I can’t feel my face; how to deliver your first WordCamp Speech

Stage at WordCamp Chicago for first WordCamp Speech, Chicago, Illinois on April 28 at 3pm

On Saturday, April 28, I presented my first WordCamp speech about the WordPress Community in sunny yet brisk, Chicago. Walking off stage during my ‘drop the mic’ moment, I took inventory as my emotion-driven adrenaline slowly began to subside. Almost as suddenly, thoughts of how to give back something helpful to future speakers to help them get through the myriad of pitfalls that can sidetrack success.

As usual, the WordPress Community came out in full force, as welcoming and supportive as ever. But as the hour approached, I was so nervous that my fitness tracker displayed “fat burner” even though I sat still. Why would a person with over twenty presentations under his belt be nervous?

Never as good as the first time

I remember my very first time. As a newbie in my office, representing them at a “how to” seminar put on by the biggest name in software tools for the design community for a product that I wanted to level up on. Fondly, I remember the eagerness and desire to learn, balanced by what the speaker delivered was perfect. Now as a speaker, I used this feeling as motivation when preparing for my first speech at WordCamp Chicago.

Well-organized, knowledgeable, with a relaxed but enthusiastic manner, chuck full of great hands-on follow along, this hour presentation shapes how I would judge all future speeches to this day, many years later.

The following are five best practices that will help you present something meaningful, intriguing and rewarding:

1) Lucky for you that’s what I like (in a WordCamp Speech)

When you present at WordCamp, NEVER forget this — your visitors want to be there, primed and ready to be wowed, inspired and nurtured. Conferences often provide a perfect storm – a convergence of a wide variety of clickable topics, personal delivery styles, engaging, cutting-edge ideas and talent swirling about in a concentrated time and space. Like being a kid in a candy store and these factors create a level of excitement and positive fuel that attendees take back to power their companies, employees or projects.

2) Beam down a search party

ALWAYS research your venue. Look at last years’ videos on WordPress.tv in the city you’ll be presenting in. In my case, I checked out footage from the WordCamp Chicago and WordCamp Orange County events in advance of my presentations by entering each location in the search box.

Also, if you have the opportunity, visit the venue in person in advance or the morning of. You’ll get an idea of how the space is laid out, acoustic quality and lighting. See the size of the room, the distance between the stage and audience, the amount of space you’ll have to move around in. These are key, as they increase your level of comfort in your surroundings.

3) Don’t get too comfortable

My biggest grimace often comes from presentations that feel way too comfortable, unplanned or ’spontaneous’. Don’t rest on the lecture or hide behind it. Generally, people with big personalities use this delivery technique as a crutch at the expense of the audience takeaways. Often as self-professed experts in technology fields, we feel that our level of knowledge will translate naturally to the audience. Instead, our speech is littered with grammar potholes – ums, ands, likes and other filler words that join rambling thoughts, REALLY distract from the core message and a speaker’s professionalism.

4) Papi, practice what you preach

Practicing your speech pays the biggest dividends to you and your audience. If musicians, athletes, and actors rehearse their craft daily, why would you leave a twenty-five-minute preso to chance? Each time you rehearse, your information becomes more familiar and secondhand, benefitting your comfort level and putting listeners in a sweet spot.

Speech Prep Basics

For me, practicing and preparing for the longest speech of my speaking career required the following strategy:

  • Break it down – The length of my presentation was 25 minutes, so I approached the session presentation as three small 5-7 minute speeches with each section containing an introduction, body, and conclusion that bridges to the next section;
  • Video or audio record your practice sessions – The camera never lies. Everyone owns phones, which record both audio or video. I recorded my brainstorms, ideas and 5-7 minute sections and playback gives you valuable insight to critique and polish your delivery (posture, tone, etc). Also, dress rehearsals amongst friends or your WordPress Meetups allow you to determine the general length of your work allowing you to add or remove slides as needed;
  • Incorporate gestures, movement and pauses to emphasize key points and information on stage;
  • Keep them engaged with vocal variety and tempo to avoid monotony. My presentation was in the late afternoon so I had to battle food comas, coffee runs to keep interest and get my story across so these techniques keep interest; and
  • Leverage your slides as a last resort. Visuals to smooth out speed bumps; you may lose your train of thought and well-placed visuals/bullet points help get you back on track. Caution: this can become a crutch, so use it only as your panic button to regroup.

5) Enough to feed the needy

Make sure to keep your presentation on topic (WordPress) as that’s what your audience came for. Again, assess your preso’s merit in regards to solid deliverables that will be taken away and acted upon. Links that your audience can follow up on, meaty and colorful infographics and interesting support imagery are tangible examples that allow you to avoid bullet or text-heavy slides that glaze over attendees.

6) Room to breathe

Remember to re-center by breathing. As my sessions’ timeslot approached, I sat in on the two preceding WordCamp speeches in the same room. Although I’d given over twenty speeches in other settings previously, I was surprisingly nervous about the unknowns of my audience and the moment. My wrist health monitor signaled that my heart rate was in the calorie burning zone even though I wasn’t working out!

I began to deep breathe, focus on each inhale or exhale, and my heart rate returned to an acceptable range. A key principle in mindfulness is to focus on breathing, yet we often neglect proper technique during daily activities or times of stress. Our breathing shortens or slows dramatically as we speed up or focus in, causing tensions to rise. You’d be surprised how effective this is.

7) You want a piece of me?

My approach to public speaking may be different than what you’re used to. I’m a creative type and always pull against speeches that don’t tell a story or deliver something personally tangible to take away. Express yourself and the uniqueness of your work in your WordCamp speech. I always intend on inserting something that, in this particular setting, that sets me apart or makes my speech different or memorable than someone else’s speech on the same topic.


Interested how my presentation went? Check out the comments and photos below and good luck giving back to the WordPress Community by speaking.

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