Coming to the Stage

Comparing In-Person and Online Meetup Lightning Talks

I hear the buzz of murmurs for an excited crowd. The sound of glasses and beer bottles clinking as strangers meet and introduce themselves hums behind excited conversations. Heat from the lights and projector hits my face. The smell of wood from the bar floor fills my nose. A strong feeling of fear resting in the pit of my stomach rises towards my throat.


Terrified Woman

Speaking in public is a terrifying prospect for many of us


This might sound like the confessionals of a stand-up comic or breathy saloon bar singer. However, dear reader, this is the memory burned into my brain as I took to the stage for my first ever in-person meetup talk. My symptoms sound rather like those of a fear of public speaker, just as Deborah Frances-White outlines in her amazing TEDx Talk on stage fright. Deborah shares a great theory that fear of public speaking stems from our survival instincts, and the need to avoid being lunch. You might think this is not the biggest deal. It was a ten-minute lightning talk. Hardly an escape from a pack of lions!


Yet for me it represents a major milestone in my continuing speaker journey. I started dabbling in technical speaking just over a year ago, through the global pandemic. With many meetups and conferences taking place online through that time, all my experience is based in the online world. Often, I would stand in my spare room, talking at an empty screen. That is vastly different to the in person experience I have just described.


In the hopes of dispelling some fear and myths of those others who, like me until recently, have only presented online, I regale the experience of my first in-person meetup. I will discuss the key differences between these two formats. Finally, I will give some useful tips to help you prepare to step out into the physical spotlight and give your first in-person talk.


Back Stage Pacin’


Despite having given a longer version of the same talk at a couple of online meetups, I still felt exceptionally nervous ahead of this first engagement. Part of the reason was down to going to a new meetup, with a lack of familiar faces in the audience. Poor Mr R was subjected to two practice runs in twenty-four hours as I tried to prepare and adjust to the altered talk flow.


Those same nerves did not disappear on the train. As you can tell from the below tweet. Instead, I tried to think of the advice I have heard from many fellow speakers that nerves never go away, and that it is simply a case of embracing them.

As you can see from my pre-event tweet, I was feeling pretty nervous!

I got chatting to a couple of people when I arrived, which was a welcome distraction. When the time came for the session to start, I grabbed a seat at the front to make it easier to step up to the stage at my slot without worrying about tripping over others, or indeed my own, feet.


Speaking to a new group of people when you are establishing yourself contributes to your nerves. While waiting your turn in a group of speakers can build up your fear, when new to a setting it can also help you get a feel for the audience, as well as being useful for picking up presenting tips. Thankfully, I was one of Five speakers that evening, and the last to go. This gave me the opportunity to see how chilled out and welcoming this group were.


Stage Fright


Taking to stage felt like a surprisingly natural thing. Most likely my brain telling me this is the same as all the online talks you have given to your laptop before. I could not employ the trick of speaking to the friendly face because, not to say that this audience were not friendly, but they were strangers to me. So, my focus point tended to float around the audience to prevent me uncomfortably staring at one person for the entire talk.


Woman on Stage with Microphone

It is far easier to gauge the interest of the audience as you speak when you’re in front of a live audience, compared to black boxes on Zoom


One of the key advantages to speaking in person if you gauge the interest of the audience as you speak. With online talks, there is a great disparity in the level of feedback you get as you are speaking. Depending on the audience and tooling of choice you can be speaking to boxes of nodding heads, black rectangles, or even a black void in the case of Webinars.


In person you can determine the reaction to segments of your talk. I discerned the nods and smiles as showing acknowledgement of a potentially insightful point. Laughs meant that joke I made landed well. Even the one about hurrying up so we could all get to the bar seemed to get a small chuckle! Thankfully I did not see anyone screw up their face in offence or derision, so no controversial points seemed to have been made by myself thankfully!


Person Asking Question with Raised Hand

In my experience, answering questions are a common attribute to both types of meetups


One common attribute shared by in person and online talks is post-event questions and feedback. Online meetups normally include a few minutes for questions after a talk that can be asked directly or via the integrated chat feature. In person, while there was no Q&A segment, people were happy to approach me afterwards with any questions they had. I even got some great suggestions on how to improve my slides by a fellow speaker, for which I am incredibly grateful.


Online, I have found that feedback is normally submitted afterwards in forms or in the integrated chat. I have always enjoyed answering questions and using those perspectives to inform future talks. It was reassuring to find that common trait between these two formats.


She’s Still the Star


Overall, I found that many aspects such as questions, nerves and support are very similar between online and in-person meetups. Given that many in-person meetups have spawned from a need to move in-person sessions online to meet the needs of their communities, this makes a lot of sense. Online communities are very accessible to people who need to be home in the evening for caring or other commitments, and there is still a need for both formats as the state of hybrid working evolves.


Bar conversation over drinks

In person meetups allow for organic conversations over a drink, which are missing from online forums


Nevertheless, one element of in-person meetups that I do not feel has been replicated successfully are the conversations you have after the talks are over. Talk questions organically morphed into full conversations into technology, best practices, and career experience. I have seen attempts to replicate this practice with post-event breakout rooms.


The unfortunate reality is that most people will head off from an online meetup as soon as the meeting closes. It is almost as if working remotely has morphed these jovial encounters into another meeting slot. I hope in time we will come to figure out how to integrate the social element into online meetups to preserve their accessibility.


All the World is a Stage


Overall, my first in-person meetup experience was a positive one. Much like the online communities I have spoken at, the audience wants you to succeed. I am not the gazelle that this pack of hungry lions wants to eat. They are actually more interested in pacing around the bar after I speak in search of a libation.


Audience With Love Heart Hands

Meetup audiences, unlike a pack of hungry lions, want to see you succeed on stage


I am glad to have participated in this exercise. It serves as good practice for my next in person speaking engagement for when conferences resume. I am hoping to speak in person at Devoxx UK in November, assuming in person goes ahead. I am so excited to have that opportunity. This first in-person experience has been a good starting point focusing on a smaller audience, that I hope to build upon in future.


Thanks for reading! Do share your own experiences of lightning talks, in any format. I would love to hear how you get on!

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