User groups are great. Much like conferences, they offer a forum where we can learn about new technologies and methodologies, meet others with similar interests, find work, and also just let our geek flag fly. Unlike conferences, however, user groups are smaller, less formal affairs, and provide a regular opportunity to mingle with people in the local community. Even the most socially awkward of us can feel comfortable in the intimacy of a user group.

Another thing differentiating conferences from meet ups is that user groups seem to have more difficulty finding people to speak. This is a problem, because having speakers and a variety of topics attracts new people to the group and keeps them coming back. If you’re a regular attendee of a group, you owe it to the group (and to yourself) to speak at least once a year, even if it’s just a five-minute lightning talk.

Why aren’t you speaking at your local user group(s)?

I’ve done a little digging, asked a few questions, and did some soul-searching about the matter, and these are the main reasons I’ve found why people don’t speak at user groups.

I don’t know as much as everyone else

No, you don’t, but you don’t have to either. The point of speaking at user groups isn’t to impress people with your knowledge, it’s to share what you’ve learned or find interesting. Even if you’re sharing the most basic of information two or three things are going to happen: 1) you’re going to learn your topic better; 2) your willingness to present on it is going to show others that it’s acceptable and safe to speak on simple topics; 3) you might just teach those in the know a thing or two.

I don’t have a degree/certification/badge/blessing of the grand poobah

“Badges? You don’t need no stinking badges.” if you’re going to a group which is focused on proofs of achievement in order to speak, you may want to consider finding a different group to invest in. Most groups don’t require anything other than a willingness to contribute.

I don’t know what to talk about

This can be a difficult problem. I find that keeping a list of possible topics to write or speak about is helpful. As ideas comes into my head that I think would make a good article or talk, I just add them to my list. It’s a good habit, because it keeps everything in one place, but doing so also tells your brain that this is important and it will continue to churn out ideas.

I’m terrified of public speaking

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
– Jerry Seinfeld

This is a tough one, because fear is such a powerful thing. I don’t want people pushing me to look over the edge of the Empire State Building when I’m not comfortable even being above the 10th floor inside a building, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to push others into public speaking when they’re terrified of it. I will say this: I understand the fear and feel it every time I speak in front of a large audience. Things calm down once you get going, but you have to get going first, and you’ll feel on top of the world when it’s over.

If you’re reading this and are getting nervous merely at the thought of being on stage, you might be better off contributing to the group in other ways.

I’m not very good at it

Not to be a jerk, but that’s a stupid reason. No one starts off being a great speaker. If you’re really concerned about being a good speaker, then avoiding opportunities to speak is the last thing you should do. If, on the other hand, you’re worried people will hate you if you’re not on par with Steve Jobs, don’t worry; people are just happy someone’s willing to speak.

I can’t make good looking slides

This is a real concern for some people. We’ve all seen presentations where it’s obvious the decks were created by skilled designers or were hyper-dynamic, zooming in and out of topics. This is all smoke and mirrors. Your first responsibility is to effectively communicate information to your audience, slide decks are only a piece of how you do that and are, in many cases, not even necessary.

I can’t answer every question

If you’ve done a good job speaking, or the topic is interesting, people are going to ask questions. That’s a good thing. And if they ask a question you don’t know the answer to, that’s also a good thing, because it gives you something new to research and an opportunity to deepen your understanding.

You don’t have to have an answer for every question. Even the best presenters get stumped. If it happens to you, here are two things you can do:

  • Ask if anyone in the audience can answer the question.
  • Respond with something along the lines of, “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer yet, but I’ll research it and get back to you.”

No one is going to think less of you for not knowing everything. You shouldn’t think less of you for not knowing everything either.

People are going to be mean

If you speak enough, someone will eventually try to stump you or question the value of your topic. There are a number of ways to handle these confrontations, but rather than trying to provide you with a response for every scenario, it’s easier to give you a general principle: It’s never about you, it’s always about them.

A rational, decent person doesn’t try to publicly humiliate another person. If there’s a serious concern, they’ll either present it that way or will talk to you privately afterwards. A person who tries to stump you or question the value of your talk during your presentation does so out of some need or insecurity. Knowing this and understanding it when it happens is usually all you need to be able to handle the situation.

For what it’s worth, this happened to me on several occasions and I stopped presenting for a long time. Eventually I realized the people who were doing it were just insecure little men and should be treated accordingly.

Why you should be speaking at your local user group?

Now we know why people aren’t speaking, let’s looks at some reasons you should be.

The community needs you

User groups tend to be small, and as such, they need all the help they can get or the same three people wind up doing all the things. This limits the breadth of topics covered and the perspective provided in the talks, and worse, it eventually leads to burnout for the few active members.

If you regularly attend a user group, you owe it to that group to give back, and one of the best ways is to present.

You become an authority

There’s something magical that happens when you get up to talk in front of people: they immediately assume you know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter if your talking about something basic or advanced. When you’re in front of an audience, they assume you are an authority on whatever it is you’re speaking about. If you don’t tell them the truth, I won’t either.

It forces you to learn

There is some amount of preparation that’s involved before speaking at a meetup. Slides need to be made, examples created, sources cited, etc. As you reason through the development of your presentation you will naturally learn more about what it is you’re speaking to. Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Speaking at user groups involves all three, and you’ll be the better for it.

You know more than someone else

One of the arguments I hear about why someone doesn’t speak is that they don’t know as much as the experts in the room. That may be true, but what they don’t consider is that they probably know more than someone else, and as we just saw, the mere act of preparing to speak provides an avenue to understand your topic on a deeper level. The understanding you gain may even allow you to teach the old dogs some new tricks.

Newby topics attract newbies

One of the problems most user groups face is growth, especially among those who are new to the group’s focus (i.e. newbies). If you are holding off speaking at a group because you’re afraid your topic is too basic, consider this: new people often don’t try out a group because they’re afraid they won’t understand the topics discussed. The basic topic you speak to may be just the thing to get new blood in the door of your group.

You get better at speaking

The more you do something, the better you get at doing it, and public speaking is no different. Your first few times out will likely be rough. That’s the way it is anytime you try something new. The point is to learn from the mistakes and try again. We’re our own worst critics, and while we know when we’re making a mistake, often times our audience doesn’t; they only see what’s on the surface. So while you may think you’re ruining the presentation, your audience may be none the wiser.

It helps to find work

Remember that part where I wrote “You become an authority”? Well, being an authority help you to find work, whether it’s full-time, freelance, or something else. Companies who are looking for help, prefer help from authorities. That could be you.

Now you know why you’re not speaking at user groups and why you should, and as they say, “Knowing is half the battle.” The question now is, “What are you going to do about it?”