Lessons from a First Time Speaker


I recently spoke at both Search Marketing Expo Toronto and Pubcon South in Dallas. Now, neither was my first time speaking in front of people. I’m a three-time bridesmaid, you know, so I’m getting pretty used to speaking in front of 200 strangers. Father of the Bride’s drunk relatives? No problem. However, this was my first time speaking in front of people who’d paid several hundred dollars to be there and expected to come away with some new knowledge. That was totally intimidating.

It has been said that one of the best ways to learn something is by explaining it to others. Speaking at conferences is also a way that those of us in the search industry can give back to the community, particularly if you were once a wide-eyed n00b in the audience at a search conference. So I wanted to do a good job. In hindsight, I even think it was perfect that these events were separated by only a week, as it gave me a chance to compare them both and learn from where I went right — and wrong — and then show you.

Here’s what I learned as a first-time conference speaker.

Creating your Deck

So you’ve pitched a topic, you’ve been accepted, and now you have to prepare your PowerPoint deck. You’ve been given a company branded template to use, but it’s blank. Where do you start?

I started with a rough outline of the topics I wanted to cover. Actually, kinda the same way I did for writing this blog post. You don’t have to stick to your outline if you find cool new info along the way or realize you’re off in the complete wrong direction; it’s just a place to start.

When you think you’ve got your topics figured out, start fitting them into the deck. They say the rule-of-thumb is one slide per minute that you are speaking. When you’re talking on a panel with three or four other people, you get about 12 minutes.

I completely broke that rule on both presentations. Despite both of them being approximately the same number of slides, my SMX presentation went long, while I felt a bit rushed during my Pubcon presentation. It happens.

When you’re writing out your points, keep them to a minimum. I tried to do no more than 3 bullets per slide. You have an entire minute to expand on them verbally, and its way more interesting if what you say is not identical to what people can read. If they can just read it off the slide, they don’t need to actually be there. We all had that professor in school who read directly off the slides, and we all hated him for wasting our time and money; don’t be that guy.

Use lots of visuals. Some people are more visual learners, so don’t leave them out. I did this in my SMX presentation, but not so much in my Pubcon one. Lesson learned.

Also, use lots of examples. Take them from your personal experience; people don’t want the textbook answer for how they are supposed to do something, they want to know how you did it in a real situation.


Prepare, prepare, prepare. Unless you’re the type who can talk about anything off of the top of your head, you need to prepare. I’m the type who forgets her own name when put under pressure.

Review your PowerPoint. Make notes about what you plan to talk about, in addition to the bullets in your slides. Read it out loud to a friend, if you’d like.

Make sure it all makes sense and that you’ve covered all your bases, and do that well in advance. Making last minute changes to your deck can leave you feeling somewhat unprepared. I may have done this with one of my decks. Maybe. And then I may have ended up skipping over an entire slide in my presentation.

Your Panel

Of course, no matter how much preparation you do, there are things that are outside of your control.

If you end up on a panel that is totally in sync, both in personality and in topic, that’s going to boost your confidence and increase the learning opportunity for the audience. One of my sessions was exactly like that; our topics just fit with each other, and that made the whole session feel really dynamic and my own presentation that much more relevant.

But if your topics aren’t quite aligned, that can make the session run awkwardly. It can make it more difficult to get into the flow of your presentation. And it’s not a reflection of the speakers or their presentations, sometimes that’s just how it is.

Dealing with Nerves

This is a big one for some people, and totally prevents them from ever speaking in public. And it’s understandable, nearly everyone gets nervous. Strangely though, I’d rather get up and speak in front of a room full of people than call for pizza. I love that ordering online means I never have to speak to a stranger on the phone again.

It’s also different when speaking in front of people you know versus strangers. I didn’t know anyone in the audience during my SMX talk, but knew a few during my Pubcon one and I was much more nervous about that one. Obviously this is something I’m going to have to learn to deal with, as doing this more and more is going to mean a lot more familiar faces in the audience.


Any feedback you get is great, even seemingly negative feedback. Take that as constructive criticism and use it to tweak things for the next time.

Your first speaking events don’t have to be “I have a dream” quality (mine certainly weren’t). The biggest thing I was afraid of was that people would be judging me. It turns out, people judge you way less than you judge yourself. It’s a search conference, not American Idol, and people can be pretty forgiving of your little slip-ups.

