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Anita Singh
Anita Singh

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Terrified of speaking at a conference? Submit anyway!

I never thought I'd face a room full of people and speak words out of my own free will, but here we are! This was my first year of submitting to tech conferences, and I had the pleasure of speaking at three of them - Android Makers, Droidcon Berlin and 360AnDev ❤.

I was nervous throughout the process - from picking a topic, writing an abstract, to delivering the talk. So much so that when I got my first rejection, I was relieved and ready to throw in the towel!

I'm glad I didn't, because sharing what I learned through speaking has been an incredible experience, even though 100% terrifying. In this post, I will share what worked for me in getting started:

Finding a topic

  • I initially didn't feel like I was an "expert" on any one topic, so wasn't sure what I should speak about. But I was taking the wrong approach, as speaking is just about sharing what you know (or will learn), and that is it! 

  • No two people explain concepts the exact same way, so it absolutely worth sharing your knowledge even if it is something that has been spoken about before. People will come to your talk to hear about your experience and perspective on a topic, so don't hold back!

  • If speaking is about sharing what you know…well, what do you know? To refresh your memory, I recommend making a list of ALL the projects you worked on in the last couple of years and what you learned, spare no detail! Then proceed to summarise each point with a phrase, like "worked with Android gestures" to extract potential topics out of them.

  • If you feel unamused by the topics related to your past projects, make a second list of topics you wish you knew more about. If you think you will be able to sufficiently explore a topic before the conference, then it is fair game!

  • My advice would be to pick up to three topics that you are either most excited or confident about (or both), and get started!

Submitting abstracts to Call For Papers (CFP):

  • First, read the conference's website where they post their CFP. Often they list topics or what they are looking for, which can help you brainstorm or tailor your abstract.

  • Go through websites of conferences earlier in the year and read the topic proposals to get a sense of how to structure them. You will see that abstracts are a talk’s MVP (minimum viable product) as it is the minimum amount of effort you need to make. You only have to write the talk once it gets accepted!

  • Keep your abstract succinct and focus on what the audience will learn from your talk. The first two conferences I submitted to used language like "I will share how I.." instead of saying "you will leave this talk knowing how to..". Don't know if this is a coincidence, but once I changed the language, my talk got accepted!

  • Rejections are part of the process. As mentioned above, get feedback from the community as early as possible and don’t be like me and wait for rejections to do this. Don’t hesitate to ask for feedback from the conference committee either, but don’t feel down if you don’t get a response since they are busy people dedicating their free time for this.

Tips on overcoming your nerves

  • Practice slowing down. When you are in front of people, adrenaline kicks in and you will likely speak at a faster speed than anticipated. Record yourself if you are feeling brave to improve on your delivery (but don't obsess!).

  • Give the first version of your talk at a safe space like your friendly local meet-up or in front of your colleagues and ask for feedback. I recommend taking questions in these safe spaces as they can help you improve the content of your talk for next time.

  • Be mindful of your posture and body movements when delivering the talk. Be 100% yourself, but the nerves can result in you playing with your hair (guilty!), sleeves, and so forth while giving the talk, which can be distracting for the audience.

  • This might seem silly, but do the power pose and give yourself a pep talk right before the talk! If possible, surround yourself with positive people leading up to it, this helped me the most.

  • The audience is on your side, and if you think you messed up during your talk, just keep going. Chances are nobody noticed, you are your biggest critic, and we are only human! I blanked out once and I internally panicked, but it looked like I was just taking a breath to everyone else :-).

  • You don't have to take questions on the big day, and it is perfectly acceptable to say you will get back to someone if you don't know the answer. The audience will not mind getting their time back.

  • Finally, don't take yourself too seriously, you are not carrying the weight of world peace on your shoulders! That worst case scenario that you are dreading will NOT happen since you are so nervous about it. And besides, what is the worst that could happen?

I have anxiety about this whole process, and what convinced me is if I don't enjoy speaking, I never have to do it again, but it is worth trying at least once. 

