2019 was the year that I finally managed to take the plunge into technical speaking. I’ve always fancied doing a talk, even when I started to learn to code. But the way I got into it was rather lucky on my part.
Towards the end of 2018, I was sitting in my room back in the UK just randomly scrolling through Twitter. Out of nowhere, I saw that a there was a data conference called DataGrillen being held in Germany, and they were looking for speakers to fill their newcomer track.
I don’t know what made me submit a session. I had only been in my first job out of uni for 10 months. I had been in ASB’s Big Data team for about 6 of those months and had gotten some good experience working with Azure Databricks. So really, it was a guess of me thinking ‘yeah, what’s the worst that could happen? I’m just some junior developer in New Zealand, so they can only say no’.
I wanted to do a bit of investigation on the conference before submitting a session. There was BBQ, there was beer and there was tech and that was good enough for me (Should have probably done more, like where the hell is Lingen?). I put together a little session called ‘Introduction to Advanced Analytics on Azure Databricks’, wrote a little abstract about the session and myself and said out loud ‘This won’t get through’.
Then this happened:
A couple of weeks later, I got the email that I didn’t think I was going to get. I was invited to speak at DataGrillen.
I couldn’t really believe it. It was the first time in a while that I had a smile on my face. Never mind the logistics of actually getting to Germany, being invited to speak at a conference on the other side of the world was just an awesome feeling in itself.
I had several months to prepare. I found out that I would be speaking in December 2018 and the conference was in June, so naturally I left it to the last minute. Nothing like the combination of jet-lag and adrenaline to create a fantastic tech talk!
I agonized over the demo, making sure that it made sense and showed what I wanted to demo, I went overboard on the slide design and prepared like crazy. I didn’t have much leave from work so the plan was to leave on the Thursday a week before the talk, arrive in England and stay with family, fly out to Germany the day before, do the conference and then come back to New Zealand.
I had no concept of time or space during this week.
I remember arriving at the conference completely jet-lagged after trying to adjust to three time-zones within the space of 5 days. I’d been up since 3am tidying up my demos, practicing my talk for the nth time and just generally panicking. I checked in, picked up my speaker badge and headed straight for the keynote room. I made sure I picked up a conference agenda and attempted to find out where I was speaking.
All the room names were in German and considering at the best of times English is a struggle for me, so you can imagine how much fun that was!
I was scheduled to speak in the second session in the morning. I found my room and began to setup as soon as the first session was over. I had visions of not having the right equipment and nothing working, so I had bought a whole expeditions worth of equipment with me to cover every use case that I thought up in my panic.
Luckily I had everything I needed and the talk went well! I had to present for 75 minutes (which is a LONG time!) but it was all fine. The timing was good, the demo worked (even though I was connecting to Azure through a bluetooth connection on my phone!) and people looked like they had a great time. Off the top of my head, I think I spoke to about 40 people overall. Not too small but not massive either.
I came out of the talk feeling on top of the world. All the anxiety and stress involved in delivering my first talk was all worth it. I had gained some invaluable experience, met some cool people on the other side of the world and gained some much needed confidence in myself and my abilities.
So having gone through this experience, I consider myself somewhat qualified to give you some tricks and tips on how you can get into speaking at tech events, what you need to do to prepare and the different types of events you can speak at.
First time speaker? There’s a conference for that!
DataGrillen was the perfect conference for me to make my debut in speaking. Sure it was on the other side of the world, but they had a newcomers track and they provided me with a speaking mentor. They put all the newcomer sessions in the best and biggest room and it was a great all round experience.
If you’ve never spoken at a conference before,look for conferences that have a newcomers track. They are designed to give a platform to new speakers and you should look to take advantage of it. Some conferences like DataGrillen, will hook you up with a speaking mentor who can guide you on not just how to prepare for your talk, but also what equipment you might need, what to do when the flaky conference Wi-Fi gives out etc.
It’s fantastic to see conferences are starting to include a newcomers track. As someone who has clearly benefited from it, they provide an excellent platform for newbies to put themselves out there and grow their skills. Whether you’re running a full-blown 3 day technical conference extravaganza or a small meetup after work hours, I’d highly recommend that you integrate a newcomer track into your event.
Not quite ready for a full conference, try a meetup!
Speaking at a major conference or full day event can be quite daunting! (Certainly was for me!). If you feel that you aren’t quite ready for a big event yet, I’d recommend trying speaking at a local meetup first.
Local meetups are great for speaking in a familiar environment and they’re great for building up your local network. I’ve been really fortunate to meet some fantastic people in the Auckland developer community by speaking at local meetups.
Last year, I was lucky enough to speak at both the North Shore .NET user group and the Auckland Azure Lunchtime Meetup. I managed to speak at those events by going up to the organizers and just asking them if I could present. If you don’t want to do this, you can always reach out to meetup organizers through email, social media etc. From the perspective of meetup organizers, it can be extremely difficult for them to find speakers, so by you reaching out to them and offering to speak, you’re helping them out so they’ll be more than happy to help you in return.
Depending on the meetup, they also have the advantage of having smaller crowd sizes. Personally, I find that my attitudes toward crowd sizes changes from time to time, but if you feel that speaking to an audience of 50 is a bit too much to begin with, small meetups have the benefit of creating a more conversational tone with the audience, rather than a full on presentation
What about YouTube or Virtual Events?
I haven’t done this myself so I’m not the most qualified person when it comes to creating content for YouTube, but if you’re not ready to face an audience IRL and you really want to start creating content, what could be better than doing it in the comfort of your own home?
