This week I was fortunate enough to present my first major conference talk - the 2018 Lead Developer conference at Austin TX. Wanted to jot down my reflections and notes for future talks.

Applying to Speak

Saron Yitbarek quote 2

The biggest leap of faith was in submitting the talk itself. For me, a year ago, conference speaking was a “bucket list item” - something I’d be able to do when I was older, wiser, “worthy” of being on a stage. Turned out, a lot of that was just head trash.

Saron Yitbarek quote 1

Also, at the time of submitting my proposal, I only had the germ of an idea. A mentor listened to me describe my idea, then helped me formulate that into a catchy title and a good summary. This early feedback was crucial. It was only after selection, that I did a bunch of research on “prior art”, and was able to turn the idea-germ into a unique and valuable talk.

The selection process

Lead Developer Austin - Vishal Bardoloi

Why did my proposal get selected? To be honest I had no idea. Maybe the topic was good, maybe my proposal was persuasive, or maybe (cynical part of my brain says) it’s because my company was one of the sponsors. Frankly, I didn’t quite care. Time would tell if it was the content or not. I was just glad to get the opportunity.

In retrospect; the title and proposal are critical pieces of the process. We decide whether to watch movies or not based on the title and trailer; books, based on title and a blurb on the back cover. There is an art to conveying intent in your proposal; [Sarah Mei][]1 and Noel Rappin have some wonderful articles to help you with this. Here are some more.

Preparing the Talk

Once I was accepted, it was time to come up with something original and valuable. 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time to say something valuable… until you remember that the Gettysburg address was less than 3 mins long.

Preparation was crucial. There are several things to keep in mind:

  • Content - are you saying something valuable, original, and actionable? How do you say something original on a topic that so many people have already spoken about? Focus on authenticity, not authority. Speak to what you know best.
  • Structure - are you telling a story? Is there an arc people can follow? Are your key points landing with impact, or are you burying the lead?
  • Styling - everything from colors to fonts to background styles matters. Do some research on your conference’s themes and make sure your slides stand out.

Deciding on the narrative structure was critical. Due to logistical issues, I had to shorten the talk from 30 mins to 10 mins - and that drastically changed the structure of the talk. With a shorter talk, the idea is to go straight to the point - have a punchy, attention-grabbing opener, followed by 1-2 memorable points (preferably just one key takeaway). In contrast, a 30 to 60 minute talk gives you a lot more time to build a narrative, put together several key points, and have Q&As.

Some things that helped shape my talk:

  • Listening to videos of other speakers like Pat Kua, Camille Fournier, Lara Hogan and others.
  • Feedback. Over and over. Feedback on clarity of the idea, narrative flow, originality, even things like readability of slides, the color combination of your deck, all mattered.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes for calm, smooth talks! Practice till you can give the talk even without even having slides. (Note: this may be a mistake actually… on reflection, most speakers relied heavily on reading the speaker notes in front of them - while leaving a key slide up)

Presenting the Talk

  • Be a good citizen. Always come in under time. To do this - don’t speed up; give up slides. Find ways to tighten your narrative.
  • “When you’re moving on stage, they’re looking at you. When you stop moving, they’re looking at the slides.”
  • Tone and pitch of voice matter towards the energy of your talk. Volume control works there too!
  • Be aware of body language!

Aftermath

I’m hooked! Conference speaking was an exhilarating experience, and I’m now looking for opportunities to do it again!

Also made so many friends, met some amazing people, and felt like I belonged.

General reflections

  • Intellectual v/s Emotional talks: my style was well suited to the intellectual, analytical nature of the topic. There are other tricks I learnt from others: in emotional topics, speak with more urgency. Higher pitch, and/or higher volume can help. “I wish we had more time to talk” tells your audience there’s a lot more where that came from.
  • Intellectual talks are well and good, but emotional talks resonate
    • Using history to draw lessons
    • Metaphors & Analogies (e.g. “second stories” or “data rots like milk; throw it away when it starts smelling”)
    • Deep insights (e.g. “toxic conflict often arises when: different people are solving different problems that they think are the same problem”)
  • Other things that matter in conference talks:
    • Humor
    • Preparation!
    • Sound Bites (words from slides were literally being quoted verbatim on social media, pictures were being taken, of anything that hinted of profundity.)
    • “Take-aways”
  • One point, made well with a great story, makes more impact than 10 great points sprinkled throughout the talk.

All the Talk Recordings

Topic Speaker Length
Levelling Up: The Way of the Lead Developer Patrick Kua 30 mins
Building Tech for the Non-Technical Laurie Barth 10 min
The Team-Changing Magic of 1:1s Adrienne Lowe 30 min
Building Engineering Teams Under Pressure Julia Grace 30 min
Tackling the Big, Impossible Project Michele Titolo 10 min
Your Customers Don’t Care About Five-Nines Reliability;
They Care About Five-Nines Customer Service
Kishore Jalleda 30 min
5 Ways You Can Hire Better VM Brasseur 10 min
Leadership Through the Underground Railroad Anjuan Simmons 30 min
Do the Most Good Mina Markham 30 min
Reclaiming the Spirit of Agile yours truly 10 min
The Death of Data: Retention, Rot, and Risk Heidi Waterhouse 30 min
Vault and Security as a Service Patrick Shields 10 min
True Tales of Building Microservices Karl Hughes 10 min
I’m Lazy So I Write Tests Jaime Lopez 10 min
Who Destroyed Three Mile Island? Nickolas Means 30 min