Who is afraid of the big bad talk…

Events and Talks | WordPress

So at the weekend I gave a talk at WordCamp London on “Who’s afraid of the big bad host”. WordCamp London is the largest WordPress event in the UK a great conference and one I have had the pleasure speaking at several times on the trot.

I was disappointed with the talk and how it went and unfortunately let that disappointment show, both during and after the talk.

If you talk regularly, you get use to the fact sometimes stuff doesn’t work and if its a new talk it’s always a bit of a risk is it going to work? Rarely do you completely break down in the middle of a talk or try to rewrite it midway through. I was doing both on Sunday and for the first time in years I found myself being far from my confident self.

For me this talk didn’t work at any point and it was disappointing because I feel I let people around me down and wasted what was a perfect opportunity to do my bit for a brilliant conference.

I’m not exactly the most overtly emotional chap but I had to avoid people. When I needed to go get the car to take down the 34SP.com stand, I more or less ran out of the venue for fear I would lash out at someone.

It meant I didn’t really get to say good bye to folks and that I’m really sorry, if I came across gruff with you post talk I really didn’t mean to and it was not you.

Given I have internally dissected the talk (and watched the live stream version, taking notes) I thought it would be both interesting and therapeutic to go through what went wrong but also the process I tend to be use when doing talks.

If nothing else it will help me improve and hopefully someone else.
If you are a new or thinking about speaking, please please don’t let this put you off.
There are lessons to learn from it but not speaking is not one of them.
Warning this is a long post, and contains bad language

Writing The Talk… …This Should be Easy

“Who’s afraid of the big bad host” I still love that title, I think it was fun and interesting. But it gave little away, nor did the description which was vague. The talk came from requests from Twitter, after all I work for a hosting company it should be easy to write this talk.

It turns out writing such a talk is nigh on impossible to do without introducing bias which I wanted to avoid at all costs.

I didn’t want this to be a sales pitch, both from the view I want it to be useful (though yes, most people should host with us is the answer) but I wanted to prove it could be done.

Avoiding bias when you are!

I went to silly lengths to avoid mentioning 34SP.com, my slides were unbranded and really was as neutral as I could be. I took the attitude I was representing the industry not the company (This hints at to some of the pressure issues I put myself under)

It was also out of my comfort zone, I like introducing people to ideas and concepts to fire of peoples imagination and have them go and explore. Actually doing a broad overview of a topic is very difficult (when it might as well be discuss “fruit”) where do you start? How much depth? How do you not become patronising, while still actually letting people with zero knowledge actually get it.

I also wanted to avoid jargon except to bust it. so I’m writing a talk that is jargon free,that is suitable for all and needs to bring value to every one in the room. No pressure at all.

Gathering ideas

So like all my talks I started soliciting ideas, from colleagues in particular my friend Siobhan who is the 34SP.com Head of Sales. She spent a couple of hours with me showing me clients questions from whats the difference from shared vs a container through to whats an IP. We looked at common queries and I started to fill up notes. Folks on Twitter pitched in their thoughts and slowly some concepts and themes appeared.

Normally I start talks by writing in a notebook and brain dump it can be words, sentences pictures it helps to order things in my mind.

Then I open Keynote and transfer those notes into individual sides 100+ sides is perfectly normal most just a single word.

I tend to leave the presentation open for a few days on the laptop, flicking and looking at it when I have a spare five minutes, adding slides or removing, merging them.

Take a walk

When I think I’m ready, I go for a walk. Often its just round the block a few times. During that walk I try to remember a slide and start to think how I would present it, what is the most important thing to get across. I consider:

  • Is it informative
  • Is it actionable
  • Should people care

It really needs to be able to 2 out of 3, ultimately the way to guarantee people get something out of the talk is to make sure as much of it is actionable or can trigger them to do something.

For example BACK UP! wait wrong talk…

My walk I also start considering wording these will end up being my set pieces.

