Speaking at conferences
I’ve had the opportunity to be invited as speaker to several software engineering conferences during the last couple of years.
Interestingly, when talking about this to friends and colleagues a typical reaction when they hear this is: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that as well but I’m simply not good enough” or similar comments.
As I had the same doubts before actually doing it I’d like to lay out a few thoughts about speaking on conferences and why you are most likely good enough, no matter what you may think.
First of all: Let’s clarify a few misconceptions and ideas by addressing typical assumptions I hear again and again.
“I’m not good enough, there are people way more qualified”
Unless you have the self-confidence of someone like Linus Torvalds you will always find someone who is more qualified than you - but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about something that you think is interesting to and relevant for other people.
You’ll be amazed of what you think is irrelevant and what other people think of the same topic.
Simply spoken: Don’t undersell yourself.
“Nobody is interested in my topic - they will all be going to someone else’s talk”
Again: You will be amazed by how many people might be interested in learning from your experience and are eager to listen what you think about a topic they’re interested in.
When I gave my very first talk on a conference, one of the sessions that ran in parallel was given by one of the people I looked up to and always wanted to hear them speak when visiting conferences. I had heard a series of talks from him and I really thought “Damn! Everyone will be visiting his talk and I’ll be speaking in front of an empty room”.
Why would anyone choose to skip his brilliant talk and see me talking about some piece of trivia? I mean I would certainly do so, right?
But to my great surprise a lot of people didn’t go to his talk but chose to hear me speak about a completely different topic.
The lesson here is this: A typical conference offers a wide variety of topics and not everyone is looking for the same thing. There will always be someone interested in what you have to say.
“The organizing committee is never going to accept my proposal”
You’ll never know that for sure unless you’ve actually submitted your proposal and got a response. Even if the organizing committee places a focus on something you haven’t provided - you’re exactly where you started out in the first place, so you haven’t really lost anything. In addition, even if your talk doesn’t get accepted the committee may refer it to some other conference for which it is a better fit and they may contact you directly.
No, this is not some academic discussion: Things like that happen for real!
And if you get rejected?
My talks were rejected several times - for a wide variety of reasons.
Sometimes your topic isn’t a perfect match for overall theme of the conference and other presentations are better suited. Sometimes there was is a talk from someone else and he/she gets chosen. And sometimes your proposal simply isn’t as good as you thought.
But use this as a chance to learn how to do better the next time. Often a rejection comes with a reason why the committee did not accept your proposal. Sometimes theses reasons seem totally stupid but sometimes they really make sense.
I read multiple times that the description wasn’t clear enough or that the committee didn’t really get what the talk was about and why it was important. I rewrote the proposal again and again and after having proposed it at two conferences without success but the third one picked it up and told me they were looking for exactly something like that.
So keep trying and do not get frustrated just because you didn’t make it the first time.
“I’ve never done something like that before and would not know what to do at all”
Everyone has started at some point in time. Be bold and go where you’ve never gone before. At one time I had also never been inline skating which didn’t stop me from trying. Also continue to read this article as I’m going to give you a few tips on what to do, how to prepare and what to expect.
So, you have decided to actually prepare a talk for a conference. But here come’s the really tricky part: What are you going to talk about?
My main advice is this: Pick a topic that you’re really passionate about.
Don’t present something just because it’s the next big thing. Don’t present something because someone told you you should do it. Don’t present something because you want to place it on your resume.
Present a topic because you want other people to learn something and to share your knowledge. Present a topic because you think that you can tell people things they haven’t heard before. Present a topic because because you’ve had such a good experience working with a framework or discovering a new way of doing things that other people need to know about.
If you’re passionate about what you present, you’ll accomplish multiple things at the same time.
First of all: You’ll be authentic. You’ll talk about something that you really care about and the audience will recognize that.
I have heard talks where I immediately knew that the presenter didn’t really care about the topic and usually these talks were really really boring.
