We’re taught to believe that there is a logical progression when it comes to our careers, that there are just certain things you can’t do in entry-level positions. One of those things is undoubtedly speaking at conferences. Conference speakers, in this collective narrative, are subject matter experts with years and years of experience under their belts. They know their stuff better than just about anyone. I’m here to tell you that, at least in tech, this isn’t always the case. You can start speaking like a developer quite early on in your career!
Public speaking is one of the things we as human beings fear most. Even if you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, you might not feel qualified to talk about something you’re still in the process of learning. Newsflash: you will always be in the process of learning to be a developer! All any of us can do is keep pushing to hone our skills and share what we know with others who want to keep improving. Speaking needn’t be entirely altruistic, however. Preparing for a presentation is, in and of itself, a great way to learn! You’ll want to make sure you know your material inside and out, which often means researching and figuring things out that you might not have known before. There are tons of benefits to be reaped from the experience. Conferences can be incredible opportunities for networking, especially as a speaker. A larger event is likely to have at least one gathering specifically for speakers. It’s valuable to just get your name out there as well. You never know who’s in the audience. You might get your next contract or job or investor because someone saw you present.
One important thing to keep in mind is that not all events are created equal. Not every single opportunity to speak is going to be worth your time. Do your homework on the organization running the particular event you’re interested in speaking at. If the event is far away, will the organizers pay for you lodging and/or travel costs? Do they have a code of conduct? Is it robust or does it feel more like they’re checking off a box? Are there scholarships available for people who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise? Do they offer childcare? Perhaps the most important thing to consider for you as a person new to speaking is how willing the conference organizers are to work with you on your talk. Many will be very happy to help you come up with a snappy title, craft your session description, and outline your talking points.
That being said, the preparation is really on you, so pick a topic you care about! It’s a lot easier to learn and talk about something that you have a vested interest in. You don’t have to be the world’s leading expert. Conference organizers will very likely ask what your intended audience is. If that intended audience is composed of managers or designers or other non-technical people, you needn’t worrying about getting too deep into the nitty gritty of the subject. Give them a starting point to build on! Your slides should be an even further distilled version of the points you want to make. No one wants to read a wall of text or, even worse, watch you read a wall of text to them. Keep those slides short and sweet, then elaborate verbally. This will become easier and easier as you practice your talk. (Because obviously you’re going to practice it over and over and over again, right?) Show it to your reflection in the mirror, your stuffed animal collection, your family, your friends, coworkers, random people on the street… Just practice! You’ll develop a rhythm and it will eventually be easy to fall into even if distractions come up.
But where to start? Some conferences have resources specifically devoted to new speakers. These present an incredible opportunity to get a foot in the door. Future Insights puts on excellent events and is very to their new speakers. Their Rising Stars program is a great avenue for new speakers to put their ideas out to an international audience. AlterConf is a series of smaller events in many different cities that focuses on diversity in tech and gaming. Self.conference is an awesome event here in Detroit that welcomes new speakers as well as more seasoned professionals. My very first tech conference (as well as my first speaking gig) was there! Interested in finding more events to submit talks to? Check out @CallbackWomen on Twitter. They have a constant stream of information on great events to attend and calls for proposals.
No matter what you choose to talk about or where you choose to do it, whether your presentation is five minutes or fifty, remember that this whole process is about learning. Just as we as developers are constantly challenging ourselves to get better at the things we don’t know, it’s important to share the things that we do know. Even if it seems like you don’t know a whole heck of a lot right now, it has value and you can use it to help someone else along on their own journey!