Concepts and the set piece

I don’t script my talks instead, every slide has both concepts (the thing I want to get over to the audience) and the set piece a short hopefully catchy one liner that sums up or explains the concept . The idea being if I can remain anchored by the concept I can use the set piece and improvise around it.

This means if you have been to say my security talk, you will have heard the same phrases maybe. Those are the set pieces yet every talk even with the same slides is slightly different.

For the hosting talk, the walk did not go well. Normally most of the slides get forgotten on the walk, just half a dozen or so will pass through my mind and these nearly always be come the core of the presentation. During the hosting walk my mind was flooded it darted everywhere and narrowing it down just wasn’t working. I had concepts and set pieces but they were scatter gunned.

Going from paper to digital

I came back and started rebuilding the presentation (as I normally do) now using my standard template deck. This shift from idea to presentation for me formalises this is going into the presentation. There can be a period of time between the walk and the creation of the final slides and indeed I try to leave some time between the two.

Normally this would be two dozen slides at most (these will then be expanded) but after this pruning process 80 slides existed. Something is going wrong, my head can’t cope!

Is hosting this complex…

Plan B – Those that can’t do teach…

I have had this issue before and the solution then, was to find someone totally and utterly unfamiliar with the subject, and teach them to the point they could give the presentation (You need a willing subject for this).

If I can teach someone else how to give the give the talk, then surely I can then do the same.

I have in the past used my parents and family but it wasn’t really an option this time. So I took a variant of this and over a few days I spent my mornings talking to random strangers on trains about hosting. Being a commuter, you get two types of people the WTF are you doing talking to me and the please talk to me I’m bored. I’m normally a WTF type but for a week I was hyper chatty.

I scared people. I talked about hosting to conductors, passengers and the people manning the trolley. Each day, I tried to work on a concept and stick to it:

  • Shared hosting vs everything else (Conductor on the Leeds-Middlesborough)
  • Cloud Computing (Nice lady with red hair and a pet store)
  • What is reselling (A guy looking for a job and his girlfriend had gone backpacking without him)

If I could hold the attention and get the concept across to someone who didn’t even want to listen it’s a good start. But the goal was to coax complete strangers into at least repeating and talking about the subject themselves.

It actually worked quite well things were starting to form, it was scattered but some broad concepts were there:

  • What is hosting
  • What do most people need
  • How does hosting affect X

Pandering to my fears

With that the presentation was still divided, but it started to appear in a form sort of close to what was delivered.

I wasn’t happy with it, my colleagues started getting tired of me asking if they wanted to do my talk.

We travelled down to WordCamp on the Friday, and during our evening meal our Business Director made a comment, that inspired a whole new set of thoughts. I went back to my room and threw away the deck and rebuilt to the one used on the day.

It was shorter, totally different style and removed a lot of the concepts but I felt far more confident with it. However in doing so I was having to relearn set pieces and more importantly I didn’t give it the time to settle.

People who know me joke that, its not unusual to see me writing slides an hour before a presentation and its true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t already know whats in that presentation. I need to let things to settle, for them to start existing in my mind the creation of the slide is the final step, sort of putting it in stone (digital stone that I can change).

Ripping up the 11th hour

So to suddenly rip up my presentation like that is very rare, very scary and it might have been a mistake.

I really liked my presentation deck, but it lost a lot of the flow and a fair amount of the content (this would come to bite me on the ass). It also changed pace, I try to work on the basis that each slide will be 30s I like my presentations to be moving quickly but this deck was closer to the 90s mark.

To side track this ramble a bit more, slides I think of as being for me a visual cue for where we are going. Less for the audience, who really don’t need the guidance. I make them pretty out of a courtesy where possible and if they add value thats brilliant but primarily they are the visualisation of my mind. I try at all costs to avoid bullet points or anything that makes me “read” my slides.

Deck done everyone is happy. I don’t rehearse per say but I run through those set pieces. Indeed I often drop them into conversation where possible so they are fixed in my brain.

