bug repellent

a blog by @captainsafia

<= go home

In which I answer questions about conference speaking

So, recently someone sent me a Twitter direct message with some questions about public speaking. I get asked a lot about public speaking via email, direct message, and in person; so I figured I would just post my thoughts and perspectives on the matter here for anyone to read.

Here’s the direct message that I got.

Hey Safia, hope you are doing great! I’m a junior dev interested in learning how to give talks. I want to help people learn and stay motivated. How did you get started in doing talks? What were the first few topics you covered? Any help would be appreciated. Cheers!

OK! So I’ll answer the two questions here and cover a few more that I get.

How did you get started in doing talks?

I would say that my first official conference talk happened in March of 2015. I was invited to keynote a conference for high school girls interested in STEM. Someone who knew about my early interest in computers had referred me and thought it would be great if I could share my experience being involved with different technology groups in college. My first official technical conference talk was in May of 2015. I gave a talk about how to turn algorithms in research papers to prototype code. This talk was based on work that I was doing at my part-time job at the time. I like being on stage and presenting so I decided to continue doing it. That summer, I moved to San Francisco for an internship and kept my new interest in public speaking by presenting at local meetups. I also started to look online for conferences that were accepting proposals and submit to them. The rest is history…

What were the first few topics your covered?

Based on my interests at the time, most of my first few talks were about data science, machine learning, and STEM education for kids. As my interests have expanded and grown, I started giving talks about JavaScript and web development.

How have you spoken at so many conferences?

Hahaha! Yeah. This one is hard to answer. Although I only started speaking about three years ago, I’ve been to a ton of events. During my sophomore year of college, I was going to 1 to 2 conferences a month. It was a pretty intense schedule. I would say that I’ve gotten much smarter about it now and I’m way pickier about where and when I speak. Speaking at 1 to 2 conferences a month burned me out, and I wouldn’t recommend that frequency to anyone. A safe number, if you are not a developer evangelist or in some sort of role that requires a lot of conference speaking, is four times a year.

How do you pick a topic?

I draw one out of a hat! Just kidding. Like I mentioned before, the topics that I have given generally relate to the stuff that I work on. If I’ve been doing a lot of data science, I talk about that. If I’ve been doing a lot of JavaScript, I talk about that. If I’ve been doing a lot of open source, I talk about that. There have also been situations where I submit proposals for things that I don’t know anything about to force myself to learn about them. You might have seen a few folks on Twitter recommend this. It is a good idea, with one very important caveat. If you are going to submit a proposal for a topic you don’t know anything about with the hope of it being a catalyst for you doing the learning, make sure you actually follow through and do that learning. Another thing I’ll recommend is to go through other conference talks and see if you can extend their material in some way.

What do I do if my proposal gets rejected?

Move on. Well, there’s more to it than that. Depending on the conference, you can reach out to the organizers and see why it was rejected. This will help you improve your proposal as you submit it to other conferences. It’s also important to note that different conferences look for different things and the same proposal might be accepted in one conference but not another. Regardless, don’t let the rejection hold you back and continue pushing forward.

How do you get good at presenting?

This is one of those things that I don’t have the best answer for.Some people are innately better at having a stage presence. Other people are very creative and can produce wonderful slides. Then there are others who are really good at building narratives around a topic. Being good at presenting requires striking a balance between all of these. At the end of the day, like anything else, getting good at presenting requires a lot of practice. And by that, I mean just doing it a whole lot and trying your best to learn from each presentation you give. There are probably people who specialize in coaching people on how to present so if you’re willing to pay for that expertise, that’s also an avenue. For me personally, I find that just doing a lot of presentations and being introspective about how I do each one.

How do I submit a proposal?

So there are usually two dimensions to this questions. The first is literal. How do I actually write up the different parts of the proposal form and submit them? The second is less so. How do I overcome the voice in my head that tells me I shouldn’t submit a proposal? The first is easy to answer. A good conference proposal is like a good essay. I’ll avoid rehashing how to write an essay here, but in my perspective, the same principles follow. Appeal to people’s emotions and intellects, provide a valid and tangible point to take away from the talk, and have a strong structure and flow to the proposal. The second question is much harder to answer, and is the question that people really try to ask when they ask “How do I submit a proposal?” Overcoming the little voice in your head that says no is a lifelong endeavor that takes a lot of mental and emotional practice.

Do I have to speak at conferences?

This is another question that I get a lot. There are several reasons that folks want to speak at conferences.

Some people want to build influence and a brand in the tech community by public speaking. Although public speaking can help, it is not the only thing you have to do to build a “brand.”

