In addition to being half of the web standards software & learning company westciv and one of the organisers of the Web Directions conferences, John Allsopp is also one of the established speakers offering to mentor aspiring speakers on Make Me A Speaker!. I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about getting started as a speaker, over email.

MW: What was your first speaking gig? How did you get it?

JA: Well, I did debating at school, and all kinds of post secondary and adult teaching, particularly after finishing university – that certainly would have helped my confidence in front of audiences, and through teaching, I knew I loved helping people learn.

In terms of speaking at conferences and so on, probably the first presentation I can recall was actually at the Parsons School of Design, at the New School University in New York City. It’s now famous as the location for Project Runway, but they’ve had brilliant design courses there for a long time.

I happened to spend a couple of months in New York back in 2000, and connected up with some folks whom I started emailing with after my article “A Dao of Web Design” was published at A List Apart. One of them did some teaching at Parsons, and they had an open day, and asked whether I’d do a guest lecture. Which I very proudly did. I am pretty sure I sucked. I hope I suck less now.

MW: What do you think the most important thing is for someone who wants to be a successful speaker?

JA: In Blink, the reasonably recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about some research which demonstrates that how good a teacher a class thinks someone is is decided in literally moments, and even without hearing someone speak. If you show very short soundless clips of teacher to a group of people, their opinion of that teachers ability is pretty much the same even after a semester of having them as a teacher.

The lesson for me in that is that, well derr, first impressions count. Confident, engaging, warm, human speakers gain people’s trust, and so will have more open, more forgiving audiences.

To me, developing your own natural voice – being true to your personality, while developing confidence, these would be the most important things to develop as a speaker. While some people seem to have these “naturally”, they can certainly be developed and improved.

MW: What do you think is hardest about getting started as a speaker?

JA: Like your first job, getting a platform. But it is much easier now than it once was, with so many more events, barcamps, and the like. But there are other avenues as well – developing an audience through writing online – articles, blog posts and so on. Start a podcast, go to events with a recorder and interview people, (probably best tee it up with organizers first, but almost all will be right as rain with that – hey if you are in Australia email me, we’d love to have you do that at our events).