Advice to a New Speaker

I found myself offering advice to someone recently who was giving her first technical talk, at an internal conference, that happened to be about a topic of mine. We agreed that I should share my answers with a wider audience, in case someone else finds them useful.

She had two questions for me:

1. How do you pronounce “Terhorst” as in “Daniel Terhorst-North”?

This can be a bit tricky. It is “tear” as in paper, then “horse” with a “t” at the end. At least that’s how I say it. It’s a Dutch surname, named after a village or something, so there is probably some throat-clearing involved when you do it properly.

2. Advice to help me worry less about upsetting the audience!

This is much easier! The fact that the people are even there is a choice, especially in a multi-track conference. They could be in any of the other talks, or just taking a break.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: Your audience wants you to succeed. This is an internal talk at a forward-thinking company. The audience is there to learn. If you mess up, trip over your words, blush, stand between the projector and the screen, have a clicker failure, click forward too much, or forget to click at all (I’ve done all of these), then it turns out they don’t care! They just want you to get back on track. Depending on your reaction, they may start laughing with you, but they will never laugh at you. (And if anyone does, people nearby will shut them down soon enough.)

But surely everyone knows the stuff you are going to talk about? Well no, most of your audience won’t know the things “everyone knows”, and even if they do, they won’t have heard it from your perspective before, which may well give them new insights.

I find this happens to me all the time at conferences, especially from younger or less experienced speakers, and I’ve been in this game for over 30 years. In fact I tend to seek out speakers I don’t know, because I’ve already heard what the well-known ones have to say so I won’t learn much there! (Although they can be very entertaining, and sometimes you just want a good show.)

Here is the official line on things “everyone knows”:


Your perspective is unique. Your journey is unique. Especially in your case, as [someone with an unusual journey into tech]. That is a heck of a world view to explore.

Now some serious stuff. As a woman in tech, when you start speaking at public conferences, I’m afraid you will always get the “well actually” guy and the “more of a comment than a question” guy. They both want to be right, and neither of them got to be on stage like you, so they see this as their moment. They will mostly only do this to a female speaker or someone who looks very new, because they are cowards—although I’ve had both types in my talks—and it is entirely up to you how you manage that.

I have seen a speaker politely suggest that they submit a talk on the “comment” and that this is a Q&A section (I loved that one). Another speaker basically tore the guy to shreds, simply by knowing her subject inside out. His “observation” was a thinly veiled attack on her credibility as an academic, and she demolished it point by point. She was careful never to go ad hominem; this was all about his point, not him. Again, a lovely moment.

As I said, this is unlikely to happen at a friendly internal event or local meet-up, but will almost certainly start happening as you build your profile.

Ok, back to the talk. I am assuming you are happy with the content. I’m more interested in the structure and the arc. What do you want someone to do differently as a result of coming to your talk? Presenting is about changing people; giving them a new tool or perspective, or information they didn’t have before. So what is The Thing? Make sure you are crystal clear about your message, and the content will follow.

Ok, I think that’s about it for now. One last thing, remember to have fun! Presenting to people is an enormous privilege, so take it seriously, but don’t forget to stop and smell the roses along the way.