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Carole Olinger

Looking back at WordCamp Europe 2017 as an emcee

This is going to be my very first post on my personal blog and I chose a topic which is still close to my heart: I want to share my experience as an emcee at this year's WordCamp Europe in Paris. I hope you enjoy my personal recap.

photo by Stephen M. Blythe

Becoming an emcee

When I got asked on Slack in early May this year how I would feel about emceeing WordCamp Europe in Paris, I was flabbergasted!

Besides feeling extremely honored, I was struggling with all kinds of impostor syndromes. My very first reaction was: “Oh my god! I would love to, but I hope I am good enough!?”

I mean, what did I do so far to deserve this honor? Everybody knows that I am quite insecure about my English skills. I have never been on a huge stage before; WordCamp Europe was expecting more than 2000 people in total. That was way more than scary to me.

To be honest, I couldn't understand why the organizers decided to put their trust in me - and I didn't know if I deserved it. What if I was going to fail? So far, nobody had ever seen me on stage.

The request reached me exactly four days before giving my first talk as a WordCamp speaker in Berlin, and I was very nervous about this too, as you might guess. If my talk wouldn’t be good, it would end as an embarrassing experience for myself – but only for myself. If I would fail on stage at WordCamp Europe, it would have a direct impact on the organizers and the speakers too! These thoughts meant a lot of pressure to me and I felt like there have been a hundred reasons not to accept this challenge. It was all about fears.

On the other hand, three years ago, I was leaving my comfort zone in most decisions I was making: I had left my home country and quit my secure and well-paid job for a four-year sabbatical and self-discovery journey. I dived into the WordPress community one year ago, without even knowing what WordPress was and in the meantime, I had become a WordCamp and Meetup organizer and there were only four days to go before standing on stage in Berlin as a speaker. And finally, I had been crazy enough to apply as a speaker for WordCamp Europe, even if my talk had not been accepted.

All these thoughts flashed through my mind while I was chatting with Francesca Marano on Slack. If I had enough courage to apply as a speaker, why should I say no to this emceeing-thing? And furthermore, why should I let the fears in me win instead of accepting this as a valuable chance to do a good job and make a probably awesome and enriching experience?

To cut a long story short, I accepted the challenge with the words: “Ok, sounds good! I'm in then!”

My fears didn’t disappear after my decision. I had many discussions with my husband who empowered me over and over again to do a good job.

After my talk at WordCamp Berlin, which went very well, my self-esteem started growing: I got great feedback about my performance on stage and I saw at least four people crying. As my goal had been to transfer emotions by telling my personal WordPress story, I was quite overwhelmed. Three hours after my talk, I found myself crying because I felt so much relief – and because of a heartwarming feedback from Caspar Hübinger.

My preparations

In the following days, I started to reflect on my role as an emcee in Paris. My experience as a speaker in Berlin has been very helpful. There had been no emcees, and I noticed that I truly missed them. There had been no introduction of my person, which could have helped me get started. The Q&As didn’t start after my talk and I didn’t know how to react properly. I realized that a good emcee makes a difference on stage.

I agree that not every WordCamp is supposed to have emcees, but if there are, they should be able to add value to the conference. I decided to give my very best to add value to WordCamp Europe 2017, for the speakers, and for the audience.

One of my main goals had been to prepare a good introduction for the speakers. The audience should benefit from it and learn some new things they didn’t know before: who is the person standing in front of them? And even more importantly: why should they listen to her?

In Berlin, I had a fantastic room manager called Samy Thiel. She tried to encourage me, did the timekeeper job as well and most importantly, I had a friendly face to look at whenever I felt insecure.
I decided to give my best to make my speakers feel comfortable before going on stage and to start with the preparations immediately. I planned to contact all the speakers in advance, to let them know who I am, what I do and to find out what I can do for them.

Last but not least, I learned from my own experience in Berlin and I wanted to prepare myself for the Q&A sessions: I would ask the speakers in advance to prepare a good question for me to get things started.

I started building a Google form which would allow me to transfer some information about myself and collect all the information I needed from the speakers at the same time.

Asking for advice in the emcee channel in Slack, I got an answer from Taco Verdonshot, who was emceeing WordCamp Europe in Vienna in 2016 where he did a fantastic job. Taco told me that he also had used a form to prepare his introductions. He shared it with me, as well as all the introductions he had prepared, which was incredibly generous.

Taco's preparations helped me a lot. I created a Google form in my own style with a brief introduction of myself and all the questions that seemed important to me, including the potential Q&A starting question, and sent it to the speakers via Slack.

