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!

wide shot of room

Workshop With Montreal Girl Geeks at Google Montreal

I was invited to give a public-speaking workshop recently by Montreal Girl Geeks, a group with whom I’ve had a long and happy relationship, both as a speaker and attendee. There was only one catch — they asked if I could handle a much larger group than I was used to, since their events are super popular, regularly attracting 50+ signups. (Way to go, Girl Geeks!)

I was slightly trepidatious about the size, but my colleague Tammie Lister — who’d given the same workshop to larger groups before — shared with me some of her strategies, like breaking up into smaller circles for some of the hands-on exercises. A couple of weeks ago I also had the opportunity to attend a very large public-speaking workshop given by the authors of Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking, which gave me other ideas for handling a big group.

And it went just fine! The workshop was very interactive, and the participants had great ideas on everything from what stops people from speaking to the benefits of forging ahead. They brainstormed their own topic ideas, and each wrote up a pitch for a talk. Some were even inspired to submit their idea to an event as soon as possible!

The evening also felt like coming full circle, since Jill Binder, who co-ran the original speaker workshop for women in Vancouver that inspired this whole endeavour, happened to be in town and helped me with the group. We were very warmly hosted by Azi Vaziri at the Google Montreal office, who even provided food so folks wouldn’t be hungry coming straight to the event after work.

Thank you Montreal Girl Geeks for the opportunity to help a new crop of public speakers get inspired and get speaking!

Photos courtesy Montreal Girl Geeks and Jill Binder.

Catt Small on Becoming a Public Speaker

A few years back, New York City-based product designer Catt Small gave herself the challenge of learning how to propose talks and speak at tech and gaming conferences across the United States. And within just a year, she did it!

Now, Catt is sharing what she learned in a series of posts on how to become a public speaker in one year. The first three parts are already up, with tips on how to gain enough confidence to start your public-speaking journey, find speaking opportuities, and generate interesting talk ideas.

If you make a mistake while speaking, don’t dwell on it. Correct yourself quickly and move on. Even feel free to laugh at yourself or be honest about your situation.

Catt has some great practical advice — check it out!

Mahangu Weerasinghe

​Practice Makes Possible

We’re very pleased to present a a guest post by Mahangu Weerasinghe. Connect with Mahangu on Twitter.

Practice makes perfect. At least, that’s the saying, right?

As someone who has childhood-onset fluency disorder – AKA stuttering – public speaking was unthinkable for me while growing up. Whether it was reading out loud in grade school, or giving a speech in class in middle school, standing up to talk in front of people always resulted in me experiencing severe, debilitating, verbal blocks.

Perhaps the best way to describe the physical experience of stuttering is to say that it’s like an invisible hand is slowly choking you. And often, the more you try and get out of the choke-hold, the stronger the hand clamps down on your vocal chords. In such situations, being asked to slow down or take your time almost never helps, since it’s kind of like asking a person who is being strangled to stay calm. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and to the stutterer, it’s both annoying, and embarrassing.

Then again, if there’s one thing stutterers are experts at, it’s being embarrassed. Without question, my worst experience with public speaking was when as a fresh-faced university graduate, I had to co-present a paper at a linguistics conference. My co-presenter, who was also my boss at the time, finished their segment, and introduced me, handing the rest of the presentation off to me. I stood up in front of about 30 of my colleagues and superiors, and for at least a minute and a half, couldn’t get a single syllable out. The kind of shame you feel after an experience like that is difficult to put into words. I remember going back home and just sitting on the floor for hours, unable to even imagine how I could face any of my coworkers, ever again.

If adulthood was difficult as a stutterer, getting through high school was near impossible. While not everyone would make fun of me, though many did, what was most difficult to take was the pity that emanated from audiences whenever I experienced blocks. It was very frustrating to have people commonly mistake my stutter for a lack of preparation, or for them to assume I didn’t know what was I was saying. By the time I was in my early teens, I had already decided that public speaking was not for me.

My high school drama teacher changed that. When he had auditions for the school play, he encouraged me to try out, and gave me some very good advice about my stutter.


It seems obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, I had practised before, for those in-class speeches, but I had always ended up stuttering anyway. But the practice in the context of a school-wide stage production meant practice on a different level.

Here, practice didn’t mean reading through the text a few times, the night, or even the week before. It meant reading my lines over and over again, hundreds and hundreds of times, until I could repeat them forwards, backwards and sideways. It meant knowing each line, word-for-word.

