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  • Writer's pictureJen VanAntwerp

😃 I Spoke In Public and Didn't Faint!

Last month, I had the extreme honor of speaking on the topic of sobriety at ShmooCon 2024. As this was my very first foray into public speaking, to say I was nervous would be a complete understatement.

When I first submitted the session abstract for their CFP, I figured it was a long shot. Would an infosec conference even be open to accepting a talk that was focused on sobriety? And if they DID accept the abstract, could I push past my fear of public speaking and actually DO the talk?

The answer to both questions was a resounding YES! 🎉 Here's a (slightly edited... more on that later) video of my talk, which was titled "Sobriety Hacks! Unleashing the Power of Incremental Change":

I'm exceedingly grateful to the Shmoo Group for giving me the opportunity to speak on this topic. Massive thanks also go out to the event volunteers who helped to corral me and put me at ease.

Now that I'm a public speaking pro (bwahahahaaaa), I want to share a few tips for anyone who, like me, may be hesitant to submit for a CFP.

Event Calendar and Topic Ideas

Whether you're interested in speaking on your own or on behalf of your employer, start by creating an event calendar that will help you keep track of upcoming events and CFP deadlines. The event calendar can be as simple as a spreadsheet that lists the event name, city/state, CFP submission deadline, and a link to the CFP submission page. Don't forget about virtual events when you're putting the list together! These can be a cost-effective way to start getting more comfortable with public speaking.

On the topic of topics, sometimes that can be the most challenging part — what on earth should you write about in your abstract? Rather than waiting until the day before a CFP is due (yes I'm also talking to myself), start a digital "idea brainstorming" document where you can jot down topic ideas, questions, things you want to research, any sparks of inspiration that pop into your head as you're walking the dog or waiting in line at the grocery store. Having a list of ideas to choose from helps to combat blank page syndrome, especially since the list will come directly from things you're interested in or inspired by (and not just a ChatGPT prompt).

Find Your Special Something

As you jot down potential topics in your idea brainstorming document, remember that YOU have something unique and special to offer. As Emmet from The Lego Movie would say, "You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the Special." 💜 You truly are the Special, and you have a unique voice and perspective to offer.

Think about the many Venn diagrams that make up the amazing creature that is YOU. We all have hobbies, passions, and things we can geek out about. Where do those things intersect with your professional life, or is there a way to compare or contrast the two areas if they don't fully intersect? Many people can talk about security, but not everyone can compare it to soap carving.

Feel the Fear... and Do It Anyway

(paragraph heading swiped from the Susan Jeffers self-help book of the same name, which I read in the mid-90s but don't recall much of other than the fabulous title)

Yes, it's scary to put yourself out there. The fear of public speaking is very common and can impact even the most seasoned speaker. Then you have the added fear of potential rejection, compiled with the often-present specter of imposter syndrome.

The statement might be simplistic, but there is real power behind "feel the fear and do it anyway," especially if that fear is holding you back from a goal you truly want to accomplish. For most individuals, the anxiousness around public speaking begins to lessen the more frequently they participate in the activity. There are also clubs, such as Toastmasters, that can help you to become a more polished speaker. I joined a local group last year and it has really helped me to grow my confidence in public speaking.

Follow Instructions, Seriously

For larger security conferences, the CFP review committee (typically unpaid volunteers) may be going through hundreds of abstracts. Formatting matters! Read ALL of the instructions, and make sure you've reviewed examples of good submissions if the conference has provided them. Do your due diligence as an abstract submitter, because if the CFP reviewer has to take an extra step or dig deeper to get to your key point, that might be the one thing that causes your CFP to be rejected.

BSides Nashville post illustrating the importance of following CFP indstructions

Remember How PowerPoint Works

OK, maybe this particular tip is just for me. Remember earlier when I mentioned that the video of my talk was "slightly edited"? Live attendees at the conference got to witness a very interesting phenomenon where I was apparently so inspired by the ShmooCon 2024 "Time Travel" theme that I kept speaking about the NEXT slide in the presentation rather than the one that was visible on the screen. 🤦‍♀️

The nerves got to me and I kept switching between speaking to the big image on the screen (the one attendees could see) and the small image (which I NOW know was a sneak peek just for me so I'd know which slide was coming next). Thankfully, my amazing friend Aaron was able to edit the videos so you can barely tell that I was on the wrong slide for over half of the presentation. But don't worry... if you fast forward to around the 6-minute mark, you can still see me get a little twisted up. Wheeee!!!

So I was afraid of something going wrong, and then something went wrong. And guess what?! Nobody booed me off the stage! People definitely noticed, but we all got to laugh about it a bit, and then other speakers were able to share about their flub-ups.

Take a Moment to Be IN the Moment

Whether you're speaking at a virtual conference or up on a stage, take some time to be fully present in the moment. It's easy to get overwhelmed with jitters or to try to cram in one last practice session before your talk, but remember to take an opportunity to recognize where you are and what you've accomplished. It takes a lot of courage to even submit an abstract in the first place! Gold star to you for your bravery.

After my talk, despite the mess-ups and my nerves, the most magical thing happened... when I shared my story and my experience, it gave others the comfort and the permission to share THEIR stories with me. I'm exceedingly grateful that the Shmoo Group took a chance on a first-time speaker with a cyber-adjacent topic. Thank you from the bottom of my lil sober heart.

 You can catch the rest of the ShmooCon 2024 sessions here.


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