Like I said, I haven’t done this myself and to do it properly I imagine there’s quite a bit of setup to it, but this f reecodecamp articlehas some fantastic advice on how to create your own software channel on YouTube.
I’m lucky enough to live in a city with lots going on and good access to public transport. However, if you live in an area where travelling requires more effort than just jumping in the car or catching a bus, look to see if you can speak at virtual events instead. Again, all the benefits of being able to speak at a technical event in the comfort of your own home!
Once you’ve been accepted, now what?
After any call for content period is over for a conference I’ve submitted to, I find myself checking my emails at least a hundred times a day waiting for that all important acceptance email. I can’t explain it, I guess it’s just part of the rush.
When you do finally get that email, there’s still a bit of work that needs to be done before you can actually present it (which was the whole point right?).
If it’s a local event, travel and accommodation should be fairly straight forward. However, if you’re speaking at an event that’s far away, you’ll want to sort these out as soon as you can to save money. Find a hotel that’s fairly close to the venue and plan how you’re going to get to the venue ahead of time.
Some conferences sort out accommodation and travel for speakers, however this is rare, so plan accordingly.
In terms of equipment, make sure you have all you need to deliver that kick-ass presentation. This includes VGA cables, HDMI cables and ports, remotes, battery adapters etc.
If you’re going to do a hands on demo, create it so that you don’t need the internet. Conference Wi-Fi is unreliable at best, so prepare any demo that you might have anticipating it to fail. This may require you to prepare a screen-cast or video of your demo before your talk, rather than doing it during your talk.
I get that it’s not as cool, but having gone through it myself, there is nothing more painful than watching your demo fall apart in front of you and your audience.
Finally, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Practice your content. Practice your timing. Practice your transitions between slide decks and demos. Write a script if you have to. Make sure your notes give you the right prompts (I do this a lot!). Practice your talk in front of the mirror. Practice it in your room. Practice it in front of your friends and family.
Whatever you feel you need to do to be prepared to deliver an awesome talk, do it!
On the actual day, you will feel nervous. It’s a part of life and completely natural. But those nerves are actually good! No seriously, they are! As a good friend told me, it’s a sign that you care.
You want to do well and you want to amaze people with your insight and knowledge (It’s part of the reason why you’ve decided to do this). Different people have different ways of dealing with nerves (I’ve tried breathing exercises, doing push-ups beforehand, listening to Batman music before going on), but just remember that you were selected. Those nerves are natural and you deserve to be here.
Smile, engage with your audience and above all, you don’t have to be all things to all people. You will get a question that you don’t know the answer to, someone’s phone will go off just as soon as your delivering that awesome pun. Embrace the process and remember that the world will keep spinning regardless of what will happen.
Rejected? Keep submitting!
I’ve been rejected for conferences before. It sucks. Particularly when you don’t get any feedback from the organizers and you don’t even get a standard rejection email :(
Keep going! Being rejected doesn’t necessarily mean that your talk idea was a bad one, it could mean that there were better ones, talks that the conference organizers felt suited the conference better, maybe that particular conference doesn’t accept newbie speakers etc. etc.
It’s good practice in the aftermath of a rejection to reflect on your submission but not to the point of obsession. Keep hunting for conferences or meetups to deliver that talk. If you think that your abstract could use a bit of a lookover, show it to someone who can provide you with feedback. Is it a session that they would want to attend? Does the abstract give enough information for them to want to find out more by attending your talk? The answers to these questions are extremely valuable when drafting talk proposals.
One way of potentially avoiding your talk being rejected is doing a bit of research on the conference that you’re trying to get into. What kind of talks usually get selected at the conference? Are the talks more developer orientated? Are they more data orientated? Do they focus on a particular discipline or language etc. etc. Doing a bit of research beforehand can help you avoid the dreaded rejection email.
Whether your talk gets accepted or not is sometimes just down to luck. Taking my DataGrillen experience as an example, I just happened to be on Twitter at the right time. I just happened to be a random developer in New Zealand, which helped highlight my talk and I was lucky to find a conference that was so welcoming to newcomers.
Don’t take the rejection to heart. Like I said, I’ve been there and it sucks. But through a healthy amount of stubbornness and persistence, I got there in the end. I imagine there will be many more conferences that I’ll be rejected from, but that’s not going to stop me and it shouldn’t stop you either!
When it’s done
Congratulations! You’ve just finished your first tech conference talk! Pat yourself on the back, pour yourself a glass of your favorite drink and relax.
Most conferences will provide attendees an opportunity to give feedback on your talk. This may get back to you within a couple of weeks after your talk.
Some feedback will be really helpful and provide you with the insight to do a better job next time. However, some people will just be critical for the sake of being critical. Look for consistent themes within the feedback rather than focusing on a singular comment.
I genuinely believe that attendees want you to succeed. The worst piece of feedback I’ve ever gotten was that I looked like a blonde Henry Cavill. Considering that particular talk was on Azure Functions, I’m not quite sure where that comes from to be honest…
If you’re keen to do another talk, make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare for the next event (which includes travel, content, equipment etc.). Giving a talk requires and consumes a lot of energy and you need to be mindful on how you manage that. I had two talks on two consecutive weekends and by the end of the second talk, I went home and passed out on my bed.
No matter what you do, prioritize your health. You only have one body and there are always opportunities to speak at a variety of events. If you need to take some time out for yourself for your health, do it.
Go forth and conquer!
I hope this post has given you some insights and tips for getting into speaking at technical conferences. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it and I hope to continue doing it for a long time to come.
If you have any questions for me, flick me a question in the comment section or reach out to me on Twitter.
And if you’re preparing that abstract, all the best and good luck! You’ve got this!