Lady Speaker Small Talk

Sometimes, I think the hardest part of going to conferences is the unstructured time – lunches and happy hours and sponsored parties. That’s the time I remember I’m surrounded by 2,445 total strangers. And I’m supposed to be networking with them. If I think too much about this, I end up at “what do I even do with my face?”

The goal is not really “networking” in whatever negative way you’re thinking of. The goal is finding interesting people and showing them that they have neat things going on.

It turns out that conferences are full of people who are alone or nearly alone. If you came as part of a team, or you are working the conference, the social stuff is different, but if you are alone, here are some things I do.

Look odd

I have fuschia hair that I wear in a variety of short, eye-catching ways. Since I’m almost six feet tall, I’m really easy to find in a crowd. You don’t have to make quite so striking a personal style statement, but it’s useful to have people able to find you because you’re wearing a tophat, or orange sneakers, or all safety orange, or whatever it is you decide on. Your conference friends, the people you have met at other conferences, will recognize it. Strangers will see you on stage and note the thing about you so they can find you to ask questions later. And if you make it something less permanent than hair color, you can not wear it and totally blend into the crowd.

Make a friend in the registration line

Odds are, you’ll be standing here a few minutes. This is a great time to turn to the person next to you and ask them their name, and what they’re here to see, and what they’re looking forward to going to. Not, like, all at once. Then you sound like a teacher asking about a book report, but as conversational starters. Is this your first year here? If you’ve been before, is there some local food I can’t miss? For the rest of the conference, you’ll probably be able to spot that one person you met early on and give them a friendly nod. And if you’re very lucky, the name on their badge will be readable.

Sidenote: The minute I get any standard-length lanyard, I tie a knot in the back of it so that it hangs higher on my body. Now people looking for my name don’t have to track their eyes past my cleavage. This is a habit I picked up several years ago, and I think that having your name as close as is comfortable and feasible to your face is a win.

Go to other people’s talks

It’s super tempting to hide in your hotel room frantically preparing for your talk. I’ve been there. But I also know that a large part of the value exchange in this conference is that it consts money to attend and I’m not paying anything. So I try to go to a talk in as many slots as possible. I might take the slot before my talk off, and sometimes, depending on how drained I am, the slot after. But mostly I really want to go to people’s talks. It may seem odd, since I don’t have power over any servers, I code in no languages, and I only nominally work in teams, but I still get a lot of value out of conference talks. The technical ones help me keep a finger on the technology zeitgeist. The people-oriented ones always teach me something, because being a consultant is both managing up and sideways.

I always livetweet the talks I go to, but that’s for a different post. Mostly what I want out of going to other people’s talks is an understanding of a technology or application of technology, and to have attended the same conference as other people. At a multi-track conference, it’s easy to go to different conferences in the same venue, depending on your interests, but if you go to talks, you’ll always be able to ask what other people went to, what they thought, and then respond with what you learned or wanted to argue about from the talk you watched. “What talk did you get the most out of today” is a lovely, neutral question and sparks a lot of conversation.

Remember the theory of paradoxical popularity, or charismatic loneliness

I’m sure there is an actual psychological term for this, but lazy googling did not find it. Did you know that the prettiest girl in a high school gets asked on fewer dates than an average-looking girl? Did you know a lot of people that you think of as important, or influential, or famous, eat conference dinners alone? 

That may be by choice — there’s a lot of people energy involved in giving a talk and then doing the networking afterwards, so if a person wants to eat alone, let them. But I’ve noticed that people I think of as amazing sparkling wonderful stars in this context are eating alone. I think we are all valuing their time as too precious for us, and not even asking, a kind of low-level excessive politeness. I’m not saying you should ask more than once, but it’s probably ok to say, “Hey, I really admire what you’re doing, I’d like to talk about it more, do you have someone sitting with you at lunch?”

Talk to the sponsors

These people are sitting at the vendor booths, handing out swag and trying to get a badge scan off you beacuse someone is juding them on this back home. If you do want something on their table, walk up, make eye contact, and ask for it, don’t just grab. If they’re busy talking to someone, spend a minute or two listening to the pitch. You may not be a person in the market to buy things now, but it never hurts to treat the people who make conferences happen well.

The same goes for organizers. They seldom get to see the conference, because they’re making it happen. The have worked months on this, and whether they’re paid or unpaid, they are on constant alert for Something Going Wrong. It’s really stressful! So if your organizer stops and asks you how it’s going, or if you have what you need, remember to say thank you before you start in with a complaint.

