New to Speaking?

11 min readMar 17, 2016

On March 15, 2016 I attended a CallBackWomen event “A Panel Discussion with Tech Conference Speakers” as a guest mentor at the Square offices in San Francisco.

The panel was moderated by CallBackWomen founder Carina C. Zona. The panelists were:

Siena Aguayo was also a guest mentor.

Many thanks to the Square folks who loaned us the space. While the security process was not as awesome as one would like (if you missed the note about registering twice for the two systems you couldn’t get in!), the space itself was great with a delightful spread of food and beverages and plenty of open space to connect afterwards with a great view.

Due to a lack of time, I wasn’t able to stay after 8pm to contribute as much mentoring as I would have liked so I’m summing up my thoughts here.

Defining Vocabulary

I liked how Carina started off the night with establishing vocabulary and being really sensitive about what various words were without assuming that anyone would already know them in the context of proposing and being accepted to speak at a conference. I’m going to replicate that here by defining those words before I dig in.

  • CFP — Call for Proposals. Sometimes this is called a Call for Papers or Call for Presentations instead. It’s essentially about what you want to speak about (and for research conferences sometimes includes a writing component!) Check the twitter account CallBackWomen. Also check which lists open CFPs that use the PaperCall site for proposal generation.
  • Honorarium — generally a small payment for services, generally to cover some portion of travel or hotel stay. Be aware that this may be taxable, and not all conferences will send you any documentation about it. Make sure you keep track of these items and deal with as needed.
  • Ignite — started in Seattle, this form of talk has caught on for it’s short format. It’s a total of 5 minutes, with auto advancing slides. Every 15 seconds the slides advance for a total of 20 slides. It’s possible to duplicate slides if you have some topics you want to talk about a little bit longer. Key to a successful ignite is lots of practice. LOTS OF PRACTICE. and not stressing out if something fails because it totally can happen. Slides don’t advance, they advance too quickly, slides skip. Be prepared to just talk to your audience.
  • Ignite Karoke — Presentations that are prepped in advance by organizers. People from the audience sign up and see the images for the first time as they give the talk. The goal is to tell an engaging story based on the pictures without any kind of prep.

Some conferences call lightning talks ignites, so make sure that when you sign up for an ignite that it’s really an ignite (as in advancing slides with 20 slides!)

  • Lightning Talk — a shorter talk. Ignites are lightning talks, but not all lightning talks are ignites. Lightning talks range from 5–10 minutes generally.
  • Panel — usually a longer session that includes multiple people (ideally with different views!) with a moderator who prepares all the questions and ensures that everyone gets an opportunity to speak.
  • Hands-On Workshops — Generally a deeper dive into a specific technology or practice that gives participants the opportunity to work through materials. These take a lot more prep time and it’s important to prepare participants for expectations and whatever pre-requisites that are required. Sometimes these are also called tutorials.
  • Open Spaces — self organized spaces where conference organizers set up time to plan and break out into sessions. If you are not 100% ready to give a talk, this is a good way to propose an idea and see the different views and ideas that people have around that idea.

The ‘First’ Time

Often getting over that first time of speaking is the hardest. Network with folks to find conferences that are specifically geared towards being kind to first timers. A lot of the local community conferences are really great for this. In Seattle for example SeaGL and Cascadia IT are very supportive. Depending on the sponsorship of these local community conferences they might not have the financial means to support travel and hotel though.

Local meetups are also a great place to start, as your initial investment may be lower. Check with past speakers, and talk to organizers to see what kind of support there is.

I was inspired to speak at my first conference by Suzanne Axtell. I met Suzanne at Velocity, and then spoke to her at Strata RX. She followed up with a very inspiring personal email encouraging me to submit to Velocity Santa Clara the following year. So often people can have huge impacts on our lives and it’s not measured or monitored in any way.

What is really interesting about speaking, is that often there are experienced folks who are willing to share their expertise. I have so much appreciation for Philip Tellis for many things, and of those many things include his support and shared wisdom when speaking. One of those nuggets I continue to pass on to others: “Take off your badge prior to speaking so it doesn’t reflect into your eyes.” Some conferences have really bright lights so that recorded video is better. This can lead to blinding reflections if you leave a reflective badge on.

