Conference Confessions (2 Part Series)
Last time, I wrote about my insights on being a conference attendee. That list was concise! This one is going to be a bit longer.
I spoke at my first conference in 2017. I spoke at a few more in 2018. But everyone says conference speakers have their break out year, and this was mine. I applied everywhere, got lots of non-selections, and plenty of acceptances! I turned down a few but I agreed to speak at almost all of them...perhaps too many.
However, the process of constantly speaking and working on my talks left me with lots of advice. A lot of which was given to me by fellow speakers! Different tech leads to different talks, so not all of these points will apply to you. But I haven't seen a lot of these things written down. So this is me doing that.
Early on I received feedback that a talk I'd given wasn't what an attendee expected to learn and that frustrated them. My first reaction was to be annoyed. The talk title was clear enough, but the abstract even more so. It wasn't my fault they assumed I'd cover stuff I didn't plan to!
But, it turns out it was. Oftentimes abstracts on talks aren't readily available, so attendees select talks based on the title. And there are lots of different ways to read something short and succinct like a title. So what do you do?
Begin every talk with a brief overview of what attendees can expect to learn. Mention what level the talk is geared at. And maybe even give them an out! At a multitrack conference, there are lots of options, it'd be a shame to have an unhappy audience member.
Early on in my speaking career, a 15-minute talk felt like an eternity! Now I regularly give talks that clock in at an hour or more. But realistically, that's a long time for attendees to sit and listen. Talks that feel like a lecture are going to be tough to pay attention to.
One of my favorite tricks for keeping attendees attention and letting them engage with the material is to ask them questions. Sometimes the question is informational and helps me tailor my talk. Something like: How many of you use this tech?
Other times, the questions are interactive and fun. Things like: Give me a variable name? or What color theme should I use?
There are so many different locations you can give a talk, but in my mind they break out into two major categories: Stages vs. rooms.
When I'm on a stage I'm using a mic, lights in my eyes, the projector screen is really large and I'm a level removed from the audience. I find these environments a bit more anxiety-inducing. But my biggest takeaway is that I can't gauge the audience as well. I'm likely to have fewer pauses and casual commentary as a result so I have to be a lot more aware of pacing.
In a room, I expect that my talk is going to feel a lot different than how I practiced because it will be tailored to the audience. I'll ask more questions, go into more stories, probably make more jokes. It can be casual because I can course-correct based on audience reaction.
Live coding is dynamic so it prompts people to pay attention. It's different every time so you never feel stale. You can tailor the content to the audience instead of skipping over slides. And it's ok to make mistakes! The audience will help you debug, but in the worst-case scenario, you move on.
One potential hiccup with live coding is internet stability at conferences. Always have a backup. That way, you're set no matter what. Maybe you can even use it to skip over your mistake!
Even the coolest Britney Spears era microphones have battery packs. Plan accordingly! Pants are cool. Dresses are too, but make sure they have pockets or a belt. And remember that mic packs are heavy, you might want that belt either way.
Another important key to mics is placement. Do you have long hair? A scarf? Dangly earrings? Make sure there is a place you can put the mic where all that stuff won't interfere.
It's all too easy to go down the rabbit hole of creating your slide deck. Color themes, memes, diagrams, pictures, etc! But the reality is that slides are secondary. Focus on the story of your talk. Use high-quality examples and content that's geared towards the right audience.
Focusing on the content of your talk is the priority. That doesn't mean to ignore your slides! They should complement what you're saying and not distract from listening to you.
That being said, color contrast and large fonts are key. Don't forget about accessibility for your audience. Especially considering how variable room sizes and screens are.
I gave 19 talks this year. And on my 16th I had to change all of my theming and font size because the setup in the room was totally different from anything I'd run into thus far! This is not an anomaly. Always do a tech check.
There are a number of things to check on. Can your slides be seen from the back of the room? How is saturation affecting your color contrast? Do you have any dongles you need? Is the mirroring set up so you can see presenter notes if you need them? Does the mic work? Does it work with your outfit?
Put your twitter handle or name on every single slide. I used to think this was self-promotional, but I quickly realized the necessity. It's good to do this for a couple of different reasons.
If someone takes a screenshot it's immediately clear what the original source was.
Attendees won't remember your twitter, or even your name, from the very beginning of your talk and they may be live-tweeting excerpts! Give them some help.
A great way to do this is to edit your master slide templates. Just remember to check the color of your font if you're changing backgrounds from dark to light within your presentation.
People come to conferences and attend your talk with the hope of getting value for their time. But that's what is important to remember. They WANT to have chosen a good talk. They WANT you to succeed!
Being a speaker can be nervewracking for any number of reasons. There is so much prep that goes into it. Not every talk will go perfectly. But it helps to remember that the audience is rooting for you. This is especially true with those live coding mistakes. They'll enjoy helping out :)
Some people ask for questions at the end of their talk. And that can be a wonderful thing to do. Q&A sessions are challenging, but when done well they can be just as informative as the talk itself!
That being said, it's not a requirement. I often don't like to make the entire audience stay and listen to questions. I invite those that have them to come up and ask me individually. It's pretty informal so others that are curious can listen in. This has the added benefit of cutting down on questions that are really just comments. Those tend to serve no one but the asker.
Can I let you in on a secret? The talk before lunch is a tough spot to be in. Everyone is angling to get in line before the masses descend. Plus, they may be distracted because they're hungry.
Keep this in mind. It's probably not the worst thing in the world to try and end 5 minutes early. You can even use this as a chance to ask your audience what they'd prefer! Q&A? Or early release for lunch?
This is also a good time to mention that knowing your talks well enough to have wiggle room is incredibly helpful. You can remove a story at slide 10, or give an extra example at slide 18, etc. Being able to do this helps you adjust in a number of different scenarios.
Don't underestimate how hard it is to be away from home for long stretches and the toll travel takes on your body. This goes in both directions. You likely don't want to fly in and out for a conference and only be on the ground for 24 hours. Conversely, doing 4 conferences in one month is bound to leave you exhausted.
The downside is that conferences don't all run CFPs at the same time. And they run so far ahead of time that you can't always make an informed decision about what else will be going on in your life.
My advice is to ease into it gradually. Unless you have a really good reason, try not to do more than two conferences a month, maybe even one. Stay local or in the same timezone as much as you can. And recognize that it's ok to turn down an opportunity. Even if it's one you would have dreamed to have just last year.
This is why conference speakers tend to talk about a "breakout year". When you're in front of a number of different audiences you start to gather all of the things conference organizers like to see. You have more videos, more talks, more attendees and conference organizers know who you are, you get better and better each time.
And that results in more acceptances! Maybe even some invitations. This is where my note about travel becomes really important. When you've grown used to not being accepted it becomes natural to say yes to every opportunity. But before you know it, you'll be overbooked and exhausted.
Start setting criteria for when a conference makes sense to speak at. Is it a community that you're involved in? Is it a topic that you're particularly passionate about? Does the location and timing make sense? Will it have an impact on other aspects of your career?
This is a confession I thought about excluding, but I felt it necessary to be honest. Speaking at a conference is incredibly draining. You're "on" in front of a room full of people for about 60 minutes. That doesn't include questions and conversations afterward. You are likely participating in a speaker dinner, attendee event, etc. It's a lot.
My reality is that I don't attend nearly as many talks when I'm speaking at a conference. I try not to attend a talk right before mine and often I need a break directly following (or I'm still caught in conversations). I might spend more time in my room prepping, or possibly getting some other work done. I may need more quiet time. It just depends.
I try and interact with people as much as possible. Meeting people at conferences is wonderful. But it's important to note the limitations.