Advice for new speakers

After my speaker training workshop at /dev/world/2017 last week, one of the attendees approached me asking whether they could contact me with some more questions. Recently they sent their questions along and it turns out they have a lot of the same questions as many new speakers. After seeing this, I asked whether I could share both the questions and answers here so everyone could benefit. Thanks to the original asker for permission to do so.

The questions:

The main problems that I have are:

  1. Finding topic to present. Whatever idea that I have in mind, it appears that most people know about it already. Any suggestions or tips on how or where to find good topic to present?

  2. Also, I often question myself. Am I the best person to present a particular topic? What if one of the audiences is an expert in this area. I make a fool of myself. I know this mindset is wrong. What’s your personal tips to get over this?

  3. Finding the right event/conference to start. Any suggestion on how to find event/conference that is not too demanding for a starter like me? I don’t know whether an event like /dev/world is too big for a starter or not.

Let’s take these one at a time. What follows is pretty long since it seems I have a lot of thoughts about conference speaking (I have do a two hour training about it, after all).

Finding topic to present. Whatever idea that I have in mind, it appears that most people know about it already. Any suggestions or tips on how or where to find good topic to present?

No matter the topic, I can almost guarantee that most people do not know about it. However, most people at the conference you are targeting might. The topic you present must provide value to the audience, therefore you should either select a topic to match the conference audience (if you already have a conference in mind) or a conference audience to match the topic (if you already know what you’d like to present about). If there’s a mismatch between topic and conference, then your talk will not be selected for the program. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a good topic, simply that it’s not a good fit for that audience.

So, where are you starting? Do you have an idea and need a conference where it would be a decent fit? Or do you have a conference and need to come up with a topic which will work for it?

For the former (you have an idea already), there are several approaches you can take to locate appropriate conferences:

  1. Check conference aggregators like Lanyrd or the opensource.com event calendar. When you find some conferences which look like they might be good for your topic, check their past schedules or CFP texts to confirm your topic will be a decent fit for their audience.
  2. Search YouTube for other conference talks similar to your idea. Which conferences accepted those talks? Chances are good they’ll be interested in other talks along the same lines.
  3. Don’t present at a conference at all. Have a look for meetups or user groups in your geographic area, and offer to present your talk at one (or more!) of them. Meetups are always looking for people to present, so you’re likely to get someone to say yes to your talk this way. Not only can this allow you to present your material more quickly (since you won’t have to wait for a conference), it also is a great way to workshop and polish your talk before you present it in a larger venue like a conference.

If you already have a conference in mind and just need a topic to propose to it:

  1. Please read and adhere to the conference CFP directions. The call for proposals will almost always list the types of subject matter in which the conference is interested. If that list doesn’t include something on which you can present (say it’s a Windows conference but you only know Mac or Linux), then do not propose something completely unrelated. This wastes the time of the proposal reviewers and makes you look like you can’t follow directions.
  2. Have a look at the topics of past talks at that event. Can you present on anything like those topics? Perhaps someone spoke about a certain library once, a library which you recently used to solve a complicated problem. Your story of the problem and how you solved it would likely make a great talk for that conference.
  3. Look at the past presenters at that event. Are there any which you recognise? If so, have a look at some of the other talks those people have given at other events. This could provide the inspiration you need for coming up with your own talk idea.

But what if you don’t have a talk idea and you don’t have a conference in mind, you simply have a burning desire to start presenting tech talks? In that case, it’s often easiest to start with finding an idea and then find meetups/conferences to match it. So, how do you come up with an idea when you don’t have a conference in mind?

Look at what you’ve worked on (in the office or for hobby projects) in the past year. What challenges have you faced? What challenges have you overcome? What challenges overcame you? Have you discovered a new tool which made a great difference to your project? Did you try other tools and learn that they weren’t all they were cracked up to be? These are just a few of the questions which can lead you to some really great talk ideas.

When answering these questions, just grab a cup of tea, sit down for an hour or so, and brainstorm at a whiteboard or notebook or whatever works best for you. Give yourself permission to write anything which comes to mind. There are no bad ideas at this point; all ideas are equally good when they’re first born. After you’ve emptied your brain, review the list you’ve generated. There will undoubtedly be a few really interesting talk ideas in there.

