remote control and everything else. Five minutes before the start, I got my mic clipped on. My track chair, Geoff, came in and when he asked me if I was ready, my intuitive response was, "Any more ready and I'll have a heart attack 😉 ". The room filled up and I was filled with anticipation and overwhelmed by how many people were interested in my talk. Being an incorrigible perfectionist, I had taken the precaution of bringing my closest confidant, a good friend and a dear colleague. I wanted to be sure that at least 3 people were listening to my talk. During the first two days of the conference, I had also met other speakers and participants. Many of them came to support me. I was and am incredibly grateful for this support. In the end, there were about 160 people in the hall and it was incredibly good to see familiar faces in the middle of it all. People I could orientate myself by at one moment or another - my anchors and lighthouses in a sea full of people.
My presentation went very well, mainly thanks to the conscientious preparation. I didn't notice any slips of the tongue, they didn't upset me for a second. What a liberating feeling! I was able to concentrate fully on my message and my audience. Towards the end of the talk, I was almost sad that it would be over soon. At the same time I was incredibly excited - would there be applause? Had people liked it? And then it was pronounced, the final sentence, the closing.
Resounding applause broke out and enthusiastic whistles filled the room - I was immensely relieved and very proud. All the hard work had paid off...but wait, there was one more thing - there was still 15 minutes of Q&A to go.
A big thanks to my moderator, Geoff, at this point. He not only did an excellent job of announcing me, but also moderated very well the question and answer session. My prepared questions were not used. Nevertheless, I am glad to have thought about possible questions in advance. This allowed me to respond to all the questions in a relaxed manner.
After the Q&A round, I was once again able to enjoy the applause of my audience and rejoice.
No sooner had the applause died down than people started queuing up to discuss further with me, to thank me for the lecture and to congratulate me.
Wow, I had not expected that. I had inspired people and they felt the need to tell me personally. I can't put into words how incredibly happy that makes me.
Even afterwards and the next day, people came up to me, thanked me and congratulated me. I am incredibly grateful to every single person who came to my talk for giving me their time. Time is priceless, it is irretrievable. It fills me with great joy and pride when my audience felt their time was well invested.
DO: Hope for the best, expect the worst - prepare for as many eventualities as possible.
DON'T: Take it lightly.
Decompression – letting off steam, coming to rest
As a hobby scuba diver, I like to go for a so-called "deco beer" after a day of diving. This is a good way to review the day and the beautiful impressions with your dive buddy.
On 9 June, my "deco beer" was not a beer but a super delicious (and very expensive # Welcome to Denmark 😅) cocktail at SUKAIBA Bar on the 23rd floor of Bella Sky Hotel - a fitting end to an exciting day surrounded by my two dearest fans
And now? – What’s next?
Those who have read this far know or can guess what I went through, especially on the day of my talk. Many are probably now asking: "Is it worth it? "Would you do it again? "
As of today, 2 August 2022: Probably, yes - it just fills me with too much joy to inspire others. But I'm also very scared that my body could go crazy again.
For now, I plan to take it easy. Speak at smaller events and gain more experience there. But you know how it is with plans...life happens. Anyway, I'm looking forward to everything the future holds.
And because this blog post was about speeches, here are the 3 most important things I want to share with you:
A professional presentation means effort - plan enough time and prepare as well as possible.
The world belongs to the brave - throw self-doubt overboard and into the spotlight!
Be proud, be happy and enjoy the applause - successes need to be celebrated. Be sure to take the time to be congratulated and celebrated before seeking constructive feedback or heeding your inner critic.