How It Feels to be a First-Time Presenter (+ Accessibility Resources)

I live by the assertion that it’s vitally important to do the things you hate doing. I’m not suggesting you need to learn to enjoy said thing; I’m simply stating that you should occasionally challenge yourself to leave your “comfort zone.” Let me explain my stance with a personal example.

In May 2021, I received a direct message through LinkedIn from Bianca Woods, a former Senior Manager of Programming at the Learning Guild. She mentioned something about talking to Sarah Mercier about an opportunity to present in an online conference called Pushing the eLearning Envelope. Evidently, Sarah suggested that Bianca invite me to speak about accessibility through the lens of an instructional designer. Upon reading this message, I experienced a whirlwind of emotions. It ranged from “How neat! My boss is suggesting that I present for the Learning Guild. She must really believe in me!” to “What in tarnation? Sarah knows I’m not interested in public speaking. Looks like it’s time to plan a vacation the same week as the conference.”

After I gathered myself, I realized that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Though I much prefer to be a quiet, stealthy Ninja that works behind the scenes, the only way I’ll gain confidence in public speaking is to, well, speak in public. I aspire to mentor new instructional designers and have a positive, lasting impact on the eLearning community. If I’m ever going to do those things, I have to show my face and I have to speak on things I’m passionate about.

So a month out from the conference, I began to prepare for my presentation. I started with building a mind map in Whimsical, which is a very useful practice when you have a million ideas and want to structure them by showing relationships between ideas. Next, I built an outline. The outline organized content into topics and included links to resources I wanted to share and tools. At this phase, I also decided on the title, “Accessibility Isn’t Optional: Tips for Inclusive Design.”

With my outline in a decent state, I moved onto creating a set of slides to provide visual support. I must have edited them 3,432 times. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a minimalist or if I wanted to make things visually stimulating with transitions and iconography. Thanks to reviews from my peers, I was reminded that a presentation on accessibility and inclusive design should prioritize accessible, inclusive slides. Excellent advice.

The conference was about two weeks away by the time I completed my slides. Thankfully, I had my first practice session with the wonderful Melissa Chambers around this time. She offered insights about the conference and suggested additional edits for my slides. Additionally, she recommended that I develop handouts to reiterate the main takeaways from my presentation. Seconds after clicking “Leave Meeting” in Zoom, I opened up InDesign and began structuring a one-page document.

Once again, I fell into the trap of trying to make something look flashy rather than keeping it simple. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly prioritized accessibility in the design of the handouts. I marked headings and optimized each section of text for a screen reader. But then I considered how colors and icons can be distracting to some learners. I decided to create a second version that was optimized for accessibility.

You can download the two versions of my handout below:

(Aside: I cited this predicament as an example during my presentation. I used it reinforce the idea that instructional designers might not be perfect in our efforts to be accessible and inclusive; nevertheless, we must keep trying.)

The last step was to practice my presentation. I’m believe that there is such a thing as over-preparing, so I decided to give myself four practice sessions. I practiced twice in the privacy of my office, then another two times in front of my Saint Bernards. Both slept through the majority of it. Looking back on it, I do wish I had practiced for a real audience, like my boyfriend or a friend. I’ll certainly follow through with that in the future.

Then it was June 10th. Presentation day. I logged into the meeting about 30 minutes early to check microphones and settings. I was sweating profusely and fidgeting with any object within reach. Thankfully, the director of the event (Karyn Gleeson) logged in and engaged me in a debate about the best pizza places in Chicago. The informal conversation calmed my nerves in an unexpected way. I couldn’t tell you a single thing I said during the presentation, but I felt in my bones that it was going well. I was right on time and the audience was asking thoughtful questions. That was validated by the participant surveys a few weeks later. It was thrilling to read their feedback and positive reviews.

It’s been a few months since the conference, and I can say with confidence that I still dread public speaking. However, I’m going to keep doing it whenever given the chance because it’s the only way I’m going to be chosen for a TEDTalk someday.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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