You don't have to do this alone, lean into your developer community and check out organizations that can support you, like Toastmasters, Write/Speak/Code, Women Techmakers Berlin and so forth.

I hope the above tips are helpful, would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. Looking forward to hearing you speak, here are some conferences that you can submit to right now!

Top comments (18)

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Great post Anita!

I'll add one thing, which you touched on slightly in theme:

Don't pre-apologize for how the talk is going to go or over-humblize yourself at the start. They're here to see you. Saying sorry, or letting the audience you just put the slides together last night is letting the air out of the room. If you're happy and excited to talk, the room will love the talk no matter what.

anitas3791 profile image
Anita Singh

Absolutely, that is a great point!! It can also come across as bragging even if it is not the speaker's intention.

molly profile image
Molly Struve (she/her)

Great post!

Power Pose FTW!!!! I do that before every speech I give! And while I am power posing I run through THIS SCENE from the movie Cool Runnings and literally shout Jr's lines at a mirror 😃

I would also highly recommend watching Ben Orenstein's talk from Rails Conf 2013 How to Talk to Developers

anitas3791 profile image
Anita Singh

Wow I am totally going to do that next time :D. And this looks like a great talk, will check it out (and maybe include it in the post), thank you!

rhymes profile image

Ahahaha that scene is amazing! Amy Cuddy must have had the idea for her TED talk from the movie 🤣

cotcotcoder profile image

Great Post, very usefull for my 2019 goals :)

Because I'm little stressed by public, I have looked for ways to forget this problem in other conferences and here is my résult:
Stop + Loooong breathe + Water + Funny GIF on screen (a laughing audience is not scary)

jdmedlock profile image
Jim Medlock

Nicely done Anita. I'm a big believer in preparing detailed outlines. Not only do they help with organization and sequencing of topics, but they are also great as speaker notes and to ensure that presentations don't stray from any accompanying articles.

I can't wait to see more from you on your speaking experiences. Thanks for posting this.

nayeonkim profile image
Nayeon Kim

Anita! So cool to see you here :). Thanks for the post. I realllyyyy wanna start speaking at conferences but have too many fears. Your post is super encouraging.

anitas3791 profile image
Anita Singh

Hi Nayeon, so good to see you here too <3. You'll do great, let me know if I can be of help in anyway!

clevemcmillan profile image
cleve mcmillan

Wow Anita, so much to think and ponder there + @BenHalpern, I'm with you also...
Anita, you’ve sure taken me back a few years and given me plenty to reflect. Tried pretty much all of those mentioned. And they so got me to that next level of OMG, when will I ever get good at this? Gosh,I’d almost forgotten them. Thanks. + I’d challenge them now tho… (in my current stage of ignorance), only because I had to work on, and thru, most of these. Maybe it’s all the practice or just maturing but when I look back at that me, all I was really trying to do was show up, be myself, and like me thru my own eyes before those of others… (now there’s a stack of $$$ in coaching mentoring and therapy in that line) but I feel it sits for me anyways.

"Just showing up"
Is it technique we need or is it to learn how to show up as ourselves without that bloody inner critique taking over? I'd say a bit of both aye? But as you know it takes a hot minute to have the courage to just be ourselves. I still find it hard. It’s like painful but as I kept studying and practicing over time it just got, (I just got) more comfortable with me…

Now if I’m asked that curveball Q, I’ll just reply with “hah, that’s a beauty, never thought about it, and what a great Q, I have no flipping idea. Wanna work that out together? And, yes, of course, they say yes… Even the ones that set out to mindfully trip you up… I love those ones now…

"The World's Most Nervous Stylist"
Get this, once I was even introduced as The World's Most Nervous Stylist. Brutal! But he was right. Not sure what gave it away, the sweating like a farm animal in the heat or that my knees uncontrollably trembling so much so that I seriously thought I was going to collapse. Can't remember ever feeling that again. (+ keep in mind, doing hair on stage, in front of hundreds and occasionally a few thousand peeps, is like having to sing, act, play the piano and remember the full choreography and do all that without screwing it up... I mean, it's just hair, how hard can it be trying to get a 100,000 moving targets to follow my direction. hah. easy!

