In October, I celebrated my first anniversary of becoming a software engineer. In December, I gave my first talk at a tech conference. It was thrilling and terrifying and the best kind of difficult, and part of my pep talk leading up to it was promising myself that, if I didn’t ultimately feel that all the panicking preceding it was worth it, I never had to do it again.
Instead, I came off the stage, waited for my heart rate to return to normal, and thought, That was fabulous. I came home that night and started a doc to collect future talk ideas I might come up with.
In the way of any process nerd who loves a post-mortem, I’ve been thinking about what worked and what didn’t. Here’s what I learned from my first foray into speaking in this particular professional world and what I wish I’d known back in November.
Start with something you already half know.
It’s a pretty common trick to pitch a talk based on something you want to learn, as the impending obligation will make damn sure you do the thing you committed to doing. However, if you’re just starting out, take it easy on yourself – pick a subject you’re already at least fairly familiar with.
My topic originally came from one of my bosses, who knew I’d been reading a man page most workdays in an effort to get more adept at the command line and Linux in general. (Which, in turn, was a great idea suggested by a wise coworker. Highly recommended, and I’ll be writing more about it later.) Said boss tipped me off to the surprising history of the formatting tool behind man pages, mentioned that this exceedingly appropriate conference was coming up, and gave me the nudge I needed to submit a proposal.
If I’d needed to start by figuring out just what the hell a man page was, the challenge would have been too daunting to feel attainable. Instead, I had already read several dozen man pages and had a sense of their structure and tone, plus some opinions about what parts were most effective for helping me with my work. With that basic learning out of the way, I got to focus on the fun part of learning the background and making it as interesting to other people as it was to me.
Write a blog version of your talk. Seriously.
When it comes to things like writing and online promotion, I have skills that give me some useful advantages. In my past professional life, I was a writer, editor, and content strategist, and I spent more time than I liked using social media in a professional context. Because of this, writing an accompanying blog post while I was finishing my talk took relatively little additional effort, since the research and structure were already there. With that part finished, writing a fairly lengthy prose version of my presentation was a no-brainer for me, since a lot of the work that would usually go into an original blog post was already done.
This isn’t true for a lot of people, I realize, because most people didn’t spend more than a decade dashing out thousands upon thousands of words about hotels and waterparks and white noise machines and content marketing practices and travel destinations and many, many other subjects. I’m uncommon that way, and I recognize that.
However, even if writing is difficult for you, writing something to accompany your talk can give you a remarkable return on the energy invested. Even just enough paragraphs to hold all the links in your bibliography is a worthwhile resource for someone looking to learn more about your subject.
In my slides, I provided the short URL for my company’s blog and pinned a tweet with the post link on Twitter. On top of that, my talk title and my name were on every slide, and I started and ended the presentation with my Twitter handle.
The day of the talk, I’d intended to put my phone in my backpack when I went onto the stage. Instead, in the sweep of adrenaline after I got miced up and ready to go, I left my phone tucked in the bodice of my pocketless dress. About a minute into my talk, my phone began buzzing, and it rarely stopped for the entire 19-odd minutes of my talk. It was only after I was finished that I got to peek and see what was up. I had been quietly hoping, as I talked, that there hadn’t been a death in the family, or a disaster in San Francisco, or any of the other darker events that usually make a phone blow up at 9:45 am on a weekday.
But no: it was TWITTER. Follows and tweets and retweets and likes, my talking points spread far and wide, my tidbits turned hashtags, and that pinned tweet with my link in it racing steadily from conference-goer to conference-goer and beyond.
It was so much more than I’d even dared to imagine. I’d written the post because I dislike when a really interesting talk proves ephemeral – a hashtag and a hastily photographed bibliography slide, and then all that might be left is a title listed on a conference website. It’s a bummer when someone put the effort in and made a really memorable, effective talk, and all I have to show anyone else is a blurry slide photo and maybe some quick notes.
So I wrote it for people like me, who like to be able to revisit what was discussed and to click links rather than transcribing, to command-F instead of clicking around a video. I also wanted some artifact of my work on my company’s blog, as my bosses had very kindly allowed me to do a lot of talk prep on company time.
And it was worth it. My company’s site got more hits that day than we had in the twelve months prior. (We’re wonderful, but niche for sure.) A few weeks later, I had my own work recommended to me on Twitter by someone who didn’t remember my name as a speaker but did remember my talk.* Recently, I looked up “man page history” to learn about the -c flag for the history command, and I found that, even in an incognito window, my talk was the sixth result for that search. WHAT.
So, if it’s at all within your powers to do so, write up your talk. Publish the day of or the day before, and have tweets ready for yourself and your employer, if you work somewhere that does Twitter. Make it available on your slides and on your social media. Make it accessible. And if you can’t write it? Consider doing a skill trade with someone or even hiring someone to write it for you. Don’t know any writers for hire? Contact me, and I can put you in touch with someone who will make your work shine. The cost of the work of a good writer, correctly used, is very often a bargain.
Get advice from an accomplished speaker.
