First Time Conference Speaking Thoughts and Tips

I never thought I would actually speak at a conference. It's one of those things you daydream about and think, "Yeah, that would be cool!" But then you remember that you're socially awkward and still relatively new in your career and the thought changes into, "Nah, that can never be me." I've gone through this cycle for a few years now, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Well, I'm happy to report that this week, I spoke at my first conference! I spoke at CSS Dev Conf on an introduction to unit testing, something I never thought people would want to hear about at a mainly CSS conference. However, I've come out the other side alive, and my talk (slides available here) was voted one of the Best Of CSS Dev Conf. Not bad for a first time conference speaker! I was given a lot of great advice from other, more seasoned speakers, and learned some lessons on my own as well. So for those who think they don't have what it takes to speak at a conference, this is for you.

1. Just Because You Know A Topic, Doesn't Mean Everyone Else Does.

You see this written in a lot of Call For Proposals, but it's still something I never really believed. I've known about my topic for about two years now, so I went in thinking everyone already knew everything I wanted to cover. But then my presentation was voted on to present. And then people said they had been punting on learning about testing for a while and this was finally their chance to learn about it. And then a lot of people said they learned a lot! So even if you don't think it's something others would be interested in, or already know about, just go ahead and submit your idea anyway! You never know what people will actually already know.

2. No One Wants To See You Fail.

The speakers are cheering you on. The attendees are cheering you on. It's easy to think, "Oh gosh, what if people just start to say awful things on Twitter about me! And tell me I'm an idiot! WHAT IF?!"

Spoiler alert: no one wants to do that. They want to learn from you! Everyone showed such amazing support and excitement for my topic. No one is out to get you or make you feel bad. Don't let this semblence of "failure" hold you back.

3. Research Research Research!

This seems like a no brainer, but it's something I only really understood in the last week before my presentation. Look into every aspect of your topic - you could find an interesting tidbit that you didn't think to initally cover. Plus, the more research you do, the more comfortable you'll feel ad-libbing on the topic. And speaking of ad-libbing…

4. It's Okay To Use Presenter Notes.

I totally felt like a hack when I first conceded to using presenter notes in Keynote. But a lot of people do it! And it's totally okay! Without speaker notes, I would keep rambling instead of speaking on the topic. Having presenter notes let me put a few key points I knew I wanted to mention, and I was able to make it up from there. Are you more comfortable with a steadfast script to memorize? Then go for it! Use whatever tools that will make you feel more comfortable once you're up there.

5. Do You Have A Good Luck Charm or Totem? Bring It!

For my talk, I brought along my animal friends (I will write a whole post on these guys at some point) to keep on the podium. I also work my X-Files socks - a secret non-totem that just made me feel good overall.

6. Miscellaneous Points.

Drink water when you talk! You will talk a lot faster than you think you will, so add a few minutes extra of conversation until you get good at controlling your talking speed. It's a bit weird to hear your voice over speakers at first, but you get used to it. It's okay not to know the answer to the questions people may ask you afterwards. And no one will probably notice when you mess up, even though you'll feel like everyone totally knows.

Hopefully these tips will encourage you to submit a talk proposal! Speaking at a conference is a unique experience, and I'm already looking forward to the next opportunity I get to speak. Regardless of if it's a local meetup or the biggest conference you've ever attended, I encourage everyone to give it a try.

Tags: public speaking conferences tips