Talking at conferences

tl;dr A tweet from Scott Hanselman brought me to a page from a Google Developer Expert talking about his experiences talking at conferences. Like Scott, my experience is wildly different from his, and I thought merited a response—and a call to action, if you’re so inclined.

This is partly a response to Todd (to keep speaking, first and foremost!), but also to anyone who is interested in speaking, and isn’t quite sure what to expect or believe.

First, the requisite link to the original post, and a disclaimer: I have no idea who Todd Motto is. He and I have never crossed paths at any conference (so far as I know, anyway), we’ve never spoken at the same conference, and we’ve never exchanged email (though he may have some choice words for me after reading this, I dunno). Nothing in this post is really designed to offend, and I think it obvious that my experience speaking is going to be something that’s basically a personal one, but you know what? I’m tired of writing defensively, and so I will simply trust that you’re a human being with their own experiences and their own perspective, trust that you understand that mine is different from yours, that we might actually find something useful in comparing the differences and the similarities, and leave it to you to trust that I’m not trying to lay down prescriptive, 100% right-all-the-time, kinds of statements.

Except, of course, where I am trying to lay down prescriptive, 100% right-all-the-time, kinds of statements.

Opening statements

Todd writes:

Talking at conferences looks like an absolute breeze, but is it? No. It’s stressful, nerving, requires a lot of planning and sometimes things go wrong.

Lord Almighty, man, let’s just start by scaring off the would-be newbie speakers.

Look, speaking is like any sort of activity—if you haven’t done it before, and you’re concerned about doing a good job of it (which some who suffer from Dunning-Kruger may not, actually), then you’re going to stress over it. The first time I went to the plate in kickball in second grade, I was stressed; I wanted to kick a home run! I wanted the cheers and the applause, I wanted the admiration of my teammates, I wanted the crowds to chant my name as I confidently strode across home plate!

I wanted all of those things so badly I whiffed on the first pass, turned a complete circle, and fell down. Needless to say, I was not signed to any professional kickball teams after that.

Point is, the stress is a natural part of attempting something new.

But Todd apparently takes stress to a whole new level:

I started getting bad pain in my ribcage, I was trying to pinpoint the issue whilst delivering my content. Then I realised that my lungs were over-inflated. I was apparently so nervous, that my body decided to take a massively deep breath and not let me relax.

That is not a description of nerves. That is a description of an anxiety attack.

Dude, I totally get that you were nervous. But from having worked with a number of people who have given presentations when never having given one before, I’ve never heard anybody experience that kind of reaction. (Except from one person who routinely suffers from anxiety attacks in group settings, and she had long since done hundreds of presentations by the time I met her. And she keeps doing them. And I think she’s a goddamn inspiration, even though it would mortify her to hear her described in such terms.)

Todd, I’m not going to tell you that something is wrong with you. Hell, I believe the exact opposite—you kept going and finished the talk, which is just sheer courage and will, and I applaud you for it. Not a lot of people would’ve stuck to it like you did.

I think you got twisted up inside your head somewhere along the way, and it escalated into a full-blown anxiety attack. And from what little I know of anxiety attacks, to have kept going is just amazing.

But, let me be very clear to everybody else reading this, that is not what I’ve heard any other first-time speaker experience, and I don’t want potential new speakers getting scared off by that description.

Butterflies? Oh, my, yes. Everybody gets butterflies. Particularly if you’re still new at this. And sometimes, even when you’re not. I still sometimes get butterflies when I get ready to do a keynote, even after having delivered (literally) tens-of-thousands of talks, even when using material I’ve delivered dozens or even hundreds of times. I want them to like me! I want them to respect me! I want them to mob the stage, chanting my name!

Most of all, I don’t want to whiff, do a complete circle, and fall down. It’s bad enough to do that on a kickball field—to do that on stage is really embarrassing. And dangerous, if you knock your laptop off the podium while you do it.

(Yeah, don’t ask.)

Point is, so long as you want to do a good job of it, you will be nervous about doing a good job of it. And that is to be celebrated, not feared.

Slide decks

Todd goes on:

I really don’t like giving “new” talks, new slide decks make me really nervous.

Any speaker who tells you otherwise simply hasn’t given a talk often enough to feel comfortable with it. At DevelopMentor, where I learned much of my speaking craft, we had a basic rule: “You never ‘know’ a deck until you’ve delivered it five times.” Which is part of the reason that many speakers will tell you to practice your deck—that way, you get that five times out of the way before you actually deliver the talk “for real”.