Pacman

I got this one from Eric Holscher at Write the Docs. We tend to naturally form a circle when we’re standing around talking about a topic.  It takes a special kind of courage to approach a ring of backs. Instead, as you’re standing in the ring, open up space between you and a neighbor to leave room for a new person to slip in and add to the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how much difference this little bit of body language makes in making your informal conversations more interesting and varied.

Volunteer

The best way to love a conference is to be part of it. Not every conference offers this opportunity, but if you can volunteer, you should consider it. Having a set role makes it easy to interact with people. “Here’s your badge and your t-shirt. Have a great conference!”. You’ll also get to know other volunteers and organizers, as there’s almost always a backstage that attendees don’t see. This is where I have had some pretty amazing conversations over the years.

Stickers

I have a gallon bag of stickers that I carry from conference to conference. People take some, I collect some from tables and people and vendors. The stickers come with stories and then I can re-tell the stories at the next conference. Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, sorting through a pile of stickers encourages people to stand around and have an idle conversation without feeling tense or anxious. I’m sure if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be novel, but even if you have one type of sticker, from your employer or personal brand, it’s still something to talk about and enjoy together.

On the topic of business cards

Spend money on business cards. I know it seems like an antiquity in the age of tap-contact-swaps, but there’s something about the tactile delight of a good business card that makes people comment on them and remember you. Mine are especially bright, with a plasticky finish. The back of the cards more-or-less matches the color of my hair, which serves as a good mnemonic. I get mine from Moo, which means I can have the fronts different designs — I’ve used this to put 5 or 6 witty tech writer slogans on the front, and I happen to know that people will pin them to cube walls because they’re funny, bright decoration. There is no higher state of winning than having your business hard pinned to a cube wall. In contrast, printing yourself or using a cheap printing service means you’re handing out something that feels disposable, so people do dispose of it.

If you have to hand out your company cards, that’s what you’ve got, but consider if there’s some other personal branding that would feel natural and satisfying to you. At my last conference, I gave away tiny (1/4 inch) hedgehog stickers for people to put on their badges as an indicator that they’d met me. Spontaneous fan club! Or something.

Done talking now

One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to end a conversation gracefully. I almost always start by thanking someone for their time/insight/advice. Then I say something like:

  • I’m off to the next talk! Catch you later.
  • I need to make a call.
  • I’m meeting someone in a few.
  • I’ve gotta go do a thing.

I know – a thing? But it works. 

    In summary

    If you think of conference conversations as purely utilitarian, they will be difficult and dry. Instead, think of them as a way to learn a new and interesting thing from everyone. Good luck out there!

    5 Years Behind the Mic

    5 years ago, I kicked off the conference-speaking section of my career, with this classic hit:

    So many things about this! Like, uh, I’ve dyed my hair and learned to take my lanyard off and stopped using FrameMaker and Prezi. But also, this core theory is the basis of so many of my talks now.

    1. Users are angry about reading docs
    2. Users are searching for answers
    3. Fix the common problems first

    I expected to be a little embarrassed at watching baby!speaker Heidi, but I’m really not. I’ve polished some things, improved some processes, refined some ideas, but at the core, there’s nothing to be embarassed about here.

    I thought about what 5 things I would tell that speaker, besides she’s awesome for taking this leap.

    1. Your content is conference value. Don’t feel ashamed of asking conferences to pay.
    2. When someone compliments your talk, say thank you, don’t argue. Engage them.
    3. Never apologize at the beginning of a talk.
    4. Long introductions mean you can get less content in. Tighten them up to almost nothing.
    5. You run long. Write your talks to be shorter than the window.

    In the last 5 years, I’ve gotten to three continents, dozens of cities. I’ve made so many conference friends that there is almost nowhere I speak that I don’t know at least one other person. Conference speaking is almost the entirety of my lead generation for independent consulting. It has quite literally changed my life, expanded my career, and given me a globe-spanning network.

    Results may vary — I think I got into it at an opportune time, and I now have enough of a portfolio that I’ve gotten a couple invitations instead of straight CFP applications. But I still think it’s an amazing way to expand your career, your cicle, your industry experience, your education, and your ability to take taxis in strange cities.

    Bring some value. Spend time on your talk. Go to the whole conference. Watch other speakers. Learn new things. Google jokes that everyone but you laughed at. Learn to sleep on planes. Invest in good antacids and excellent luggage. Your talks will never be perfect, but you can keep trying.