Hints and Tips

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your fellow speakers. Sometimes they are new too, and the shared experience is very helpful to defuse some of the stress.

Practice your talk and have marker slides. These marker slides are a specific image that you have timed in practice so that you know about how much content you have left. During the talk itself, you may find yourself speaking faster/slower than normal. By having a marker slide that is sticky in your mind, you know what you need to do if you get there early or late.

For example in my Magic, Myth and the Devops talk, I know that I’m approximately 1/3 done with my talk when I get to my “program manager” slide aka Princess Leia. I’m about 2/3 done when I get to “Borg Syndrome” and talking about cultures that expect everyone to be the same. Based on this, instead of 5 minutes before time trying to squeeze everything in, I can cut material as needed by spending less time on the rest of the slides.

Not all conferences accept all kinds of proposals. Rejection isn’t personal.

Do what feels right for you in the time right before the talk. Some people need to completely shut down all social activities. They are the folks staring at their screens in the Speaker Room, or hiding in hallways not connected directly outside of rooms. Some people need a friend to chat to or have someone talk at them. It’s completely ok if you go to your room to speak, and someone starts talking to you to say “Hey, I’m going to be speaking soon. I need this time to mentally prep. I’m open for discussions after my talk.”

Try to get a cheerleader in the audience. When you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, take a look at their smiling face and keep going.

Try to get confirmation that your setup works prior to your talk (ideally WELL before your talk). Check your laptop and the presentation on the screen and microphone. Walk around on the stage (or floor); establish your safety zone.

Practice power poses in the bathroom prior to your talk. This is my ‘secret’ strategy to prepare. Giving myself that time to focus and breathe and project the success I want to see, allows me to step on stage with confidence; my body declares my intent before I even start talking.

Plan your after care. Determine what you need, and how you are getting it. If there is a break right after your talk, be prepared for questions. I was entirely unprepared to get the flood of response after my first talk. I had planned to run out and get a hug from my advocate, but I ended up answering questions for the full break. I did get that hug and congratulations, but it took longer than I expected.

Regardless of what happens or fails during the talk itself, _everything is ok_. Be yourself, speak to your audience and tell your story. Even without any kind of slides which are helpful for you to frame your message, you have something interesting to share with others.

Reasons to Choose a Conference

Know the reasons you want to speak. You can have many.

  • Travel
  • Cross industry experience
  • Networking
  • Experience
  • Friend time with non-coworkers
  • ?

When you are evaluating conferences to speak at, think about what it is that you are doing there and why.

If you are speaking, I don’t recommend you sign up for booth duty. All the prep time that you do before hand, and the stress of getting your talk right, you need down time to just process and respond to any feedback you receive. If you are doing booth duty before or after your talk, you’re going to be even more drained and not providing the quality of value to any potential customers visiting the booth.

Recognize that by speaking, you are already working. It’s not a vacation (even if it feels great to go somewhere new)!

Going to my ‘home’ conferences like devopsdays, Velocity, and Monitorama is critical to me to be successful at my job as a software engineer in Community for Chef. I need to understand what infrastructure patterns are emerging, and talk to people about how they operate large systems.

Additionally, it’s important to me to expand my horizons and see outside of the industry. A few years ago the opportunity to go to Strata RX was fascinating to see how disconnected the technology industry was with medicine. Over the next decade, I imagine a lot of disruption is out there ready to happen as we have more of these cross industry experiences.

So even if you are a ‘Frontend Engineer’, don’t limit yourself to just javascript conferences. Explore and experience what else is out there.

As folks in the panel discussed, you may have particular feelings about whether you want to present based on audience size, track size (number of concurrent tracks at the same time), and whether travel is covered.

Use your network to determine the quality of the conference. Past events don’t tell you the whole story about current and future events. Find out as much as you can about the conference before you commit to it.

