How I Improved My Public Speaking

by on December 12, 2012 | posted in Presentations

In mid 2011, I had what was really my first speaking gig, at SMX Advanced, about link building. I had done a link building clinic before 10 or so people before, but this was the first serious thing I had done – talking before 200-300 some odd internet marketers in Seattle. I was an introvert, and my friends replied to the news of me talking at SMX with a “YOU’RE speaking at a conference?! I can’t see that” in reference, and I really hadn’t done much to prove them wrong.

I went up to give the 15-minute talk on local link building, and mid-talk, I realized the slides I had sent to SMX were not the ones being used. I ran with it, but my voice cracked, I was nervous, and my session slides had enough bullet points to kill several kitten litters.

I didn’t do well, and the low point was felt when one of the other SMX speakers actually publicly called out the session for being substandard in his own talk later, mostly because the speakers were chosen to present over his friend. Of course, as someone who felt like he gave a poor presentation around other good ones, I was embarrassed, my confidence was crushed, and I headed home with my head down and my tail between my legs.

Embarrassment on Whiteboard Friday

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 11.54.52 AM

To add fuel to the fire, the next day after Advanced, I was lucky enough to be allowed to speak with Tom Critchlow on Whiteboard Friday. Although not traditional public speaking, this was clearly for an audience, and my performance reflected it – if you watch the video, you can hear the “rights” that I end up saying more than 24 times in the video as a nodding idiot in opposition to Tom. Moz took until 3PM on Friday to post it, and I wasn’t even sure it was going to go live, which I imagine might have been for that reason.

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 11.51.40 AM

After reporting back to company HQ, I told our CEO that I wasn’t sure public speaking was for me – surely, some people just weren’t meant to do it, and I was always going to be that nerd writer who would better excel behind a keyboard. This just wasn’t going to happen, and it was better meant for the extroverts like Wil Reynolds and Rand Fishkin.

Then, some month or so later, I got an e-mail from Blueglass co-founder Chris Winfield to speak at Blueglass Tampa, and the speaking engine began again. I wasn’t sure I was going to pitch another conference, but I wasn’t going to say no to Chris, and off I went, this time to speak for an extended period of 25 minutes in front of some of the smartest marketers on the planet.

Fast Forward One Year

Fast forward a year later, and I was invited back to speak at BlueglassX  to talk about link building once again. After my session, Chris came up to me and gave me one of the best compliments I’ve received –

“It was night and day watching you speak this year as compared to last year – I can tell your speaking ability improved a lot.”

Coming from Chris, who I respect a ton, this really meant the world. In addition, I also got a lot of great feedback from attendees, and to be honest – it felt good – real good, especially coming off that slighting at SMX Advanced, and the huge embarrassment “right” after it on Whiteboard Friday.

When I spoke at Blueglass Tampa in 2011, although I wasn’t as abysmal as my SMX Advanced effort, I was still that bumbling newbie who needed a lot of work in front of an audience. To hear that from Chris, it felt like an official pronouncement that I was no longer going to be called out for not belonging on a panel like I had at SMX Advanced.

How I Improved My Public Speaking

ross hudgens

I didn’t improve my public speaking by attending workshops or speaking in front of a mirror. No, improvement came from several different modalities, and I think there’s lessons to be had from what I did, that I hope a few of you might be able to pull in with your own efforts.

1. I only presented content that fully encompassed my obsession at that time

At SMX Advanced, I pitched tactics that I didn’t really believe in, or even practice. Some of the slides there I used, but it was more me pitching the panel rather than deciding to dictate the absolute best stuff I knew at that time. I am a believer in conferences that allow speakers to pick the topic – they have something specific brewing in their head that they’ve been consumed by, and it’s always going to be the best stuff to present content wise. At SMX Advanced, I had presented stuff I didn’t really believe in as someone who wasn’t an experienced speaker as well, and it clearly showed.

At my first Blueglass TPA, I was allowed to present stuff I believed in, and although I was still an inexperienced speaker, at least I had content that reflected the blog writing that got me invited.

