Earlier this year I had the pleasure of hosting my third tech conference. After going through this rollercoaster a couple of times and giving it some serious thought for a talk I did a while back, I decided to write my thoughts down. My goal with this is twofold. By writing this I hope to help provide a framework for first time event hosts. If I can only help one person to be a little less nervous, I consider it a success. More importantly by writing this I want to sharpen my writing and get in the habit of writing on a regular basis. The fact that you’re reading this is proof of a first step in the direction of achieving my second goal.
Do you get nervous before being on stage or before giving a big presentation? Good, that means you care! Being nervous is completely normal before a big event. Even the best speakers get nervous when the stakes are high. Key is how you deal with it. I hope I can provide you with some kind of a framework that helps give you some guidelines for how to not be afraid of the big stage, but actually enjoy the excitement. To help you remember the framework when you need it the most, I’ll give you a simple acronym to keep in mind: P.A.C.E.
You know those insanely great speakers? The ones where it seems like they are totally winging it and everything feels completely natural to them? We’re talking about the Barack Obama and Steve Jobs people in the world. The way they seem so extremely casual and natural is not because they can think of these perfect speeches on the fly. It’s because they prepared their talks line by line, word by word. They know what they are going to say so well, they have mental capacity left to think about other stuff (like reacting to the crowd) as they go. They prepare for their talks so much they get to, as Tim Urban called it in this great article, ‘Happy-Birthday-Level Memorized’. He explains that when you learn something so well, you don’t really have to think about the words anymore so you can focus on other things at the same time. Like when most people are singing Happy Birthday, you can easily figure out what you want to have for dinner while singing the song.
So is this what you’ll need to do for every talk you’ll give? Of course not. Unless public speaking is your fulltime job, I’m guessing you won’t have the time to prepare meticulously for every talk you’re going to give. But make sure you have some form of preparation. Even if you’re just hosting an event, make sure you know your stuff! Know where the bathrooms are, what the schedule is, when lunch will be served, you name it. A lot of conferences and events will even set you up with speaker cards, meaning you don’t have to know everything by heart. Just make sure you have it all figured out and written down when you need it and you’ve prepared yourself for a sucessful day.
Probably the hardest thing to do when you’re up on that stage is also one that can step up your game big time. As an event host, it’s your job to listen even more than to talk. If you’ve prepared yourself, you should have some mental capacity left to be able to observe your surroundings during the day. Maybe you have some time during lunch where you can walk around and have a chat with some people. Maybe someone asks an interesting question at the end of a talk which you can ask a follow up question on. Even during talks of other people (which you would think would be your break time) pay attention to what they are saying and make notes. It might always happen a crowd doesn’t start asking questions right away during a Q&A. It’s a very powerful thing if you can break the ice by asking a first question if you feel like the audience is going quiet. Don’t forget that it’s your job to make the speakers shine. Showing them you actually listened and understood what they were saying is a great way to start that.
How can I be confident if I’m nervous as hell? I have good news for you. First of; by being well prepared you can be confident in your abilities to make sure the event will go as planned and you won’t mess up big time. Secondly; you can be nervous as hell and look confident at the same time. Everyone has certain tells that they get nervous. Some people start to blush, other people start to stutter or start fiddling with their watch or necklace. The trick is to know your own tells and make sure you are aware of them while you’re up there.
Personally when I get nervous I start playing with my shirt or fiddling with my watch. That’s why before I need to go up on a stage I take 10 seconds to make sure my shirt is okay (there’s usually nothing wrong with my shirts, it’s just something to assure myself beforehand so I don’t need to think about it anymore after), I tell myself not to touch my watch (or I take it off). I would also recommend emptying your pockets backstage (if possible). This way there’s really nothing to distract you or the audience off what you have to say. Also make sure you stand up straight, you speak clearly, and use your body language to look like you are okay on there (even if you feel uncomfortable). This would be a classic case of fake it ‘till you make it. Usually when you look like you’re confident, you will get more confident.
Lastly the most important part. It feels a little corny but without having fun during the process all the other steps are unimportant. Having fun doesn’t mean speaking at events should become your hobby though. Enjoy the challenge that comes with it. Enjoy the opportunity you’re getting to learn something and develop yourself. Enjoy the people in the audience who are counting on you to help them have an enjoyable and interesting day. Every single one of them hopes you’re going to do really well, because they will profit from that themselves. Make sure to keep that in mind the next time you step onto that stage and you’ll be halfway towards being a good event host!