Note: Some conferences I go to for me (whether professionally, curiosity, or mental health). Some I go for me and my company. Some I go just for my company, or the industry at large. Each of these, I examine differently when determining my participation. I will not be as vocal about my experiences on public forums as I will 1–1. So if you have questions about a conference I’ve been to and want more information, please do reach out.

Questions to Ask your Organizers

  • Is travel/hotel/transportation covered?
  • What are recommendations in the area for hotel, transportation, meals, entertainment? Some conferences provide this information on their website. For longer conferences this is really helpful.
  • Do you provide any coaching?
  • What is the audience make up? (Even if you’ve attended before, it’s helpful to get this information) Sometimes you can find this information in the prospectus for sponsors. For example, Agile Conf has a Conference Background section that lists make up of job roles and international attendees. When preparing a talk for this conference, I know that I should be very aware of using acronyms or memes that might not convey across cultures. I also know that with my operations background, that I’ll be in the minority based on less than 5% Operations. Any Operations specific terminology I use, I should define and highlight it’s context.
  • Is there a pre-event speaker’s dinner? This gives you an opportunity to meet all the speakers prior to the event and get an idea of what everyone is going to talk about. If you are giving a similar talk to someone else, see how your talk compares. I’ve had experiences where I needed to quickly clarify some slides when the same words were used but in a different context from another speaker. It would have been so helpful to have a pre-event speaker’s dinner. As a speaker at a multi-track conference you also may not get the opportunity to meet speakers.
  • Is there a post-event speaker’s dinner? If there is not a pre-event, hopefully there is a post-event which allows all the speakers to get together and say AHHH. And share feels about the experience and give feedback to the organizers.
  • Will there be a quality recording/captioning of my talk? Captioning provides accessibility to your talk and gives you the opportunity to see what you said. I often can’t remember whether I covered all my points. It’s really helpful when giving the talk next time. Quality recordings are really helpful for your portfolio of talks. Some conferences expect you to provide a link to past speaking.

DevOpsDays Silicon Valley recorded all talks in 2015 using a professional videographer and in-house A/V. It’s ok to say ‘no’ to substandard recording because this will live forever on the internet.

  • Do you provide childcare/mother’s room/..? Ask for what you need, regardless of what it is.
  • Do you provide meals that don’t have X? If the conference includes meals and you have a food sensitivity or allergy, ask for it. If they don’t have it, make sure to get information about local restaurants so that you get your needs met.
  • Is there a Code of Conduct? How do you handle violations of the code of conduct?
  • Is there a speaker room? The speaker room is your get away from other folks to do final prep, chill out before your talk, recharge your laptop if needed.
  • What is the aspect ratio for the screen? This is critical for when preparing your slides. 4:3 and 16:9 are common.
  • What is the setup of the room? Theater, rounds? Podium? Stage?
  • What adapters will be available at the podium?

In general, if you have a question, ask the organizers. If they receive enough signal, this will get added to their frequently asked questions rather than getting repeated.

When are you qualified to speak?

Now. Everyone. We each are coming from a different background, culture, set of experiences in life, in and out of jobs and school.

New to the industry folks share insight about expectations that experienced folks might have just accepted. They disrupt “well it’s always been that way.” They point out the ridiculous and the outdated. They also give insight in to what works well.

Experienced folks explain the context, provide understanding in a way so that we all understand why the big red button has a glass case around it, or what happens when you do something and it utterly fails. Well told stories about mistakes help us all to avoid making those same mistakes.

It’s awesome to share the problem you haven’t solved yet, and why you haven’t solved it.

The key is this. Your proposal MUST match what you are speaking on and the intended level. Whether it’s funny, sad, evocative, educational. You need to set the expectations clearly. When people walk into the room they are expecting you to tell them what you told them you’d tell them.

What is CallBackWomen?

My first experience with CallBackWomen was via the twitter account CallBackWomen. It was a great way to share CFPs when they opened, alert individuals to closing CFPs, provide context about additional information about conferences, and in the process help to expand the gender diversity at the podium of professional conferences as well as the inclusivity for attendees!

Thank you again Carina C. Zona and to all the panelists for such a great evening. I look forward to seeing more events like this, with new speakers sharing their first experiences!