Why You Should Speak At Meetups And Conferences


This post was updated several times to reflect the feedback and suggestions I got from my team, Ania Maciek, Mattias and others. Thank you All!

For those of you scared or reluctant to present at meetups and conferences: Speak up! I’d like to listen to you.

Software developers are not eager to present for various reasons but there are at least few why they should start or present more often.

You do important and interesting things

I believe that every software developer encountered some interesting problem to solve during her/his career. There are so many stories to be told. I would like to listen to those stories, I would like to discuss with people in my industry more. Sharing experience is the first step and probably the most important.

We work in an environment requiring constant learning, simply capturing this process can be beneficial to others. It can save time by avoiding future mistakes, it shows what is worth learning as well.

Speaking experts, speaking beginners

Experts or creators may be not the best speakers. I have seen presentations delivered by software framework creators or subject matter experts that were simply boring. Additionally there were on the level anybody could present. Being an expert doesn’t mean your presentation will be the most interesting and/or informational.

On the other hand, I have attended presentations given by people only using some technology (sometimes not even extensively) but who could present it in a way the first thing I wanted to do after leaving the room, was to open my notebook and start playing with it.

However if you want to be an expert, you don’t have to be an expert on general software development and life, you can find yourself a tiny topic you’d be good at. You can be the expert on this tiny thing. Still I’d be interested in listening to your story.

Being a beginner has the advantage of knowing beginner problems and most of your audience will be beginners, that’s why they attend your presentation - they want to learn something they’re not so familiar with. You can share “how it’s like” to start working with particular technology, your personal gut feeling about it. Your honesty and genuineness will give your audience a confidence to ask questions, not always appearing while listening to an expert.

Lastly it is your opinion and perspective which makes a talk interesting. Even being less knowledgeable than your audience about the subject, you can present it in a way that will inspire people to look at it from a different angle. Don’t be afraid of being opinionated, even experts are. Just be honest about what’s your opinion and what’s The Absolute Truth.

Once again - you don’t have to be an expert on the subject, you just have to be passionate about it.

There’s no them, there’s only us

Looking at conference lineups few years ago I was pretty sure there are only book writers, framework inventors and other famous people presenting. I realized in the meantime that they’re full of people like me - doing their job, learning new things, getting excited by some, wanting to share this with others. I have attended more and more presentations done by people learning some technology just like me and it was really good to listen to their stories.

Conferences and meetups are places for everybody. Especially bigger conferences will have some really big names but also a lot of newcomers, lot of ordinary guys speaking about something interesting and/or interestingly.

Can I present my subjective opinion? Of course! There’s no one authoritative way of doing things… almost never. You don’t have to be afraid of being wrong, the worst thing which can happen is - people will correct you and you will learn from it. Bad deal?

Your audience is your friend

Enrico made it excellent: “Your audience keeps its fingers crossed for you.”

They invested their time to listen to you, they are supporters. They’re not there to judge you, find inconsistencies in your arguments or reveal holes in your knowledge, they are interested in what you have to say. Some of them are your good friends, some of them may become ones if you continue discussion after your talk in more relaxed atmosphere. Don’t be scared of your audience - embrace it! There may be a lot of wonderful people among them.

Are you nervous? Don’t worry, it’s normal. Remember experts? They’re stressed as well. Everybody has to overcome it. Sometimes it disappears magically after some time. Sometimes you have to do some tricks to overcome it but satisfaction after leaving it behind you is priceless.

Content or fun

This is false dichotomy. Informational sessions don’t have to be boring, entertaining sessions don’t have to be treating subject lightly. Consider the fact that you probably won’t teach people a lot in less than an hour (you have to leave yourself time for questions even if your time slot is a full hour).

If you’re at a conference, there must be something in your talk which makes your audience remember it. You have to be attractive either by interesting content (not necessarily complicated) or presenting it interestingly. After the whole day of sessions only some things stay in memory - you need to take care that the most important part stays so that people want to go back to the subject.

Maciek is suggesting the following: try to summarize your presentation in one sentence picking the most important message, if your audience can remember and summarize it in a same way - you’re successful.

Language

For some people, language is a barrier. Internationally we live in an English spoken culture and there’s little we can do about. Except for learning. And practicing. Even if you’re at some reasonable level of your English language skills (you can understand people around you) speaking freely for an hour so that people want to listen to you requires a lot of practice. What would be the best way to practice English in a long, well-structured speech - a conference or a meetup talk, exactly. That’s a great way to practice.