But I’ve also heard talks from people who were passionate and inspiring and I was really disappointed when the talk was over - I could have listened for hours and hours more.
So be passionate and your audience will follow you wherever you’ll lead them.
Secondly: If you’re passionate about the topic you’ll know the ins and outs of what you talk about. A talk never quite works out the way you planned it. There will always be small deviations from the way you wanted to deliver the presentation - and that’s okay.
It’s one of the things that make you come about as authentic.
But if you really know the topic, you’ll have no problems adjusting and improvising because you’re comfortable and you’re familiar with all the details.
Last but not least: You’ll be a role model and can convince people about the things you say because you’ve been there. You’ve done that. And you live to tell the tale.
Preparation, part one
Once you have found a topic and decided to prepare a talk it’s time to do the hard work. What aspects do you want to talk about? What’s the main point you want to make? How do you plan to present? How many slides do you want to include? What do you put on them?
Think about these questions before creating your presentation.
What aspects do you want to talk about?
The typical time slot for a talk and a conference is somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes. Let’s face it: If you have found a topic you’re passionate about you will most likely not be able to cover all the details in that timeframe - so think about the main ideas you want to convey.
People attending a conference have a busy schedule. If you hear eight or maybe even ten talks a day you’re not going to remember every detail from every talk you’ve heard - so don’t put every little fact into your presentation. Concentrate on the bigger themes, the great ideas.
Also think about the audience: Do they need very detailed knowledge about the topic you’re talking about?
For example, when elaborating about the integration of an LDAP based authentication provider into a Spring Security application you’re narrowing down the people who might be interested in the topic dramatically. That may be completely fine for a hard core technical conference but may be overkill for a general technical event.
What’s the main point you want to make?
As already mentioned before: If you’re hearing eight or ten talks a day you’re not going to remember a lot of details. If you’re lucky then people will remember one or two ideas from your talk. So think about what these ideas should be and structure your presentation around these ideas.
Start off with your main ideas in the agenda, come back to those ideas again and again during your presentation and wrap-up your presentation with these ideas.
Make these ideas easy to grasp. Do not try to let people take away that for integrating LDAP into a Spring Security architecture they have to extend the GlobalAuthenticationConfigurerAdapter - let them take away that an integration can be done easily and that they will have fewer hassles than when using manual user management.
How do you plan to present?
People are always receptive for a good story - so try telling them a good story.
Include funny anecdotes, bring examples from reality and don’t be shy to tell people what mistakes you made and how you screwed up. Let your audience learn from your mistakes.
How many slides do you want to include? What do you put on them?
Always remember: PowerPoint (or any other presentation program) is just a tool. Your slides are not the ultimate deliverable.
The ultimate deliverable is your presentation - the slides should support your presentation but should never replace it. This also means that without your presentation your slides should be meaningless - remember, they’re only supporting.
So, how many slides should you include?
The answer is simple: As few as possible, as many as needed.
What should you put on them? As little as possible.
Try to have only a few words per slide and actively try to avoid bullet points. Yes, it’s challenging but try to think of the last presentations you’ve seen: Which ones did you really like? The ones with ten bullet points and multiple sentences in font size 12 or the ones with a few key words and font size 50?
I’m pretty sure your answer is “the latter one of course”, so try following that yourself.
There are tons of books and web pages of how to compile a good presentation. Take a look at them. Follow their advice. Do not become the next PowerPoint junky who’s only job it is to read bullet points.
One of the best resources that I have come about is http://speaking.io/.
Preparation, part two
You have found a topic, you have created a good presentation, what’s the next step?
No matter how good you think your presentation is, chances are you have missed something or have wandered off and got taken away from the topic.
Put this to the test: Get real people involved.
Some speakers tell you that before giving a talk to anyone else they do not one but multiple dry runs.
Holding the complete talk without any audience is something you hear from time to time. For me personally this has never worked. I simply feel silly talking to the wall (or a rubber duck). I need immediate feedback from actual people.