My goal is to be so familiar that I need to just see a word that it will trigger the concept and in turn I can fire of a set piece. Dropping them in conversation also allows me to check they actually sound ok and make sense.

Stalk The Room/Own The Room

When ever I give a talk I look at the room and seat setup well before, ideally if there are other speakers I visit while they are talking.

I pace the stage and look for visual markers within the room so I know where the edges of a stage or area are without looking down. Falling of a stage, gets you tweets but really hurts! In this case I used insets in the back of the room as markers along with a slight gap in the chairs.

I never stand behind a pedestal if I can help it. I’m an expressive person and find if I stand behind a pedestal I crouch over it. This means I can’t project and I deflate. It also puts a barrier in between myself and the audience.

Become friendly with the people in the room

I always check the setup for laptop make sure the clicker reaches the end of the stage. If I’m being filmed I will chat with the A/V folks where can I go, warn them I’m a walker. The guys who film WordCamp London have been doing WordCamp London and Manchester for years and they know me. It’s great to see the familiar faces and they actually put me at ease.

If I can, I also go and sit in a couple of different seats, what is the view like will they be able to see me easily. I try to mark sections on the stage in my head so I can make sure I can over the course of the talk have eye contact with every attendee and be able to interact with everyone.

This very basic choreography is then merged with my set pieces. Where I stand and which seat I’m looking at becomes a visual clue to help me select when to use a set piece.

I don’t write this down and if I miss one thats ok but it does really help me to just work in my head how things are going to go. I look a bit silly doing this but most people are rushing around and don’t notice.

When you don’t follow your plan

Except for this talk most of that went out of the window, I had spoken in the room before so was relaxed about where everything was, my usual prep was also disturbed by people needing my attention.

Image By Mark Smallman of the same room but from 2016 when it was full of people!

So I went on stage with only some very vague ideas of where I would be looking. Unfortunately the talk was on the Sunday, post lunch and there were 2 other excellent talks going on. I was in a cavernous room with not that many people there. My set pieces that I was able to choreograph were being said to empty seats!


I use counting patterns to manage pace of the talk. I never truly trust the time keeper (That person who holds up the cards), some people do a great job of showing you 10-5-1 minute cards but for all the good ones, others turn it into a random card generator. I find it easier to ignore them and keep my own time. However in doing so you have to be confident you have another mechanism to keep time, and you have to do it.

Normally I use my mobile set by my laptop with a timer counting down on it. Only for this talk my mobile was in my pocket as it was being used as the audio source for the live stream. I felt that was ok, because there was a large clock at the back which I could use.

I also use an internal count, since I was a teenager I have been able to keep time in my head. I can start a count by clicking my fingers 1,2,3 and as the count goes I zone out and the tick carries on in my head. The longest I have kept the count is 3 hours and I drifted out by 30 seconds. If I start to panic I resume the count with my fingers clicking. Indeed if you see me clicking my fingers randomly chances are I’m calming my mind down or trying to remember something.

The ability to keep time this way means I can pace the talk but it also helps focus my mind from wandering.

Before Any Talk Begins, You Need Zen

Before I give a talk I drink a lot of water to hydrate and  then go to the loo just before I go up. For this talk I was down in the sponsors area, so was able to be quite chilled, my colleagues had tested the live stream bits and I was smily and cheerful. Normally in those minutes before I enter the room I am actually going over everything in my head. I might be smiling and making small talk but I won’t be retaining anything you are saying. For a minute or two I try to get complete alone time, and will normally walk to the room alone to focus.

Once in the room, I will try to talk to as few people as possible, while not trying to look isolated so will speak to AV person or MC. If they are not nearby I will focus and joke with a member of the audience.

For this talk, I did just that but unfortunately was asked to speak to someone about my talk before I went on. For what ever reasons that really are not important, this chat was more an altercation. Not like fisticuffs or anything daft but my peaceful mind was now partially annoyed but more then anything else worrying.

