How I Caught The Speaking Bug


I’ve just walked off stage from my very first international speaking gig and I’m hooked. Elated. Pumped. Overjoyed. Not to mention exhausted! And it’s not just because of feedback like this:

EVERYONE needs to listen to @KylieMHunt talk about Survival Tactics for Uninspiring Workplaces. Moving, inspirational, essential.

And another:

I’m sitting here, laughing, smiling, teary-eyed. That was from the heart.

And just one more:

So far the best talk (for me) at #NDCOslo.

Wow. Passion found.

So how did I go from being a disgruntled employee to now being an international speaker talking about how important happiness and engagement is in the workplace? And how do you get that first speaking gig? I’d like to share my journey with you in the hope that I can inspire others to find and then follow their passion. So here are my ‘top tips’ from what I’ve learnt along the way.

Recognise what you DON’T want

I was the proverbial frog in slowly heating water failing to jump out. As you may have seen from my other posts, I walked out on a lucrative corporate property job after the culture and leadership no longer resonated with me (a bit of an understatement; you can read more about that here). So I knew that I didn’t want to go back into a similar environment. So I had a rather large incentive to change.

Take time to ‘marinate’

I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do; only that I needed some time to work things out in my mind. Writing my first Pluralsight course was a start, as was starting this blog. It gave me a chance to think about what really interested me and, what I call, ‘marinate’. To read articles that resonated, which then took me down a certain path and lo and behold I’m now passionate about workplace happiness, productivity, and employee engagement. Great. So now what?

Start. Just start. Something. Anything. Just do it.

It was suggested to me that I submit a few talks to NDC Oslo as they are a large event (160+ speakers and 2000+ attendees), are branching out into more soft skills, and I knew the keynote speaker, Troy Hunt, rather well :). So I spoke with few people involved in organising the conference to get a better insight into the audience. My original pitch was aimed at leaders, but this would have missed the mark completely as the majority of attendees were not in the management stream. So I amended my papers and submitted 2 talks: a Lightning Talk called 5 Ninja-Tricks for Thriving at Work (10 mins) and a Regular Talk titled Don’t Be Dilbert: Survival Tactics for Uninspiring Workplaces (1 hour) and crossed my fingers. A few weeks later I was doing a little happy dance as I found out that both talks had been approved. I was ecstatic!

The ‘Oh Crap’ Moment

Woohoo! I was selected to speak at a conference in Oslo! But then came the ‘oh crap – now what?’ moment as the reality of what this involved started to sink in. This wasn’t a small conference. I’ve never spoken at a conference before. And it’s an IT conference and I had little (read: no) idea whether my topics would resonate. So, being the process-driven, organised, and detailed person I am, I began to find as many resources as I could to help me.

How I built my first conference talk

I had about 3 months before my talk, so fortunately I had time on my side. Here is the process I went through and some of the resources I used:

