It was the middle of October, and I have just finished up giving my intimidatingly named talk We are 3000 Years Behind, Let’s Talk About Engineering Ethics. Djangocon 2018 is the fifth conference where I have given this particular talk since July. My local python user group was also kind enough to let me practice on them in September.
I was as surprised as anyone to find myself criss-crossing the US this summer and fall telling people about how my old job had specific ethical rules and maybe developers should think about some too. It was an idea that I had on a whim, but it really resonated with conference organizers while they were setting up their talk schedules and eventually with conference goers too.
Here are a few things I learned by giving the same talk 6 times over three months.
This isn’t surprising, but I didn’t appreciate how true it is. Practice really matters.
I have relied on my experiences in front of crowds (shout out to Good Company Player’s Junior Company, with whom I performed hundreds of times as a kid) to let me coast through my talks. I wasn’t very nervous in front of crowds, and I know that kind of calm is elusive to many. The first few times I gave the talks, I hadn’t practiced much because I didn’t need to in order to calm anxiety.
But practice does more than provide you with the required confidence to not faint on stage.
- Helps you edit
- Makes sure you won’t be severely under-time or overtime
- Helps your talk sound more natural
- Reduces surprises
- And practice absolutely decreases anxiety, even if you aren’t super prone to that problem.
This may sound weird but you might want to make sure you don’t sound weird.
I gave my ethics talk at the end of July and sometime in August I had to watch a video of the talk to okay it being posted on youtube. So I watched myself give my talk.
And I was mortified! I did this clicking thing with my tongue and once I heard it, I will never be able to un-hear it until the day I die. This clicking sound is exactly the sort of thing that makes listening to your own voice an uncomfortable experience. I am convinced that I was judging myself more harshly than any of my attendees (at least none of them mentioned it in their speaker feedback). Regardless, it was still something that I am glad I found out about after my first time giving the talk so I could work on curbing that tendency.
After this experience, I picked up the habit of recording myself giving my talk and then listening to the recording on repeat during my weekly long run. Doing so doesn’t strike me as a particularly normal thing to do, but it was effective.
To summarize, listen to available recordings of your talks and make your own recordings and listen to those as well. You will find ample opportunities to improve your performance and your content.
After your talk, it is very likely that people will come up and ask you questions or have stories to tell you related to your talk. It is almost always a good idea (unless someone is being weirdly aggressive or something) to have these conversations. You may learn something relevant to your talk, you may gain insight into how the talk has been perceived, you may learn that certain points could use more clarity, you might get a kind compliment, or you might meet a new professional contact or friend.
There can be awkwardness to these kind of interactions and you don’t need to incorporate all feedback you get, but I have found that I usually come away from these discussions with ideas of how to improve my talk. I am so glad I had a chance to iterate!
All good talks must come to an end and eventually you will probably want to retire your talk from your repertoire. If you are a frequent conference speaker, this will probably mean that you will want a new talk proposal to send around to conferences with open cfps.
Since you have given your talk multiple times, you have a bunch of data points to reflect upon and you can move forward as a better public speaker.
Use your experience from giving your talk multiple times when you are crafting that next proposal. I am currently asking myself the following.
- What kinds of content did people respond well to?
- What kinds of conferences fit my presentation style and your personal preferences? Single track? Multi track? Language agnostic? Community conferences?
- Is there a way I can build upon my topic, or should you try something entirely new?
My whirlwind experience of traveling the country and giving this weird little ethics talk six times wouldn’t have been possible without the conference organizers who believed in the idea and some of whom found money in their budgets to help me with travel. I appreciate it immensely.