Why (and How) I Started Speaking at Conferences

I did my first public speaking event at DDDNorth in February and then followed it up with a second presentation recently at the Leeds Testing Atelier. In this post I want to discuss why (and how) I went from audience member to speaker.

I’ve always been slightly in awe of people who have the confidence to speak in front of fifty, a hundred, or even more people! A friend of mine started doing technical talks a few years ago and after meeting a few more people who give talks I was rabidly running out of excuses.

I read somewhere that the fear of public speaking comes from our most basic tribe instinct. We’re afraid of making a fool of ourselves, of being ostracised from the tribe, and ultimately being seen as an unworthy partner. Even today, when we strive to create safe teams we’re still afraid of standing up and giving presentations to our colleagues.

So the question becomes what changed to make me want to push through this fear?

I’d been giving internal tech talks at work for several months. We used to do them over Skype, personally I found talking to a microphone much easier than talking to a group.

Something interesting happened when I started speaking about various topics at work. People came to talk to me about them!

I quickly realised that the natural progression of learning was to present. The work you do when you put a presentation together helps you focus your ideas, strip out what isn’t important, and ensure you have your topics clear in your mind. The best way to continue your learning is to allow other people to challenge you. In other words, the only way to become the expert is to act like an expert.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert. But I like to think that the work I’ve put in pulling these presentations together has helped me learn the topics, but also clarify things in my own mind. There’s always the fear of a question you can’t answer, but there’s never any shame in not knowing something – that’s another opportunity to learn!

That brings us to the How. That part is actually surprisingly easy. There are loads of local tech community groups around, and you can quickly find a list of conferences in your area. Chances are they’re the same ones you’ve been going to for years!

Most of these conferences and groups are run by volunteers and most are crying out for speakers. Get in touch, get a date – nothing focuses the mind like a deadline!

Hopefully that’s encouraged you to go and give speaking ago – remember your audience want your talk to be a good one. Here are my top three(ish) tips to public speaking:

  • Submit the topic you want to talk about, not the one you think your audience wants
  • Don’t put bullet points in your slides, they steal your thunder and effectively makes you, the speaker superfluous
  • Don’t talk about pet projects (in the nicest way no one cares) or give sneak precious into something you’re selling (be generous with your knowledge)

And one for luck

  • Memorise your opening, the hardest bit is the moment just before you start speaking!

Leeds Testing Atelier VIII

Last week I was lucky enough to go to the Leeds Testing Atelier which was hosted, once again at the Wharf Chambers in Leeds.

This was the 8th Atelier and the fourth (I think) that is been to. If you’ve not been along before then I highly recommend it as a conference, it’s a very unusual meet up – partially because of the informality of the event (did I mention it was hosted in a bar/music venue) but also because of the wide range of topics and speakers. Although centred in testing, the organisers understand that quality comes from a wide range of interpersonal, technical, and communication techniques and they encourage sessions on these topics at the event. I debuted my Communication talk at the event, but more on that later.

The first talk of the day I went to was The Sleepy Tester by Hannah Prestwell. Hannah’s talk was inspired by a book called Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, it’s a book I’ve heard from before and I really need to add to my reading list.

Hannah talked to us about the importance of getting enough sleep, the value of sleep in forming memories and learning, and it’s value in emotionally reflecting on recent events. It turns out the phrase “sleep of it” really is based in science.

The next talk I went to was Imposter Syndrome by Beth North. Beth had the outstanding idea of creating imposter personas to identify the different ways Imposter Syndrome can impact people. It was a great talk and really engaged a lot of people in the audience (myself included). I had the sudden urge to run out half way through and update my slides to include her great ideas.

I spoke downstairs next. My talk was entitled Performance Testing Your Communication and I spoke about various ways of monitoring and maintaining safety in a conversations as well as how to influence people around you by understanding their personality and values. I was quite pleased with how it went, especially as this was the first time I’d done this talk outside work and I was delighted to see the tweets roll in afterwards.

The final talk I saw (I had to head back to the office for the afternoon) was a lightening talk by Sophie Weston about lightening talks. In house presentations is a topic very close to my heart. Not only do I think they’re a great way to share knowledge but doing internal presentations was how I got started before I moved onto external conferences – I can’t think of a better way to boost your confidence. I’m definitely going to take a few of her tips back to the office to see if we can use them to improve ours!

The team stayed later, really enjoying their afternoon sessions and talks. I went back to an afternoon in the office but really enjoyed my morning – the organisers were a great high and really made me feel welcome and looked after (especially when I had projector woes).

A huge thanks to the Atelier Gang – I hope to see you all next time!