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!

The Importance of your Local Development Community

I recently saw a post on LinkedIn, I’m fairly sure it was an advert for in house training but the message rang true. One manager turned to the other and said “If we train our developers they’ll get better and leave!” To which the other manager replied “But worse, if we don’t then they might stay!”

One of the most common reasons I hear from departing team members is boredom, that they want to go somewhere else and learn new things, use new technologies, and learn from other people. I myself have preached to friends on many an occasion that you learn more in your first few months at a new job than all the time afterwards combined.

You want the most eager, hungry, and interested developers on your team. You want to be able to retain them by introducing them to new ideas. It’s also your responsibility to keep your long serving members of staff from stagmenting and falling into a development rut.

The answer is often closer than you may think!

Local groups of developers are not hard to come by. I’m based in Leeds and to my knowledge we have Agile Yorkshire, Leeds Sharp, Leeds Code Dojo, and Leeds DevOps. Groups of people who meet regularly to discuss ideas, listen to speakers who bring new and exciting topics to the table. By visiting these groups I’ve been introduced to AngularJS, Microsoft Cognative Services, F#, .NET Core, and many many more…

By encouraging your developers to attend these events you motivate them to go out and find new ideas and technologies. Far better for them to have a night out, come back full of new knowledge than decide they’re fed up of using the same technologies over and over.

So how can you encourage participation in these events? Why not arrange to go as a group? Encourage someone to speak and bring the team along to support them. Plan a team night meal afterwards or ask someone to bring ideas back to your own internal training. Who knows, you may even bump into your next hire while you’re there!