This post reflects on my experience as a conference speaker for the first time earlier this year. I got the chance to speak at JFuture in October. I really loved the experience and some of the things I learnt there really surprised me
I've always loved techy communities. I've been organizing Meetups for years and most of my friends I have met there. I love to take part and organize various events such as Hacktoberfest, Hackathons and the like.
As part of my job at ING, I've been organizing monthly sessions for about a year where we receive an international speaker to inspire us for a couple hours. I've also managed (teamwork!) to kickstart the ING Tech Blog, so engineers can finally talk about all the cool stuff they do. These kind of things give me crazy amounts of energy.
Now, after more than a year of organizing for others, I wanted to try myself at speaking as well. It wasn't easy because the product I work on is not extremely innovative, nor having high throughput,... But PSD2 came along this year and I got a Google Home at home so I decided to prepare a live demo on how to create a chatbot. The JFuture commitee was nice enough to find my talk interesting and selected me :).
Now, I have to say that I really got stressed out about it. I know that I tend to have a very strong Imposter syndrome, and sending an abstract was kind of a way to fight it. Now I had to win the fight. Especially since I had not prepared anything more than the abstract beforehand. Now I had to perform!
You're bringing people on your playground
Even though Imposter Syndrome is a thing, and combined with being introvert it sums up to something that can be quite scary, there are a few things to take into account:
- Having a deadline, and a specific subject to talk about really gives you the time to make it yours and own it. You can spend as much time as you want diving as deep as you want to really own your subject. Somehow it is a much better situation than an impromptu discussion about a subject you know very little about. You also get to choose your style and be you. I chose a combination of live demo and casual talk because that's what I feel comfortable with.
- You have been selected by a committee. You come on stage to talk about a subject you chose. You bring people on something you are confident about. I really had underestimated the power of this. While preparing your demo, refactoring the code, preparing the slides, thinking about possible questions, .... you actually are building knowledge to an extent that not many people will have. And people respect that, and will like it! One of the things I have learnt from all the Meetups I have organized is that the large majority of people tend to accept what people stay on stage. They try to capture knowledge, and are not here to find counterarguments.
The stage is really just like a big rehearsal
Before presenting my talk, I rehearsed a few times in smaller settings. Most people will tell you to dry-run at a local Meetup, but I was too late for that :). I gave the presentation twice to a group of 5/6 people.
Now, I kind was afraid of being super stressed out coming on stage in front of 80 people. What's funny is, you actually don't see them. You get a lot of light in your face and the room is dark so you can see one or two faces at a time but it definitely doesn't look like a hundred people are staring at you! Even better, because you can see only one person at a time distinctly, you can focus on this and do your thing just like this person was the only one there :).
When I'm stressed out, I'm cold. The lights help again here, because they bring a lot of heat on you. So you actually feel quite well on stage.
No need to make connections yourself!
Ok, this is the part that I loved the most. People are usually surprised when I tell them but I don't really like people. Or said another way, I usually tend to prefer being alone or in small groups. And that's ok, because that's the way I organize most of my events. In small, cozy atmospheres. I enjoy myself MUCH more in a meetup with 10 people than in a conference of 3000. As an attendee, there is always that strange dance of starting to talk to people, making connections, and then moving along to other folks. It's really not natural to me in large groups. The result is that I actually don't go to that many conferences and tend to favor meetups. I've been a Java dev for almost a decade and I've never been to JavaOne, GOTO or DEVOXX.
Well, being a speaker is a PERFECT solution for that!
- As a speaker, people listened to you talk for almost an hour. The rest of the conference is a perfect way for them to come and ask questions, advice or simply share stories about your subject. You don't have to do the first step any more, because people come to you.
- As a speaker, you spend a couple days in a room with other speakers. That's instant connection right there already. Next to that, there is usually a speaker's dinner beforehand to break the ice. Just at that conference, I met three new speakers that will most likely be coming to one of the Meetups I organize, how cool is that!
- Finally, a lot of people will see you, and add you on Twitter or the likes. That's cool because after the conference you can continue the interactions further and keep discussing with people online.
Now, most of those things might sound silly from an external perspective. Most of them might sound like details. For me though, as a first time speaker, they felt important at the time. And they really contributed to me having a blast there, finding a lot of new connections and getting a lot of energy out of the experience. The first thing I did back home was to submit a few new abstracts :).
So if you're scared of talking, feel uncomfortable around people but love the stuff you do, try to speak just one time. Just once! Then you'll see whether you like it or not. What's funny is, a large share of the people I've met at the conference are introverts as well. Being a conference speaker is the best way to shine as an introvert :).