But there’s an interesting amendment to that rule, which states, “After you’ve given a talk five times, you know what you want to do differently with it.” Which, by the way, makes it a new talk.

There’s probably a third caveat here, something like, “After you’ve revised a deck five times, you pretty much know your story and don’t even need to bother with a deck anymore.” But frankly, I don’t know anybody who really kept track of the number of revisions.

I do know, however, that after giving the ClassLoaders talk at NFJS for three years, I had that story down to a science, and while the talk had slides for it, I never used them; they were there mostly to keep the “Are there slides for this talk?” crowd happy (and quiet).

Todd then offers up some advice, which he fears “goes against what every other speaker tells you to do:”

I don’t use speaker notes.

I don’t rehearse the talk end to end after I’ve written all the slides

I do, however, prep in my mind as I go long

I “batch” rehearse, know the flow and know various things I can/will say on each slide

I know the absolute reason for each slide’s purpose and how it ties into the story/flow

Wanna know a secret?

I never use speaker notes. (Why on earth would I want to be reading something when I’m trying to talk? It’s hard enough to talk while I’m trying to write code as part of a demo.)

I never rehearse my talks. Never. (Well, OK, a speech I once gave at Toastmasters, I wrote out and rehearsed. But that experience was more of a scripted play than a talk.)

Prepping in your mind? That’s kind of a rehearsal, in a lot of ways. And “batch” rehearsing, by creating and following a story arc across all the slides and creating a “flow” to the talk? This is a good thing.

The last bullet point is probably the most important: know your story. As a speaker, you should have a good idea of the “story arc” that your talk follows. This is part of your prep, long before you ever sit down to write a slide: What are you trying to convey? What are you going to tell the audience? What are they going to learn? Why should they sacrifice the most precious commodity any of them have—time—to listen to you? What will they get out of it when you are done?

The key for me is to remember what I’m going to say on each slide, so each slide has absolute flow.

That’s not just the key for you—that’s the key for everybody. Too many speakers lose sight of that, and rely on their slides to remind them of that flow, which is why they spend half of their talk either with their head craned around to look at the slides with the rest of the audience, or bent over their laptop reading their speaker notes.

Speakers are “just people”

Todd goes on, and I find myself (surprisingly) of mixed opinions here:

It goes without saying, speakers are nothing special. I’m not special, the next guy isn’t special, we’re just people like you. The fact I’m on stage and you’re in the audience doesn’t mean we’re better than you, and speakers should never think that way.

OK, first of all, no, we’re not “better” than you (the audience). Except, well, frankly, yes, we’re better than you on a particular subject, because if we weren’t, why would we be up on stage, and yourself down in the audience?

Seriously, this goes to another article I read not that long ago, entitled “The Death of Expertise”, and I think it relates here.

If I am delivering a talk to you, then I, by definition, have knowledge that you lack. If you don’t lack that knowledge, then why are you here? Why would you sacrifice your time and attention and energy to listen to things you already know? Perhaps you believe I will tell you some angle, or some perspective, on the subject that you don’t already realize—which means I have knowledge that you lack. Perhaps you are curious to see if I have some deeper details on the subject that you have never explored—which means I have knowledge that you lack. Perhaps you are hoping to catch me in a mistake—which means you are basically trying to troll me, and I would think you have better things to do with your life. (And you’re probably a dick.)

But the larger point Todd brings up is absolutely true: speakers are just people.

There’s a kind of strange hero-worship that sometimes breaks out at software conferences, and I admit I always get a little uncomfortable when people put me on some kind of pedastal.

(OK, no, candor compels me to admit, I used to actually really like it. Not so much anymore, but yeah, back in the day, it was a little gratifying to have people gush and spew compliments at me. Now, honestly, I find it a little embarrassing, particularly after having met some of my personal heroes—Scott Meyers, Bjarne Stroustrup, Dave Thomas, to name a few—and finding them to be pretty much the most humble people I’ve ever met. If those people feel no call to preen in the praise heaped upon them, then gods above, I have no justification to do so, either.)

More importantly, the idea that speakers are somehow “better than you”? Like, superior, somehow elevated to a level to which mere mortals can only admire from afar?

Oh, good Lord. Excrement. Nothing more than purest, utter excrement.

