Rules for my next conference talk

April 30, 2014

tl;dr Giving my first tech conference talk at RailsConf was awesome and overwhelming and surreal! Yet I felt insecure and disappointed after I gave my talk. I'm submitting it to more conferences--please let me know if you hear of any that could be a good fit! To do better next time, I will try to follow these rules:

Before the conference:
  • Practice without reference to the speaker notes at all.
  • Practice with random inserts of applause sounds close to the end (?)
  • Ask to be scheduled early on in the conference.
  • Ask to be put in a small room (Ben Orenstein's tip).
  • Sign up for all offers of help, like A/V testing time, mentor/conference guide matchmaking.
  • If I would prefer a change in the schedule, speak up as soon as the program is released so that there's some chance of getting that through before the physical programs are printed.
  • Bring more outfit options or try it on beforehand at home for what I will feel confident and put together in (probably structured shirts over all soft knits).
  • Decide on my goal for this talk, for how I will judge "success" this time. ([edited to add] Good reminder on this piece about giving yourself permission to suck at everything you're not currently working on to improve from my co-worker Bryan)

At the conference:
  • Be back in my room by 9pm the night before my talk.
  • Don't hesitate to tweet at other speakers when it seems like their talks are a good lead-in to mine.*

During the talk:
  • Use the podium, however awkwardly placed, unless I'm absolutely confident in not needing to reference the speaker notes.
  • Remember to take a picture from the stage!

After the talk:
  • Once I'm calmed down a bit, if I get to talk to people who attended my talk, make sure to ask for specific feedback--especially on any new things** that I tried but am not entirely sure about for effectiveness.

I was so excited for and thrilled when my talk proposal for RailsConf was accepted! I poured hours and hours into preparing for it and practicing and successfully ignored my stress gagging in the half hour beforehand. I'd estimate it at about 85-90% of what my total all-out maximum effort for preparing would be, which isn't bad at all. But then when it actually came and went...I actually felt pretty shitty for a good 24 hours afterwards, despite all the social media-ing I did of positive responses to the talk.

It's taken me a few days to unpack those Feelings a bit. What I've settled on it is that public speaking is kind of like a performance art, like performing a piece at a music recital or competing in an athletic match. You put all this time and effort into preparing for the Big Day, and then sometimes, your actual performance just...falls a bit short of what you expected for yourself, what you know you are capable of accomplishing.***

There were things that were outside of my control. I randomly woke up at 6am on the day-of, after only 4 hours of sleep. There was another talk going on at the same time as mine that was also on the topic of onboarding for junior developers, which maybe thinned out my potential audience a bit and made me feel nervous that the room looked kind of empty when I started. The bright light on the elevated stage made it really hard to see out to whether people were reacting to what I was saying at all. The stage setup was a little strange, where the podium was on the far side from where the screen was, so that I, following the lead of previous presenters I'd seen in the same room, chose to move my laptop closer on a lower table, which made it harder to surreptitiously glance at my speaker notes.

(thanks Joanne**** for grabbing this photo!)

The one thing that really did a number on my confidence is that I didn't get any ripples of laughter from the audience on my funny slides--even the ones that pretty reliably got a chuckle from my practice audiences, like the owl one. This was maybe a combination of the room not being that full (and generally kind of cold, temperature-wise) and me just not having a full on grasp on comedic timing, which my co-worker and fellow RailsConf speaker Jason C told me is something that comes with more experience. This had also happened a few times in my practices, where the audience seemed incredibly stony-faced throughout the talk itself but then people came up afterwards and were very enthusiastic and encouraging. I probably just need to learn to take this less personally and not use it as a measure of how well a talk went.

Anyway, as a result of all the above, I tripped up a few times in what I was saying, and as such things go, each stumble made me feel more and more insecure.

