Kimberly Blessing has run the gamut of roles in the computing/IT industry, from software sales and tech support to Web strategist and tech manager. She is also one of the fine people who has volunteered to mentor aspiring speakers over at Make Me A Speaker!. I asked her some questions over email:
MW: What was your first speaking gig? How did you get it?
KB: My first Web conference-speaking gig was in 2004 at SXSW Interactive. I was working for AOL at the time and had recently joined the W3C CSS Working Group on their behalf; there I got to know Tantek Çelik, who was a member on behalf of Microsoft. He was organizing a panel entitled “CSS: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and asked me to be part of it. I spoke for about 7 minutes, showing the cool CSS-driven “super layout” system I had helped to create for AOL.
However, prior to that event, I had done plenty of public speaking. At AOL, I had given presentations on a variety of topics to senior-level execs; when I worked in tech support, I conducted training sessions for both technical staff and non-technical users; in college, I was a TA for Computer Science classes. Talking “tech” in front of an audience was far from new to me.
MW: What do you think the most important thing is for someone who wants to be a successful speaker?
I think there are two things that are equally important:
First, you must be confident in yourself. This doesn’t mean that you have to believe that you know everything or think that you are perfect! In fact, it means, in part, that you’re willing to admit what you don’t know. The other part means being comfortable with any “quirks” you may have and not feeling self-conscious when you’re in front of an audience and those quirks come out.
For example, I have a slight lisp, and when saying things like “CSS” a lot, I sound silly. I used to think that I didn’t sound professional, but then a good friend (a voice-over artist) pointed out that I dramatically lowered my voice when pronouncing words that would make my lisp known. It was then that I realized that I’d rather have someone hear my lisp than not be able to hear me at all! The next time I gave a talk about CSS, I recorded myself to make sure I maintained volume throughout, and I asked a few people for feedback on my enunciation — one person hadn’t noticed my lisp at all, and others said it was barely noticeable. So now, I just don’t worry about it.
Second, you have to practice! You cannot expect to be a great speaker the very first time you deliver a talk if you haven’t rehearsed it ahead of time. Once you’ve determined your message, outlined what you want to say, and generated some of the content or examples, you need to start talking, even if it’s to yourself! I will even record myself while ideating, which I do aloud; this allows me to listen for powerful phrasing or succinct wording that I would easily forget if trying to talk and type or write.
As soon as I get to the point where I hear myself repeating the same phrases repeatedly, I start rehearsing in front of others. I do this to make sure that if I’m not being clear with my statements, someone informs and corrects me before those statements “take root” in my head and come out later. I typically rehearse with a peer group that is already familiar with my message first, so that they can poke holes in my line of thought. Then I move on to rehearsing with those that aren’t as familiar with my topic or message. In cases like that, I also present to my husband, who has just enough tech/Web knowledge to be dangerous; he’s great not only for ensuring my message gets understood, but he also helps me work through those quirks I referred to earlier.
By the way, I also tell people who ask that these are the most important things when it comes to job interviewing as well.
MW: What do you think is hardest about getting started as a speaker?
For me, the hardest part is coming up with a “worthy” topic. At work, my speaking topics are nearly all driven by organizational need, so there I spend my creative energies on the content and message. However, when it comes to formulating an idea to pitch to conference organizers, I often find myself struggling.
To solve this problem, I try to look at conferences like I do my work. I will ask the conference organizers about their wants or needs, or those of their audience, and I will look to craft a topic idea that fits. I also find that talking to friends in the industry can help spark ideas, and finding someone to co-craft a proposal makes things easier.