Gnomedex was an amazing experience and the best technology conference that I’ve been to (which is admittedly not many.) Excellent sessions, excellent setup, excellent people. These are mostly lessons learned from mistakes, a couple of what I did right, but mostly mistakes.


Gnomedex was my first speaking gig ever. Presenting in front of 280 Gnomedex attendees in addition to 850 viewers through the Ustream stream online was a nervewracking experience, which wasn’t particularly helped by some hardball questions. Nor did it help that, at 16, I was the youngest speaker at the conference.

1. You aren’t talking to 1130 people– you’re conversing with just one person.

This advice was given to me by Todd Sawicki of Lookery an hour before my presentation, which, as much as I wanted to make happen, on stage didn’t. The knowledge that more than a thousand people are watching you is intimidating. You aren’t afraid of speaking, you’re afraid of making a mistake.

After the presentation, Brian Westbrook asked me to participate in a radio interview. During the interview, I felt completely comfortable. Without stuttering or giving vague answers, I was able to bring up points I’d forgotten to mention in my presentation.

The way I’m going to look at this from now on is to think of the entire audience not as 200 people but a person directly in front of you that you’re demoing your deck to. The seats are empty.

When answering a question, you’re not addressing the entire audience, but the questioner.

As Todd also mentioned, it’s also much easier to think of that person in front of you or that questioner as someone you’ve talked to and feel comfortable with. In my case, I should have thought of this guy or that questioner as Brian or Todd or Ben Huh (of I Can Has Cheezburger.)

With this mindset, it’s much easier to hold a relaxed speaking session.

2. Actually take said advice, or you’ll be worse off.

On stage I doubted the effectiveness of Todd’s advice. (Though in hindsight, why the hell would I? He’s experienced in the matter.) Would I mess up that way, by applying that advice, taking the audience and removing them? Would it put me in the wrong mindset?

Answer is, if you don’t take it, you’ll be worse off. Still doubting? Consider my experience, first hand experience. First hand experience is what I lacked when trying to apply advice given, and now I have it. And in a way, now you do, too.

3. Don’t be a pessimist.

There are many times and places where it’s appropriate to be a pessimist. Speaking is not one of them. If you think you’ll mess up, chances are you will. Your mind will be far too preoccupied with that thought, and you’ll be dedicating concentration and attention to that, and you’ll have to ask for things to be repeated, not think correctly, forget to deliver vital points, and so on. Think positively.

4. Be humble.

Gnomedex pushed a lot of (maybe too much) recognition for myself, which was mostly my fault. I’m just as much of a developer as the next guy (or less so) and I wasn’t really anything special, nor was the stuff that I did that I was recognized for, even though that’s the idea that was given off.

Being an arrogant dbag doesn’t really go down well with the audience. When you can, refute false claims people make about you (or those that are simply exaggerated) make instead of laughing them off.

In addition, if someone underestimates you, don’t correct them unless it is vital to do so. I made the mistake of looking like an arrogant dbag, when Chris Pirillo said “he’s sold a Facebook app” and I corrected him with “actually like three.” (Update: Thanks all for your opinion. Didn’t really know what the audience thought – now I do. Many thanks!)

5. Even if you’re winging it, rehearse. A lot.

Not many presentations these days have the speaker looking down on a script (though you could say the new scripts are four-level bulleted 10 point text size slides, in which case put on your headphones and just read the slides like the speaker is.) Most presentations, people are taking it from their head. Rehearse a lot, and that doesn’t mean rehearse silently in your head. The ideas originate through your head, the ideas come through your mouth. It’ll get you into a procedure and regularity and you’ll help to prevent forgetting points and nervousness.

6. You have friends, they have a minute.

Chances are, your friends would be down with helping you rehearse your presentation and giving feedback on them, like my friend and business partner Dan Grover of Wonder Warp Software. Not only is it a relaxed environment, you’ll get better feedback than that voice in your head since they’re like an audience member. Do this with a few people to get a diverse range of minds. Do it over iChat theatre, Adobe Acrobat Connect, or send them the slides (if applicable) and do it over Skype or the phone. If you do this a few times, with the right people (as in those that are like the audience that you’re presenting to) you’ll get a general idea of what the audience will think.

Furthermore, don’t shrug off criticism, find out what caused it, if changing things would help, and then decide whether if you need to fix it. And, remember to return the favour.

7. Say “I don’t know.”

At my Gnomedex session, 30 minutes of the 45-minute session were devoted to Q&A. Many of their questions asked me to predict the future and make blanket statements and observations about Generation Y. Many of these I couldn’t answer; I’m an entrepreneur, not a fortune teller. So I opted to bullshit my way through. As a friend suggested, it would have been more effective to just say “I don’t know.”

8. You can’t please everyone.

After I stepped off the stage, I was in a state of panic. I thought I had screwed up badly. This wasn’t helped by the anonymous reviews on RateMyTalk, which contained a few “not interesting”s (more than one which made my blood pressure high.) J.P. Taylor offered the following, though: You can’t please everybody. There will always be critics. And that’s the risk you take when doing a speaking thing or presentation like this.

Jason L. Baptiste of Publictivity also offered the following to me online. You can’t lose confidence with yourself. Once you do, you’ll lose everything.


9. Continue the connection.

Often during the conference, someone would say “hey Mark, nice presentation” and I would say “hey, much thanks!” followed by an awkward period of both of us walking and not looking at each other. In this situation, STICK OUT YOUR FUCKING HAND and introduce yourself. Nothing sucks more than a loose end, and immediately after you miss the connection you’ll feel a sharp pang of regret, followed by you looking for that person, but they’re not anywhere in sight.

9a. Just network, damnit.

Like mentioned at Gnomedex by Ignite speaker, “relax, damnit!”, just network. Damnit. Chances are, the other person you see is just as happy to network with you as you are with them. Again, stick out your hand and introduce yourself. The worst thing that can happen is that they ignore you and don’t want to talk to you. And in such a case, is that a connection you really want to have anyway?

9b. If you’re just walking around trying to find someone to talk to, look for the guys that are as lonely as you are.

Actively seek, don’t passively wait. If you’re walking around, so is at least one other person that is trying to find someone to talk to. And don’t be afraid to get into a group conversation. Return the favour; if you see someone trying to get into a discussion circle you’re in, invite them and introduce them to the group.

10. Follow up.

This was a step I (and many other people) kinda forgot a lot. Following up serves two purposes, as a courtesy, and more importantly to initiate conversation that would have not been possible during the five minutes that you talked. This is part of continuing the connection. Don’t follow up immediately afterwards (“hey, it was a pleasure meeting you a minute and a half ago”) but rather the night or the next day after the event. And, it’s always nice to follow up, and since not many do so, you’ll be a more memorable contact, so do it.

11. If they don’t have a business card, you have a pen.

“I don’t have a card [with me]” and “oh, that’s fine, you have mine anyway” kind of sucks. A majority of people don’t follow up (and I used to not do so, so I’m also guilty of the sad truth) so grab an extra card of yours and a pen, and have them write it down on yours.

I’m extremely grateful for Chris and Ponzi Pirillo and Maryam Scoble for inviting me to speak at Gnomedex. That was the best weekend I’ve had, ever.

I’m also very thankful to have great people supporting me and giving me advice either at Gnomedex or outside of it.

Much thanks to Dan Grover of Wonder Warp Software for editing a first draft of this article.