Even a year later, at SMX East, where I had to pitch the session description, I modified the content from my initial presentation pitch because I knew if I stuck to the standard write-in I gave SMX – stuff on’s Penguin recovery almost six months earlier, it would have been a boring and lackluster presentation, because most of that data was old and heard many times over.

2. I fed on any and all positive feedback

After my first Blueglass Tampa talk, I got positive feedback. It wasn’t overwhelming, but I heard good things from attendees – mostly because, as I mentioned, I actually presented something that I cared deeply about, knew in and out, and was actually good. It’s amazing what just a few good things, and a positive tweet stream, can do for a presenter’s confidence.

Once I got those first bites of “I’m not horrifically bad” from my Blueglass Tampa presentation, I was able to improve over and over on previous efforts. After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I was very aware of the 10,000 hour rule – repetition is key, and every time out, I began iterating on the last attempt.

But when you’re stuck in a “bad, still bad” kind of rut, it can be difficult to see that light at the end of the tunnel – so it’s important to feed on the feedback that shows that improvement is happening. If I had heard negative sentiment again at Blueglass TPA, it’s possible I would not still be trying to speak today.

3. I learned from and iterated on all negative feedback

Most conferences worth their salt will collect feedback on your presentation/the event, and even if they don’t, it’s often pretty easy to see where you went wrong after the fact. This can show itself from a lack of engagement on Twitter, not many nice things said, and generally, if you dive into the tweet stream from the event, you can find negative feedback that doesn’t mention you explicitly that gives a specific reason why your presentation was bad.

You’ll see this frequently – things like “this is too promotional,” dissenting opinions from something being professed as fact on the presentation, or, really, an overall silence in reference to your presentation. Each little snippet offers some insight as to why your presentation was bad.

If you’re hearing “this was too promotional”, learn how to market better, then pitch presenting – if you hear dissenting opinions, tighten up your actual skillset (if it seems widespread – of course one opinion may be wrong). Generally, silence can be taken as “I can’t use this, or there’s nothing actionable here”.

After the conference, you might get feedback from the providers, or simply be able to feel out your own problems. After SMX Advanced (and before it), I realized I had too many bullet points – this occurred to me right before I presented, and caused the error in the wrong deck being shown. I did my best to alleviate this at Blueglass TPA, although not perfectly. By Distilled’s Linklove, I had eliminated them pretty much completely.

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 12.30.31 PM

At Distilled’s conference, the main feedback I got from the organizers, as forwarded to them by attendees, was that I was looking down at the ground too much. You can see this at play in the picture above and also the video supplied by Distilled. Lynsey Little, Events Manager at Distilled, said the following:

You rated extremely well for the content of your session, but a little lower for speaking. If I could offer you any feedback on why that might be, it would be that you had a tendency to not directly engage with the audience, you looked down at the floor and back at the screen quite frequently.

Clearly, I still lacked confidence in my speaking ability. I took this to heart, and at BlueglassX, my most recent talk, Melissa Fach tweeted the following about my presenting style:

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 12.36.20 PM

Clearly, this was awesome to read, especially off my last presentation’s audience feedback. I had taken this feedback dilberately, acted on it, and it paid off with positive feedback in my next speaking opportunity.

4. I invested in content

After TPA, I knew one of the main things my presentation lacked was design. I hate designing things (although I love and am neurotic about design), so I thought the perfect thing to do would be to actually invest in the design of my presentation with an external source. I knew talented PPT designer David Crandall, who whipped up the presentation design on top of my content for LinkLove for a significant but worthwhile sum – around the same cost as an infographic.

This was more than most would pay to present to an audience, yes, but I knew investing in a great design would improve the effectiveness of the presentation, and help cover up a deficiency in my talks previously. The ROI would come, I had no doubt, and sure enough, it did.

Because of my talk at Linklove, I received several other opportunities, client inquiries, and snowball presentation invites. And more importantly, the nice feedback I got from the session meant I had additional positive feedback to feed off of.

Although I haven’t paid anyone to design my decks since LinkLove, I have received help from the talented Melissa Kowalchuk and also, I have tried my best to syphon design lessons from experts such as Rand Fishkin and Jonathan Coleman. I still consider this area a deficiency, but I no longer consider it a glaring hole.