I make mistakes, just like anybody else. I even make them up on stage. Just ask anybody who’s ever seen me give a presentation. I’m human, fallible, and I’ll own up to it. I’ve even had talks when every single demo I’ve prepared goes south (and I mean WAY south), even to the point of a virtual machine (in which all my demos were running—or not running, as the case may be) blue-screening in front of everybody. On a movie cinema screen. (You have never seen a blue-screen until you’ve seen it on the silver screen.) If you’re a speaker, and you bomb a demo like that, you pretty quickly get over yourself.

But are we “special”?

Oh, my dearest, yes.

Because we sat down, studied a subject, thought about how to present it to an audience of mixed expertise on the subject in such a way that would keep (hopefully) everybody attentive, sought out and built demos that would help exemplify the point we were trying to make, and (sometimes) arranged all that into slides that would hopefully keep you attentive, educated, and maybe even periodically entertained.

And most of us don’t get paid to do it; most speakers are lucky to even get their expenses reimbursed. (Which I’ve already gone on record as calling bullshit—if conferences want professional-quality talks, they should be prepared to treat speakers like professional, particularly if they want to hold speakers to professional standards.) Which means all that time—not just the time spent standing on stage, but the time spent preparing the talk, the time spent rehearsing it (whether out loud in front of a mirror, in front of friends, or just in your head while you’re in the shower), the time spent answering questions from the audience after the talk, the time spent making sure the slides and demos are all posted to a web site or GitHub or wherever the conference wants them to live, and even the time spent to get to the venue, hang out there during the conference, and then back home again, is all volunteer. Some speakers are even required by their employer to take vacation time so as to have this privlege of donating more of their time to stand in front of you and teach you something.

So “special”? Yep. You betcha. Unashamedly so.

By the way, to the reader who scoffs at that statement: You think it’s not so special? Step up to the plate, mon ami, and show us. Volunteer to give a talk at your local user group, record it, and then watch it. If you’re not horrified at what you see, either you’re a practiced speaker, or you suffer from Dunning-Kruger, or you’ve never actually seen a good presentation.

An open call

Look, speaking is not “hard”, any more than programming is “hard”. Which is to say, it’s absolutely impossible the first time you do it, because you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing—you don’t know what you don’t know about it. (Not yet, anyway.)

I’ve been doing this public speaking thing for coming up on two decades now, and there’s still a few tricks I end up learning from my speaker colleagues.

To Todd, man, I see your “imposter syndrome”, and I tell you now, everybody feels it to a degree, at least until such time that you’ve delivered a hundred or so presentations, and then you start to feel like maybe you do, kinda, sorta, belong there. And you’ll fluctuate between “I can’t believe nobody has called me out and booed me offstage” and “Damn, I’m actually pretty good at this speaking thing!” for probably about as long as you continue to speak.

Are you a “big name”? Dude, that’s all relative. To the person that’s calling you that, yes. You are. For whatever reason they have in their head, they think you’re a big name. And you know what? That’s OK.

You say, “it gives me that successful boost that I’ve achieved something - even if just one person benefitted from the talk”. If somebody looks up to you as a “big name”, and you laugh it off because you don’t think you’re anybody special, you’re missing the point. That person thinks you’re something special, and you have an opportunity there to give them a boost, a reward, some kind of good feeling to come away with. Laughing it off because you’re embarrassed means you’re still thinking about you. Turn it around—make it about them.

Today, when somebody comes up to me and asks for a selfie, or offers me flowing, gushing compliments, I simply channel Venkat Subramaniam (one of my new personal heroes). In that situation, what does Venkat do?

He simply says, “Thank you!” and then politely listens to whatever else they have to say, answers questions as best he can, smiles a lot, and sends them away feeling like they just got a few minutes of personal one-on-one time with one of their personal heroes.

And is there a better gift than that?

Just do it

Keep speaking, Todd. Anxiety attack aside, you’re doing it right.

And to anybody who has ever wondered if they could be the guy or the gal up there on the stage?

Just do it.

Don’t let the obstacles that you’re imagining stand in your way. Even if you never make a career out of it as I and a few others have managed to do, you’ll find that you learn your chosen subject far, far better than you knew it before.

Just do it.

And if we cross paths at a conference, come up to me, tell me, “Dude, I read your post, and I want to be a better speaker”, and (subject to the rest of my schedule!) I will be happy to sit down with you in a bar and help.

Just do it. Just do it. Just freaking do it!

See you soon.