I have a list of 20 things on my To Do list today that I need to get on with, BUT as usual, with any of these posts that I decide to write, I woke up with some reflections that I wanted to share.
Last week, I had the honour of speaking at BrightonSEO. It was my third time speaking there, two in-person and one virtual. I wanted to sit down and reflect back on my learnings and mainly compare how it felt the first time I spoke in April 2019 to the most recent time I spoke in October 2022.
1) The more detailed your pitch is, the easier prepping your talk will be
For my April 2019 talk, I remember getting my ‘You’ve been accepted’ email back in October 2018 and being thrilled.
It took me several weeks of writing that pitch - I got so much help from two brilliant women: Hannah Smith & Briony Gunson. It’s sweet to reflect on because this year myself and Hannah launched our first WTSTraining Speaker Pitch program.
Back then, my primary aim for writing an extremely detailed pitch was to be accepted to speak. I didn’t have any public speaking experience so I knew that organisers were going to judge me purely on my proposed talk idea.
But 3 years later, I still write extremely detailed pitches, not only to help organisers understand what my talk will be about, but because I realised that it made prepping for my talk much easier.
Whenever someone asks me for advice about working on their pitch, I always say “Write out the skeleton of your talk.”
Everytime I start working on a new talk, the stress of staring at a blank slidedeck begins. So, what I do is go back to my pitch and start adding every single bullet point of it in my deck. One bullet point per deck. Just like that - my talk skeleton is ready and I’m no longer staring at a blank Google Slides page. It puts me at ease and it gives me structure.
Having the skeleton of your talk ready gets you almost to the halfway point, that’s the difficult part. So if you spend time and effort in ensuring a detailed pitch, you’ll not only have a better chance in being accepted to speak but you’ll also have your talk structure ready to go for when you start working on your deck.
2) Ask for feedback, but choose to keep it or leave it
For that first talk, I started working on it right after I got my speaking acceptance. People don’t believe me when I say that it took me 6 months to put that talk together, I spent so much time doing bits and pieces here and there. I went through several rounds of feedback, presented different versions of it to different folks, and made amendments based on advice I received. Special shout out to Alex Cassidy, Surena Chande and Jaz Batisti who gave me advice on everything from content to language to design. Yes, this was back in 2019, but I’ll never forget the support they gave me.
This time round, I had an initial round of feedback with Hannah on a call - I remember doing it when my talk was literally nothing but a skeleton. She helped me flesh it out, we talked through thoughts, ideas and feelings out loud. Here’s the other interesting part, it usually takes me so long to ‘start’ working on something. I purposely scheduled that call to force me to start thinking and working on my talk. After the call, I felt so motivated and had a new sense of renewed energy that it was very easy to get working on it.
My second round of feedback was to share my Google Slides deck with people I knew would give me the constructive feedback I need. Paddy Moogan was one of them and there were comments he added to some parts of the deck that I literally put straight into my slides. For example, I end my talk by saying ‘Our job isn’t just knowing SEO, it’s about being effective.’ This is Paddy! In my draft deck, he wrote a comment about how the core of the talk is about how effective we need to be as SEOs - and I was like ‘Aha! That’s my ending slide right there.’
I got lots of comments here and there added to my deck, did I take all of it? Of course not. But that’s okay! I took feedback that resonated with me and that I felt would add value to my talk. I left feedback that didn’t sound like ‘me’ and that I didn’t feel would add to my talk.
3) Talk to organisers about what works and what doesn’t work for you
The morning of my first talk in April 2019, I woke up with the worst headache ever. I knew right after that it was a ‘stress’ headache. I had the second speaking morning slot of the day so I still had several hours to go. I tried to have breakfast but failed. I went to the conference venue bright and early but struggled to have conversations with people. I attempted to attend the first morning session but struggled to sit through it. My stomach was in knots and I remember thinking the speaker was far smarter than me and what was I even thinking putting myself forward, that I was going to do a terrible job. I walked out of the session and mindlessly walked around the venue until it was time for my talk.
The same thing happened a few months later in my first speaking slot at MozCon in July 2019. It was even tougher, because my talk was after lunch on the second conference day. Sitting through everyone’s brilliant talks on Day 1 and barely managing to eat much food on the second day was tough. I remember thinking how easier it would’ve been if my talk happened on the first day.
So I decided to start asking for that. Ever since, I always ask organisers if I can please speak on the first day of the event in the morning slot. My mind and body were telling me that the more delayed my talk was, the more nervous I’d get. Getting it out of the way first thing in the morning meant that I could sit back and relax, and enjoy the rest of the day and the talks.
