Yes, you can speak at a conference

It was RailsConf in 2007. Micah and I were between sessions, with me following him everywhere because he knew people and I did not. We were chatting about something when he asked me, "So do you think in a year you could be giving a talk here?" I dodged and stuttered because "Are you nuts? These people are SO much smarter than me!" seemed like the wrong answer, especially to my (then new) boss.

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That summer all of 8th Light went with me to give a talk at Chicago Ruby in Chicago. Of course back then the whole company meant all six of us. We walked from the train to the building in 80-90 degree heat in business casual clothes, so I was already soaked in sweat by the time we got there. I started my talk and my slides did not work on the projector, because internet presentation software wasn't ready for prime time yet. While speaking flopsweat started joining actual sweat, to the point where it was noticeably dripping off of me and onto the computer. Did I mention I didn't have a remote control for my slides? I gave the group an exercise and asked if they had any questions. One angrily responded with, "Yeah, what do we do?" Afterwards Paul said I did better than he had the previous month, which was kind but could only be true if he caused property damage.

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Since those two incidents I've spoken at enough conferences that I can honestly say I've lost count. I'm no longer interested in speaking at RailsConf, but I have no doubt I could. I've actually reduced the number of conferences I apply to because of the travel, and because I feel very confident when I submit I'll be accepted. So how do you go from ruining user group meetings to speaking wherever and whenever you want?

Accept That People Want to Hear What You Have To Say

I'm a consultant, by job title and profession, but I still don't feel like a consultant. When people ask me what I do for a living I usually say computer programmer. Even though a large part of my job is talking and teaching, I still feel out of place branding myself at conferences.

If you're reading this there's a good chance you are not a consultant, but a programmer at a large or small corporation. This is what Scott Hansleman calls the "silent majority." I know what it's like because I used to be one, and as such you probably feel like you aren't able to give a talk at a conference. You look at conference schedules and see all the consultants speaking and assume you cannot be one of them. You're "just a corporate programmer."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I'll tell you a secret. Increasingly my job involves teaching others. Do you know why I do it? It's not because I am so much smarter than you, or because I can't write anymore so I teach. It's because I learn more from teaching you than you do from me. Programmers everywhere, at so many organizations large and small, have so much to add to our profession assume they don't. They are waiting for when they are ready, which is meaningless.

So if you find yourself feeling like I did, asking "Are you nuts?", let me assure you that you have something to share. We want to see you speak. Now you need to tell yourself that.

Offer to Talk Anywhere

George Carlin used to throw out all his material every year, but during the year he had a phrase: "If you've got a zip code, I'll be there." The entire year was leading to his HBO special. Give lunch and learns where you work. Offer to speak at user groups. I've run a user group before and I assure you they are desperate. If you live someplace where competition is fierce then look to the suburbs. Try local universities and community colleges. The important thing here isn't practice, you can do that at home.

No the reason you do this is because once you see enough people are willing to listen to what you have to say, you'll realize that Step 0 is actually true. You knew that when I wrote it, but you won't believe it until you give a few talks you feel terrible about, only to get compliments afterwards. In the Matrix there's a moment where Neo decides to fight Agent Smith. One of the characters, already safely out of the Matrix, asks "What's he doing?" Morpheus answers:

"He is starting to believe."

Unlike the Matrix movies, you'll get better with each talk.

Watch Mediocre Speakers

Remember that awesome talk Uncle Bob gave? Or Gary Bernhardt? How about Rich Hickey at Strange Loop? Those were great talks. Don't watch those.

What you need to do is start paying attention when everybody has their laptop open. The talk after the keynote but not right before lunch. The one where the speaker has sweat dripping off her forehead. You're looking to find average or poor talks so you can be inspired. Greatness doesn't inspire. Nobody watches the guy in the lead of the marathon and decides to run one. They see the people taking 7 hours and say, "I can beat that."

You need to watch enough speakers who stink, or bore, or are even offensive, so that you feel confident saying "I can do better than that!"

Apply Everywhere

A few years ago I sat down in January and found every conference I could. I applied at all of them and got rejected by most of them, but that's how I went to Scotland and California. Once you start to feel almost confident enough that you could talk at a conference then you need to start applying. It's a numbers game, but one that trends in your favor, because after you get into your first conference your second conference is easier. Your third is even easier. Suddenly instead of getting rejected by most conferences you start getting accepted.

Practice

You knew that of course. Being prepared is how you feel confident entering the talk. I sometimes practice giving a talk to my youngest kids, despite their ages. My five year old sits politely and tries to ask real questions, while my three year old yells that I'm a poopie face. It's pretty realistic.

Don't Over Prepare

There is a simple way to tell if I've prepared a joke in advance during a talk. Nobody laughs. If everybody laughs I made it up on the spot. Over preparing is often my biggest problem, because if you know every word you are going to say or create a slide with every item on it then your talk will sound like you're reading a book. A boring book too. When a speaker "took a while to get going" it's often because they were nervous at the beginning, but it's also because their introduction and first few minutes have been rehearsed over and over again. Once the speaker gets into the part that they know but don't have memorized, they often relax and start speaking instead of reciting.

Slides Aren't That Important

Watch a TED talk sometime, after you've seen enough poor talks that your confidence won't be shot. Notice that the camera rarely shows the slides. If the camera does show them it will be one or two very important ones. The rest of the time the focus is on the speaker's face. If your one hour talk has 75 slides then nobody will be looking at you. This is true if the slides are boring bulleted lists or beautiful images that maximize your point. Finding slides can be a fun distraction from actually prepping your talk, and isn't as important as you think. It's taken a long time to learn this one.

Following these steps will not get you invited to do the keynote talk at your favorite giant conference next year, but following these tips will get you to speak at conferences small and large. Your profile will raise, and others will learn something. No flopsweat required.

Eric Smith, Director of Training Services

Eric Smith has a Master's Degree in Video Game Development from DePaul University.