How do you become a technical conference speaker? Do you join your local Toastmasters association and start practicing speeches? No. That’s for later. First, you need to practice the art of organizing technical information into a coherent slide deck.
Organizing technical concepts is not easy. It’s much harder than you think. This is why many conference speakers end up completing their slides at 4 AM. It takes a lot of time to figure out how to get the information in order and work out how to communicate it to others so that it makes sense. Thinking hard is not fun, makes your head hurt, and is the leading cause of procrastination.
How do you learn this skill? Like any other skill – practice! And the place to practice is the programmer meetup. In every city, there are meetups on all sorts of different technical subjects. Just go to meetup.com and search! Meetups provide you with a small, safe space to see if your slides work. A place to be bad at public speaking and presenting. The people who attend meetups are, by definition, the most interested in the topic of the meetup. The quality of the talk is incidental to the content, which is what they care about most. Meetup audiences are much more forgiving than conference audiences.
To be a good conference speaker requires multiple skills. It is not just about what you do on the stage. Your message and your content has to make sense. Those are the table stakes.
This tactic continues to apply even if you get good. I will still practice a talk at meetups before talking it to a large conference audience. Even once you are a conference speaker, you still have to do this to really refine your message and slides. There is no substitute for a live audience. This tactic is used by many performers. Most famous comedians spend a great deal of time in dive bars getting new material to work.
Next week I’ll talk about getting your first gig at a meetup. In the meantime, start going to meetups from today, if you aren’t already. At the very least you’ll get free beer and pizza!
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I attended this talk, given in Lisbon in 2012. The speaker, James Halliday, also known as substack, is just really passionate about the topic, Node.js streams. What I love about this talk is that it mostly presented through code. James is a master of live coding, and this is one of the best demonstrations of his skill.
I’ve seen James presented at meetups as well, and his style there is similar. This talk, although given at a conference, has its genesis in many meetup talks. The ideas, the style of presentation, the tools used, the fantastic hand-drawn slides – these things were not all invented the night before this talk was given. They come together and work so well because they have been practiced and refined.
You need to develop your style and your own tools. Give that time. It’s ok to be fairly mainstream to begin with. To my eternal shame, I also gave a talk at the same conference wearing a business suit. Yeah. I had not put the time into attending meetups and picking up the cultural mores of the Node.js community. Meetups teach you a lot.
Amazon AWS re:INVENT 2017
- Las Vegas, USA
- Mon Nov 27 to Fri Dec 1 2017
- re:Invent 2017 Campus
- Standard ticket: $1799
This is a great event to boost efficiency with any of the AWS services, like Amazon EC2 and Redshift. Every year big announcements are made during the conference, so if you like to hear things first, this is the place to be. You can expect to learn technical best practices, get answers to development questions and learn technical tips. If you're lucky, you might even bump into Werner Vogels.
FutureStack Sydney 2017
- Sydney, Australia
- Tue Oct 24 2017
- ICC Sydney Convention & Exhibition Center
- Standard tickets: free/donation
The first FutureStack took place in San Francisco and was produced by New Relic just a few years ago. Since then, they’ve expanded to four additional cities, including Sydney. This will be FutureStack’s debut in Australia, providing new perspectives on digital intelligence for the modern stack technology. If you’re a New Relic product user, you’ll want to be there... and don’t forget to pick up your cool t-shirt!
QCon London 2017
- London, UK
- Mon 5 Mar to Fri 9 Mar 2018
- Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre
- Standard tickets: $1999
QCon is a series of conferences for professional software developers, from London to San Francisco and Shanghai to Sao Paulo. The event runs for five days, with the first three days dedicated to the conference, followed by two days of workshops. Topics cover the full range of software development with over 140 speakers from high profile companies, so take a look at the agenda for talks that pique your interest. If you can’t make the London event, visit their website to find a city near you.
Learn from the best
On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
This speech was delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 at the United Nations, before the vote to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a serious speech for a serious matter. It is read from a pre-prepared text, in an understated manner. If you watch videos of technical conference talks, they are very different – there’s often a lot more style than substance.
This speech has something else to teach. It is worthy by itself given the historical context, and the speaker, of course. This speech is an example of the meticulous organization of difficult technical information. The production of the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took a vast amount of work and time and negotiation. It was extremely difficult and detailed work. As Eleanor Roosevelt notes from the start, nobody will be fully satisfied with the result, but she argues that it should still be adopted. She explains in detail the process and the comprises.
This is not a subject that can be reduced and simplified to a core concept, as discussed in the last newsletter. Sometimes you have to face the details and do the work to organize them for your audience.
And she did this without slides. You will have slides!
Sleights of Mind
Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, Sandra Blakeslee
This is an easy-going read that you’ll complete quickly. It’s a single-idea book, but full of fun examples – who doesn’t like magic tricks? What is useful from the speaker perspective is the insights it offers into the neuroscience of perception.
Directing the attention of your audience to the most important points of your talk is not something that happens by itself. You need to actively trigger the right responses in your audience. Speakers are often given the cheesy (and pointless) advice to imagine their audience naked. Better to imagine them as lizards, and think about how you can connect with theprimal, lizard brains of your audience. That’s how you make a message stick.
This is a very detailed post that helps you as a novice speaker understand the wider context in which meetups happen and the motivations of the organizers. This is valuable information, as great speakers understand that their audience is more than just the attendees. The audience is everybody in the community, including the organizers of the event.
The post then answers many common objections that people make, mostly to themselves, about why they will never be a tech speaker. Often, problems are only problems from one perspective. If you’re thinking of speaking at a meetup for the first time, this post gives you lots of new perspectives.
These are the CFP deadline dates and submission pages.
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