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Anyone has who has been to more than one conference, or spoken at one, will remember some of the more awkward moments. These are especially awkward when a speaker begins to interact with their audience for the first time and if the energy level is low.
Nate Taylor, conference speaker and organiser, offered some first class advice for dealing with these moments and getting your session started. It was an epic 17 part Twitter thread that deserves to be widely shared.
So here it is in a more digestible form:
Before I speak at a conference, I always talk to the audience first. You might call it "crowd work." Here's why I do it and why I think you should too.
1. A lot of conf's give you 10-15 minutes between talks to get set up. For most of us that takes 4-5 minutes.
So they extra 10 or so minutes can be really awkward. You're upfront not knowing what to do with your hands.
The audience is staring at their phone. Or possibly looking at their schedule to see when lunch is.
They're almost never talking to anyone.
2. If the room has this isolated feel to it, because people are in their screens, it becomes really hard to start your talk. I've seen speakers do it by saying "Well it's 10am. I guess I'll start" which isn't the most...confident or engaging way to start the talk.
3. When the room is cold and isolated you have to spend the first 5-10 minutes trying to get them to warm up to the idea of you. This is where you see speakers talk a lot about their bio (hint: almost nobody cares about your background.)
You're only given 45-75 minutes to talk. If you spend 10 minutes trying to warm up the room, that's taking away from information you could be sharing.
4. A lot of speakers are worried that the room will be judging them while they speak.
I'm sure _someone_ will be judging you, but overall the room wants you to succeed.
If you do "crowd work" beforehand, then the amount they want you to succeed goes up DRAMATICALLY. They get to see the real you. Not the "lecturing expert" version of you.
They have likely connected with you on something. And they now think "This person is a nice person." they're more likely to pay attention.
5. When they pay attention it becomes WAY EASIER to talk to them for an hour. It is MISERABLE to have a checked out room.
6. You get to connect with them. It's not just that you're sharing, they are too. You might find a common background or common interest. And whether you consciously realize that or not, you've now formed a bond.
So when I say "do crowd work" what do I mean?
It's not that complicated. It's simply talking to the people in the room. I tend to do it by asking questions. And guess what, when someone up front asks a questions, there's almost always someone in the audience that answers.
In fact, I've never had a case where nobody would answer my questions. And I've seen a cool thing happen. Once one person answers a question, someone else feels like "That wasn't embarrassing, I'll answer too"
So what kind of questions should you ask? That's up to you. But here's some that I tend to ask
"Who has been to this conference every time they've had it?"
"Who has never been here before?"
"Who has never been to ANY conference before?"
"What talk has been your favorite?"
(I love asking this because it sparks other conversations...why they liked it. Also, the number of times the answer has been "The talk @housecor gave" is astounding. I always tell them we don't talk about that, his head is big enough 😂)
But even me saying let's not build up Cory more gets them to laugh, and engage.
"Who's from the area?"
"Who came the farthest for this conference?"
"Who's a Dev, UX, QA, BA, PM etc?"
And this past week I spontaneously asked a question that is now my favorite
"Who has a degree NOT related to software?" (lots of hands, btw)
"Who has the degree FARTHEST from software?"
This week that included French Lit, 19th cent. art history, theater tech and HR
A final reason to do crowd work is you might be able to use that information in your talk. Not always, but sometimes. This week I had a math major in my talk. I also showed an equation and made a joke about how I had the wrong # of significant digits....
But "we're going to move on from this slide before the math major tells me how I got it wrong." It injected a little bit of humanity into the talk, and called back to the connection that I started 5 minutes before the talk began.
The tl;dr here is that if you talk to your room in a conversational way before your talk then EVERYONE has a better experience.
They learn about each other. They learn about you.
You build up the energy in the room. And you get them on your side.
If you want to congratulate Nate on his epic the original thread is on his Twitter.