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Milosz Piechocki
Milosz Piechocki

Posted on • Originally published at codewithstyle.info

Becoming a tech public speaker: lessons learned

This post has been originally published on my blog.

The year is nearing its end, so I'd like to share some things I've learned on my speaker's journey.

I've already written one article on this topic. Read it if you would like to know how (and why) to get into tech public speaking. This post will focus on advice for speakers who already have a little bit of experience.

I made the decision to start speaking publicly almost two years ago - in February 2017. I began with meetups and slowly progressed towards my goal - an international conference - which I managed to achieve in September 2018. During these two years, I gave 11 talks in total.

You can find the full list of my talks here.

Call For Papers

Most importantly, you need to submit a lot. Of course, there are conferences where talks are chosen purely based on the abstract you provide. However, the majority will look at your speaking history, your presence in the web, etc.

So unless you are a core contributor to a popular library or a published author, your chances of getting selected are relatively low (PaperCall.io mentions 1 in 10 on average). Therefore, you need to apply to a lot of conferences hoping to get selected for at least one.

This takes time and effort, but it pays off. In 2018, I applied to almost 30 conferences and got selected to 5 of them.

Topic and abstract

Adjust the topic of your talk to the audience. It's a cliche, but it has some important consequences.

Your topic doesn't have to be super advanced. When applying to general-purpose, multi-track conferences which don't focus on a specific technology, it's perfectly ok to submit an introductory level topic. One of my best-rated talks was an introduction to functional programming in JavaScript at a frontend track of 4 Developers 2018 - a large, multi-tech conference. I think it's generally a good idea to begin with a less advanced topic as such presentation will be easier to deliver.

Conversely, your talk should be a bit more in-depth if you are going to present it at a specialist conference dedicated to a specific tech.

At the conference: before the talk

Your day will be split into two parts: before and after your talk. The shorter the first part, the better - but it's usually something you don't have influence on. Anyway, I used to stress a lot before a talk, which made the first part of the day really unpleasant. However, with time and experience, the time before the talk becomes much less stressful.

I know it's hard, but try not to give up to the stress. Talk to other speakers - those more experienced are usually very friendly. The inexperienced are in the same situation as you, so sharing your anxiety will make it easier to bear. There is a chance that fellow speakers will be sitting in the audience during your talk. You will feel better knowing there is at least one friendly person in the audience. Shout out to Assim Hussain who was really supportive and gave my talk a lot of visibility by twitting it live at Refresh Conference 2018!

Don't rehearse too much on the conference day. One run before leaving the hotel in the morning is enough. By this time, you should already have rehearsed enough.

At the conference: after the talk

Now you can enjoy the rest of the conference! Have some rest and relax a bit. If you still have some energy left, it's a good idea to approach some attendees and talk to them. Ask them how do they like the conference in general. You don't have to directly ask about feedback regarding your talk. Most of the time, the topic will come up anyway. If it doesn't, it's still a great chance to learn the attendee's perspective and see what kind of talks do they like.

BTW, I don't feel comfortable approaching strangers at all. However, it seems to be a learnable skill (same as not getting freaked out before your talk is). I find this guide very helpful in dealing with this.

After the conference

Wait a few days and send an email to the organizers asking about feedback with regards to your talk. Most conferences provide some way of rating talks to the attendees.

The feedback can be a great way to tell what needs improvement and how well did the topic match your audience. However, don't worry too much if you receive some negative, non-constructive remarks. There will always be some haters and it really doesn't mean anything when 2 out of 200 people didn't like your talk.

Now you can decide whether you want to reuse your topic or come up with a new one. I think reusing the topic a few times is perfectly alright. However, I adjust and polish my talk before each conference - based on the feedback, target audience and desired talk duration.

Is it worth it?

Totally! I've already mentioned some benefits of public speaking in the previous article on the topic.

It gets even better when you start going to conferences instead of meetups. When traveling abroad, you will often be reimbursed for the flight and a hotel. You get to meet some seriously experienced speakers and can get a lot of inspiration and advice from them. Most importantly, it's really rewarding and gives you a sense of achievement.

So, if you're wondering whether you're ready for a conference talk - don't hesitate and start applying!

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