Event organisers want to help you and make sure you feel your best, of course, they can’t always accommodate every speaker request but they’ll try their best.
I was simply open and honest about how it made me feel and I asked very early on, several months before the event agenda was finalised. I got a “We’ll try our best” each time I asked, and always ended up with a morning slot on the first day.
I organise my own conference, Women in Tech SEO Festival, and I’ve had speakers check in about a Quiet Room to use before and/or after the talk for example - knowing this in advance means that I can coordinate with the venue and ensure it’s available.
If there are things that will make you feel better that an event organiser can help you with, there’s no harm in asking. Whether it’s the time of your speaking slot, space for quiet time or if you prefer not being asked any questions by the audience. But make sure you ask early enough, so that they can try to accommodate it and make it work.
4) Sleep and food help
I’m a 10 pm bedtime person in general. But when you attend a conference, there are usually lots of pre-networking events taking place that can be tempting to attend. It’s okay to attend some of it but try to prioritise your sleep over anything, your mind and body will thank you for it. I remember in April 2019, Faye Watt and Claire Carlileand myself were all relatively new speakers and we had morning slots the next day. So, I put us all in an Uber by 10 pm, we drank chamomile tea in the hotel lobby and then went to sleep. To this day, it’s one of my fondest memories and we all appreciate that we did that.
I usually don’t eat much before a talk because my stomach is already in knots. But last week, I decided to opt for a proper breakfast in the hotel restaurant and see how it makes me feel. My plan was to eat something quickly and then go up to my room for a talk run-through. But I ended up sitting there for over an hour, speaking to lots of people, talking about different things here and there. I had cereal, pastries, eggs, basically every breakfast item you can think of. It put my mind at ease. By the time I went up to my room, there was no time left for a run-through, so I just got dressed and went to the venue. I had some thoughts of ‘I hope I don’t regret not doing a run-through.’ and in the end, I didn’t.
It felt fresh presenting my talk, it didn’t feel over-rehearsed and I felt better with food in my stomach. I was more alert and didn’t experience my usual ‘stress’ headache. Moving forward, I plan on having a good breakfast the morning of my talk BUT you do you. Give it a try and if it doesn’t work for you, just reward yourself with an even bigger meal once the talk is done.
5) Friendly front-row faces go a long way
The build-up to the talk is usually the hardest part, but it does get easier when you start. It escalates when they mic me up and I know it's only a matter of minutes to go. But here’s the interesting part, once I start my talk, do my first slide click and know it's working, I can finally *breathe*. I know this talk inside out, I’d practised it so much. My headache miraculously disappeared, my stomach feels at ease, I feel in my natural state of mind and I deliver my talk.
What really helps is having friendly front-row faces. For my first talk, I’m grateful to my husband who has nothing to do with SEO but attended the conference with me for moral support. He sat in the front row and cheered me on, looking in his direction during the talk made me feel more confident. For my first MozCon talk, I’ll always remember Lily Ray sitting front row and nodding along, I hadn’t asked her to sit there but she did it anyway and it made a huge difference to me.
Since then, I’ve been asking people I love and trust to please sit in the front row during my talks. Earlier this summer at MozCon, we had a Women in Tech SEO WhatsApp group for those attending and we all agreed to sit front row in each other’s talks. Afterwards, we all reflected on how much of a difference this made. Noah Learner, all-round awesome human, also happens to be a front-row seat person and he does it perfectly, nodding and laughing along, putting the speaker completely at ease.
I also sit front row now for all talks I attend, even if I don’t know the speaker, because I’ve realised how much of a difference it makes to have someone giving you a friendly supportive face and rooting for you throughout the talk.
6) It’s okay if you don’t enjoy it, great job on giving it a try anyway
I wanted to wrap up on this point because it’s so important. Speaking isn’t something that everyone enjoys doing and that’s okay. My advice has always been to give it a try, even if it’s just for one time. There’s a lot of good that comes from public speaking - whether it’s sharing your knowledge, building your brand, doing something out of your comfort zone, gaining more confidence and so much more. But at the same time, it can be difficult to do - it can fill you with anxiety and stress, and it could even make your imposter syndrome feel worse. There are a lot of other ways to achieve the above points, through mentoring someone, writing posts, providing insights in a community or more.
Personally, I still go through the same stages of “Yay, I’m speaking there” to “Oh no, this talk is going to be crap” to “I’m so glad this is finally done!” I choose not to speak far more than I choose to speak because I know how it can impact my mental health. And I just do what feels right for me at the end of the day.
You Do You! =)