Surviving the stage

Speaking in front of an audience is never going to be easy. No matter if you’ve done it 5 or 100 times. I’m still nervous before I enter the stage and speak my first words. The thing that changes if you do it more often: The time before you get nervous shortens. For me it’s still 10-20 minutes before the talk when I think: “Why are you doing this?”. That’s a good thing: You show that you care about the audience.

Here are some tricks and tips about surviving and even enjoying the stage.

Before the talk

Check the time when your talk is supposed to start. It happened twice to me that the organizers have changed the schedule without telling me. Luckily I figured out 1 hour before that my talk is supposed to start at 10am instead of 2pm. Same goes with the room you’re going to speak in. I even try to check it out a day before when I’m already at the venue. I want to get a feeling for the venue and maybe even try my equipment. I had venues where it took the AV crew 30 minutes to get my laptop working with the projector. Normally this happens when I’m the first one coming with a MacBook.

Be at least 15 minutes in the room before your talk. I normally sit in the talk from the person that speaks before me so it’s faster to plug in my laptop once the talk is finished. Sometimes (especially at Devoxx Belgium) when a lot of people waiting outside the room and there is a stream of people moving out it can takes ages to get in. Set up as soon as the speaker before you has finished Q&A.

The setup

Pro tip
If the speaker before you is not packing their equipment and is very involved in conversations with the attendees it’s a good idea to start unplugging the speaker’s laptop. Normally they recognize that you want to start set up your equipment and they’ll begin packing. Once I actually started unplugging the speakers laptop during a never ending Q&A session.

For a slide only presentation you want to extend your screen so you have the moderator display on your laptop and slides on the projector. With the new Macbooks it’s just pressing the “Extended” on the touch bar once your laptop recognizes the projector. You can setup your moderator display at home (showing the current slide, next slide, moderator notes, presentation time, etc). Some more checklist items:

  • plug-in your clicker.
  • plug in your power supply
  • do you have audio? Talk to the AV crew to see if your laptop should use the HDMI sound output or the headphone jack and run a short test

Now you need your microphone. There is usually an A/V crew which takes care of you. If you get the choice between lapel mic or headset choose the headset. Lapel mics are good if you’re wearing a shirt to clip it on and hide the cable inside. With a t-shirt you don’t have that option. For the headset make sure the cable goes on the back. Even better if you can hide it inside your t-shirt.

Take off your badge. At conferences you often wear a badge around your neck with your name and company. There is no need for you to wear this badge on stage. Everyone knows your name and maybe your company, too.

Waiting for the talk to start

Your laptop is set up, you got your microphone, you’re ready to go. What to do in the next 10 minutes? How can you calm your nerves? Some tips from different speakers I talked to:

  • Stay at the door and welcome people entering the room. It helps building a connection to the audience
  • Bring friends with you. Talk to them before going on stage for distraction
  • I enjoy listening to motivational music before my talk to get pumped
  • I’ve heard of people doing push ups behind the stage

Do whatever helps to calm your nerves. For some it’s reading through their speaker notes, for others it’s distraction.

Right before you go on stage put your mobile into flight mode. You don’t want to get a call while you’re on stage or interfere with the audio signal.

Right before your talk

You probably going to ask yourself the question “Why am I’m doing this… I could be sitting in the audience and just enjoy the conference without this pressure” – That’s normal. The audience is really your friend. No one wants you to fail. Everyone is there to learn from.

Try to find friendly people in the audience. As said before: Invite friends and spread them over the audience. These can act during the talk as connecting points to the audience. You can speak to your friends and it looks like you’re speaking to the whole audience Your friends will agree with you look friendly so you can 100% concentrate on your talk and not being irritated by people shaking their heads in disagreement.

During the talk

The first 5 minutes are essential. If you feel comfortable on stage and get into your rhythm within the first minutes, the rest of the talk will flow easily. How do you nail the beginning of your preso? Practice practice, practice. If someone wakes you up in the middle of the night you should be able to give the first 5 minutes of your talk without thinking. It helps you to go into autopilot mode.

Slow down. I’ve seen presenters delivering a 40 minute talk in just 15 minutes. You know your content but the audience doesn’t. They hear everything for the first time. Give them time to process what you just said. Slow down.

Pauses can feel strange. But they’re very powerful. You can use it to get peoples attention or take some time to think. If you have something important to say start with a 2-3 second pause. I guarantee that you have everyones attention.

There are not a lot of speakers that are good with improvising on stage. I’m not. If you’re not a top notch keynote speaker and you have an audience > 100 I recommend: Stay to the script. I’ve seen to many presenters go off script and lost the focus …and the audience.

If you don’t know what to say to a slide or you know you wanted to say a specific thing but can’t remember: Skip it and move on. The people in the audience won’t notice that you forgot something. Don’t stumble over a black out. I normally just press the clicker, the next slide shows up and I continue my talk. No drama and everyone things it’s going great.

Find the nodders in the audience. Believe me there is always one to five people in the audience that nods from time to time to things you say. Identify those folks and establish eye contact from time to time. It’s such a good feeling if you have the impression people agree to what you’re saying. As said before: Faking this by planting friends in the audience does the same job.

Move around the stage if possible and comfortable. Don’t make it look you’re hiding behind the podium or even worse behind your laptop. Just don’t look static. Use your hands to explain something. Spread some energy.

ONE IMPORTANT THING: Don’t turn the back to the audience and look at your slides. Look at your laptop if you read something from your slides but don’t turn around. Stay next to the slide, look at the audience and point to the screen if you want to show something.

After the talk

Please be nice to the next speaker: End on time and unplug your equipment. Often some people want to talk to you directly after the presentation. If you know there’s just a short break pack your equipment first (at least unplug it) so the next speaker can begin to set up. If the conversations take longer and the next talk is about to start move outside the room and continue answering questions.

When you get some quiet time make notes. I often have a good feeling what went great and what didn’t immediately after the talk. I’ve remove whole chapters and expand others. Try to always learn from a presentation to improve your talk for the next audience.