So get those people.
Hold a brownbag over lunch and get your colleagues to listen to your presentation.
Have them give you immediate feedback: Did they like your talk? Were they able to follow your reasoning? Did they like your way of speaking? Did they like the slides? Would they include anything else or leave out something?
Use all the resources available to you.
Again something that hasn’t worked for me personally but with which other people have had a positive experience is recording your dry-run presentation and analyze the recording afterwards. Try if that’s something that works for you.
Here it is: The day of truth. The RfP (request for proposals) for a conference has arrived and you want to actually submit your talk.
Check whether you have all the necessary information at hand.
You should prepare a short synopsis of your talk, not longer that a few paragraphs capturing the essence of your talk. Why is it good? Why should other people be interested in it? What do you want to convey?
If you do not have a good answer to these questions, then your preparation wasn’t good enough so back to square one.
The synopsis should be like reading the cover of a book: It should make the reader want to know more.
Take this example from one of my talks:
How to be a happy developer. Now!
A lot of developers will agree to the claim that they turned their hobby into their profession. However, when looking at the daily business we often face a world very different from what we expected. A variety of reasons lead to increasing frustration and the feeling that the fun simply vanished. For some it’s company politics, for others it’s crazy customers or technologies that we’ve been force to work with. All of this leaves us thinking “What the hell am I doing here?”.
When trying to do something about this we often hear or read a lot of interesting concepts of how to improve our working environment like: “Do scrum!”, “Convince your leadership to give you more slack time”, “Use framework X” or “Follow the latest trend Y”. While this sounds nice at a first glance, real change is a lot harder.
So, what can we do to improve the current situation? How can we make ourselves feel better? This talk focuses on some easy to implement tactics, that each and every one of us can use from tomorrow on, making our life a little bit easier and more enjoyable: piece by piece, day by day.
You should also have a brief summary and a picture of yourself.
Give a short introduction of yourself and your background, like this:
Christian Seifert is a software engineer with more than 15 years of experience. He is is currently working as Senior System Architect at BetterDoc in Cologne, Germany where he helps matching patients needs with the right doctors.
Having experienced a wide range of projects and requirements he is constantly asking himself: How can we do things better and how can we keep having fun even in stressful situations? Although originally fascinated by working with machines today he also enjoys interacting with people, trying to push software craftsmanship ideas and help other developers to realize their full potential.
As mentioned before: Don’t be too disappointed if your talk doesn’t get accepted. It happens.
Sometimes the evaluation committee doesn’t think your talk fits the conference, sometimes someone else has already submitted a proposal, that is too similar to your own and sometimes the committee simply has to make a selection because too many submissions have been received and there are only a fixed number of slots.
Keep trying and use the next opportunity.
So, the big day has come: Your proposal has been accepted, you have been invited to the conference and now it’s time to deliver your talk.
Most likely you’ll present using your own laptop so you’ll already have all the basics.
But be ready for plan B.
Have your presentation available on (at least one) external medium (like a USB stick). Your battery might be low and your power adapter might still be lying on your desk at home.
The last thing you want is having to cancel a few minutes before your presentation just because your machine isn’t working.
Personally I always have the presentation ready from multiple locations: My personal laptop, an external USB drive and on Dropbox as a last minute fallback.
Luckily I didn’t experience such a scenario but I know people who did - and believe me, they were extremely happy to have a backup.
Also bring your own adapters and make sure that you can work with HDMI, VGA and DVI. Even if the organizers told you that all the projectors would provide an HDMI cable you do not want to be baffled by the fact that your room was the one exception that only supports good old VGA.
When you arrive at the conference venue make sure to find the room you’re presenting in immediately. You do not want to be late for your own talk just because you didn’t realize that some of the other talks you were able to hear before your talk took part in a completely different part of the building and you didn’t make it in time.
Drink a glass of water before your presentation to make sure your voice is clear - but at the same time avoid soda or sparkling water. You do not want to burp right at the beginning of your presentation.