I'm a little afraid of when the videos of the talks will come out. On the one hand, it may very well confirm the picture in my head of how the talk I went, but on the other, it probably is the only piece of data I would actually believe that the talk went better than I personally thought*****. Hearing from people who were there that they learned something from it helps a ton, but there's a bit of a silent evidence problem to relying on that (i.e. I don't hear from people who were lukewarm but polite enough not to go out of their way to tell me).

People have been very kind and supportive, which I am very grateful for. I still can't let go of a wish to sort of...get a 2nd chance, a do-over, at least on the video recording, so that it'd be free of um's and verbal trip-ups. So I am going forth and trying to find more conferences to submit this same talk to! Apparently that's a thing you can do? Which is great, because I want a better ROI out of all the time I put into it for sure. Please let me know if you hear of any CFPs that this talk could be a good fit for.

For good measure, here are some things I'm confident that I did well on:
  • Started pretty early in preparing my talk, wrote up a rough draft within about a week of finding out it had been accepted.
  • Worked out a very clear structure for the talk.
  • Slides were clear, simple, but visually engaging with photos. Props to my co-worker Brent who gave me some great advice on adjusting the typography to be more beautiful.
  • I'm particularly proud of the breadcrumb template design I came up with to help people keep track of where the talk was at.
  • Getting a massage in the Exhibit Hall and then only doing my makeup right before the talk were both good calls. [edited to add] oh also I got my eyebrows done and colored streaks in my hair touched up the week before, which mostly just helped me feel more ready to face a camera.
  • Getting some friends to sit in the front row helped with reducing the intimidation factor for sure, even if they'd all already seen the talk multiple times.
  • I answered the questions that came in at the end much better than I thought I would! I was nervous about this, because you can't really practice this part, but it wasn't so bad.
  • I slept in the next morning and skipped the keynote in favor on catching up on Twitter--I heard it was pretty funny, but Thursday was the best day by far of the conference of me, had a fabulous time, and that self-care was probably key to that.

Overall, I am very glad I did it! I will continue submitting and giving talks, and keep getting better at this. Sandi Metz is basically my role model here, her talk was so good, just really accessible and useful and well-done all around--once the videos from the conference are up, I'll put together a blog post of the talks I recommend watching.

To everyone that helped me, and everyone that attended: Thank you.

*Farrah Bostic's closing keynote on Tuesday, which talked a lot about her personal journey in learning to code a few years ago, was such a great lead-in to my talk! I should've reached out to her, but it felt like it would be a little too...sucking up, or nakedly ambitious, or something. Missed opportunity.

**Like the stretch break that's a bit awkwardly placed--maybe I need more charisma to pull it off? This talk had a 2/3-1/3 structure but I put the break at the halfway point instead. On the other hand, I definitely went to a good number of other talks where I personally could've used a stretch break in the middle so...this needs more testing and practice.

***This is probably the arena where my Tiger Mom and American influences on my childhood most coincide, by which I mean that it sort of feels like cheating to me, to say that you shouldn't care what other people think, but then only apply that when it's convenient. In other words, I may be my own harshest critic, but at the same time, I think my own standards are the ones I should live up to, given that I know from past performance that they aren't impossible to achieve for me, or particularly rare, which would be less than ~15% likelihood. I'm not sure I believe in going easy on yourself in general (well, as long as you aren't wallowing in beating yourself up to the point where you never pursue anything as a result), but I strive for kindness at least, and dusting myself up and continue to try anyway.

****Joanne and I were good friends back in middle school and then I went to a different high school and did not stay in touch with most people from that era. So we haven't seen each other in over 10 years! Running into and catching up with her at RailsConf was definitely a top highlight of the conference for me.

*****[edited to add] This seems like a super useful reference for when that video does come out: Instead of wincing: 10 things to look for on that video of your speech (thanks to Cate for bringing this post to Denise's attention)
If you're lucky enough to be recorded when you speak--whether you do the recording or someone else does--you've got a golden opportunity to learn things you might never otherwise know about how you speak.