Tech Talks: What to Say When You Have “Nothing to Say”
I love public speaking. Quite the unpopular opinion, I know, especially coming from someone who was once shy and unassuming. Growing up, I remember watching my dad — a community leader — speak at local 5K races, fundraisers, and school events, and after a while, I felt the need to get up on stage and engage an audience with my voice, too.
My courage to speak in front of others came in small quantities, and then all at once right before my high school graduation. My father (a fellow alumnus) and I were chosen to speak at the baccalaureate ceremony about our how our high school experiences complemented one another. Delivering that speech beside the one who first inspired me to speak was incredibly validating, and has shaped me into a prolific speaker and organizer for the communities that matter to me.
I often wondered why my equally dedicated, talented, and charismatic peers rarely followed suit.
A few weeks ago, Clarifai, an artificial intelligence startup based out of New York City, gave me the opportunity to receive complimentary developer evangelist training via Clarifai Champions. For those of you that don’t know, developer evangelists build relationships between the technical community and a company by — you guessed it — speaking, presenting, and teaching. I happily accepted. In fact, I was so eager to start that I gave a technical tutorial on building a Twitter bot less than a week into the program.
But in getting to know my fellow Clarifai Champions better, I learned that many of us are intimidated by the prospect of giving a technical talk. An oft-cited statistic suggests that 40% of adults experience stage fright when speaking in front of a group of people. Mix intimidation with impostor syndrome — here, manifesting itself as the belief that you have nothing worthwhile to say — and you’ve got quite the recipe for discouragement.
Stage fright stifles many speakers regardless of what they speak about. But it is impostor syndrome that truly asphyxiates technical speakers who have greater worth than they realize, especially newcomers and diverse talent.
I am by no means a seasoned tech conference speaker — hell, I’ve only been coding for a couple of years — but I believe that anyone who cares enough about technology can give a tech talk. If you love tech but you feel like you have nothing to say, I’d like to galvanize you to find and share your voice with a few tips.
Anyone interested in technology has something worthwhile to say about it.
Tech talks are more about the passion than the code. Think for a moment about the things that captivate you. Perhaps you read a lot about the blockchain, but haven’t coded any cool cryptocurrency hacks yet (100% me). A talk might be the perfect opportunity to share your knowledge about the blockchain, and to discover digital currency project ideas from audience insight. Be sure to reflect on your non-technical interests, too; these can also lead to some quirky talks. Lauren Scott, a lovely Braintree software engineer and Dev Bootcamp graduate, sometimes gives a talk entitled “Shall I Compare Thee To a Line of Code?” about the parallels between code and poetry. Her audience probably consists of more software engineers than poets, but such a refreshing subject could engage anyone.
Tech talks can be about projects you’ve already completed. If you have ever built something that excites you, you’re halfway to a talk. Tutorials stem naturally from projects. For instance, I came up with my “Introduction to APIs and Build Your Own Twitter Bot” tutorial after building my first Twitter bot. Once again, keep in mind that even non-coding projects can be related back to technology. For instance, I could speak about how to start a women’s mentorship program, since a technical audience could still gain valuable knowledge and skills from such a presentation.
Tech talks do not require immaculate expertise in a language, a framework, or other concepts. I’d even argue that, since a beginner’s perspective presents old information in a new light to veterans, it can result in you learning faster than you would have by stumbling through confusing documentation alone. In her piece “I’m not a developer-y enough developer to talk on developing,” web developer Alyssa Nicoll states that after she gave a talk on Ruby as a complete novice, she “solidified in her mind that she actually [does] know some Ruby” and “brought out a discussion that everyone took part in and took away from.” A confidence boost and technical growth for all? Count me in.
Tech talks can be fairly non-technical. I’ve hinted at this, but it’s worth saying again. Today’s technology favors the interdisciplinary: bringing skills from computer science, coding, and technology into one of your areas of interest can spark cutting-edge conversations. There’s more to technology than just code: systematizing artificial intelligence ethics, figuring out what role Bitcoin can and should play in our society, and maintaining diverse engineering talent are just the tip of the not-coding-but-still-technical-subjects iceberg.
I hope that these suggestions have jolted your mind into searching for your next (or first!) tech talk topic. Never fear not being “technical” enough (whatever that means) to give a “technical” talk. You are brimming with passions, projects, and experiences; combine these with the technical background that you do have, and let your voice be heard.