Maybe this is my other cheat: one of my bosses is an especially experienced, very skilled speaker and has a lot of clear, tested advice around how to approach it.** I got to sit down with him for an hour early in my talk creation process and get his suggestions on how to prepare, how to work with the conference staff, and how to make the day of go as smoothly as possible. A few things I wouldn’t have known otherwise:
- Do a brown M&M test: ask your contact if there’s a prep room, how their AV will work, if they have a provided deck template to work from, what kind of microphone they’ll be providing, and when you need to arrive – among other logistical questions. You need to know these things, but it’s also good to know if they don’t know them yet. This lets you better prepare both yourself and your expectations. If the people running the conference are inexperienced, your questions could provide some structure for their plans. Win/win.
- Do a little cardio (a quick jog down the conference hall, jumping jacks) just before so that your body has a good reason for your heart to be racing a little. And lay off the coffee until you’re done.
- Make sure you have some kind of timing advice available – and bring one even if the venue promises to have one.
- Put time markers in your slide notes so you can tell that you’re keeping the right pace in the time allotted.
- Try to get a friend/plant in the audience so that you have a friendly visual focus, feedback, and prompts if needed.
I’d done one talk before but in a pretty different context, so I had no way of knowing these things ahead of time. A little expert advice spared me a lot of uncertainty.
Do multiple test runs. For humans.
I practiced my talk for two solid weeks leading up to the conference. In order, here were my test audiences and what I learned from each.
- My cats: I could string the sentences together well enough, and my jokes felt ok to say. (This was me running through my slides in my apartment over and over until I felt a rhythm begin to come together.)
- One coworker: the Keynote theme I’d chosen included slides with grey text on a black background. This was very hard to read (and just in time to fix). Doing a test run earlier on also lets you test out storylines and interest in your material before you’re fully committed.
- My entire company: I needed more confidence in my jokes and to give them time to land – my usual deadpan understatement was not working for this talk. Also, I needed to stop putting my hands in my pockets.
It’s hard to hear criticism, but it’s a delight to get feedback at a time when you can still do something about it. Find your critical audience and have at least a couple tries when you still have enough time to course correct.
Not everything is riding on this one time.
I am very pleased with how this all turned out. It was a lot of work, but it was enormously rewarding, and I got to feel a sense of professional community I hadn’t experienced at that point. I still get to have surprise conversations with online strangers about man pages. That said, there are still things I’ll be aiming for in my next talk, such as:
- Better memorization and the ability to speak more freely without glancing at my notes. Memorization is really hard for me, but I admire the fluidity I see in other speakers who have clearly done the work. I want to be able to give that to people who might hear me in the future.
- A little more lightness. While my delivery did what I needed it to do, I found out later that I came across a little more grave than I intended. This is understandable, considering, but I’m a pretty animated and cheery talker in regular life. I’d like to bring some more of that to the way I speak to groups.
- More practice and ease. I want to find a local Toastmaster group for some more regular experience with lower stakes, so I can continue teaching my body that I am not going to die of public speaking. Leading up to the talk, when friends asked how it was going and how I felt about it, I told them, “So long as I don’t die, it’ll be a success.” Now I know; I just need to get my body to trust that this really is true.
And the great thing is that I work at a company that encourages speaking in a field that’s hungry for people willing to talk out loud and teach. I’ll get more opportunities – and be better equipped to iterate, improve, and get closer to the skill level I’m aiming for.
If you’re tempted, do the thing.
As I mentioned, I have a background in content marketing, so blogging has always been a part of professionally establishing myself, and it was a particular goal as I got my bearings as an engineer. I figured that I wanted to try to speak too, since it’s a pretty natural extension of presenting ideas in writing. But I thought I’d get a steady clip going on this blog, start getting comfortable exploring and explaining ideas here, and then begin to play with the idea of talking – you know, in time. We do internal talks at my company specifically for that kind of experience, so I figured I’d start there and maybe branch out to local meetups. Go from there. Right?
Then a bigger opportunity came up faster than I expected. But if that hadn’t come together, I would have targeted local meetups. I would have talked internally. I would have organized or participated in a talk night with my school’s alumni group. I would have done it somewhere, and I would’ve been nervous then. And it would have been ok.
If you’re inclined to talk, just do it. There are enough groups, particularly in tech-oriented cities, that someone wants to hear your explanation of whatever it is you find interesting. You’ll also probably meet some rad people while you’re doing it.
A few helpful things for you.
This post from Heidi Waterhouse about how to dress as a speaker is useful in all the ways I usually find “how to dress” articles aren’t. (Most “how to dress” articles are not written by people with hair of a hue similar to my own, for a start.) Pragmatic and with an aim toward natural comfort, this article had enough information that I referred to it several times throughout my talk prep, particularly for advice on dressing around different types of microphones. Read it and avoid unnecessary surprises.
Technically Speaking provides a weekly dose of speaking encouragement and opportunities. The women who run it are smart and opinionated, and if you’re interested in this, it’s a wonderful addition to your inbox. And if you’re considering speaking? (And I hope you do.) Meetup can probably connect you to a group that would be interested in your subject.
And with that, I hope I leave you better off than I was at the start of this odyssey. If you’re interested in something, you probably have something to say about it. I, at least, would love to hear it. :)
*Incidentally, this was not mansplaining - it was communing about a mutually interesting subject and a pretty rad compliment. **Actually, that's true for a few people I work with and for, but Everett just does MORE of it. Truss has a rad speaking culture, and I dig it.