5. I learned the craft

Speaking is one of the few endeavors where people can get thrown in an extremely difficult situation without any previous experience or ability to learn by practice. So, most have very little idea of how to do it effectively until they have to do it repeatedly, which of course creates problems for people starting out.

You can read things about public speaking going up to your first presentation, but you will inevitably miss things that are incredibly important to its effectiveness, and/or not execute effectively. Some of the things that I learned throughout the process, but didn’t know before:

  • Have little to no bullet points, seriously. How do people still do this? Well, I somehow managed to in my first presentation, although I did my best to avoid it.
  • Don’t read off your deck. Your deck should be a reflection of the bigger point you are going to talk about. Going back to the “only give talks on stuff you dictate yourself” point, you should have less than 20 words on each slide, almost every time.
  • Bring a USB drive with your final PPT. I learned this the hard way at SMX Advanced – if you want to make sure the best version is there (or any version is there), you better bring the slides yourself.
  • Design is incredibly painful, and worth it. Most people aren’t good at design, especially SEOs. Designing the deck to look good will take a huge amount of time, but it should be done. It doesn’t MAKE the presentation, but it definitely enhances it. If you can’t do it yourself, get help, and/or use techniques that enhance it in an easy way – such as big images with one line of text. But be careful, do not create a presentation that can be summarized with “build great content”, or I will hate you.
  • Listen to yourself speak before you go before an audience. I practice and record my presentation three to five times before each talk, and this allows me to get a feel for the flow and also the timing in regards to the constraints of the conference without overdoing it. It also helps me notice language irregularities, such as the aforementioned “rights” I had no idea I was saying until the SEOmoz WBF went live. I still tend to talk fast during presentations (I’ve heard that twice!) – so I hope to improve that next time around, but I’ll probably still be a little quick, cause I tend to actually care about what I talk about.
  • Don’t speak in a casket. I am still shocked at how many people do this. Standing behind the podium tapping the computer for each slide is a terrible way of speaking, it lacks energy, and it will lose audience attention. I kinda did this at BlueglassX because there were constraints on a small stage, but I still brought a slide changer that allowed me to move both my hands and show the energy I felt about the stuff I was talking about. As a speaker, you should be moving around, making eye contact, and in general showing the energy and passion you should feel about your slides.

6. I got more confidence in myself, not my speaking

Through a years time, a lot happened, but most of my ability to show confidence on the stage comes from actually believing I know what I’m talking about – and I’m sorry if that appears arrogant, but it’s a necessary requirement in order to give a good talk. One of the biggest holes in confidence or reasons people don’t speak is because they believe someone will ask them some question that will pick them apart on stage, crushing their confidence.

This is a legitimate concern, and one you should have. But it’s also one that can be fixed by doing.

Are you gaining positive rankings for your clients? Do people share and like your blog posts? Are you getting client inquiries? All of these and more can help contribute to your overall tactical confidence, and they should be worked out and developed over time before you think about going on stage.

I was able to do this more over the past year, and also, I was able to become more confident in my life. I got a great girlfriend, I got the balls to quit my job, move and start my own business, and I continued to write blog posts that generally were met with good reception, that allowed me to build a growing audience that helped me perpetuate the notion that I might actually be on to something SEO wise.

You, of course, can replicate this same concept for yourself, or at least some version of it. But it doesn’t come from rehearsing your talk 50 times in front of a wall – it comes from improving your life away from the lectern.

Improvement != Good

Although I definitely do feel I’ve improved, please do not take this as a public declaration that I think I’m a good public speaker. This is a public declaration that I think I’ve gotten better – whether it’s from 1/10 to 3/10 or something better, I’m not sure, but improvement overall is a good feeling, and one I hope I can pass on to others who also had a fear of public speaking as I did.

I don’t think I’ll ever be Wil or Rand, but I do know I’ll keep plugging away at this craft – a new one, within our bigger  practice – to better teach people this thing called internet marketing.

For those interested, my BlueglassX slides on “link building strategies for 2013” are now online. I’ll also be speaking on E-Commerce SEO at SearchFest in Portland on February 22nd, 2013. You can also discuss this post on

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