Don’t get in an argument before your talk

Worrying about something cascades, negativity spreads like a virus and I remember snapping at Diane who is the sweetest and loveliest person. She was also responsible for speakers, from the WordCamp team. I had zero rights to snap at her and immediately felt like a total shit.

Before you talk you need to be in the zone, I was suddenly frustrated, upset and all I wanted was to apologies to Diane (I only just realised typing this I never did say sorry). Unfortunately I wasn’t in the position to do so the talk was starting in five minutes.

I glanced at the clock to make sure and started a very simple breathing exercise to control anxiety. I was during this phase smiling and trying to recompose myself I closed my eyes and heard the MC say something to me. Then heard him start to introduce me. I looked at the clock I still had five minutes. Well good news I hadn’t lost time, fallen asleep or anything daft but suddenly I’m walking on stage. Desperately I started my count, made a poorly executed joke about starting five minutes early mainly to give me time to compose myself and off we go.

It’s Show Time – Break A Leg

When I give a talk, I have a style, I try to avoid introducing myself first, rather I want to hook people and get them away from their phones. I think the first 2 minutes of a talk are when people are probably most attentive telling them my name and who I work for is not a good use of this time.

I try therefore to create a narrative which they can relate to I normally do this in the form of the story.

Sometimes they are completely true such as talking about a disastrous project and how testing could and did save it or fabricated the Children’s charity that was hacked (though the details were based on true events) so what did I do for the hosting talk…

Stop ignoring the plan Tim!

I didn’t! I launched into the talk, failing to bring the audience with me and as I was doing it the alarm bells went mad in my head. I had two minutes to set the tone and get people interested and I didn’t capitalise on it and without the audience energy I started to feel fatigued. Still I went into a couple of set pieces and started settling in a bit.

This could be saved. By failing to get the starting tone right my first joke fell flat. Thats ok I’m a speaker not a comedian its ok, I adjust and move on.

The problem is when you adjust like that you end up with a boring presentation with nothing to hook people they turn off. In one case one of my set pieces choreography meant I was looking straight at a gentlemen to one side on his own.

Unfortunately he was fast asleep. On the video you can see my body physically tense up and my voice changed. I tried to turn it into a joke.

Use the right words Tim!

Things got worse, I’m dyslexic I get very frustrated with people who use dyslexia as an excuse for anything but one of the things that can be an issue is we often muddle similar sounding words when we speak them or write them down. Often most people will never notice and lets face it most people do dyslexic or not but it happens more regularly if you are dyslexic. Working in computing and hosting it’s filled with acronyms and similar sounding words, I’m prone to saying one word but meaning the other. When people correct me I get frustrated with myself I look stupid but I know the word I was thinking it just wasn’t the one I said.

I avoid putting certain words together and will go out of my way to avoid certain combination to try and avoid triggers. For this talk I was flustered and I basically started drivelling I knew I was doing it and then I lost count, my internal timer gone.


Panic sets in, I stop mid sentence smile and walk to the podium grab the bottle take a long sip and walk back turn my back putting the bottle down behind me. It meant I had a second or so with my back to everyone.

That wasn’t because I was thirsty, that was me trying to avoid a panic attack and to restore my now frantic brain. My finger starts to click as I try to restart my internal timing. I look up, I wasn’t praying I genuinely didn’t know what slide I was on.

To give me a few more seconds I throw out a question to the audience “put your hands up if..”. This let’s me come up with a new plan…

Plan Z…

I love playing Powerpoint Karaoke. If you haven’t come across it before the idea is you are presented with a presentation you have never seen before and you present it. You only see the slide at the same time as the audience and you just got to guess where it’s going. It’s a great party game, for the presentation minded group. It’s great for confidence building but also improvisation.