    I believe in you.

    Lady Conference Speaker: Slides

    Once you get a conference talk selected, you’ll want to put together the talk. There are speakers who can give entire talks without any visual aids, but most of the rest of us count on having some pictures to look at and prompt us. There are entire books written on slides – I liked Presentation Zen and Slide:ology. I can’t replicate everything all the books have to say, but I can tell you what I’ve found useful.

    As you make more presentations, you’ll find your own style and voice. Be sure to watch what other speakers are doing and borrow the best of what you see. Some people do very rapid slides, and will have as many as 90 slides in a 25 minute presentation. Some people like to linger on a few key images. Some people use words, and some people avoid them entirely. You’re going to find your voice, but in the meantime, here are some things that would have helped me to know when I started out.

    Tools

    Slide software falls into two categories: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) or visual design, and compiled, or coded design. The first category is things like PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides. The second category is more like building an HTML page, where you specify elements in Markdown or another language. These are RevealJS, RemarkJS, Deckset, GitPitch, and others.

    I only use the first kind of slide software, but people who use coded design tools appreciate the reliability and customizing options of writing their own slides from scratch. My preferred tool is Google Slides because I can work across all the platforms I write on, I can easily send the link to an organizer, and I don’t have to worry about compatibility. In the last year, Google Slides fixed two major problems I had – you can now present offline, and you can use a Bluetooth presentation remote to advance your slides.

    You’re going to want to get a presentation remote. They can be had for about $20, but you can get a really nice one for about $50. It depends on how much you want to invest in your speaking future. Practice using it  to understand the range and direction that you can get away with. Having a remote means that you can get out from behind the podium and it gives you something to do with at least one of your hands.

    I travel with and present from an iPad, which is more convenient for me than a full-sized laptop. I got an HDMI adapter, and that is a pretty standard expectation at this point. If a conference is using something other than HDMI, they’ll probably let you know. My entire presentation kit fits in the tiny hand-size case for my presentation remote (clicker).

    Standard elements

    I have some elements that appear on all of my slides:

    • Twitter handle
    • Talk name
    • Conference
    • Hashtag

    That may be more information than most people need, but I have a reason for all of them.

    I think the Twitter handle is most important. Very few people will remember the introduction slide well enough for them to accurately quote you 20 slides later when you say something they want to talk about. Putting it on all or almost all your slides means that if a picture gets taken, people can come find you if they want more information.

    The talk name also helps people identify a picture of the slide, and sometimes it helps me remember which talk I’m in, since I sometimes re-use images. It’s especially helpful for times that I have changed the name of the talk.

    Including the conference name is something I do because I re-work my slides for each conference. I don’t entirely rewrite them, but I do add and subtract slides to change the audience, the time, the technology emphasis. Adding the conference name also shows the conference and the attendees that I am thinking about them specifically. I also save each presentation separately, for my records on how talks historically evolve.

    The hashtag is less essential, but I like to have it available so people can use it and I can unify my talks around it.

    I like to put all these elements in one place so that I can change them easily – in this example, it runs along the bottom of all the slides in this presentation.


    I also have fairly extensive speaker notes for all of my presentations – not because I read them, but because it makes the slides more useful whet they are distributed without video. That’s a personal preference, but remember that everything in the speaker notes will be visible if you distribute the deck, so you may want to be careful about what you say.

    Images

    Don’t steal other people’s intellectual property.

    Can I say it more clearly than that? Don’t use pictures without permission.

    Conference talks are absolutely your intellectual property, and you’d be rightfully irritated if someone was on the conference circuit slavishly copying your talks, so don’t do it to photographers and visual artists.

    Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to be a responsible person about this when you assemble a presentation. Images come from three legitimate sources:

    • Pictures you took yourself
    • Pictures that you paid for (Getty, stock photo providers)
    • Pictures that are licensed for re-use that you handle properly

    Taking your own pictures is sometimes fun, and you can do a lot of interesting things with just your camera phone. With reasonable lighting, you can get snapshots that will look OK at conference screen size.

    Buying the rights to pictures is expensive, but if you work for or are representing a large organization, they may already have a license that you can use. You can also find some relatively low-cost stock photograph suppliers, but if you’re a 60-slides kind of speaker, it’s still a lot of money.