Google form for the speakers
Google form for the speakers

Now that the event lies behind me, I think the most valuable question has been: “How and why did you choose to give this talk? Is it related to your daily work or a matter close to your heart?” This one gave me really interesting answers and they had mostly been used for writing the introductions. This is the answer to the question why the audience should listen to the speaker!

The speakers mostly replied very quickly and I was able to prepare some good and valuable introductions for them. I really appreciated the nice chats with all of them before meeting in person for the first time.

In the emcee channel I was in constant contact with Francesca Marano and Ana Silva from the content team, who also helped me a lot and were patiently answering all my questions and suggestions – and yes, there have been a lot. I got access to the speaker channel too and they prepared a special Emcee Info Pack. The other three emcees, Wendie Huis in ‘t Veld, Simon Dickson and Ant Miller gave me good advice and encouraged me too, especially right before going on stage; I was the only one who hadn’t done this before yet and all the nice words helped me a lot.

In Paris

On Contributor Day was scheduled a "Speaker Lunch" for the speakers, the organizer content team, and the emcees. This was a brilliant idea in my eyes: at an event of this size, it would have been impossible to get in touch with the speakers without a special event dedicated to this. I managed to meet a lot of my speakers at lunch and last uncertainties and doubts had been solved.

I found the four speakers I didn’t meet at lunch at the volunteer & speaker dinner, which had more than 300 people “on board”. I was happy that almost everything had been settled before the conference started: I like things to be well prepared!

On a side note, please allow me to share some personal thoughts about volunteer & speaker events: I have volunteered at almost every WordCamp that I have attended so far. As a consequence, I have been invited to every one of these events when they did happen. I know that there are many discussions right now because those are exclusive events around a WordCamp. And yes, they are exclusive, without any doubt. But I truly recognize that there is a certainly reasonable benefit in such events: the speakers get to know the organizers and their team: timekeepers, room managers, and the emcee. Not every speaker is experienced, and the volunteers are neither. It is so valuable to get to know your team in advance and to learn how you can be a part of it. It can give you a lot of comfort to meet those people not only 5 minutes before the event gets started, or worse, before going on stage. I would have appreciated such an event in Berlin for my debut as a speaker, but I know and understand the reasons why the organizers didn't want to organize an exclusive event.

The main goal of a volunteer & speaker dinner is not to exclude people or to get a “thank you” as a volunteer or a speaker, it’s about meeting the people you are working with during the following days and about building the first relations with your team!

After a night with definitely not enough sleep, the WordCamp itself started on Friday morning. My first shift was scheduled for the afternoon but I decided to support my husband, Alain Schlesser, and my colleague Wendie in Track Eiffel at 9.00AM. Unfortunately, there was a delay: the lead organizers decided to wait for more people to show up in Pullman Track, before starting with the opening remarks.

Wrong decision if I am allowed to say so, as it had some negative impacts on the Eiffel Track:
Before Alain was allowed to start, I saw Wendie on stage trying to keep the audience in a good mood and it was a horrible situation. Wendie did so well, and I tried to support her as best as I could from my seat in the audience. At the same time, I was praying, that this will not happen to me. She was so brave and did a fantastic job.
Furthermore, the speaker had to skip some slides from his presentation and there was no time for Q&As in the end.
The audience who wanted to see Alain's session moved to Eiffel where the session had already started with 25 minutes of delay.

I went back to the Green Room after Alain's talk and reviewed my preparations: my personal and the speakers' introductions, Q&As, announcements, and fillers. I was particularly worrying for the improv and short term announcements, which could not be prepared; I was still so insecure about my English skills.

All the preparations took me more than a week in total but if I am accepting a challenge, I am striving for perfection – I have to admit though, that there is no such thing as perfection.

Nobody was ever putting any pressure on me, except for myself. And this is one lesson I learned: perfection is overrated and good should be good enough!

On stage

My shift started at 2PM with the Lightning Talks.

I decided to take my Ipad with my preparations on stage, especially because of not being a native English speaker. I know that it would have been better to speak naturally, but I felt more secure with my preps. And a decision which makes you feel more comfortable on such a huge stage cannot be wrong.

preparing for the big stage, photo by Florian Ziegler

I talked to the four speakers waiting to get on stage. They were mostly as nervous as I was and this just made me smile from the inside: in the end, we are all human beings and volunteers during this event. Everybody gives his very best and that's all it needs.

I realized that the audience is the community that I appreciate so much. Before going on stage, a very important sentence came into my mind, which Asia Lindsay told me 2 days ago: “People want you to succeed!” And that’s the point.

My husband was there to support me and so were a lot of dear friends from the community. I took a deep breath and went on stage.

