74% of people are afraid of public speaking, but it seems the events industry hasn't done much in recent times to help those that fear it, nor those whose professional careers are spent doing it.
Albeit, a lot of professional public speakers and organisers have shared their experiences in writing, but that alone isn't a full solution for the administrative and anxious issues affecting people in events.
Voxgig is a startup that aims to make up for our previous failures in enabling speakers. They're taking this on by first understanding what those speakers need. I caught up with their CEO, Richard Roger to see whether or not that commitment was all talk, if you'll excuse the wordplay:
"I remember the day I walked up to our events organiser very clearly. I asked, 'Tell me how you do your job. Show me the process of how you actually go about organising events.' She opened up her email and there were 500 unread messages. She then opened up all these spreadsheets, and that’s the world she lived in; one of a huge amount of manual labour. And I remember saying to her, 'This is nuts! This is crazy! Even if it’s expensive, we’ll pay for something to make your life easier.'
Richard Roger from voxgig
The two of us went through a process of evaluating what was in the market over the next two months, and there was nothing suitable that fit our needs.
"That set me thinking, and when I exited from that company, I decided to run with that idea as a potential startup and began doing customer discovery. It was clear that there was a need for a solution to make speakers' and organisers' lives easier. Yes, there are good event management solutions, but nobody is looking after speakers. Lanyrd used to, but it hasn’t been looked after. It was much-loved. Yes, you have organisers who have options, but they’re all prohibitively expensive."
"I was a professional speaker [at my previous company], and I used to speak at two to three events a month. In order to organise all those engagements, I had a PA working and spending half her time finding and organising those gigs. Again, there were a lot of backwards and forwards emails, and spreadsheets. Events were very integral to the sales function of our company, but again there was no software to manage this. So, you’ve got a really under-served segment.
Furthermore, one of the event managers we hired in my previous company, had the job of spending sponsorship money, but she too was focused on spreadsheets and email, and it was very hard to measure those activities and find ROI, so it just felt and feels like there’s no good, unified solution that’s broad enough to bring those stakeholders together."
That's what voxgig is for.
Below you'll see that their first endeavour has been to create a search engine of sorts; the kind that's specifically for organisers, public speakers, and sponsors to find what they're looking for on the events circuit.
What's So Hard About That?
"I think our biggest challenge so far has been to make sure we’re building the right thing. In my very first startup 15 years ago, I made the classic mistake of locking myself in my bedroom writing code. I was working out of my parents’ house (I used to cycle there, I lived somewhere else...). I wrote really good software that was nearly bug-free, but there wasn’t a market for it. The biggest issue we have here [at voxgig] is potentially doing the same thing, because I’m a software developer by trade and it’s my comfort zone. So, I’ve very deliberately decided to not do that.
Voxgig is still made up of mostly marketing people. We have a newsletter for speakers to make sure we understand what they want. It has 1600 subscribers now, so that’s been a great success. The difficult thing has been putting the breaks on software development to make sure we understand the market in the best way."
"At the moment, we have a search engine for events, and sticking to that was really tough, because you think “It’ll only take a week to build something else.” We have to stay focused. It’s really tough as a software developer not to add more features. We have done it, but it’s much harder than you think, because you think you should be much further ahead.
You feel like you’re competing with all these 20-something coders who are banging out entire systems that do blockchain ICOs in a weekend.
We’re entering a mature industry that has lots of players, we have to make sure our solution is enough, and the only way you do that is by doing the hard yards of talking to people."
The secret to success in SaaS is not making software.
Is Public Speaking Exclusionary? How Did You Get Into It?
"I did debating in school, and then I was in a drama group in my teens and I wasn’t very good at acting... I still amn’t very good at acting. One of the coaches there taught me to project my voice and speak with confidence on a stage in front of people."
Of all the things I learned in my teenage years up to and including my final exams, all of that knowledge has been less useful to me than attending a drama group and learning how to speak.
"I was very lucky that I had the right opportunities and environment to learn, but there’s another aspect to this that I’ve learned from speaking to a lot of people who do public speaking: you wouldn’t think it, but most people that are really good public speakers are introverts. It sounds paradoxical, but you can hide behind the microphone.
When you’re talking to people directly one-on-one or in a group situation, extroverts shine there because their brains are wired so that they can take in all the input and understand it. Introverts find that very tiring. If you’re behind a microphone, everyone has to listen to you. You can be very anti-social and everyone still thinks your social. It’s a great way to avoid having to actually network; it’s a zone of comfort. You’re doing something that’s clearly of value."
"I got into [public speaking] again later on. I ended up working for an academic research group and you tend to have to do quite a lot of presentations in a role like that. Academics are the introvert’s introvert, so I at least had better projection than a lot of them. I eventually graduated from internal events to meet-ups. I developed a taste for it. I worked as a freelance consultant for a while, and one of the best ways to get business is to go to meet-ups and talk because it shows you know what you’re talking about."
