Public speaking is quite an ordeal, at least for me. Before each show, I still get jitters and have debilitating anxiety that often stops me from eating prior to my session. So if you’ve ever been at a conference with me and see that I’m trying to get out of the room quickly, it’s likely because I am really hungry and desperately need to fuel myself after my unplanned-but-always-recurring-pre-show fast.  And regardless of the level of positive feedback, I always think to myself that my on-stage performance is never quite my best and I can (and should) do better.

Behind these kudos is a bundle of nerves.

Regardless of the physical and mental strain, speaking on the circuit has been quite a tremendous experience. The exposure and the learning experience, not just from attending conference shows, but from the speaking experience itself, has taught me so much that, even if I could undo the experience, I’m not sure I would. Here are five valuable lessons I’ve learned in the last three years.

Lesson #1: There are many speaking styles, but the ones that resonate really focus on great storytelling.

Even for conference sessions that want the speakers to be 100% actionable, storytelling should still be a priority. It helps your content resonate a lot more and prevents you from reciting bullet points from your slides. When your actionable insights are simply a part of your story, you’ll naturally always cover those points and never fall into the trap of just being a slide reader.

Lesson #2: Women make up less than 50% of conference speakers.

This, obviously, is not a positive, but it’s my call to all female digital marketers. If you think you might even have some semblance of a story to tell, you need to apply to speak. It was particularly difficult to put myself out there, especially in an industry that is predominantly male. But being on the circuit has not only made me more confident as a female professional, but more confident in my place in this industry in general. There are a lot of bad-ass women in the SEO (and digital marketing) space. There’s no reason that we should hold ourselves back because we’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be 150% qualified before we apply to speak. Our male counterparts certainly don’t hold themselves to the same limitation, and we shouldn’t either.

Lesson #3: Specialize instead of generalize.

I often find that the best public speakers and conference sessions feature speakers who are specialists for their day job. Generalists are great, and having a high-level overview of channels is a hard-to-replicate skill. But specialists are almost always better practitioners, and their passion often shows through when they speak on stage. Even within SEO, you can specialize: technical, content, performance, etc. I’m not advising that you pursue just one vertical with reckless abandon of everything else, but having a specialty will make you stand out and give you a skill that is extremely rare in the marketplace. This makes your skill set much more valuable to conferences, your team, and potential employers.

Lesson #4: Building presentation outlines before you build slides helps you build a more cohesive story.

Building any kind of presentation is a process, and everyone’s process looks different. For me, taking the time to create an outline before I build any slides, which often includes goals and expected outcomes (e.g. key takeaways), has saved me from building unnecessary slides that end up getting canned. This also means I can get away with text-sparse slides and still have a key point at the end of 10 image-heavy slides.

Lesson #5: Always make a point in your presentation, even if it’s an unpopular opinion or a controversial one. 

Don’t be afraid to make a commentary or conclusion that may not necessarily be a popular one. Better to be factually accurate and controversial than to not say anything at all. Before you submit your presentation slides, give your presentation to someone at your company (or a friend) and confirm that you’ve gotten this point (or these points) across during your presentation. Presentations that don’t get wrapped up in a few key insights end up being easily forgotten and don’t make their way into attendee’s download folder.


While I learned these lessons in the specific forum of public speaking, I’d like to think they are generally applicable – especially Lesson #2 about women making up less than 50% of conference speakers. If I were to generalize, I would say women usually make up less than 50% of leadership or upper management positions. Don’t box yourself into thinking that you are not qualified for a position, a project, a conference, or a topic when you might be. Take the risk and push yourself to apply for that position you wouldn’t normally apply for or raise your hand for that project that seems just slightly outside your current skill set. Even if your experience isn’t quite a perfect fit, it’s a valuable learning experience that you should never pass up.

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Leslie To
Leslie spends most of her time bossing people around and giving her opinions on all things SEO. When not busy doing either of those things, she's probably taking pictures of her cat and posting them on social media. While those images are buffering, she squeezes in time to read, eat and sleep.