Whatever you do: Relax.
We all know Murphy’s Law so simply try to be calm.
Do not let small mistakes distract you. Fact is that most of these things won’t even be noticed by the audience. You may think “Oh my god, everybody can see that I’m the most stupid guy on earth who doesn’t even know how to put on a microphone” but chances are pretty good that nobody even realizes that you’re having a problem.
When starting your presentation try to get a feeling for the room. Are you speaking through a microphone? Check the volume. You do not want everyone to feel like a jet is constantly passing by. Adjust your voice accordingly.
Especially when doing this for the first time you may get the feeling that nobody in the room is listening to you because they’re all sitting there like they’re carved out of stone.
Always remember: This is not a one on one conversation where people feel they need to give you direct feedback. Image yourself sitting in the audience: Do you actively listen? Do you nod after each sentence the speaker says? Do you say “yes, you’re right” once in a while? No, you don’t and so won’t your audience.
However, this doesn’t mean that they’re not paying attention. Hang in there - at some point in time you’ll get a better feeling for that.
As already mentioned for the preparation: Do not read your text from the slides or from cards you may have prepared for that.
Speak freely as that is what the audience will perceive as a good talk.
During your talk you will notice that you’re deviating from the way you gave the presentation at your dry-runs. Don’t panic. It’s natural and it happens. Just continue normally.
If you know the topic you’re speaking about you can afford to improvise a little bit here and there - it will even make your talk feel more natural.
Pay attention to time
Make sure to stay on the timeline you’ve layed out for your talk.
If you’re nervous chances are that you’ll talk way faster than usual which can make your 40 minute rehearsal just fly by and be over in 30 minutes.
Similarly you do not want to notice five minutes before the end of your presentation that you only covered half of what you wanted to convey.
The talk is done, you have managed to survive and now the Q&A is starting.
Don’t be afraid if there are no immediate questions - hardly anyone wants to be first and shout “I’ve got a question” so given the audience a little time. You’ll see that after a few moments there will be a question or two.
If you do get a question make sure to repeat it as not everyone may have gotten it correctly so repeating it gives your whole audience the chance to be on the same page.
When answering be brief and do not go too much into detail - other people may have other questions and a presentation can only act as a starting point - not as a complete scientific view on all aspects.
If someone wants to dive really really deep into the topic offer him/her a separate followup after your talk.
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” if you really do not know an answer to the question. The worst thing you can do is to make up something just because you feel compelled to provide a (potentially wrong) answer.
People will understand and they don’t expect you to know all the details out of your head.
In the end: Give people a chance to reach out to you afterwards.
Have your contact data on the last slide so that people can contact you if any questions may still be open or simply to tell you that they liked your presentation. You never know what opportunities arise from people having seen you on a conference.
Followup / Retrospective
You’re done. The talk is over, the Q&A is over, so you’re done, right?
Take some time to do a retrospective as a soon as possible.
Did you manage to convey your ideas? Did everything run as planned? Where did you notice something that didn’t work out as you planned?
Learn from the experience and improve for the next time.
Personally I am constantly amazed of how things turn out in reality. The section I wanted to place extra focus on? Completely forgotten. The point I was afraid to get into because I constantly forgot how it turned out in the last project? No problem at all.
There will dozens of such small things that you can use to improve your presentation for the next time. Do it!
If the conference provides a recording of your presentation download that recording and watch it thoroughly.
Compare the impression you got from watching yourself with the impression you wanted to make in the presentation. Do you like it? Could you do anything better the next time? Here is your chance.
Speaking at a conference is an interesting and rewarding experience.
Although it takes a lot of time to prepare it’s a great chance to put yourself front and center, get feedback about your ideas, your way of working and last but not least make yourself and your company known to a wider set of people.
So be bold and take the next step!
I’d be happy to get in contact with anyone interested in speaking at conferences. What’s your impression? Do you share my motivation and my ideas?