Why Women Speakers Say No to Speaking & What Conference Organizers Can Do About It 

Melissa Kim and Jennifer Kim from the Women Talk Design speaker compendium have put together a practical list of steps that event organizers can take to counter some of the most common reasons women don’t speak at conferences. Check out part 1 and part 2 of their piece.

stop written on cobblestones

Stop Interrupting Speakers

I don’t often publicly criticize an event while it’s still happening – I don’t like to be a complainer – but this weekend at WordCamp Ottawa, I couldn’t help myself. On the morning of the first day, I tweeted out:

Getting tired of people interrupting speakers at #wcott. Unless they’ve invited questions during the talk, it throws off the speaker and most of the audience can’t hear you anyway. Be respectful.

I’d spent the morning watching speakers (all women, by the way) being constantly interrupted by audience members – most not even asking questions, but commenting on some aspect of the talk. I’ve never seen this happen as badly before at any event, WordCamp or otherwise. And you can’t blame an intimate room size as the culprit – this happened in a large auditorium.

That afternoon, a woman was giving a lightning talk, with a short amount of time to present. Smack dab in the middle of her presentation, a man piped up to voice disagreement with one of the examples she was showing. Audience conversation started rolling from there, and I could see the speaker – who’d never presented at a WordCamp before – start to look a little flustered, as her talk became completely derailed.

I was filled with rage. I’ve never done this before, but I had to say something.

“Let’s let her finish her talk. She only has seven minutes left, and she can take Q&A after.”

There was a small shocked silence. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I might have heard a few murmurs of agreement.

The speaker finished the rest of her talk without interruption, and then took questions after.

Afterwards, a few people – including the speaker – thanked me for calling out the interrupter.

I don’t know what was in the air at WordCamp Ottawa this weekend, but I implore audience members to keep this in mind:

Your desire to express your opinion is not more important than the speaker’s right to finish their talk without being interrupted. Interrupting a speaker is disrespectful – you are throwing off their focus, disturbing their flow, and messing with their timing.

As a speaker, there are a couple of things you can do to curb this phenomenon. First, tell the audience your preference as you start the talk.

For example:

“We’ll have a good 5-10 minutes for questions at the end, so save them til after.”

Or,

“I don’t mind taking questions throughout the presentation, while they’re fresh in your mind. Just raise your hand and I’ll repeat it so the rest of the audience can hear.”

If someone interjects with a question or comment when you’ve asked people not to, remember that it’s your right to say:

“Thanks for the question. Let’s hold it til the end, and if I haven’t covered it during the rest of the talk I’ll be glad to address it then.”

Remember, you are in control of your talk. No one has the right to throw you off.

Featured image by Lucas Cobb (CC BY 2.0)

Three Things, Eighteen Years

In this still-relevant post from 2015, digital artist Jer Thorp shares his top three tips learned over nearly two decades of public speaking: from not rehearsing so much that you can’t handle the unexpected, to exploring non-linear narratives, to remembering that the audience wants you to succeed.

Sprinkled with amusing examples, the piece packs seven shorter additional tips at the end.

Hat tip to the fabulous Technically Speaking newsletter for the find.

Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking

Present! A Techie's Guide to Public Speaking - coverIf you’re looking for a detailed, step-by-step guide to preparing any type of talk, take Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking for a spin. Co-authored by Californians Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin, this 280-page book is ideal for anyone new to speaking who’d like a hand getting started, but is particularly geared to those in the tech industry. Present! breaks down the process of planning and giving a presentation into bite-sized chunks and comes with a collection of accompanying online videos and other resources. There are suggested activities to go with most sections, many of which involve making video recordings of yourself and watching them back with a critical eye — something that might make you cringe, but that can reap real benefits.

Present! goes into detail on topics that shorter books on the subject don’t usually broach, like how to promote a talk and even how eject a heckler – something I hope to never have to do! There are sections on how to be a good panelist or an effective moderator, and another on what it takes to bring your speaking skills to a wide audience through a podcast or webinar. There’s even a whole guide to how to make eye contact with the audience in a natural way.

I got to see Poornima and Karen in action while attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing last fall, where they ran a hands-on workshop based on a portion of their book. Their session gave me timely ideas on how to handle larger groups in my own workshops.

Once a year, Poornima and Karen teach an 8-week, online, live course on public speaking called The Confident Communicator Course. They cover many of the tips from the book, along with modules on accent reduction, negotiation, and interview skills. The next course begins on February 13 — check it out if you’re ready to invest in becoming a more confident and skilled public speaker in 2017.

How to Become a Public Speaker in 1 Year: Gain the confidence to engage audiences on and offstage

Catt Small’s Ebook: How to Become a Public Speaker in 1 Year

Catt Small, the Etsy product designer who penned a ten-part series on how to become a public speaker in one year, has packaged up all the posts into an ebook, complete with seven worksheets. It’s available through Amazon for Kindle, and if you buy the PDF/ePub version on Gumroad, there’s a discount coupon available for self-identified marginalized people. Nice.

Demystifying Public Speaking

Demystifying Public Speaking

Lara Hogan’s Demystifying Public Speaking, available through A Book Apart, is a gem of a guide for beginners. Full of practical tips, it had me nodding hard in agreement at every piece of reassuring advice.

Chapters include choosing a topic, finding a venue, writing the presentation, and practicing your talk. Some of the most valuable advice involves how to ask others for specific, actionable feedback when rehearsing — rather than general (and much less useful) reactions like “Your talk was great,” or “I found it boring.”

While clearly aiming to inspire new speakers, the book is also realistic, featuring good sections on dealing with tricky Q & A periods and how to handle harassment.

There’s tons in Demystifying Public Speaking that I know I’ll refer back to multiple times — both as reminders for myself, and to pass along to my workshop participants.

Not sure the book’s right for you? Check out the first chapter and decide for yourself.

Technically Speaking

Although it’s been around for a while, I only recently discovered a newsletter called Technically Speaking. It’s put together by Cate Huston — my new colleague and mobile lead at Automattic — and Chiu-Ki Chan.

Giving talks at conferences is a great way to take your career to the next level. But which conferences are looking for speakers? What should I say? How to give a good talk?

The weekly mailing compiles calls for proposals from technical conferences, speaking tips, and inspirational videos. You can check out the archive of past editions before signing up. Check it out!