So I practised. And practised. And practised.

The play went on the boards, and I went on stage in front of 700 people. I was 99% fluent, with my stuttering being almost unnoticeable.

However, I didn’t realise how important that experience was in my life, until I began to prepare for my first WordCamp talk ever. I had joined Automattic, and my newly appointed mentor, Yoav Farhi, encouraged me to apply to speak at a WordCamp in my region. My first reaction was to laugh at the idea, but soon, that laughter was replaced by pure, unadulterated fear. I knew I had to do it.

WordPress was a part of me, and I wanted to share that with others, even if it meant risking embarrassment in front of 300 strangers. So, I went back to the only thing that had ever worked for me: practice.

I went through my full 20-minute talk at least a 100 times before the event, and as the words tumbled out of me on stage at the Manik Sabhagriha Auditorium, in Mumbai, I remember thinking to myself – is this really me? It can’t be!

I was that fluent.

For WordCamp Pune 2015, I did a hundred trial runs, and I was once again almost completely fluent, this time in front of 250+ people.

However, my four-minute flash talk at the Automattic Grand Meetup 2015, didn’t go as planned. I switched topics at the last minute, and didn’t get my 100 practice runs in. It showed. I experienced significant blocks, and hit less than 50% fluency. But for WordCamp Mumbai 2016, I once again managed to get in a 100 practice runs before my talk, and I was once again almost completely fluent.

There was clearly a pattern here.

Looking back on this last year and a half of public speaking at WordPress related events, my biggest takeaway is this:

Really control the variables you can control,
so you have more bandwidth for the variables you cannot control.

Here are what those variables look like for me:

Control No Control
Slides Fluency
Transitions Anxiety
Technology Audience

Though I have been to speech therapy for years, and have several techniques that I use to get through blocks and be more fluent in my speech, at a very fundamental level, my stutter is something I have no control over.

The purpose of practising my talks is not to make my stutter better. My stutter will likely never get better in the sense that it hasn’t really increased or decreased over the last decade.

The reason I practice my talks so many times before hand, is so that I will not have to spend any mental energy on the day, wondering about which bullet point or slide is coming next, or where I am in my talk, or how much time I have left.

And, if I don’t have to worry about any of those things, I can focus squarely on my speaking, and make sure I am using all available mental resources to channel my way through any blocks or difficulties I experience in my speaking, the biggest variable that I have very little control over.

So, whatever external issues you have with speaking in public – whether it’s a speech issue, or an anxiety-related problem, or something else entirely – I encourage you to look at practice as a possible solution.

There is a ton of content out there on how to practise for public speaking, and it’s great to get ideas from all of that. But for me, practice is just about standing up in front of my computer, and going through my slides from start to finish, and timing myself. And most importantly, it’s about doing this not once, not twice, or ten times, but a hundred times.

One hundred is the number that seems to work for me. If I can get through my topic a hundred times alone, or in front of a few friends and family members, I now know I can get through it in front of hundreds of people, and do so with a high level of fluency.

For me, practice will never mean perfect.

However, practice does mean possible. And I’ll take it!

Photo by Jen Hooks


Tech Lady Speakers

If you’re planning a tech event in Montreal, there’s a new resource to help you find more women speakers. Introducing: Tech Lady Speakers. Created by a group of women interested in diversifying the gender balance among speakers at tech conferences, the site also includes pointers on making women feel comfortable at your event.

tech lady speakers

Lena Reinhard’s Guide to Preparing a Tech Talk

German public speaker Lena Reinhard has compiled a wide-ranging guide to preparing and writing a tech-conference talk. Her compendium of tips and resources is packed with useful information for anyone getting started with — or delving further into — public speaking, from techniques for coming up with topics, to advice on crafting an outline and research, all the way through dealing with feelings like stress, nervousness, or imposter syndrome. Check it out.

The Ripple Effect of Public Speaking

An attendee of our Montreal public-speaking workshop last fall, Belinda Darcey wrote an excellent piece outlining all the benefits she’s seen after her first solo WordCamp talk: “Beyond UX: Designing for Delight.” From making all kinds of connections to receiving unsolicited recommendations, her talk has already brought all kinds of rewards. Be sure to check out the moment of “whoa” and moment of “uh-oh!”