In the end, I got some pretty great feedback on both of my presentations. It seemed that people were able to take away some information from both, and clearly I’ve learned from the process as well. Hopefully, all of this means that my next speaking event (SES Toronto in June, by the way), will be that much more awesome.

Your Comments

  • Jill Whalen

    Strangely though, I’d rather get up and speak in front of a room full of people than call for pizza.

    Me too!

    Congrats on making it through the speaking. Each time you do it, it will get easier and better.

  • Kristy Bolsinger

    I have always rather enjoyed public speaking, but Dawn you are so right….it is way easier in a room full of strangers than full of friendly faces! Nerves are most definitely strung out when there are people you know, respect and like (even when you don’t ;) ) in the audience. Whenever I have to speak I’ve not allowed myself to think about how nervous I am. If that thought comes into my head I simply think about something else. I never say it out loud either. Some how acknowledging that I’m nervous prevents me from overcoming it. I love the part about criticism. It’s a good reminder :) Thanks Dawn!!

    • Dawn Wentzell

      If you enjoy it, why haven’t we seen you up on stage yet? Brent was right, we need to get you speaking!

      I tried to keep myself pretty distracted so I didn’t dwell on being nervous, but I definitely felt it.

      • Kristy

        Heh! Way to call me out Dawn :P I’ve been working on it, albeit slowly. This year may be different :)
        And nothing wrong with feeling it a bit. Nerves are a good thing. They keep you on point. Same as with stress….none is bad, too much is bad. There’s a point in the middle where you’re at your best.

  • netmeg

    You have all my respect my admiration; this is one thing I’ve never been able to do effectively (when I was forced to) and will never even attempt to do again. Seat me at a table with a couple dozen people, and I will totally rock, but on a stage with a podium… wait, maybe that’s it. I’m not afraid of speaking – I’m afraid of podiums!!! (And PowerPoint. Definitely afraid of PowerPoint)

    As I said – #respect.

  • Jon Henshaw

    When I get nervous, I just pretend that everyone in the audience is an asshole. Works every time ;)

  • TheMadHat

    I guess I better start getting ready for Florida :)

    Powerpoint is hell. Last year Streko and I had 3 slides. It was awesome.

    • Dawn Wentzell

      Between the two of you? Way to go :) You two are hilarious (moreso together) though, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

      • Ari Herzog

        The best presentations have zero slides. The second-best have 1-3 slides. More is less.

        Besides, presentations have occurred for millennia so why be leashed to technology today?

        • Dawn Wentzell

          Hmm… you’re getting awfully philosophical there…

          It’s true, though. Presentations with fewer slides tend to be more engaging, although it takes a truly great, experienced speaker to do that.

          • Ari Herzog

            Look at it this way: Is your presentation leashed to you, or are you leashed to your presentation? I’ve attended many seminars and workshops when technical difficulties caused the speaker to go off-the-cuff.

            If you can’t speak about the content of your slides without using your slides, then you are leashed to it. I argue your slides should be leashed to you, so you can opt to remove the leash at any time and the audience will not know the difference.

  • Dana Lookadoo

    Dawn, I bummed to have missed your inaugural speaking engagement. GREAT tips that all should read, especially about not giving textbook answers!

    Wanted to share a tip I learned when I began corporate training, never say “I’m nervous.” Physiologically your palms sweat and heart races, because our bodies don’t know the difference between fact and fiction. Repeat to yourself, “I’m calm, relaxed, and prepared.” Even if you are not, your body will react accordingly.

    Again, congrats, and surely you must be looking forward to Toronto!

  • Randy S

    Something that has helped me in the past is literally typing out, word for word, what I want to say. Granted, it takes quite a bit of time, but as I read through, I inevitably come up with more eloquent ways to explain a point or I find that I left something out that I really wanted to talk about.

    Congrats on your first speaking engagements though!

  • Cooper

    We knew you would knock it out of the park and it sounds like you did just that.

    This post is a great example of how, even the experts up on the panel sharing their industry secrets can still take home a few lessons of their own.

    Great insight Dawn.


  • Jaan Kanellis

    Great honest post on speaking.

  • Gil Reich

    Nice post, especially the part about having strong examples. The advice you gave at SMX that I most appreciated was that “Worst of” lists do better than “Best of” lists, and the numbers of incoming links that some good industry coverage posts by Lisa Barone and Aaron Wall got. Combining personal narrative with hard numbers really worked nicely.