I introduced myself to the audience and then introduced the speakers – briefly, because it was the Lightning talks. All went well. Only, I had not been able to see any reaction from the audience because of the size of the Pullman Track and I was completely blinded by the lights.

photo by Stephen M. Blythe

During the first session, I had to go back on stage every ten minutes and I am so grateful to the speakers that they were all respecting their time slots, which is not an easy thing to do.

At the first or second Q&A session, while explaining to the audience there were four standing microphones in the lower and upper rows they could use, I tried to comfort and motivate all the non-native English speakers to ask their questions:

I told the audience this was WordCamp Europe, and most of us were not native English speakers. If I was able to stay on stage as an emcee, they could raise their voice too if they wanted to do so: language should be a connector, not a barrier!

The afternoon passed quickly: I had been on stage fourteen times, introducing speakers, moderating Q&As and making announcements. I was in constant contact with the organizers by Slack and tried hard to follow the talks at the same time. I gave my best to comfort the speakers before going on stage which was quite an important part of the job to me. And I managed to keep my track exactly on time.

with Marina Pape on stage, photo by Florian Ziegler

Looking back, I cannot believe how quickly I said the words: “I will see you tomorrow morning at 9.00 AM for a new bundle of great sessions in this track and I am already looking forward to it.“

Phew! My first shift laid behind me. I felt some kind of relief of course, but I knew that I had to get back on stage early in the next morning. I joined two networking events in the evening where I got a lot of nice and heartwarming feedback from the people who saw me on stage.

In the end, I went to bed only a bit later than I had planned. I had to skip such great events as the Karaoke Party because I didn’t want to lose my voice or look like a zombie on stage on Saturday. The not so funny part of the job.

The Saturday morning sessions started again with a delay because the audience didn’t show up in the early morning.

I was less nervous than the day before and again all went smoothly.

preparations for Nacin, photo by Florian Ziegler

After four sessions, I thanked Andrea Middleton at 12.40PM for her great and valuable talk and sent the audience to lunch with the words: “Take care, see you soon and bon appétit!“

Wow! That was it for me. I kept my cool till the very end and I was going off the stage for the last time. I definitely needed some time on my own now. I grabbed my lunch and found a place to sit and stay alone with my husband for a while. It’s difficult for me to describe what I was feeling. I felt so much relief and happiness and I started to be proud of myself.

For me, this was really a big thing: one year ago, I didn't know what WordPress or WordCamps were, I didn't know anybody of this amazing community and now I was emceeing one of the biggest WordCamps ever. Quite overwhelming.

After the show

After having seen eleven talks, I decided not to go back to the tracks and instead, meet the other attendees and finally, also the sponsors which had made this great event possible. Again, I got incredibly nice feedback and I felt so happy and proud that I have accepted to do this.

People I call friends and who will always support me, but also people I didn’t meet before came to tell me I did a great job. Also, the organizers and the speakers were happy with my performance, which was most important to me.
I promised myself to "party hard" at the after party because I deserved it, and that's what I did: I had lots of fun meeting friends and new people, chatting, networking and dancing - a lot and till the early morning.

I heard that the Community Tribe Meetup was talking about my emcee preparations. This inspired me to write this blog post.

I had help from amazingly nice people during my preparations, and if I can help other (new) emcees to do a better job, I am happy to do so.

By sharing this experience, but also by making my preparations accessible as a contribution to the open source project. As soon as I will have the agreements of the speakers, I will publish the introductions and the Google form in a follow-up post.

Final thoughts

Emceeing WordCamp Europe in Paris was an incredible honor. I would like to thank the organizers for having put their trust in me, long before I did, and for supporting me. I feel blessed having been allowed to work with you.

After three weeks, I can look back with some distance to an awesome personal experience and draw some personal conclusions:

 

What did go well?

What follows is a mix of feedbacks I got and my personal impression:

Most importantly, I was able to add value to the conference.

My introductions gave the audience additional information about the speakers and why they should listen to them. The speakers appreciated my preparations and the one-on-one support before going on stage. I got great feedback about the survey they had to fill out in advance. The speakers noticed and appreciated that I was putting effort into my introductions to allow them a good start into their session.
I generously thanked every speaker for their performance on stage and for sharing their valuable knowledge with the audience: I felt this was also much appreciated.
I think that especially my introductions had been professional and valuable for the speakers and the audience.

 

What can I do better next time?

It was a bit crazy to start emceeing at WordCamp Europe. A smaller WordCamp would probably have stressed me less; I put too much pressure on myself.
Next time  - and I am quite sure, there will be a next time in the near future - I will be more relaxed. This will allow me to speak more naturally and read less.
I could be a bit more of an entertainer than focus mostly on professional introductions. Nevertheless, I hope this will not only lead to bad jokes on stage.