The First Takeaway:
I would say to anybody, it’s not something that might be apparent at first, but public speaking is a great way to improve your value to an organisation.
"Even if people have the skills to do it, people have a significant trepidation or fear to speak. Meaning, if they don’t have to, they won’t. It can be a very easy place to be, once you get over the fear. The first thing you have to do is accept that it’s not one of these ‘born with’ traits. It’s simply a skill. It’s like touch-typing or driving a car. You can learn that. Then there’s the emotional and psychological aspects. The more you do it, the easier it gets. You never want to lose the fear you get beforehand. It’s very important."
"You don’t want to have ten butterflies in your stomach, but if you have two or three, that's a good thing. Always have a cup of coffee before you go on stage because it makes your brain work faster and you need a better brain when you’re up there. You'll have more adrenaline in your system; your ‘fight or flight’ response will have kicked in. It makes you smarter and you get five points of IQ for free. Your brain is working much faster than your audience. Half the time they’re reading Facebook or checking their email or whatever, so just by virtue of being in an audience your IQ goes down. And by being on stage and having very slight nerves means you deliver a better talk."
"It’s perfectly okay to go and formally learn how to speak. Do a course or start practicing in safe environments. Meet-ups are totally safe. You go to a meet-up and there’s twenty people and you give a ten-minute talk. People who organise meet-ups are desperate for speakers. Those are public events but you can present internally in your company as well. That also counts. It’s good to mentally frame it so that you understand that you’re building a skill, as opposed to 'this is an awful thing I have to get through.'"
"Although, that’s a helpful frame as well. In the early days when I used to get fairly freaked out before I had to go up, one of the things I’d say to myself is, 'This is only ten minutes of your life. It’s only ten minutes. It will be over in ten minutes, and then you can have a beer.' I don’t do that anymore because I’ve gotten inoculated towards it a little bit, but when you’re up there speaking it feels like time is really slow and it takes forever. But in reality, for the audience, it goes really quickly."
The Second Takeaway:
It’s not magic. There’s not a huge barrier to entry. A lot of people just don’t want to do it at all. It’s not like anyone’s going to stop you if you put up your hand to volunteer. It’s a skill, and a really valuable one.
Yes, But Can You Over-Prepare?
Though it may have something to do with the flamboyance of their legends, it seems 'winging it' is a very avant-garde approach in the realm of speaking to a crowd, if the headliners of LinkedIn are anything to go by. One specific example that comes to mind is the advice from the entire management team at Forbes to go with the flow. Richard's approach is a bit more nuanced:
"It depends. If you don’t know the subject matter that well, and you’re nervous, and you don’t have a lot of experience, it is a good idea to over-practice. Literally run through the thing until you’re sick of it. Literally go through the deck 20 times until you want to scratch your eyes out. Because, in the moment, when you’re up there and you freeze, because it’s so deeply embedded in your brain, it’ll carry you through.
Another good trick in that scenario where you still need to build experience is to memorise the first sentence or two. They happen automatically and then you’re off. But, later on, you won’t have to do that as much, especially if you know your subject really well. Then you could wing it. There’s a condition though; it has to be something you’re really passionate about. It has to be something you care about. Usually the quickest way to find something like that is to use a personal story to illustrate what you’re talking about.
If you’re a software engineer and you worked on a project that went really well because you implemented scrum perfectly, you’re proud of that and you probably had a really good experience. It also works if it went horribly, as long as there’s a high emotional stake in it."
If you start talking about the story chronologically from beginning to end, the presentation will present itself.
What Makes Someone Good At Public Speaking?
"The structure of the talk. It depends on different scenarios. You always have to think about what the linear structure of the content is.
The reason a lot of wedding speeches are terrible and painful to sit through is because they’re rambling. They don’t have any structure.
A simple structure is: You have an opening bit where you give the game away completely -- you tell people exactly what you’re going to talk about and what the conclusion is. You then have three main points that illustrate or demonstrate what is going on in some way. Then you have a conclusion where you just say it again. It sounds boring, but you have to remember that when you’re sitting in an audience and you’re checking your phone, and someone shuffles past you, you’re only taking in 50% of what the speaker’s saying anyway, so it’s actually of utility to the audience for the speaker to do that. And, it’s very easy as an audience member to grasp that structure."
"The absolute worst thing you can do is a speaker is you get on stage and say something like 'I have three points to say about this,' you make two points, and then move on to something else. If I had rotten tomatoes, I’d throw them at you.
I have an obsession with ancient history videos on YouTube. The ancient history videos are delivered by shambolic presenters. They speak with lisps and can’t explain anything and their slides are terrible, but the wonderful thing about ancient history is that there’s always an arc and there’s always a story. The Samarians were destroyed by the sea people… there’s always something going on and there’s something that captures your attention."
