For women in tech who have never spoken on stage before, those first steps to put yourself out there can feel overwhelming.
Megan Berry, VP of Product at Rebelmouse, knows that feeling well. She started her speaking career at meetups and panels and has since given talks at events like South by Southwest, Silicon Harlem, Creators Unconference by General Assembly, Social Media Week, Social Media Camp, Socialize West, and Small Biz Tech Summit.
But she didn’t get there overnight. In fact, her progression from novice to big event speaker - like her career - follows a clear path and a story of methodical, diligent work starting in 2009. The fourth employee at Klout and an early community evangelist at Mobclix, Megan knows what it’s like to work her way up and gain experience day by day.
Megan’s insights will help you take those first scary steps in your speaking career — and will also help you see that they’re not so scary after all.
1. Shift Your Mindset
The first step in deciding to speak at events is actually internal. Deciding to take the leap into getting your voice out there in larger and larger arenas requires a shift in mindset.
“I’ve always felt that while speaking is intimidating, it’s a huge opportunity. It pushes you outside your comfort zone. It’s meaningful.”
That’s why, if an opportunity does come your way, you should say yes.
“Early in your career, you’re not going to be asked every day to speak. Sometimes you’ll mess up, but you’ll learn and you’ll move forward.”
Even though the first speaking invitation can feel overwhelming, “I try to embrace the fear. I try to think it’s positive. Whether or not it’s true, it’s helpful to think it.”
Megan’s father, one of her speaking mentors, helped her shift her mindset in her early days: “He told me that his best speaking gigs are when he feels nervous before. If you’re not nervous, you don’t get that edge.”
If you don’t have a family member you can turn to, there are other ways to find mentors who will help you shift your mindset. Find friends, Toastmaster’s, colleagues, and other people to push you to your own edge. Those who have benefited from speaking themselves will have their own inspiring, unique stories to encourage you when you’re feeling unsure.
2. Find the Low-Hanging Fruit
So what if people aren’t banging down your door with invitations to speak? You can still take matters into your own hands. Megan suggests going after two types of speaking gigs for your first few steps out the gate: Meetups and panels.
“Right off the bat at Mobclix, I was an evangelist. I went to meetups and talked about the product.”
“I also found panels. Solo gigs are harder to get than panel gigs. You can invite other people to be speakers as well. If you invite others, they might invite you in the future for their events. You’re also helping a conference organizer build out a full hour of material, which makes you extremely valuable.”
In other words, find the low-hanging fruit. There are dozens of meetups and small events happening in every city that likely touch on what you and your company do, where you can shed some light and be an evangelist even if that isn’t your job title.
And that, too, is another pro tip from Megan on speaking in the early days: Don’t make it about you. Make it about your company. “Don’t talk about yourself. I found it helpful to begin with the thing that’s most closely related to my job. I was evangelizing my company.” This is helpful when you’re early in your career, and maybe don’t have a broad set of experiences to draw from, to link into a compelling story or engaging narrative.
Megan isn’t alone in this approach. It’s what dozens of other now-prominent company-evangelizing speakers do, such as Emily Castor of Lyft. “You really become a voice of the company,” says Megan.
3. …But First, Get the ‘Okay’ from Your Company
Of course, not all companies are the same. It’s important if you are going to take steps to put yourself out there that you let your company know: “Get the okay from your company. It’s likely they want someone out there talking about what they do.”
And this, in turn, will lead to more opportunities down the road: “At Mobclix, once they could tell I was doing a good job, I was giving talks at developer events and getting ‘lightweight’ experience speaking at bigger events.”
Then when she joined Klout, she had the experience to give talks that set her on her path to success and to evangelize that company as well. It’s a desirable skill, one that a lot of roles will look at in a positive light when thinking about who they might want to hire, or who to promote to a more senior position.
4. The Old Adage: Fake It ‘Til You Make It
When it comes time to give the talk, imposter syndrome may creep in. It’s not uncommon.
“That feeling of not being ready is a big problem, especially for women. It’s so important to just push forward and fake it ’til you make it. Say yes. Then figure out how you can do it. Once you have the gig, go ahead and feel free to overprepare to gain confidence, but don’t turn down the opportunity.”
“When I started, I said, ‘I’m just going to pretend that it totally makes sense that I’m here.’”
And a little perspective helps too. “What’s the worst thing that could happen? You have a talk that doesn’t go well. If it’s not that great, it’s not that big of a deal.”
5. Find a Prep Practice That Works for You
Megan also has her own brand of prep: “I orient talks around the title of my presentation. What’s my thesis? What do I want people to walk away thinking? Then I develop something that points to that. My slides are clean, image-focused, one point max. I build the information into what I’m saying.”
“Sometimes it takes me a few hours, some talks I can do with 10 minutes of prep time if it’s something I’ve done before.”
She didn’t find this technique the first time: “I was really nervous. I studied my notes a little too much thinking it was about the exact information I was going to say. It’s more about how you’re going to say. Who’s your audience? What story are you going to tell? It’s not about reporting exact numbers. It’s really about the story.” Thinking about it in this way can also help take some pressure off - you don’t necessarily have to memorize every word, where every inflection point should hit. You’re just up there telling a really interesting story.
Everyone’s preparation looks a little different, and you only learn yours through practice.
Just Get Going
Like so many other aspects of the working world, getting into speaking gigs can be a catch-22. You need experience to get the gigs, but you need the gigs to get the experience. That’s why it’s key to start small, say yes, and continue improving on past talks.
“It’s hard to get those gigs without a lot of experience. You can start small. If they don’t want to hear about you, talk about something larger.”
But the effect speaking can have on your career is too large to ignore. “It’s not something quantitative. There’s been many a time when I’ve walked into a room and people will say, ‘I’ve seen you before.’”
“These are long-term career gains, not short-term business gains.”