    The thing I do most often is use images that are licensed for re-use, and make sure I attribute them properly, either on the slide itself or at the end of the presentation.  I mostly use the advanced Google image search. In fact, if you are in Google Slides and you say you want to insert an image and then search for it, you will get a search tuned for images that are licensed “Commercial Reuse with Modification”. Knock yourself out, just remember to attribute them properly. I have other ways to search for licensed-for-reuse images in the Resources section.

    Code examples

    Not all technical talks have code. I promise that’s allowed, and I have never had code in one of my talks and yet they still let me up on stage and give me a mic.

    If you do use code in a talk, here are some tips you might find useful:

    • Make the font bigger. No bigger than that. Are the characters the size of your head? Maybe big enough.
    • Use syntax highlighting. It reduces cognitive load at lets people focus on what you’re trying to say.
    • If you’re talking about a particular section, make it bright and the other parts a bit greyed out. Or leave them out all together. After all, you’re not going to teach anyone to code from a stage, you’re just showing them that a thing is possible. They’ll look it up later.
    • Murphy’s Law loves a livecoder. Although some people are virtuousic typists, lots of us get clumsy when we’re nervous. Instead of livecoding, consider taking a series of screenshots and stepping through them as slides. That way the wifi is not an issue, the remote servers are not an issue, and you reduce several variables.

    Videos, sound, and other weird things

    It may work. From my observation, your odds are 50/50 of getting a video with sound to work with the A/V system, especially if you surprise the technician. Do you really want to unclip your mic and hold it up to your laptop speakers awkwardly? I didn’t think so.

    The medium most likely to work in a presentation is an animated gif, which is nice as far as it goes, but you need to make sure it doesn’t just…run…continously….behind you, because dang, those things are hypnotic. I have made this mistake myself, but nothing is as hypnotic as the slide I saw that was just a video of a massive domino layout, with spirals and collapsing towers, and…. yeah. It was a great illustration of the point, which was about how nothing works perfectly, but then we were all watching the looping dominoes, looking for the parts where the connections failed. Great illustration, but it completely distracted the entire audience. It’s possible to set gifs to only loop once or twice, and I strongly recommend you do that for your presentations.

    Other weird things that sometimes work and sometimes just make the speaker more nervous or the audience less attentive:

    • Selfies with the audience
    • Physical humor
    • Open coffee mugs, beer steins, or anything that can dump itself on your laptop
    • Asking for audience response if you haven’t prepared them.

    Resources

    My new favorite resource for slide templates: Slides Carnival

    A good roundup of CC0 and public domain image sites: WPTavern image resources

    And of course, almost everything on Wikipedia has a reuse license, and if you go to the image page, you can get different sizes and a handy little attribution slug.

    Museums, such as The British Museum and libraries, such as The New York Public Library are also working very hard to digitize and publish their collections.

    A large WWII cargo ship about to slide down the dock

    It’s easy to find pictures you can use, such as this great launch photo of a Liberty Ship.

     To sum up

    There is no one Right Way to create presentation slides. It’s very dependent on personality and topic. I once saw a great talk that had hand-drawn slides, and one that had 8-bit art. It worked for those speakers and pulled the talk together in a memorable way. But the way you do it will come to be your style, so feel free to experiment while you’re learning. Just don’t stop learning!

    Remember that slides are not the whole presentation – your topic and delivery are a huge part of it, too. Provide essential information on every slide. Do your best to be ethical in your use of intellectual property. Be careful of things that may fail and fluster you on stage. Go have fun!

    New Workshop at Portland Write the Docs

    I’m excited to announce that I’m  going to be presenting a workshop associated with Write the Docs in Portland! Write the Docs is an exciting community-based conference that draws in a mixture of technical writers, support folks, independents of all stripes, API writers, open-source developers, and a wide variety of other types of people. We all come together to talk about how we can use documentation to get our point across to users, and how our experiences can help others. It’s the technical conference of my heart.

    20160524171117

    This year’s lineup looks amazing, as always, and I am assured that the snack time will once again have house-made graham crackers, so I am excited to be attending. (Seriously, the catering is delicious)

    I’m teaching a workshop on structuring and writing documentation. It says in the overview:

    This workshop is designed to teach you a few basic theories of technical documentation, such as task-based topics, reusable content, and writing for an audience. After the overview, you’ll learn techniques for writing bug reports, error messages, and onboarding instructions in a tool-agnostic, repeatable way. You’ll leave this workshop with a handful of techniques, templates, and tests that will improve your team’s communication and your life as a developer.