"That’s why that works, it’s why the personal story thing works because there’s a distinct narrative. If you’ve ever watched The Sopranos, Christopher wants to be a movie director, and at one point he’s sitting in some horrible flat that he’s living in and Pauly, who’s one of the older mobsters and kind of his friend is there. And Christopher’s down and can’t figure out what to do with his life and he says, 'What’s my arc, Pauly?'
In a movie or on TV, the characters have arcs; a character develops in some way and the hero’s journey takes place. Christopher draws his hand across the screen and says 'What's my arc?'"
That’s a good question about any talk you’re giving: what’s my arc? What journey am I taking the audience on? If you’re just sitting down and listing a bunch of facts, it’s not going to work and it’s going to be boring. That’s the underlying reason why reading bullet points doesn’t work. It’s not because it’s bad form. The fundamental reason is there’s no arc and no journey. Nothing changes. You’re the same before as after.
Do You Have Plans to Do Anything About Speaker Diversity?
"When we started the newsletter, I wasn’t hugely familiar with anything comparable in the space, but I then became familiar with something called Technically Speaking. It shut down last year unfortunately, but it was initially set up to highlight conferences that have codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies and blind speaker reviews. It certainly influenced how we are thinking about our product. One of the things we’re going to have is something that says, 'here’s the link to the code of conduct.' I’m a big believer in leading by example because what that does is it normalises certain expectations of behaviour.
Having a CoC and anti-harassment policy and CFP process that doesn’t discriminate is a powerful way of making it happen. You can argue about how you go about that because it’s a really complex issue, but the point still stands."
"In terms of more direct action, I think it’s incumbent upon every events organiser to have this as a significant point of what they’re doing. Because, if you’ve put on a conference and you have low diversity at this point in time, it’s a clear signal that you just didn’t care. I don’t accept excuses around the absolute percentage levels of different groups. There’s not a huge amount of extra effort. And it makes for a better conference because one of the things conferences have suffered from is the same old people giving the same old talks every year. You can go back to a conference for a third year and it’s the same guy (usually) giving the same talk. It’s not great value for money. Constant injections of new blood and energy is good for events in general."
"There’s another aspect to this though which is an emphasis on making the environment safe. What we discovered was at conferences that we ran at my previous company is you actually have to have either dedicated volunteers or staff that are actively monitoring things because incidents happen. Even if you have diverse speakers and you make sure an awful lot of things happened, once a few beers are had, there’s always unwanted behaviour. You have to be proactive about intervening and diffusing situations and making sure it’s clear what the acceptable standards are. I think off-site as well as on-site. If you put a load of people on a bus and bring them to a venue outside your conference, you’re still responsible for what happens to them."
It’s not about flag waving and saying we believe in such and such. What I always want to see is what the practical steps that someone is making. How have they actually made diversity happen? And we’re only scratching the surface of what happens. I’m really glad to see it because I think conferences have become more interesting and better value for money because it’s not just the same old same old.
"It’s a generational issue, and I think it’ll take that long to make some progress, but progress must be made."
How Are You Going to Make Sure That Voxgig Isn't Just "Flag Waving"?
"Part of what we want to do is make speaking more accessible to everyone. For one of the speaker training workshops we’re doing, the trainer wanted to make sure that we had child-minding facilities available.
We’re positioning these workshops for people who are just getting into speaking and who have different kinds of constraints. This comes back to our philosophy of supporting public speakers because no one else is looking after them. Speaking is a skill like any other. There’s no shame in getting training on how to get better.
"Anyone who speaks already, they can always get better. My grandfather used to have this Dad joke, 'What’s the biggest room in the world? The room for improvement!' You can always get better. There’s always things you haven’t thought of. I would still say, even though I have many years of progress in terms of public speaking, I don’t move around the stage at all. I haven’t mastered that skill. I tried it at the last speaking engagement I was at. It didn’t work at all because I didn’t have the understanding of how to position myself. I didn’t understand the technical aspects. There’s always more to learn.
These speaker training workshops aren’t the main product we’re putting together. That’s the website which will become an online service. They’re a supporting product. They’re something we’re going to continue doing. They’re part of our mission to open up public speaking to everybody. I think they are fairly focused on the tech conference side of things. Public speaking is not just public speaking. When it’s at tech conferences and you’re explaining technical subject matters, it has its own issues and techniques. It’s more than big enough to be a niche. I’d encourage anybody who’s reading this to take a look. They’ll be based in Dublin and London."
Do it yourself. Voxgig are paving the way for speakers who thought they'd never be able to stand on stage. As well as their speaking workshops (details of which you can find here), they've also pioneered a meet-up for event professionals which they'll be hosting monthly. For full details on their first installment this June, check here.