There are so many phenomenal speakers in our industry that it’s really easy to think that there isn’t a whole lot of work involved when you’re asked to speak at a conference. Come up with a topic and description, throw some slides together, rehearse it a time or two, and then get on that stage.
A couple weeks ago I had the honor of speaking for Distilled at SearchLove Boston. It was my first time speaking in the industry and it was an amazing experience. I learned a great deal about what it takes to get prepared.
I won’t deny that I am an over-achiever and how I prepared for SearchLove may not be even close to what the other speakers went through. But for those of you who are curious about taking the stage and what’s involved, here’s a glimpse into a first-timer’s preparation.
In the beginning
Your session title and description is requested a couple months before you speak and well before you have your talk written. This made me a little nervous because this was my first gig and I had no idea how everything was going to shake down once I actually started writing my talk. So I decided to go with something more general so that no matter what I ended up focusing on, it wouldn’t be completely off the mark.
I decided to go with this:
Think Differently: How to Use Content, SEO, and Social Media to Achieve (Big) Goals for Your Business
SEO, social media, and content marketing are perfect for building community, but ultimately they’re only the tools. The true objective is to meet your business goals, growing your company into what you want it to be.
Mack will reveal a sustainable approach and process that goes beyond the tools, focusing instead on who and what a company should be and on building a thriving community around your brand.
A few weeks after I turned this in, I had a conference call with Rob Ousbey where we discussed what I was planning on covering in my talk. We chatted through a bunch of ideas and Rob gave me the run down on the level of the audience (advanced), what they typically like to hear (actionable tips), and that I needed to write my talk as if I were speaking only to the other speakers. He explained how this would help me cut out any parts that would be too basic, and focus only on things that would bring great value to the audience.
After our call, I sketched out a few notes and stuck them in a folder. And then, over the next few weeks, I carried around this little notebook and took down thoughts and ideas so that when I finally had the time to work on my talk, I could get right to it.
Before I started writing anything, I looked at a TON of decks to get some inspiration. Jon Colman, Mike King, Rand Fishkin, Rhea Drysdale, Wil Reynolds, Ian Lurie, Will Critchlow, Aleyda Solis. I tried to get exposure to as many different styles and approaches from the speakers in the industry who I respect most. I also watched several videos from past SearchLove conferences.
Then I read a great book that Rand had recommended called Resonate by Nancy Duarte. It was full of great recommendations on how to structure your talk and what it takes to fully understand your audience and their journey.
Taking Ian Lurie’s advice about never starting your slide deck first, I began drafting my talk by writing down all of the ideas I could think of related to my session title and description.
I didn’t even touch a computer during this phase. I just wrote down (and flushed out) all of the ideas I had been collecting in my notebook over the last few weeks. I tried to organize them into topics and exhaust all the stuff I wanted to say about each idea. I didn’t filter anything. I just got it all down and then stacked all the ideas from each topic into individual piles and paper clipped them together.
Then I let it sit for a week or so. I continued to marinate on the stuff I had put together and wrote down additional ideas in my little notebook as they came. I also had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Wil Reynolds. I very much respect his speaking style and I was hoping to get some insider’s tips from him since he had spoken at SearchLove many times.
My biggest take away from Wil was that my job was to make the lives of the audience easier. What was I going to tell them that was going to help them walk away and better do their jobs?
This got me to thinking that I needed to better understand the audience. I needed more info on demographics, pain points, and what they were really coming to SearchLove to learn. This made me nervous because I felt like I was running out of time, but I knew that this would make the difference between a good and great presentation. Wil had suggested conducting a survey, so I started figuring out what it was going to take to put that together.
Getting some direction
Instead of just asking a bunch of questions that I thought would help me get a better understanding of the audience, I decided to ask some industry peers. I wanted to get some feedback from a few friends who had either worked for or with some of the people and companies who may be represented in the SearchLove audience.
At that point I could see that I really only needed to ask 6 questions to get the answers I needed. So I created a survey on Survey Monkey and with the help of Distilled, we pushed it out on social media to collect some data.
All of the survey work I did helped me to see that the pain points I needed to address with this audience boiled down to a few important things: buy-in, siloed teams, proving ROI, what to measure, how to change perspective, how long does it take to get results, and how do I get consensus in a larger organization.
I wrote these pain points down and hung them on the wall of my office so that as I continued to work on my talk I would be reminded to keep focused on these things.
Once I had pain points and knew exactly what I wanted to focus on, I had to figure out the best way to communicate the solutions to this stuff. Will Critchlow had reminded me to focus on my process strengths, so I broke this stuff down into stages.