I wouldn't change a thing to my introductions but I truly agree that my emceeing style could benefit from feeling more at ease on stage.

Finally, the only way to feel more secure about my English skills is to practice my English. This blog, for example, is a good start.

 

What are my personal benefits?

I put some energy and work into my emceeing, but what I got back was worth so much more: I leveled skills that I didn't even know I had. I realized that my small contributions to the WordPress community do not pass unnoticed.
I was able to improve my English before and during the WordCamp.
I have been a contributing part of an event I will look back to with a smile on my face for the rest of my life.
I met new and inspiring people only because they have seen me on stage and they wanted to give me feedback about it.
My role as an emcee allowed me to get in touch with a part of the speakers, which have been all incredibly nice and interesting people.

Emceeing WordCamp Europe was an overwhelming and amazing experience for me; inspiring for my personal development and groundbreaking for new professional goals.

Finally, I came home not only with lots of self-esteem but also with new professional options (that came out of the blue).

Update July 17, 2017
Follow up post: My emcee preparations for WordCamp Europe 2017

19 Comments

  1. Jo on July 10, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Carole You did a brilliant job emceeing and I thought your introductions were insightful. I think it was also great how you had a question lined up at the end of each talk. This post outlining all you did to prepare will be valuable to the community too. Hope to see you again soon at another WordCamp. Jo

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:28 am

      Thank you so much for your feedback, Jo. I really appreciate. It was so good to see you again in Paris, I hope we’ll meet soon again.

  2. Strebel on July 10, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    You did marvelous.

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:29 am

      Thank you so much, Joshua! It was great to meet you and your wonderful wife! See you in Nashville maybe?

  3. Jeroen Rotty on July 10, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    You did a great job. Thanks for being part of it.

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:30 am

      Thank you, Jeroen! It’s great to hear that.

  4. Sandee on July 10, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Hi Carole! We haven’t met, but I know of your husband, Alain, through the GenesisWP community. It’s great to see I’m not the only one who struggles with the “Am I good enough?” question / imposter syndrome when it comes to public speaking — I can totally relate to that! I’m glad you conquered your fear as it sounds like you had a great learning experience and lots of fun.

    Cheers!

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:34 am

      Hello Sandee, thanks for reading my post and for your valuable feedback! You are right, there have been some fears to conquer but it was all worth it!
      “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” – Jack Canfield
      All the best for you!

  5. Thorsten Frommen on July 10, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    Hey Carole,

    unfortunately, I didn’t see any of your gigs live, but already a lot via the video recordings by now.

    I have the deepest respect for what you did, and also how you did it. It so doesn’t matter whether or not people realized you were nervous—because you were well-prepared, did a great great job, and you really lived your role as an emcee by heart. You had an overall positive influence on the whole event.

    Looking forward to seeing you emcee again, some time soon…

    Cheers,
    Thorsten

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:36 am

      Wow! Thanks so much for your kind words, Thorsten! They mean a lot to me! I’m speechless now – and that doesn’t happen very often! 😉 Big hugs to you!

  6. Nate on July 11, 2017 at 12:28 am

    Absolutely great job, Carole! Looking forward to the next time!

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:37 am

      Thank you so much, Nate! Also for reading my (long) post!

  7. Rahul Bansal on July 11, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    You did an awesome job, Carole!

    As myself being one a speaker you introduced, I can say this with more certainty!

    The Google Form you created was great. Some questions helped me improve the flow of my talk. 🙂

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:41 am

      Hey Rahul, that’s so good to hear from you! It was so important for me to add some value and reading this, makes me realize I succeeded in one way or another. I hope we’ll meet again in the near future.

  8. Thabo Tswana on July 11, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you for writing this awesome post! I share some of the same feelings that you expressed. And you’re very right… I also came to realize that when you contribute to WordPress, your contribution does not go unnoticed 🙂 Looking forward to seeing you and Alain again somewhere in the WordPress universe!

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:43 am

      Hey Thabo, thanks for your nice feedback and for reading my post! It was so good to meet you in Paris! You are an inspiring person for all of us and I am quite sure, we’ll be able to meet again! Best of luck with WordCamp Harare (I would LOVE to come).

  9. Jörg Strotmann on July 13, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    This is truly a very good read!

    • Carole Olinger on July 14, 2017 at 9:44 am

      Thank you so much, Jörg! So good to hear people like my first blog post. I shall continue writing.

  10. […] a follow up to Looking back at WordCamp Europe 2017 as an emcee, I'll be publishing my emcee preparations for WordCamp Europe […]

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