  • I joined my local Professional Speakers Association of Australia chapter. This was really to get as many tips, tricks and ideas as I could from professional speakers. I even went to their Annual Conference – which was fabulous – as I saw that there wasn’t so much of a “do this” or “don’t do that” attitude – it was more about finding your own style, point of difference, and how to best structure stories and metaphors. I helped out one of the speakers, Thomas Murrell, by taking photos during his talk and he gave me his book in return. As luck would have it, it was called Insider Secrets of International Speaking. A fabulous resource and invaluable for those uninitiated like me.
  • I took note of when ideas struck so I could replicate and ‘marinate’ in this mindset as much as possible. I was actually like Woody Allen in this respect (kinda eww!) as both he, like me, got our best ideas in the shower. Bet you didn’t really need to know that!! But at least I’m honest 🙂
  • I spoke with people who knew the audience. Previous NDC speakers. This helped me tailor my talk to give myself the best opportunity for my message to resonate.
  • I put it out there that I was going to speak at an international conference. There’s nothing like accountability to get you moving! So I told anyone who would listen – the mums at my son’s school, my friends, and even my chiropractor. You never know who or when a great idea might strike!
  • I asked what the room would look like. One of the organisers send me a photo, which helped immensely in visualising how I could best use the space I had, how many people it could seat, what the AV set up was, etc. The conference was held in a stadium and the room I was in had a suspended stage and cinema-style seating for just over 400 people. So I thought about how I could use the room (and made a mental note not to wear a dress!)
  • I found myself a seasoned mentor. At the Professional Speakers Annual Conference I made sure I met the Chapter lead and asked whether she’d be happy for a meet up afterwards. Tarran Deane was an absolute font of knowledge and really helped me push myself. I hadn’t thought of using audio, video, or props, but ended up doing all 3 and they were absolutely brilliant! And these ideas came when we met at 7am for a walking meeting at Burleigh Heads. This was what we experienced:
How I Caught the Speaking Bug
  • I recorded my ideas, both in writing and in audio. I recorded my voice as I dumped all the ideas that came from my walk with Tarran while driving back home again – 10 mins of recording yielded over 20 ideas.
  • I made sure I was clear on my key messages and what I wanted the audience to takeaway. What really resonated with me from the PSA Conference was that authenticity and passion trumps almost everything else, but it takes real skill to tie everything together into an enjoyable and insightful talk. For example, my talk was called ‘Don’t Be Dilbert: Survival Tactics for Uninspiring Workplaces’. So I had a relatable character, Dilbert, and then weaved in what his heartrate would be like on a Sunday afternoon, which led to a message around SMondays (the moment Sunday stops feeling like a Sunday as the anxiety of Monday kicks in), and how the audience could eliminate SMondays by using the tactics in my talk. I kept coming back to the heartrate and even physically tapped a heartbeat on my leg for effect. And to top it all off, I ordered 350 heart-shaped stress balls that I hurled at the audience at the end of the talk as a reminder for them to take stock of their own heartrate. So my talk definitely stood out from the rest and the key message wouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry!
  • I’ve recently had back problems and would struggle to stand for an hour at a time. So I asked the lovely NDC organisers if I was able to have a bar stool with a back rest that I could use on stage. It was a perfect opportunity for me to not only rest my back, but use it as part of my talk where I sat down to tell a personal story, which made it feel more relaxed and intimate. I also used it to demonstrate that we need to adapt our workspace to suit our style of working. And for me, the stage was my workspace.
  • I found a friend who knew the audience and knew me, and essentially asked him to informally be my editor. He reviewed my first draft and provided relevant feedback, which gave me confidence to know I was doing the best I could to truly connect with my audience.
  • I didn’t want ‘death by powerpoint’ and so played around with a few templates, but ended up adapting one similar to Apple’s, as I love how simple and sharp it is. I also stretched my powerpoint skills by including audio and video – something I’d never done before but turned out to be remarkably easy.
  • I asked myself whether I would include time for questions. Now from my research and discussions with my editor and mentor, I found out that Norwegian audiences aren’t known for their interactiveness, so I decided against it. As it turns out, we still had a laugh together and connected.
  • Listening to me for a full hour is a big ask. Audiences tend to have a slump about 20 minutes into presentations, so I knew I had to do something different at about that time of my presentation. So I showed a video. Not only that, I had pre-arranged with my AV guy that I would roam into the audience as the video was playing (remember this was a cinema-style room so I could walk up the stairs and be right in the centre of the audience) and I had to make sure my microphone would be fine for me to do that. It worked really well as I was able to see their reaction to my video, and had the added benefit of mixing things up a bit for them as I ‘emerged’ from a different part of the room.
  • I questioned whether I should say something in my presentation about this being my very first international one and I decided that I should as it demonstrated an authentic vulnerability and helped illustrate one of my messages around adopting a positive mindset.
  • I had read in Thomas’s book the success that can be garnered by demonstrating local knowledge. I had heard of a park about a 20 minute tram ride from my hotel that had incredibly beautiful and arty statues of naked men and women, called Vigeland Park. One element of my talk was about my boss calling me and apologising for “being a dick”, so I decided that a visual photograph would be an ‘interesting’ way of demonstrating this. So off I went to take photos of appendages on male statues and including this in my talk. It achieved quite a reaction when shown on the big screen! Now I must include a disclaimer here and say that I’d only show that picture to Norwegian audiences as they’re very familiar with the park in question. The last thing I want to do is offend someone!
  • And a note for the ladies – consider what you’re wearing. High heels that make your legs look fabulous are not a good idea, as no one will be thinking of how wonderful your legs are if you fall over! And make sure there’s something that the microphone’s battery pack can clip on to. I wore jeans but heard of another speaker who wore a dress and ended up having to clip the battery to her stockings and hope to goodness they didn’t make them fall down! And dangling earrings or noisy jewellery is a no-no as they can be very distracting. I even took off my speaker lanyard so it wouldn’t distract.
  • I also had some ideas about what would happen if the worst happened e.g. no microphone, powerpoint failing, etc. I’d seen this happen at the PSA conference and Tarran did a fabulous job of reading the audience – she sat down on the edge of the stage and started clapping out some tunes while things got fixed. It had the effect of focusing the audience on her, creating a relaxed vibe, and having a bit of fun. ‘cause we all know that sometimes sh*t happens!
  • And in the end, remember that you’re the expert and it’s important that you have fun with it. Be authentic, be positive, and be you.

I’m now taking a ginormously deep breath and acting on my own advice and taking some time to ‘marinate’ – enjoy what I’ve achieved; be grateful for the support I had; and get excited about the future. I’m super keen to see the evaluation results and will share them in time. I’ll be doing the same talks at NDC Sydney in August and I have a tonne of feedback and ideas on how to make them better. So if this has sparked some interest and been of benefit, I’d love to chat. Or better yet, see you at NDC Sydney!

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