I was effectively playing powerpoint karaoke I didn’t know what the next slide was going to be and my mind was blank. Even when prompted by the slide I had lost both my concepts and set pieces all suddenly were not there in my head.

I struggled, my default timing when I do presentations is 30s a slide, but this deck was different and was 90s. So I was stumbling, I wanted to speed up but was forcing myself to pace but this left uncomfortable pauses. During which ums/ahs sneak in. The plus side it was better then a Karaoke presentation, even if I felt otherwise at the time.

The talk much like this post rambled

The talk became rambly some of the concepts did come back and brief moments where I felt confident. With 10 minutes to go I was talking, but also rewriting the end of the presentation on the fly. I was mentally composing a very compressed mini talk. I could recover it! Rewriting your talk with one part of your brain, while your mouth is opening and closing to give you time takes a lot of concentration. Suddenly I saw the MC make a gesture, I glanced at the clock still have 9 and half minutes then I see a gent in a yellow shirt holding time up card.

I had not even noticed him, I don’t know if we had been introduced, I don’t think we had been, I certainly hadn’t seen the other cards. I was re-thrown my ending dumped out of my head I ended up asking are you sure? We wrapped up as best I could.

Having started 5 minutes early we finished 10 minutes early. Funnily there were not many questions, thankfully an audience member asking for help with crossword got a laugh the biggest one of the whole talk and it was over.

Fleeing the scene of the crime

Normally I try to speak to people, and make a point of saying where I will be, afterwards, either the happiness bar, or our stand but I was on the verge of almost tears. My brain lashed out the person who I had the altercation with and I was angry. The reality is I was angry with myself I blew it. Letting down the conference, my colleagues and myself. Hell I let my industry down I had a chance to actually make us look good and I was a mumbling wreak.

When you nail a talk you feel shattered but filled with energy, your going to hit the adrenaline wall at some point, but you have a short moment when you feel great. I felt physically ill.

Of course the platitudes came, “it was good”, “people will learnt something”. I really hope the later is true and it had some value. The more people try to convince me it was ok, the angrier I became. As it happened I needed to get the car to pack our stand into it. So left the venue and jumped on a bus to the hotel.

That Was A Lot To Digest

If you have gotten here then well done you. Hopefully it’s been useful, if only to show someone who has spoken hundreds if not thousands of times can be as undone as anyone else. While this post sounds scary, I actually hope it gives people confidence. Everyone is human, no one is perfect.

I’ve had time to reflect a catalog of things made my talk not be the talk I wanted it to be. I genuinely hope I did manage to cover a lot of the issues I had that day maybe I will do another hosting talk.

The mistakes I made

  • I was never happy with the topic, I perhaps shouldn’t have let my ego make talk choices.
  • When I choose the topic I didn’t define the boundaries, I should have done a talk on a more niche thing even if it was just why shared hosting is evil.
  • I started with the belief it was going to fail, I created a self fulfilling prophecy.
  • Changing your slide deck the night before is not wise unless you have already mentally let it settle.
  • I have a style of presentation, just because the topic change doesn’t mean I should.
  • Be confident, twice I should have said no. When the MC started to introduced me I should have stopped him and said I needed a couple of minutes. The time keeper was wrong, I know time keepers can’t keep time.
  • Try not to get into altercations seconds before going on stage if you do step away.
  • I put the weight of so many people on my shoulders, none of which ultimately actually cared. I made ghosts for my own insecurities.
  • Regardless of what happens keep showing positivity
  • Remember people are very forgiving

Hopefully though this tale has shown my process for developing talks, maybe even shown you some ways to hide some insecurities and generally help speakers become more confident and for any one else this post is excellent schadenfreude.

I do actually enjoy talking so if you need a speaker at your local meet-up or at a conference I would love to come but maybe I will talk about something else.

Misery loves company, so if you have tips or a story to share please do so in the comments.
Finally thank you to the WordCamp London Team, you were amazing! I’m sorry.

So here it is, now you get to see it for yourself…

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