Emerging Speaker series: The first three lessons I learned when I started speaking
This is the first post in a series I’m calling the Emerging Speaker series, where I will chronicle my experiences as I journey to become a speaker in the tech community.
I’ve decided to write about how I got started speaking. It’s a bit uncomfortable for me, but I think it might be useful to others who might want to start speaking. I’m going to talk about my experiences and highlight what I’ve learned along the way.
I didn’t think much about speaking until I received an invite to lunch from Jeff Strauss, one of the .NET community organizers in St. Louis and a board member for the DevUp conference (formerly known as St. Louis Days of .NET.) I had written a blog post about STLDODN 2014 and what I thought they could do differently. I was somewhat critical about what I think now are relatively trivial things, so I felt a little nervous.
That lunch was February 2015. It was the day I met Scott Spradlin (another community organizer and DevUp board member) and Jeff. I can’t tell you how gracious they were about the whole thing – they approached me, a nobody, for advice on how to make the conference better and to talk about why they made some of the choices they did. (Keep in mind I had barely been a software engineer for five years, and these guys are super experienced and well known in the community.)
I told them that I’d love to be more involved. That’s when they told me that they could always use speakers. I told them sure, I’d love to speak sometime, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. (Except that I knew I had a fear of public speaking – but as Alton Brown says, that’s another show.)
That was lesson number one for me (though I didn’t realize it at the time.) * If you’re interested in speaking, reach out to community leaders in your locality. *Talk to them, ask for advice, and ask for opportunities. Every community leader I’ve met wants nothing more than to help get new people out there and speaking.
My first foray in speaking was a small session on ASP.NET 5 (now ASP.NET Core) at the Microsoft Store in St. Louis in April 2015. It was a pretty painless process to get the gig – I reached out to a local Microsoft guy to see if I could talk there and he was like, sure, no problem! It was an audience of maybe 5 people. I was extremely nervous – shaky breathing, sweaty palms, the whole bit – but fairly well rehearsed. My demos went without fail – those were pretty well rehearsed as well.
That was lesson number two – when you do speak, be as prepared as you need to be. Only you can know how prepared you have to be to do at least a decent job. In my case, I rehearsed the speaking parts a few times, but I definitely felt after that I needed more practice talking.
As far as the demos go, in my experience they are a bad idea UNLESS they are tightly rehearsed. *If you do a demo, chances are something will go wrong – and it might not be in your control. *I’d seen enough failed demos at other conferences to know how to avoid some pitfalls. For example, since I was demoing in Visual Studio, I had a couple instances warmed up already so that we didn’t have to wait in silence while they loaded. I also had every single thing I needed to do printed out, step-by-step, down to when to switch to other windows and what lines of code to type.
After that, I reached back out to Scott and ended up doing the same ASP.NET 5 talk at the .NET User Group meeting a couple months later, June 2015. Not many people attended there, but there was definitely more than at the Microsoft Store – about thirty if I recall. I was still extremely nervous. A lot of pacing, a lot of shaky breathing, and very sweaty palms.
I knew I wanted to keep speaking, even though it was so uncomfortable for me. So, I set out to develop abstracts to submit. I wrote one on ASP.NET 5, one on combining Xamarin and SignalR, and one on Angular, and submitted them to ThatConference 2015. I chose to submit to ThatConference because it is a locale my company (GadellNet) does business in.
I was thrilled to find out that my Xamarin/SignalR talk had been accepted. And that was lesson number three – *speak about things people want to hear about. *It seems so obvious, but I knew that if I was speaking about stuff that was interesting to people, I would have a higher chance of getting accepted. The title of my abstract was “Building Real-Time Mobile Apps using Xamarin and SignalR,” which I knew packed quite a punch.
I was later told that it is difficult to get into conferences the size of ThatConference as an unknown speaker, which further reiterated to me the need to go with a subject that interests the conference’s attendees.
Anyways, stay tuned – next blog post will be about more lessons learned at ThatConference and DevUp 2015.
P.S. I think that lessons two and three might sometimes make more sense if they’re reversed, but my advice is to start small. Typically, the bigger the event, the more that lesson three applies. I think most community leaders would gladly give you a chance if you show them interest in talking about something even tangentially related.
There have been several folks who have helped me on my journey so far, but two people specifically deserve thanks – my wife, Susan, who has supported my journey from the start (as a listener and adviser), and Jeff Strauss, who has been a great mentor, adviser and friend during my “speaker emergence.”