Most of the conferences are in English. If don’t feel like submitting to conferences yet and you want to try at your local meetup, try suggesting doing it in English. It will feel weird but it’s a great way to practice among people you know who can give you valuable feedback and tell you what needs to be improved.

You learn a lot

If you want to present a subject, problem or a thought to a broader public, you’ll find yourself looking at it from different perspective. You’ll start preparing for questions you didn’t think of, you’ll try explore the subject as much as you can. You will learn a lot during this process.

You raise the bar, learning for yourself is one thing, learning so that other people can benefit changes the game a bit. Don’t be afraid of this effect, no matter how much you learn - you won’t learn everything. It’s good to broaden your knowledge but the simple fact of thinking about your audience is enough most of the time.

Stimulating the community

Community is everywhere, I bet it is in your city as well, you don’t have to be in “Magic City of Tech Genius”. Speaking at local meetup, local conference is one of the ways to stimulate this community. It gives it opportunity to discuss things, it makes it better.

I’m there trying to attend as much as I can, I’d love to listen to you!

It all has been presented already

Even if it’s true (which it isn’t - it hasn’t been presented yet if it hasn’t been presented by you) - what’s wrong with that? You’re presenting your own view to the particular audience in a particular place at a particular time. It cannot be repeated and you don’t know yet what discussion will you bring after (which can be even more beneficial than the talk itself). You don’t know that before you try.

Think about your community once again, there’s really a lot of value in doing a talk at local meetup or conference because this is dedication of your time and effort to this group. I will appreciate if you come to my place and talk to me about the stuff you’re interested in. It’ll be more valuable than watching this online and search for the best of the talks on this subject. I’d like to listen to your point of view. I’d like to discuss it with you and others in this group.

What am I doing among all these men?

Women - you’re still underrepresented in our industry. It doesn’t mean you have to be underrepresented at local meetups or conferences. It’ll be great to listen to you! If you prefer more women-oriented groups first - please try GeekGirlsCarrots, Women in Technology or similar groups in your country.

I strongly encourage you to speak up at your local meetup, believe me - it’s full of supporting geeks. I’m running dev@LDZ meetup and I welcome you with my arms wide open as a speaker and attendee!

Try out conferences too, I’ve been to many - they’re full of great people and the atmosphere can be really amazing. Don’t hesitate to send your proposals to conference “Call For Papers”.

Men - if you have girl friend who is reluctant to speak in public - please tell her that you’d like to listen to her, let us be at least two wanting more women at meetups and conferences!

Practice

You have to spend a lot of hours in preparation and practice. There’s no other way but it pays off. There is a significant difference between speakers preparing for the talk and those who treat it a bit lightly. There are very few speakers with such an enormous talent they don’t have to prepare. Most of the brilliant talks I’ve listened to were the result of practicing… a lot!

It doesn’t mean it’s a kind of exam, you’ll be making mistakes from time to time (everybody does), use your notes or slides to help yourself, it’s nothing bad. Practice your talk but let yourself be imperfect.

Remember that Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill didn’t start out as great speakers. Assume it will take time to learn it.

There are plenty of resources on how to be a better speaker. I would start with Scott’s video. There is also a great website from Zach Holman on this subject as well. Gojko Adzic talks about this subject on his blog.

After reading those and many other resources, it’s all about practicing. Start early, start small, somewhere around you there is a group willing to listen to you, be it your team at work or a local meetup group. Maybe suggest you’ll present at the next meeting?

There’s also a whole movement dedicated to public speaking - Toastmasters. There may be a group near you at which you can practice your skills in a friendly atmosphere.

It’s time for You

I have a plan to submit to conferences I’ve been admiring for years: Øredev, NDC Oslo, NDC London and BuildStuff. I’ve already submitted two talks to NDC Oslo.

I would like to visit some User Groups in Poland as well. Białystok .NET is my favourite from 2014 because guys running it simply rock! I also started dev@LDZ user group with my team and at some point in time I will speak there as well.

Now it’s time for you so go ahead and submit your proposals!

Hopefully see you there!

In some next blog post I’ll try to share my experience: how to start, how to prepare (whatever worked for me) but for now I’ll repeat that there’s great content on this already: Scott’s video if you have Pluralsight subscription and free-of-charge brilliant website by Zach Holman dealing also with ‘how to start’.