Anyway, I no longer do hair but I still get nervous as hell speaking, and here are a few things I learned while trying not to do that.

"Nerves keep me cool"
One of my coaches told me straight up... "You never want to get rid of those nerves. A, they clearly show you care and B, it makes you relatable mate. You'll always present better nervous than an over-rehearsed vanilla boring as (bleep) speaker... and that's not you dude so stop trying to change it" ... I gotta say, that was some great advice and got me a little more comfortable being uncomfortable.

"Sweating like a bloody farm animal in the sun"
Then there was the wee issue of sweating... Not a pretty look. Then I read a piece of advice (Brian Tracey I think it was), that changed my life. He explained how the audience don't care if you’re sweating, in fact, it’s the lack of managing it that'll make you look like you’re not in control of yourself. Hah… I totally agreed and now I walk on, stage, in full view, with two fresh white cotton face cloths and a bottle of water. I place them down, take my time to fold them neatly, take a sip of water and just go for it… I’ve set the stage, literally. Then when I begin to sweat, I poke fun at myself, pat my forehead with as much style I can muster up and often without even taking a breath… Sweating... no longer an issue. It’s still there, and I’d be worried if not.

"No one has a fear of public speaking"
I’ll leave you with one more. One of my more recent mentors slammed this fear of public speaking thing in about 40 seconds. He said “No One has a fear of public speaking. Only a fear of speaking in front of those more intelligent than you.” I challenged him and he made it real simple, he said, “You’ve studied a good bit on human behavior and this quantum physics thing, could you speak for 10 minutes in front of a group of scientist and Nobel prize winners on the topic?” I was like... hell no! Then he said, “How about a class of first graders?” … Yep he got me! That was cool. He said it’s a perception of either self-righteousness or self-wrongeousness and just keeping my heart open and being neither will allow my message to be shared with those ready to hear and that the perception/assumption was as futile as guessing what’s in someone's wallet or purse. He said with so much direction… “Just go and teach them what you know… if you wait to know more, you’ll never be of service to the world.”

Way too long of a rant but if any of this resonates then great + open to be challenged. Like us all, I’m still figuring this out, Thanks again. What a wonderful memory explosion.

integerman profile image
Matt Eland

How would you compare speaking at a conference vs speaking at user groups? I've given 3 user group presentations and I present internally at my company once or twice a month, but I feel like I'm ready to take the plunge to the local or regional conference level. I know my stuff and I'm getting more comfortable, but I'm not sure how I'll do with crowds over 40 people, things like lights and microphones, etc.

Additionally, I have some nerve damage in my feet from a freak neurological condition years ago and can't stand for prolonged periods of time. Can I still be an engaging speaker sitting at a tall chair at a podium?

abraham profile image
Abraham Williams

Finding someone to present with you is one of my recommendations for new speakers. You then have someone who works with you to meet time goals, a slide deck with the creative input of two, and the audience gets more variety in presentation styles.

@pblatteier and I have a back and for presentation style but you could also switch off every 10 slides or something.

anitas3791 profile image
Anita Singh

Wow that sounds amazing, that is a great recommendation! Thank you!

cseeman profile image

This is one of my goals for 2019, so thanks for the article!

anitas3791 profile image
Anita Singh

That's awesome!! My pleasure, let me know if I can be help :).

bhupesh profile image
Bhupesh Varshney 👾

This is probably gonna help me next year during my college Tech talks 😎💪

rhymes profile image

Great advice Anita!

What do you think of lightning talks?

May they be of help for first time speakers who want to get out there?

anitas3791 profile image
Anita Singh

Yes, I think that's a really great way of getting started :)