Ten Tips for First-Time Conference Speakers

The saddest moment for me at conferences is when I'm in the middle of an interesting conversation with a bright person and I ask her when her talk is and she says, "Who me?"

The number of folks I speak with every year at conferences who have amazing stories to share and who are working on great datasets and tools is astounding. I often feel overwhelmed by being the most average person in the room.

That said, I think one way we can help increase diversity of ideas and culture in our community is to encourage and support first-time speakers. And I strongly believe a more diverse community benefits us all by creating more opportunities, increased inventiveness and fresh perspectives on the important topics and problems we face.

Why speak at conferences? What good is it?

Besides being good practice for management roles or other roles where public speaking is important, conferences give you an opportunity to share your work and knowledge and engage with others who you might not have met organically. I find the conversations I enjoy after giving a talk inspire new ideas and research for me and often teach me just as much as I learned in preparation for the talk.

But I don't like public speaking...

Honestly, that's fine. If you tried it once and you hated it, okay. You could always submit a panel, perhaps? Or give a tutorial? (I know, I'm trying too hard). However, if you haven't tried public speaking outside of the time you were in a play in grade school, please give it a second chance.

Fine, where are my tips?

Me RN
excite!! Image: maxafax

Here goes!

1. Talk about something you love.

The best talks are ones where the presenter is passionate and interested in the topic. You will likely put in hours practicing and rehashing ideas for your talk. You might need to research or test your hypothesis or implementation. Let it be a joy for both you and your audience.

2. Avoid writer's block.

Try techniques writers use! Get a notebook and write down every topic that comes to mind. Write down everything you know about every topic. Get on the phone and talk about it with your boss, coworker, friend, mother. Write down any and all ideas that come from those conversations. Read books or listen to talks or podcasts on the topic and write more notes on them. Reread your notes and code and/or data and repeat the above process until you have way too many words and not enough time to fit them.

3. Don't be afraid to engage mentors and experts.

Is there someone whose talk, library, career or accomplishments helped inspire your idea? Even if they might seem too busy or famous -- it’s likely they will be flattered and interested in speaking with you. Reach out and see what happens -- you could be pleasantly surprised!

4. Have stage fright? Co-present!

If you are someone who is truly terrified of speaking in front of groups, the best practice is to co-present. If for some reason you freeze, you have a partner to take over! And with practice, I honestly believe you can overcome your fear. You can also propose a panel and help moderate so the limelight is not focused on you and you have the opportunity to introduce and interview experts you collect for the topic.

5. Don’t worry about knowing everything; be prepared to learn.

You won’t know everything about your topic. Be willing to learn and ask lots of questions. Be willing to be humbled by the knowledge of your attendees. Be willing to thank people for sharing knowledge with you. Be willing to admit you don’t know an answer, but be willing to help find it. (Side note: Don’t be afraid to get technical and dig deep!!)

6. Practice.

Practice your timing and your slide presentation. Practice in front of (every|any)one. Practice in front of your cat. Practice in front of your boss. Practice in front of a local meetup group. Practice in your sleep. Practice on Snapchat. Practice in front of a mirror. Basically, practice until you are saying similar enough things every time, you stop reading your notes and the timing and talk progression are second-hand knowledge.

7. On the day of the talk, get rest, eat breakfast, don’t look at your slides.

By now you’ve practiced so much you could do it in your sleep. Give your mind a break. Make yourself a nice cup of tea or a latte. Get a good night’s rest. Meditate or watch a fun movie or do some (non-coding) reading or writing. You’ll be fine! In fact, you’ll be great! Time to just relax and enjoy your upcoming speech with ease.

8. Take a deep breath. Smile. Stare at one person. Walk around.

As you’re giving your talk, remember to breathe! I like to take a deep breath and smile as I get on stage. Even if you don’t feel like smiling, it helps! If you get nervous about the crowd size, find a few friendly faces (or one or two you don’t know) and focus on those. Walk around the stage while you talk to ease your nerves and engage your audience.

9. Don’t take yourself or your talk too seriously.

You are not a brain surgeon. If your talk completely flops, no one is going to die. If your slides freeze up, the world will continue turning. If you mispronounce someone’s name or you forget to mention a library, no one is going to put you in time-out. It’s OK to mess up and it doesn’t mean you’re not a smart cookie.

10. Ask for, listen to, and learn from feedback.

Feedback, both in the form of any written reviews as well as people on Twitter or folks who come up to speak to you later, is great! There will always be haters; try not to focus on reviews that say nothing constructive. Ask for feedback from mentors and colleagues who were there. Take both positive and negative feedback to heart and use it to make your next talk even better.

If you've made it this far: 👯 🎉 🙌 I hope to see you at an upcoming conference! In case you need ideas for where to present, I help organize the PyData Berlin Conference, which is guaranteed to be absolutely fabulous and is happening July 1-2, 2017. The PyData Berlin committee will also be organizing some local workshops to encourage first-time speakers and some mentorship opportunities -- so feel free to reach out for more information (forms and links for these will also be added to the website soon).

Now that you are inspired, I recommend getting started on your proposal. For some further advice on writing a great proposal, I can recommend:

Look forward to seeing you speak up! 👏