Speaking at your first tech conference? Just breathe...

Fri, Jun 29, 2018       5-minute read

I recently took the stage at Elastic{ON} — a mid-sized tech conference organised by the company behind enterprise search software Elasticsearch — to talk about my role in refactoring the backend of a large software project. It was my first time speaking at such a large event, and I wanted to share some advice for other first-time speakers.

Talking at a tech conference was always high on my bucket list. It even formed part of my career plan:

  • Senior developer;
  • Lead developer;
  • CTO;
  • Tech conference main stage.

I always assumed I would tick those milestones off in that order, but somehow the conference came before the CTO role. Which is to say: I was not at all prepared to talk at a well-regarded tech event to hundreds of my peers who — for all I knew — were all far more knowledgeable than me.

And that is the first thing that I think is important to mention when giving advice to other first-time speakers: you need to get over your imposter syndrome.

“But I’m just winging it!”

A common trait shared amongst software engineers is the belief that, because they are largely self-taught, they cannot truly be experts.

For me, this insecurity comes from the fact that I have always learned by doing, and that programming has never really felt like a job for me because it was (and still is) a hobby from my childhood.

Sure, I’ve got some computing-related qualifications, but nothing I learned in a classroom has actually helped me in the real world. And I suspect that most CS graduates soon come to feel the same way.

But technology moves so fast: the vast majority of valid experience can only come from teaching yourself new things on the job. If we stopped constantly learning the next new thing we would become unemployable within eighteen months.

So how does this relate to speaking in front of your peers as an expert in your field? Simply put: your peers also think that they’re frauds, and they wouldn’t go to tech conferences and sit through hours of other people talking if they didn’t implicitly trust that the people up there speaking are the actual experts.

You have to realise that if you were asked to speak at a conference then someone holds you in high enough regard to subject other people to your opinions.

Get over yourself, and accept that you might actually know something.

Validation of yourself

One of the best things about getting up on stage and speaking at Elastic{ON} was what happened immediately after.

People came up to me and began to talk about their own problems. They described how they had had similar experiences, shared similar problems, tried similar solutions… it was validation that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t just making everything up as I went along.

Furthermore, the impression that I got from those who I spoke with was that hearing me talk was also validation for them that they were doing something right. It was a two-way street.

Everyone involved came out of the experience feeling a little bit more secure in their knowledge, which I think is very important, given that literally a third of my life (eight hours a day!) is spent working professionally with software. A third of your life is not a healthy thing to feel insecure about.

A little validation goes a very long way.

Know your subject matter

After you’ve accepted the invitation to speak, what is the most important thing you can do in the run-up to the event?

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Knowing that I had a half-hour slot in which to speak, I began by putting together a presentation deck of roughly fifteen slides. I then recorded myself improvising over that deck and transcribed my ramblings. After an evening spent finessing them into something more coherent, I had the outline of my talk finished and I began to rehearse it.

On stage you will likely have a monitor on which a copy of your notes can be displayed, so is it important not to think that you have to memorise every word of your talk. It’s not a play, and no one in the audience has a copy of your script to compare against.

I found it very useful to make rough notes for each of my talking points and continue to improvise around them. The more rehearsals I got under my belt, the more standardised the talk became. It was slightly different each time, of course, but the most important parts gradually changed less and less, while the weaker material eventually disappeared.

You will always be nervous, especially the first time you practice in front of a friend or colleague, but the more you rehearse, the more you know your material. If you forget your place or cannot remember a specific anecdote that you wished to recount, it will be easier to continue riffing on the subject without anyone realising.

Take a break

Finally, it’s important to stay calm, so be sure to throw in some pauses.

Pause often. Pause to take a breath. Pause to take a drink. Pause to look a bit thoughtful and scratch your face.

Casual pausing will give you time to get back on track if you feel lost, it will give you a moment to calm down, and most importantly it will give you an authoritative vibe.

Did Steve Jobs rush through talks, or did he pace himself, taking time out to just do nothing every few sentences?

It’s a tactic that has been employed by great orators throughout history. You can be one too.