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My learnings while becoming a conference speaker

Before everything

In 2020, before the pandemic hit us, I had included in my life goals to attend a tech conference. With COVID and most of the conferences being canceled or postponed, I thought this goal would set sail (among many of other of my goals). But then everybody got used to the idea of virtual conferences and I had the opportunity to attend CppCon. I talked about this experience in this post.

At CppCon I got to know many of the speakers that I only knew before through YouTube, blogs, and Twitter, and to my surprise, they were like, real people. I know this sounds dumb, but believe me, it was how I felt. This was really important to me because it demystified the whole speaker role, and the path to becoming one started sounding so much accessible.

I had a dream, and then, another dream, and then it was reality

By then, I had another life goal: speak at a conference. And again, what I thought would take some time, happened in November of 2020, when I gave a talk on She’sTech conference, the largest event of women in tech from Brazil. I was overwhelmed by happiness, and again, I raised my goal to talk at an international conference. And well, it happened.

It started with an email from the Women in Tech group at the company I work for. It was a list of next conferences with the call to papers open. One of those was WomenTech Global Conference (WTGC). As I had already prepared a talk on Code Review for the She’sTech conference, I decided to go with this topic, as I was already comfortable with the topic.

I applied on a Sunday night, and, before even having time to speak and notify my manager of my intentions, on Monday morning I received the email stating that my talk was approved. The company I work for encourages joining such opportunities, so it wasn’t a problem to have the talk approved before having time to talk with management. It was all sorted out, and I gave the presentation in June 2021.

pull-it-off

What I learned in this process

So, what I learned from these experiences? First and foremost, I learned that I really love giving presentations on topics I’m passionate about. This was already something I was pretty used to in more intimate environments, but talking to an audience that I didn’t know was still pretty frightening. This didn’t hold me back and has only made me stronger.

Don’t sell yourself short, you have something to share

Choosing a topic to talk about was possibly my main struggle. What could I share with the world? I had to work on changing my mindset and stop thinking that what I had to say was already public domain. This took some practice, but most of all, it took a lot of work on stopping underselling me.

its-mindset

Once this mental switch was flipped, and I must add that it was not overnight, I could start thinking about topics I felt ready and comfortable to present to others.

Be ready to receive NOs

This whole post is about the YES, but believe, there are NOs too. On my first no, I felt horrible, and after a few time to process it, I learned that sometimes it’s just a matter of your presentation not fitting in the conference. Other times you just got unlucky. I kept trying, adjusting and didn’t let it take me down.

Your presentation doesn’t need to exist for you to submit the call for papers

Most call for papers doesn’t require the full presentation to be ready. Instead, they ask for the outline, takeaways, and target audience. This should be simple to get ready if you have already the idea in mind. Understanding this prevented my perfectionist side from stopping me.

Takeaways

Ok, if I didn’t need the full presentation ready, how can I define the outline? The answer: think about the key takeaways. This should be what you want the audience to leave out of your session, and work on the presentation should deliver this. Writing those down helped me shape and define the outline, and later, guided my work on the actual presentation.

Words are hard

Names are the worst. But naming is very important. This is probably what will catch the attention of the audience before even reading the outline for the talk. When brainstorming names, I focused on names that would be catchy and instigate the interest of others.

Ask for feedback

Especially if you are a first-timer speaker, ask for feedback from friends and coworkers. This is valid even before submitting the call for paper. Discuss what are your intentions, what kind of information you want to pass, and how you think of doing this.

If your talk was approved, schedule some time with those close to you and present it to them. This will help you not only with the content, identifying what you need to explain better for example, but also work as a dry run to get the feeling of the time and possible questions.

we-are-on-it

A friend of mine does this thing where he presets and asks for feedback from his wife, someone who isn’t in the same field as him. If she understands, the presentation is great. This might not be true for every domain, but sure is something to try out.

I have done all of those, from presenting to my parents to presenting to friends who are highly skilled at the topics I choose, and I could not be happier with the feedback. It allowed me to change some details and make the presentations better.

Final thoughts

A talk is always about telling a story, and we do this every day: we tell stories about our life, what we have done, what we will be doing, everything. Conference speakers are out there telling stories just like we do in our daily life, the difference is that they already overcome the fear of public speaking (some might still even have it) and had worked on learning how to tell the stories to others.

Stories

If you want to get in touch, you can contact me on Twitter (@thamyk) or by email at tkcandrade@gmail.com.

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