I’ve had the opportunity to talk as speaker on several development conferences during the last few years.
Interestingly, when talking about this to friends and colleagues a typical reaction when they hear about this is: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that as well but I’m not good enough” or similar comments.
As I had basically the same doubts just a few years ago I’d like to lay out a few thoughts about speaking on conferences and why you are good enough, no matter what you may think.
First of all: Let’s clarify a few misconceptions and ideas by addressing typical assumptions I hear again and again.
“I’m not good enough, there are people way more qualified”
Unless you have the self-confidence of someone like Linus Torvalds you will always find someone who is more qualified than you. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about something that you think is relevant for other people.
You’ll be amazed of what you think is irrelevant and what other people think of the same topic.
Simply spoken: Don’t undersell yourself.
“Nobody is interested in my topic - they will all be going to someone else’s talk”
Again: You will be amazed by how many people might be interested in learning from your experience and are eager to listen what you think about a topic they’re interested in.
When I gave my very first talk on a conference one of the sessions that ran in parallel was given by one of the people I looked up to and always wanted to hear speaking when visiting conferences. I had heard a series of talks from him and I really thought “Damn! Everyone will be visiting his talk and I’ll be speaking in front of an empty room”.
Why would they choose to skip his brilliant talk and see me talking about some piece of trivia? I mean I would certainly do so, right?
But to my great surprise a lot of people didn’t go to his talk but chose to hear me speak about a completely different topic.
The lesson here is this: A typical conference offers a wide variety of topics and not everyone is looking for the same thing. There will always be someone interested in what you have to say.
“The organizing committee is never going to accept my proposal”
You’ll never know that for sure unless you’ve actually submitted your proposal and got a response. Even if the organizing committee places a focus on something you haven’t provided - you’re exactly where you started out in the first place, so you haven’t really lost anything. In addition, even if your talk doesn’t get accepted the committee may refer it to some other conference for which it is a better fit and they may contact you directly.
No, this is not some academic discussion: Things like that happen for real!
And if you get rejected?
My talks were rejected several times - for a wide variety of reasons.
Sometimes your topic isn’t a perfect match for overall theme of the conference and other presentations are better suited. Sometimes there was is a talk from someone else and he/she gets chosen. And sometimes your proposal simply isn’t as good as you thought.
But use this as a chance to learn how to do better the next time. Often a rejection comes with a reason why the committee did not accept your proposal. Sometimes theses reasons seem totally stupid but sometimes they really make sense.
I read multiple times that the description wasn’t clear enough or that the committee didn’t really get what the talk was about and why it was important. I rewrote the proposal again and again and after having proposed it at two conferences without success but the third one picked it up and told me they were looking for exactly something like that.
So keep trying and do not get frustrated just because you didn’t make it the first time.
“I’ve never done something like that before and would not know what to do at all”
Everyone has started at some point in time. Be bold and go where you’ve never gone before. At one time I had also never been inline skating which didn’t stop me from trying. Also continue to read this article as I’m going to give you a few tips on what to do, how to prepare and what to expect.
So, you have decided to actually prepare a talk for a conference. But here come’s the really tricky part: What are you going to talk about?
My main advice is this: Pick a topic that you’re really passionate about.
Don’t present something just because it’s the next big thing. Don’t present something because someone told you you should do it. Don’t present something because you want to place it on your resume.
Present a topic because you want other people to learn something and to share your knowledge. Present a topic because you think that you can tell people things they haven’t heard before. Present a topic because because you’ve had such a good experience working with a framework or discovering a new way of doing things that other people need to know about.
If you’re passionate about what you present, you’ll accomplish multiple things at the same time.
First of all: You’ll be authentic. You’ll talk about something that you really care about and the audience will recognize that.
I have heard talks where I immediately knew that the presenter didn’t really care about the topic and usually these talks were really really boring.
But I’ve also heard talks from people who were passionate and inspiring and I was really disappointed when the talk was over - I could have listened for hours and hours more.
So be passionate and your audience will follow you wherever you’ll lead them.
Secondly: If you’re passionate about the topic you’ll know the ins and outs of what you talk about. A talk never quite works out the way you planned it. There will always be small deviations from the way you wanted to deliver the presentation - and that’s okay.
It’s one of the things that make you come about as authentic.
But if you really know the topic, you’ll have no problems adjusting and improvising because you’re comfortable and you’re familiar with all the details.
Last but not least: You’ll be a role model and can convince people about the things you say because you’ve been there. You’ve done that. And you live to tell the tale.
In part two we’ll take a look at how to turn an idea into an actual presentation.