  • Rhian

    Thanks Dawn! Love the wide-eyed n00b bit!

    I’m new to conference speaking and was recently on a panel at SES NY.

    Having been the wide-eyed girl in the audience for so long, I was definitely nervous and slightly intimidated by the talent both on the stage and in the audience.

    After I finished my session, I realized that it was sort of silly to compare myself to people who have been presenting for years.

    Awesome presentation skills will come with practice, but I think audience members would take passion over perfection any day.

    Hope to catch you on stage someday soon!

  • Elmer Boutin

    Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing lessons learned from your experience. You are right to stress preparation – it is key to getting your points across and not “rabbit trailing” too much.

    I have to agree, I’d rather talk in front of a group of strangers than to a stranger on the phone. On line food ordering is bomb for me. If only grocery stores in my area delivered I’d be set.

  • John V

    Thanks for the pointers, I may be speaking in the future so this is helpful advice!

  • Michael Martin

    Dawn it was great to see you speak at PubCon Dallas as I had to bow out from speaking at SMX Toronto for your grand entrance to speaking.

    It was nice you gave some exposure to microformats/RDFa as that will be more and more important to local and search in general….especially mobile going forward :)

  • Rae Hoffman

    You forgot to mention you also learned that you’re co-workers and boss might have fun with your office while you’re gone. ;-)

  • Anjuan Simmons

    Great post! I have recently begun expanding my public speaking career. My most significant speaking opportunties so far were serving as student speaker at my MBA graduation this last December and presenting a panel at South by Southwest this past March. You covered almost everything I did to prepare for those events.

    I would like to add the importance of passion. Most public speakers get to choose the topics they speak about, and it is important to choose topics about which you are passionate. This helps get over nervousness because you realize that the topic is bigger than you or your nerves. You are there on a mission to deliver vitally important information to the audience. If you are passionate about your topic, then the audience will usually become passionate a well. Conversely, if you are not passionate, then why should the audience care?

    • Dawn Wentzell

      Anjuan, that’s a good point about being passionate. If you’re not, it would certainly come through in the delivery of your presentation.

      Congrats on speaking at SxSW! That’s a big show and I know *I* would have been terrified!

  • Rob Woods

    Awesome post! I’ll bet you were great at both conferences. I’ve only spoken at two and have one more coming in May. They scare the bejeesus out of me, which is partly why I force myself to do them. Strangely enough I find creating the deck the most work. Probably because once I start talking you can’t usually shut me up.

    Kudos to you for starting with a couple of pretty big shows with knowledgeable audiences. At least my audience will be mostly SEO newbies :o)

  • Jen Lopez

    Awesome Dawn! I think as a new group of speakers spring up on the conference scene, it’s great to get input like this. I also agree with some of the comments above about how it’s easier to speak to a group of strangers than to people you know. I rather enjoy public speaking as long as it’s a topic I know really well.

    Looking forward to seeing you speak in the future!

  • Alan K'necht

    Well I only heard your talk at PubCon as I was giving my own talk at SMX. For the first round of the Search talk circuit you did great. I heard lots of positive stuff from the SMX session.

    On a personal note, I find it much easier to talk to a large group then a small group. Something about all those little dots in crowd vs. staring them in the eyes and trying not trip on their feet.

    Regardless of audience size, one the bug of public speaking bites you and you catch the fever it’s hard to give up. I have a feeling you’ll be on the circuit for a long time to come.

  • Darragh kelly

    Great post, definitly a lot of take aways. In addition what I find useful is prepare ur presentation with one person in mind, I usually think of our CEO, and then when you are giving the presentation think that you are giving it to the same person. Also, if gesturing (hand movements etc) does not come naturally think of yourself as a tool and conciously use your body as a tool to gesture, with time it comes more naturally. Gr8 share

  • Andrew@BloggingGuide

    I’ve heard once before that if you’re speaking infront of so many people to look them in the forehead rather than straight in the eye. Personally, I still prefer looking at them straight in the eye. And nervous is good, it is really not a bad thing. It keeps you alert, alive and perky.

  • Ondrej Dyrka

    I used to be a great speaker on High School – no nerves, perfect articulation etc. My skills have however faded greatly when I decided I don’t need the approval of others to feel good.