What I learned speaking at 12 conferences in 6 months


Almost two years ago, I made the decision to face my fear of talking to people by pursuing public speaking opportunities. I spoke to a group of grad students about what it's like to be a stutterer. Then a few months later, I gave an Ignite talk on patience. That was when I met Jim, the founder of Adorable and the organizer of Madison Plus Ruby. He invited me to speak at his conference in August of 2014, and I accepted. After the positive feedback I received from these three events, I decided to pursue speaking for real. 

So after nine months of applying to what felt like a million conferences, I spent from April to October of this year speaking all over the globe. Here is what I learned.

You don’t need to be a dev to contribute.

I’ll never forget the RailsConf in Atlanta this year. It was my first BIG conference (second conference ever) and my first workshop. It was called “How to talk to humans” and it was meant to help developers better connect with coworkers and clients through empathetic communication. I can look back now and say with 100 percent certainty that I was woefully unprepared. But I did it, and I gave that talk to a room full of developers. People approached me after to say how helpful it was. Others told me that they finally talked about their mental illness and felt confident enough to share it with their coworkers. And a few said that it didn’t do much for them.

Guess what? That’s normal – dev or not. It’s a rare occurrence when every single person in the room is enrapt in your talk. People will find more interesting things on Twitter and Mashable. They’ll send emails. A few will even get up and leave. Don’t take it personally; shit happens. But the vast majority of them will stay. They will tweet quotes they liked. They’ll take pictures of your slides. They’ll periscope parts of your talk.

I say all this to say that this happens to everyone. Developers, user researchers, marketers, technical evangelists all have the same speaking experience. Most organizers want different types of talks to flesh out their roster. And remember that these conferences are all day (and, in most cases, all night) events. Devs are surrounded by other devs listening to talks by devs. That can get old quickly. Being one of the few – if not the only – “soft skills” means you are giving them a different perspective. Embrace it because if you’re not a dev, you have a place at these events too.

Content is king…

It took me going to five conferences, giving four talks and conducting two workshops to figure out what my topic really was. I spoke about my experiences as a stutterer and how it informed me as a marketer. I eventually realized that I wasn’t giving enough actionable steps in my talk so I changed it to be more instruction oriented. I’m still not all the way to where I want to be with it, but I know I’ll figure it out if I just keep doing it and making appropriate changes.

But there is a really big drawback to having a speech impediment like stuttering: there’s always the chance of people not understanding me or, if they do understand me, they won’t “get” it. I talk about improved communication through empathy. Why would a person who stutters be giving a talk on improving communication skills? Who invited her? And she’s not a developer? What’s she doing here?

I spent the entire six months worried about this. Before every single talk, I literally wanted to run out of the building and get on the next plane home. But I stuck it out, stuttered my way through a 25 minute talk and held my breath for the inevitable reactions I’d receive. In the end, stuttering was a factor – but it helped them understand and embrace my content even more.

I’m very lucky in that I’d been writing professionally for a decade before I gave my first talk so I knew how to put together a compelling story. And because of that, every time I was about to lose people during my talks, I could pull them back in. Why? Because the content of my presentation was on point. Nothing – and I truly mean nothing – is more important than content.

…but for the love of God make it fun.

I co-MC’ed Madison Plus Ruby back in August and it was the very rare, very beautiful example of a conference full of great talks by engaging people. Most tech conferences have a few GREAT talks, a lot of good/okay talks, and a few duds. You know what the duds have in common? The presenter isn’t connecting enough with the audience. They aren’t engaged. They flatly delivered their content and didn’t pay attention to what was going on right in front of them. We’ve all had to sit through some sort of presentation like this. Where the presenter could possibly be sleep-walking or near death.

Look, I know that I just said that nothing is more important than content. But let’s put content at 1a. And that means that 1b is delivery. Talk to your audience like you’re talking to your best friend or some random you meet at a bar who you find charming and interesting. I know a speaker who takes a shot of whiskey before all of her talks so she can loosen up. And you know what? That shot of whiskey makes her already hilarious personality shine magnificently on stage.

My best advice here is to first memorize your talk. I memorize my talks as I’m creating them; instead of writing down the talk on paper, I speak my talk into existence. After repeating it ten or so times, I write it down from memory. Next, I practice it with different types of inflection. I make sure to insert jokes to give the audience an idea of my personality – and to help me relax a bit. And I keep practicing it, with inflection and jokes, until I feel comfortable enough to give it conversationally. I could be drunk at a dive bar at 3am and could give the talk exactly how I want to give it on talk day.

Everyone has something to give.

Before RailsConf in April, I spoke at one tech conference and one tech event. I worked with a few startups but none of them were highly technical. And I spent most of my career dealing with small-to-medium sized businesses who had very little to do with tech. On top of all of that I’m black, I’m a female and I stutter. And it comes out a lot when I speak in front of a room full of people.

On paper, I look like the least qualified person to be giving a talk at a tech conference. Yet I gave talks at twelve of them – and two of those were two of the biggest, most well-known international conferences (DockerCon and RailsConf). Everyone has something to give. Our human experiences are so varied and our lives are constantly changing. You aren’t the Stanford educated co-founding ruby ninja at a sexy startup that just got seven figures in funding? Neither are 95 percent of the other people speaking at these events.

So who are these people? They are copywriters and software developers at Digital Ocean. They write ruby for Blue Bottle. They build software prototypes at IBM Design. They’re the engineer lead at Ride. They do user research at Spotify. They’re freelance developers and authors. They black. White. Middle eastern. English. French. Colombian. American.

The biggest thing that they all have in common is that they are willing to get on stage in front of hundreds of people and share their ideas. Does that make them special? Maybe. I guess so. But if that’s the case, then can’t we all do this? Can’t we all face a fear – big or small – while also sharing something uniquely us with people who have similar interests?

In the end

The biggest lesson I learned is that we're not that different from each other. We love consuming interesting, valuable content. We love creating compelling, helpful content. And that's the bottom line. Throw your hat in the ring. Submit a CFP. You have something to share.