Also, I often question myself. Am I the best person to present a particular topic? What if one of the audiences is an expert in this area. I make a fool of myself. I know this mindset is wrong. What’s your personal tips to get over this?

Do a search for a topic. Look at the people who present about it. Are they all the world’s foremost experts? No. Well, OK, maybe some of them are. But most of them are people just like you, people who have knowledge and a story to tell. The only difference between them and you is that they’re already telling that story and you’re just getting started.

The best person to present on a particular topic is the person who is willing to present on it and who knows enough to do so. That’s all the expertise you need. You do not have to be intimately familiar with every facet of the technology or topic. You do not have to be a renowned expert. You simply have to know enough to present the topic effectively and answer questions from the audience afterward.

There is no “must be an expert” requirement for presenting at technical conferences, and anyone who tells you differently is both elitist and wrong. The knowledge requirements for presenting at a tech conference are simple:

  1. Be well versed in your particular topic.
  2. Know how to admit you don’t have all the answers.

That’s it.

There are some conferences and events which prefer presenters be a core contributor or other key player in the technology or topic. This is perfectly fine…if the topic in question is how to contribute or be a key player. If the topic is just about anything else, then skilled users have valuable viewpoints and experiences to share with the audience members.

This “contributor” versus “user” bias is pure elitism and sets up an unwelcome caste system in the already fractured tech culture. It also perpetuates the dreadful diversity in conference presenters by setting a very high bar for new speakers to enter the fold. If you come across a conference with this sort of speaker selection bias, I encourage you to propose your talk elsewhere. Don’t be a part of the problem; find a more welcoming and supportive speaking environment.

Aside from avoiding unsupportive conferences, I encourage you to propose talks even if you don’t feel like you’re not an expert. Allow the programme committees to make that decision; don’t make it for them by not even trying.

Finding the right event/conference to start. Any suggestion on how to find event/conference that is not too demanding for a starter like me? I don’t know whether an event like /dev/world is too big for a starter or not.

I covered most of this above in the answer to the first question, but you asked three questions so you’re going to get three answers. 😉

There’s not much difference between presenting to a room of five or to a room of five hundred. I mean, there’s some difference, but practically speaking you’re just…well…speaking. You still need to come up with an idea, research your audience, write the material, practice your performance. Most of the difference, really, comes in the content. You’re less likely to have interactive material for a large audience than for a small. Aside from that: the mechanics of the thing are the same.

The real difference is in your own head. Where will you be most comfortable starting out? For many, the answer is to start at a local meetup and then level up onto a conference stage, expecting that this will move them from a small audience to a larger. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that for most conferences you won’t have a large audience, anyway.

Take /dev/world/2017 for an example. While some talks (the workshops and keynotes) had audiences over a hundred, the majority of them were between thirty and fifty. That’s much larger than you’ll find at most conferences and is great audience turnout (which is no surprise, as the /dev/world team does really good work on their events). While I’ve presented to hundreds at a time before, it’s much more likely that my audience will be around ten or twenty people, even at the largest events where I present.

Compare that to a meetup, where you’ll be presenting to…how many? It will vary, but ten or twenty people would be a decent turn out for most of the meetups I’ve seen. So you could present to ten or twenty people at a meetup, or you could present to ten or twenty people at a conference. Or you could present to fifty at either. Or a hundred. It’s often difficult to estimate how large of an audience you’ll have.

So if the mechanics of presenting are the same, and the size of the audience is impossible to estimate, how do you choose where to start?

Start with whatever makes you feel most comfortable. If that’s a lightning talk at a meetup, then it’s a lightning talk at a meetup. If it’s a fifty minute talk at a large event, then it’s a fifty minute talk at a large event. There is no right or wrong answer.

But, to answer the final part of your question: Yes, I think that /dev/world would be a great place to start, if you’re willing to wait until next August. As I already mentioned, the organisers do a great job on the event. They also care a great deal about supporting new speakers, to the point that they’ve brought me from the US two years in a row to provide speaker training. Each year I’ve seen multiple first-time presenters take the stage and deliver great content to engaged and appreciative audiences. And keep in mind: /dev/world is run by a student organisation and encourages the participation of students and professionals alike. This focus on education adds to the welcoming environment for new speakers.

Hopefully I’ve answered your questions, and provided guidance for all potential new speakers who might happen across this post. Don’t forget, other resources are available: