loading...

How to become speaker at tech conferences?

twitter logo ・1 min read

I've attended a few conferences in my life as software engineer and I'm thinking about becoming a speaker.
In my company we have the possibility to present things to other engineers. This might be a very good starting point and is quite helpful to train my presentation skills.
But I'm asking myself how do you find a good topic for presentations.

Did you ever held a presentation at a conference?
What was the reason why you decided to become a speaker?
How do you prepare your presentation?
How do you handle questions which you can't answer?

twitter logo DISCUSS (5)
markdown guide
 

With another student we held a presentation about PostgreSQL (database engine) during a non-tech event about open-source and free software. (It was not my idea, I was afraid to talk about this very complex subject).
It was just a rapid presentation about functionnalities, so we made a simple list. I can just recommand using mind-mapping software to organize your knowledge :).

To handle questions which you can't answer:

  • At the beginning ask your public if someone else know your subject.
  • when you can not respond, say "I don't know maybe you can find a rsponse on ..." and indicate where they probably could found a response (documentation, slack, mailing-list, ...)
  • Ask your public if someone know the response (only if at the beginning, your public contains experts :) )
 

The sky's basically the limit when it comes to topics. So far I've stayed fairly nuts-and-bolts technical: showcasing an interesting aspect of relational databases (the dependency graph), or exploring the philosophical background behind Massive.js's approach to data work with a look at how it actually represents the database under the hood. Other people talk about up-and-coming (or old-and-useful) technologies in broader terms, about process, about culture. Pick something that you'd be interested in hearing someone go on about for an hour and run with it! Other people are enough like you that there'll be some who are also interested, and conference audiences self-select for it too.

I got into speaking kind of accidentally. Massive's original developer had handed the project off to me, and then months later he emailed me out of the blue to ask if I'd be interested in speaking at a conference. I actually turned him down at first, but then I thought of something to talk about and that was that. I've kept at it for a host of reasons: I get to travel, meet new people and make new friends, attend interesting sessions, and hone my own skills. I've also dealt with anxiety issues for most of my life, especially in the social and related spheres, so presenting is an effective way for me to confront that whole mess head-on.

When I prepare a talk, I start with a notepad and storyboard it out. That allows me to define the overall flow without wasting too much time. I iterate on that once or twice before I start actually constructing slides. That's an iterative process too -- I feel it's more important to be able to place a slide in its context than it is for it to be perfect. Once I've got a full deck of rudimentary slides, I start actually running through the talk. That results in changes and refinements to the slides, changes to the slides affect how I talk through it; from here on out it's a quasi-dialectical process as the two play off each other to become a cohesive whole. Feedback from other people is immensely helpful, no matter whom; my partner isn't technical, but he can tell me where something's obviously disjointed or unsteady. If you can do a dry run at work or a meetup, even better.

Instead of taking questions I invite people to talk to me afterwards if they're curious about something. Either way "I don't know" is a perfectly legitimate answer; nobody expects speakers to be omniscient. People can smell bullshit though, so don't try that.

 

... and I'm thinking about becoming a speaker.

Now, I don't want, by any means, to talk you out of this. I think that it's a wonderful thought of you. It just feels that this is kinda the wrong approach to take here. You don't think about becoming a speaker. You feel the need to share with others your knowledge and you find out that speaking at conferences is a great mean to do so (as opposed to teaching at schools or writing a blog or recording a podcast).

With that said, I think that the question "how do I find topics" becomes more clear. I am pretty sure that you have plenty of topics already but you haven't quite yet found a format to present them. Think about your last week at work (or even outside of work). What problems did you solve? What technologies did you use? A framework maybe? A plugin you wrote? A scaling issue you overcame?

In any way, go for it. Make a try, you may like it or you may not.

To your questions now:

Did you ever held a presentation at a conference?

Yes, but mostly in meetups. It's easier to book a spot in a meetup due to larger demand and the audience is usually smaller.

What was the reason why you decided to become a speaker?

It started with my need to blend in the local tech community. Once the people got to know me, they started inviting me to their projects or to work with them or even offering me jobs. Eventually, I realized that public talking is relatively easy for me (especially than other people) so I kept going.

How do you prepare your presentation?

Rehearsals to my self or even other people. (My girlfriend used to sit and listen to me without even understanding a thing, just waiving her head on every phrase I was saying :) )

How do you handle questions which you can't answer?

That's tough IMHO. Of course, it will happen. Noone knows everything. It's just that if you gonna talk about a specific topic, better be prepared as hell on that particular topic. And not just prepare for the sake of the presentation. Prepare for the sake of your work so you can make the best out of your work and thus you will be prepared for the talk.

 

The reason why I got into speaking at conferences is the same reason why I was an educator in my previous career. When I learn a new idea or skill I want to teach others and share what I learned. I do that through blog posts and YouTube videos, but nothing feels more rewarding for me than sharing it with a live group of people.

I have presented at one tech conference so far and it was a fantastic experience. The organizers at JSCONF EU were welcoming, attentive and helpful in getting ready and the audience was warm and understanding of a new presenter. Because my topics come from things I really want to share, choosing what to submit a talk about becomes picking which idea I want to share at that conference.

I used Deckset to prepare my talk's presentation in markdown. Then, I practiced it over and over again. I timed myself several times, knowing that when presenting live, I will speak faster than when I am practicing.

Insofar as questions from the audience, JSCONF EU has no Q&A after sessions, so I didn't need to think about that. But, I have lots of experience with that from my previous career. In my experience, people really appreciate the genuineness of a presenter saying, "I don't know, but I'll look into it and get back to you." Of course, you should have some expertise in what you are talking about, so your answer should not always be I don't know, but there will inevitably be a question you can't answer right away, and being honest about that is appreciated by those attending.

Good luck!

 

So far I spoke at a Linux conference (in Austria), two RubyConfs (India and Taiwan) and a PyCon (Thailand). And also quite a few user group meet ups. The reason I decided to become a speaker is that I really love programming, which is also the reason why I taught online Ruby courses for free for several years on RubyLearning.

As for preparing my presentation, the first step is finding a topic. I have many things I like talking about, but that doesn't mean they appeal to a wider audience. So I do some research, look for existing blog posts, check out Twitter discussions etc. Then I try to reduce the topic to its absolute essence, i.e. something like 1-3 major takeaways. Also the less I use a given technology, the more hands-on and concrete my talks are, whereas my Ruby-related talks tend to be more on the architecture/philosophy side of things.

Once I have a topic I start outlining my talk, often just in Evernote where I also dump related links etc. Over time the outline starts taking shape, which is when I start turning it into slides. If it's the first time I'm giving a talk I also try to write out a full version of it later, not because I want to learn it by heart and repeat it verbatim at the conference, but because I want to practice it out loud to get the timing right.

So far I didn't really get questions I can't answer, though if I did I'd say the #1 rule should be to avoid making an answer up on the spot. The more confident in your own abilities you are, the more comfortable you should be at living with the fact that you can't know everything. I'd rather say something like "Good question, unfortunately I don't know the answer to it right now, maybe someone in the audience does?" than embarrass myself by pretending to know more than I actually do.

Classic DEV Post from Nov 8 '19

500 followers!😱🤩 About myself

Matthias 👨‍💻 profile image
Software Engineer. Always curious for new (☁️) technologies. Working on all stacks. Using Java, TypeScript, Bash, Docker, Kubernetes, macOS, ...