Side note: I hate that word “brand,” but it makes the most sense for this particular situation, so I’ll just roll with it.

Having a “brand” and influence in any community requires having a cohesive, dynamic and fun persona that exists across all your different content distribution channels. Actually, I take my sidenote back because I think a better word for what I mean is “personality.” Building a brand is all about having a strong, unique personality that you unapologetically apply in everything you do. Not to be cliche, but it’s about finding what makes you you and doing it a lot.

Unapologetically being yourself and doing things your way is hard but it is the secret to success to not just building a brand and influence but living a joyful life.

Side note: I went too far into life coach/guru mode there. Pardon me!

So if you’re goal is to build some sort of brand or influence, do speak at conferences but also remember that it is not the only thing you have to do and that building a brand takes a lot, a lot, a lot of work.

If you want to speak at a single conference as a personal challenge to yourself, do it! You don’t have to make a regular habit out of it, but you can definitely check it off your bucket list.

If you want to speak at conferences to gain Twitter followers or YouTube subscribers or increase X, don’t do it. It’s an unmotivating goal, and the relationship between followers and influence doesn’t actually work that way. In our digital world, it can be tempting to conflate Twitter followers or blog subscribers with someone having ideas worth hearing. Don’t feel like you have to have a lot of Internet points to speak at conferences. But also, don’t speak at conferences to earn Internet points.

If you want to speak at conferences to expand your network, speak at conferences.

if you want to speak at conferences to meet women, don’t speak at conferences.

(Yes. I’ve had someone “joke” about this to me. Don’t do it. Seriously.)

How do I prepare for a conference talk?

Oh boy! I am the wrong person to ask this question to. Hahaha! Everyone has their own style of preparing for a conference talk. Some people like to prepare slides and rehearse a lot. Others like to throw something together at the last minute and wing it on stage. Most people are somewhere in between. I’m not too opinionated about how to prepare for a conference talk. My general tip for questions like these is: Try lots of things. Be introspective. Find what works for you over time. Some people are great improvisers and benefit well from the challenge of having to build a narrative on stage. Other people need more structure in their presentations. It’s all about who you are and what works best for your brain.

How do I find conferences to present at?

Oh my goodness! There are so many places. To be honest, I usually just find stuff on Twitter. Recently, I’ve seen that Bourn has made a gorgeous conference calendar for folks interested in finding places to speak or attend. After looking through it, I would say it’s one of the best I’ve seen, and I’ll definitely be using it.

How do I handle hostile and confrontational individuals who monopolize Q&A?

Oh boy! Yep. This was the tough one for me, especially as a young woman of color in tech. Q&A is when the people who are not on your side can take the opportunity to tear you down. It’s also the time when people can ask really insightful and exciting questions. I’ve tried several approaches for managing Q&A.

At some conferences, I’ll explicitly say that I’ll only take questions from underrepresented minorities when I’m up on stage and that I’ll take questions from others in the hallway or after my talk. This does a good job of filtering out the folks most likely to ask a “question” just because they want to do their own mini-talk right after yours.

Side note: That statement might have made some of you uncomfortable. Instead of responding with mean things to me, you should introspect about where the discomfort comes from and how it might correlate with the experiences I had.

At other conferences, I’ll say that I’ll take questions from everyone away from the podium. This also does a good job of filtering out folks who just want to monopolize the conversation.

At yet other conferences, I’ll just ask people to email me their questions.

All in all, to deal with folks who want to monopolize Q&A, make the Q&A process something that doesn’t give them an audience.

How do I handle not knowing the answer to something in Q&A?

I used to struggle with this a lot. In my early days, I would try and make up something to answer the question based on what I already knew. This was not a good idea. Now, if I don’t know the answer to a question during Q&A, I’ll just say “I don’t know, but I’ll be happy to look into it for you” and move on with my life. I’ve also started to try to say “I don’t know, but if I were to guess based on what I know.” Saying that you don’t know something doesn’t reduce your authority or expertise.

How should I dress for a conference talk?

Short answer: whatever makes you feel confident and comfortable. For me, that’s a nice pair of heels and a statement top or dress. Remember, some of your talks might be recorded and published publicly so make sure it’s something you’re comfortable having immortalized on the web. For a practical approach to this, take a look at what your favorite newscasters, talk show hosts, and reality TV stars wear. Their wardrobes are selected by individuals and designed to look good on camera. They might serve as some good inspiration!

Also, as I stated above about embracing your personality unapologetically, do that with the way you dress! Make a fashion statement! Rock it!

Those are all the questions I’ve gotten! If you have something to ask, let me know on Twitter and I’ll try and create another version of this post.