Getting up on stage in front of hundreds of people? Sounds like the start of many of our nightmares. But for Rand Fishkin, it’s just another day at the rodeo. Rand is the founder and former CEO of SEO software startup Moz, host of the ever-popular Whiteboard Friday video series, and a world-class public speaker.Rand has given hundreds of unique presentations in the technology and marketing spaces over the last several years, including talks at companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Each time he gets on stage, he delivers some of the most compelling presentations in the industry. So naturally, we decided to pick his brain on all things presenting and performing in front of an audience, and how those skills can also be applied to getting in front of the camera.
Keep reading to learn more about how Rand has become the acclaimed speaker he is today, and get some helpful tips for becoming a better presenter yourself!
WISTIA: Do you think public speaking is a muscle you can strengthen over time, or is it something you’re born with?
RAND FISHKIN: Oh God … no. It’s not something you’re born with. There are certainly people who have more or less of a predisposition toward being comfortable on stage, but absolutely no one is any good their first time. Any aspiring speaker should take comfort in that. I’ve bombed. I’ve had poor speaker ratings. I’ve had events that I spoke at once who’ve never reached out again. It’s humbling, but if you can overcome the fear and embarrassment and simply use it as a growth opportunity, you’re on the right path.
WISTIA: How did you get started with public speaking?
RAND FISHKIN: I got started speaking because of my blog. Folks in the early days of SEO read my writing (often because I was relentless about commenting on other people’s blogs, in forums, etc., in the days before Twitter and Facebook) and I managed to convince some event organizers that I might be interesting on stage. At first, it was just panels. I’d spend $1,500 to fly to Toronto or New York or San Francisco and book a couple nights at a hotel, just for an 11-minute session with four other panelists on a niche topic. It taxed our business’s early budget immensely, but eventually it paid off. My speaking muscle strengthened, and the content on stage bolstered the blog’s reputation (and vice versa).
“My speaking muscle strengthened, and the content on stage bolstered the blog’s reputation (and vice versa).”
Within a few years, I had invitations to keynote — although, important side note, I believe most of that came from the popularity of my video posts. Organizers LOVE folks who seem comfortable and effective on video, and I chalk up a ton of my “success” getting on big stages and being a headliner to the growing popularity of Whiteboard Friday.
WISTIA: Capturing (and holding) the attention of your audience is always a challenge. What are some ways you can keep your audience engaged during a presentation?
RAND FISHKIN: Create conflict. Disagree with important, powerful people and well-known trends or common wisdom. Presenting “best practices” is nowhere near as attention-grabbing (and holding) as being contrarian. Another big tactic is to share data that you know your audience will value because it makes their job easier, convinces their boss/team/clients of their importance, proves something about which there’s a lot of hand-wringing, or surprises everyone. This works especially well if you tease it, build up to it, and then click dramatically for that crazy piece of data.
“Create conflict. Disagree with important, powerful people and well-known trends or common wisdom.”
By the way, this doesn’t work very well if you’re presenting data that everyone already knows (or assumes they know). For example, showing that web page load speed impacts conversions is boring. Everyone knows that. Showing that improving load time from 20 seconds to 8 seconds does very little vs. improving from 8 to 4. That’s more interesting. Showing examples of pages that 50%+ of visitors were willing to wait 25 seconds for? That’s fascinating.
WISTIA: At Wistia, we’re strong proponents of incorporating video into presentations to help build emotion around your message, but too much video can be content-overload. What do you think is an ideal mix of content in a presentation?
RAND FISHKIN: I have a love/hate relationship with video in on-stage presentations. I love when it’s done well and I agree it grabs attention and can help bring folks out of their phones/laptops. But I also see it used far too often as a crutch. A speaker whose content isn’t very new, interesting, dramatic, or powerful will show a couple videos hoping that absolves their mediocrity. It doesn’t.
I’ve attended hundreds of presentations in the last 10 years and I can count on two hands the number of times there was NOT an issue with video or sound in a speaker’s presentation. Waiting five minutes (or even one minute) while technical issues are sorted out backstage is one of my least favorite things as a speaker. If you’re ok with it, and the risk is worth the reward, go for it. But know that most stages and production teams will struggle.
Bonus: We’ve learned a lot from our wins and our flops when it comes to incorporating video into our presentations. Check out this post on how to include video in your next presentation and start doing it the right way today!
WISTIA: Storytelling is a super effective presentation tactic. Do you have any tips for creating tension and building anticipation in your presentations?
1) Create a villain. It can be a real person (always punch up — go for someone powerful and important) or a concept or a frustrating pattern/trend/myth. Then tear down the villain and, in the process, you create drama and add value.
2) Lean on your slides. If you have trouble remembering a story perfectly and telling it well, lean on your slides to help guide you through with visuals to convey each part of the story. The professional storytellers will say this doesn’t work as well, but if you’re umm-ing and saying, “Wait, that’s not what happened … oh yeah, I forgot about this other part!” slides are a lifesaver.
“If you have trouble remembering a story perfectly and telling it well, lean on your slides to help guide you through with visuals to convey each part of the story.”
WISTIA: Performing in front of a live audience can be just as terrifying as stepping in front of the camera. Are there any tips from presenting that can be applied to video?
RAND FISHKIN: A lot of the same content tips apply — creating drama, being controversial, tearing down an existing idea/myth. But video is wonderful in that if you’re nervous, you can do as many takes as you need. Mess up? Don’t like how you sound? Just film it again!
WISTIA: In addition to presenting at tons of conferences, you’ve also been the star of an online video series, Whiteboard Friday. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from being in hundreds and hundreds of videos?
RAND FISHKIN: Biggest lesson? Maybe this: Video is unlike any other form of content. When you do video, and do it well (polished, professional, high-quality, few disfluencies, truly valuable to the audience, popular enough to reach thousands of people regularly), the amplification effects are much bigger for your personal brand than written, visual, or even audio content.
I think it’s because we associate video with fame, and thus video translates to speaking opportunities, to deferential treatment in your field, and to a reach that’s broader than you’d otherwise get. I didn’t realize how Whiteboard Friday would take off, be perceived, or the effect it would have long-term, but I’m really glad we’ve done it.
WISTIA: Has being in a weekly video series helped you with your on-stage performance at all or vice-versa? How?
RAND FISHKIN: Absolutely. The practice of regularly presenting on SEO topics means I need intimate familiarity and comfort with the topics. It means I need to be relatively polished in my speaking style. And it gives me a lot more practice than 99% of purely on-stage speakers.
WISTIA: Any final words of wisdom for those who are nervous to get started with their public speaking careers?
My best advice for speakers in the tech and marketing space is here — a lot of “cheats” and “hacks” to get high scores and have audiences love you without needing to be a sublime, polished presenter. If you’re nervous to start, I’d definitely urge you to try video first. It’s an excellent way to gain the skills needed, and you’ll get quick feedback on whether people are engaging, dropping off, or if you have something truly valuable and unique that folks want to hear.
What’s your go-to routine before getting up on stage? Do you have any tips or best practices? Share with us in the comments!