Why You Should Speak at Tech Conferences
The first time I spoke at a tech conference was about five years ago at the University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles. It was at an annual conference called Code Camp whose audience is mostly Microsoft developers. I didn’t know what to expect in that kind of setting. I selected a topic I was fairly comfortable with, Designing with CSS3. Not only was the topic well received but it quickly became the most popular session in the conference with over 140 attendees interested in it. Now I was really freaking out.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, public speaking rates high among the top 5 phobias by people right alongside going to the dentist and flying. So why would we put ourselves through that? Well, everyone has their own reasons but let me explain why I do it.
I have been working on the web for a long time and I love it. As in most careers, you need to be able to keep up with the latest changes in order to stay relevant. As you can image web design and development is no different. In fact, is an industry that is always changing and keeping up is simply impossible. However, it is extremely important to ensure you are at least aware of what’s happening in your industry so you can be part of the conversation. Part of my self-education process includes books, blog posts, attending conferences, both in person and online) and working on projects that offer opportunities to become better at a specific skill. For the past 5 years however, I have been using public speaking as another way to learning a new skill or becoming better at one I already know.
Public speaking requires a lot of preparation and work. I feel that if I am going to be speaking in front of 140 people who, most likely, are in the same field as me and in some occasions may even know more about the topic than me, I better be prepared to have an educated discussion and answer questions. Researching, working on your slides and rehearsing your presentation is time consuming but there is no way around it. But simply speaking about a subject is not as effective as putting it into practice - doing it.
My approach to presenting on a topic is to put together a fictitious project (i.e. style a navigation, create a mobile menu, create a responsive website, etc.). This allows me to speak from experience while learning a lot in the process. Obviously this creates a lot more work but it also offers many positives as you are able to put in practice what you’ll be talking about and if you run into problem in the way you can bring that up during your talk.
I always tell people that, after I finish with my talks, I feel I am the one who benefited the most because I know more about the topic, get to meet great and smart people and my confidence is off the charts.
Another positive side effect of public speaking which has happened to me in several occasions including that very first talk I gave at USC. People who attend your talks sometimes are looking for help from someone who knows what their doing and based on your talk performance people will approach you with work offers. So as small as your audience may be, don’t ever underestimate the possibility of the CEO or IT Director of a company being present looking at you as a potential candidate for their next project. In addition, never underestimate the simplicity of a topic. You may think it’s so easy and simple that nobody would be interested. You would be wrong.
So, you think you can do it and you’re ready to get started. How do you go about making it happen? Here are some tips that have been extremely helpful for me:
Where do I speak or look for speaking opportunities?
Depending on where you live, there may or may not be tech conferences going on but I am pretty sure there may be meetups or user groups in your city. Do a little research or talk to other tech friends for recommendations. If you don’t see anything happening in your city perhaps this is an opportunity for you to get something started in the way of a meetup or google hangout. If for some odd reason you cannot find anything in your city, think about recording tutorials and making them available online on YouTube and the likes.
How do I select the topic to talk about?
For me the easiest way to select a topic is by asking myself, what is the one thing I want to learn more about? As I indicated above, at the end of the talk I want to feel like I learned something new or got better at something I already had some basic knowledge about. So in my case I am selfish and think about how I can benefit the most. After all, preparing for a presentation takes time and a lot of work especially if put together I finished product as I do. I usually don’t get paid for this (a little more on that later).
At what technical level should I focus my talk on?
One of the things I always remind myself when planning a talk, regardless of the topic, is that I am not an expert and should never pretend to be one when speaking. From time to time there’ll be someone in your audience who wants to challenge you. Making it clear to the audience that you are not an expert, that you will try to answer their questions to the best of your ability, but if you don’t know the answer you will at least point them in the right direction not only builds credibility, but it gives you peace of mind that you don’t need to know everything about the topic. People will appreciate and respect that. I usually keep my talks at a beginner to intermediate levels (100 - 200). Advanced level for me is a little scary and in all the years I have been speaking in public I have never advertised a talks at an advanced level.
How do I decide on the flow of the talk? Only slides or hands-on too?
Everyone has their preferred method of learning. Some people are more visual than others and need to see code examples or a screen that shows what you’re talking about. Other people simply need to hear about it and that’s good enough. Personally, I am more of a visual learner and seeing the instructor show code examples or do a demo helps me. For that reason, I try to format my talks in that way. I show a few slides to talk about theory, facts, etc., but then I jump into code or demos for a visual representation of what I am talking about.
Take advantage of Social Media and Open Source Tools
While there is no harm in still using business cards to let people get a hold of you, it is critical that you have a social media presence. This includes Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others you may not think about it too much, such as Slideshare which allows you to save your slides in the cloud for other people to view, download, like and even rate them. This is a great way to let the audience focus on your talk versus taking notes or pictures of the projector screen. The audience will really appreciate it and will be able to relax and pay closer attention to what you’re talking about.
One other great channel for building an audience and portfolio is Github. Yes, that Github. If you recall, I mentioned above that I like to create a finish product for every talk I give, at the end of the talk my audience can download the source code of the project we just discussed so they can go home and play with it and practice what they just learned. I upload all my source code to Github.
You’d be surprised how many people have contact me because they found me on Github and they have seen my code. They can tell from that whether I am someone they would like to work with. There is also that occasional recruiter email saying I found you on Github which it may not be a bad thing if you are looking for a job. :-) For me Github has been one of the most valuable channels because I have gotten work offers for freelance work. Last year for example, I was approached by a tech company which does online training and asked me if I would be interested in doing training for them. This has resulted in an ongoing project, lucrative and fun. In fact, I am already scheduled to do training for them for all of 2015. This is not something I planned on but I certainly welcome it and if it wasn’t for github this would not had happen.
Brag about it, I mean Blog about it
So after all the work, all the preparation and butterflies in your stomach what do you do next? Well, you brag about it. Just kidding, you blog about it because you want to reach more people. There are literally thousands of people out there who are looking for the information you have put together. The best way to do this is to create a YouTube channel and upload videos of your presentations or recordings and write a nice blog where you make those videos available. Earlier I talked about how you should not underestimate the value of the topic you want to talk about regardless of how simple or easy it may seem. The simplest things are sometimes the most sought after. Let me give you an example, In 2013 I recorded a little tutorial on how to create a Drupal sub-theme using the Zen base theme. Simple enough, you may think most Drupal people know how to do, as of today that video has received almost 11,000 views. Another example, one of my first presentations was on the 960 Grid System, I added my slides to Slideshare and as of today that slide deck has been viewed almost 6,000 times.
I always put myself in the shoes of those people just getting started with Drupal. I remember being in their position and thinking how great it would be if there was a tutorial on how to create base theme or how to style a newly created drupal theme. It may not seem that way but you are making a difference and you can help someone in need. Almost on a daily basis I receive messages from YouTube indicating that someone has subscribe to my channel, many of the subscribers are foreign people who are hungry for the information. I can literally say I have taught people around the world.
So to end things, after 5 years of public speaking, I take every opportunity to submit a session. I speak at Drupal meetups, Drupal Camps, Code Camps, User Groups I volunteer to speak to teenagers about technology and more. You never know who is listening on the other side and what effect that may have in their career. I sometimes drive 100s of miles from LA to San Diego to speak to the San Diego .NET User group. I do it for free but I love it. I have met so many great people who I stay contact with, business partners, community organizers and more. But the most important thing for me is that I am having fun doing what I love.
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