First on a piece of paper:
And then, because I was going to have Natalie (our designer) create a graphic to illustrate all of this stuff once I was ready to put it in my deck, I also did a pretty version with colors and stuff all flushed out like this:
From this sketch, while Nat worked on the graphic, I began drafting my whole talk in an actual blog post. This way, I could flush out the narrative of the stuff I really wanted to say (stories, case studies, examples) and then later pull out the key points that would go onto the slides.
It took a while for me to write the blog post, but it really helped me to learn the material. So in a sense, I was rehearsing while I was preparing which really helped me in the end.
Creating the deck
Lucky for me, I’ve got Nat to help me make things look really good. She and I worked together to create the look of about 5 or 6 different types of slides. From there, I could go through the blog post I had written and pull out only the info that was going to make it onto the slides.
With the different types of slides to choose from, it allows me to create the whole deck without needing a designer (Nat does all the graphic work and saves them in a folder for me to use), it brings some variety, and it helps me to say things in different ways (making a bigger impact).
Here’s the basic slide types I used:
I’m very picky about the message that goes on each slide and it takes me a long time to get each slide just right. I like my decks to tell as much of the story as possible so that the people who never hear the talk can still get all of the value.
Once I had everything in the deck, I sent it to Courtney (our content strategist and the voice of our brand) to read the whole thing and make notes about each slide. She’s the grammar police so she’ll tell me if what I’ve said isn’t quite right, or, if I’ve completely blown it and missed a transition, connecting piece, or need to flush something out further (she seriously is my saving grace).
Once the deck had been through the wrath of Courtney, I spent some time by myself talking through it out loud. This helped me to eliminate some slides, move some things around, and add anything that was missing.
And then I was ready to practice.
And this is going to sound a little crazy, but I don’t like to practice in front of people before I present. I’m not afraid of public speaking and it makes me really uncomfortable to work things out in front of a few people vs. actually being in front of the actual crowd of a few hundred (or more). So I just prefer to work things out (out loud) on my own.
What usually works for me is I stand in my basement (by myself) and give my talk to the wall several times (I’m weird, I know). I write down notes as I go through it and work through transitions. I get as familiar as possible with the flow so that when I’m on the stage I am comfortable, relaxed, and I can feel like I’m having a conversation with the audience.
The finished product
In the end, after all of that work, it all comes down to this:
On the other side
Now that I’ve conquered my first big industry speaking gig, here are the most important things I learned:
- Speak about what you love
I will always make sure that I’m writing and speaking about stuff that I’m really passionate about. It’s a lot of work to do all of this. When you’re running a company and preparing to speak simultaneously, you have to push really hard and it’s easy to get tired and want to give up. If I wasn’t speaking about something I cared about, it would be hard for me to stay motivated to deliver such a quality product.
- Use real content
Whenever I’m writing or speaking, I make sure my content is real, authentic, and communicates what’s actually going on in real life. So the process I spoke about at SearchLove was something we had actually been working on at Mack Web throughout the previous year. This also helps because it provides actual data, case studies, and challenges that I can talk about first-hand. Another bonus is that using real content is a great way to leverage and make the most of everything you’re doing. Because I was using real-life stuff, as I wrote my talk it was a raw look into what we were actually doing at Mack Web which helped me to see what we needed to work on with our own clients and in our business.
- Know when to take a break
Because this was my first big gig, and it was for Distilled (I idolize and heart them a whole lot), I wanted to do a tremendous job. I worked harder on this deck than anything I’ve done in the last year. I’m good with that part, but the part I’m going to let go next time is all the anxiety. I had some pretty hefty expectations about having my deck done and rehearsed weeks ahead of time. That just wasn’t very realistic. With all I have going with Mack Web and my family, preparing for a speaking gig at this caliber was a lot to handle. The balance of my career and family was really tough during this time. So now that I’m on the other side, I realize that it may always be last minute getting these things together, but that I will get it done and I will do my best. I always do. I just need to allow myself more room, more flexibility, and take a break from the entire thing even when I feel like I don’t have the time to give.
Even though speaking is a ton of work, it’s so incredibly rewarding. Sure, it’s great to get Mack Web the exposure, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m speaking because I love it. It’s such an awesome feeling to be on that stage. And it’s really great to know that I can help people just by talking about something that I’m so incredibly passionate about (plus I absolutely LOVE all of the people and friends I’ve made).
Lucky for me, I’m getting back on that stage in July at MozCon. I’ve got my work cut out for me (again), but now at least I’ve got some great experience to stand on.
Looking forward to it.