    What that means is that I’m going to give a crash course in the key theories of modern documentation and then guide people through some exercises that will hopefully help cement the theories. My goal is that people will leave with some tools that will help them think through their options for documentation. I know that many small companies and organizations don’t have enough money or enough work to supprt a writer, but there is still some degree of writing  that needs to be done.

    If you’re interested in attending this workshop, you can buy tickets through the Write the Docs site. If you’re interested in this workshop or a full-day workshop for your team, you can contact me. I have a special workshop I’m designing to walk a team through their onboarding procedure so they can get it out of their heads and into shareable form. Documentating and streamlining onboard is a really cost-effective way to save time for senior people.

    Lady Speaker CFP Submissions

    The way one becomes a Lady Speaker is by speaking. That’s pretty obvious. But how to do you get someone to give you a stage and a microphone and an audience? That’s what this post will partially cover. Specifically, how do you submit a talk proposal?

    Find decent conferences

    There are lots of places you can find conferences. My three main sources are the @callbackwomen twitter account, the Technically Speaking newsletter, and Papercall.io. I also hear about conferences just generally on twitter.

    Conference proposals are some amount of time before the conference, it depends on a bunch of variables. For example, the CfP (Call for Proposals) for LISA 17 just went out (mid-January), and the conference is the start of November. 3-6 months is a more typical window.

    In addition to finding out what conferences are soliciting speakers, you need to find out if it’s a conference you want to speak at. My criteria are:

    • Has a good Code of Conduct
    • Has not mishandled a Code of Conduct violation in the last 3 years, that I know of
    • Understands I am providing value and deserve value in return
    • Is not promoting scary values

    Let’s unpack those.

    Good Code of Conduct

    There have been a lot of things written on Codes of Conduct, and I don’t want to rehash years of debate. I heavily favor codes of conduct that are derived from the Geek Feminism model, but almost anything will work as long as it bans specific bad behavior, does not require (but allows) legal intervention, does not make victims do confrontation, and has actionable and specific enforcement clauses. Basically, my ideal code of conduct allows someone to make a private complaint to the conference and the conference will listen to the victim about how they want it handled, but also have a plan for dealing with a known set of bad behaviors.

    Did you heckle a speaker? The conference will give you a warning once, then kick you out. That sort of thing. Having a set of unacceptable actions means that you don’t get people saying “I just said she would be even hotter wearing only a lanyard! It was a compliment! How is that not “being excellent to each other?”. Almost everyone has had corporate harassment training at some point, so people do actually know what they are and aren’t allowed to do in professional settings.

    Mishandling CoC violations

    Before you apply to a conference, google them. See if there is any recent uproar about them having a known-predatory speaker and not doing anything, or if they made a panel on women in technology out of all men, or if people of color are warning each other away from the conference. Sometimes you will find out that a conference screwed up and then fixed it, like Nodevember did this year by disinviting a speaker. But if they screwed up and didn’t fix it or didn’t apologize, it’s probably not a safe conference, no matter what the CoC says.

    Value exchange

    The first year I did conference speaking, I did it on my own dime. The second year, I got paid a couple times, but nothing like what I needed to cover expenses. The third year (this year), I only applied to conferences that said they covered speaker expenses. I had sufficient videos and experience that I was not an unknown quantity, and also, I could not afford to speak the way I wanted on my own money.

    I wrote about this more in Don’t ask me to work for free, a reprise. But basically, a conference’s value derives from speakers. A speaker invests extremely heavily in researching, writing, and rehearsing a talk, and then in lost work time to give it and attend the conference. Conferences shouldn’t charge a speaker to attend. If it’s at all feasible, conferences should at least cover travel and lodging. I apply to a few conferences that charge speakers, but they also heavily subsidize anyone who doesn’t have an employer. The only thing more insulting than a conference charging me for giving away my intellectual property is a conference offering me a DISCOUNT on the registration fees. That tells me they know I’m providing value, but it’s not worth THAT MUCH.

    Value match

    I don’t attend conferences that I think are problematic because of their values. I don’t go to Grace Hopper because they make a lot of money off women but don’t really do a lot to nurture women’s work, especially women of color. I don’t attend conferences that are about exploiting labor. I wouldn’t, for instance, attend a conference focused on defeating ad-blockers. Your values are your own, but I’ll tell you from experience that if you show up at a conference where you are already angry at the premise, the experience you have will be stressful.

    Promise them something useful

    I’ve been on talk selection committees, so I have a fair idea of how it goes. The first thing that happens is there is an elimination of the obviously not-useful talks. These are usually vendor-tools talks, talks that are not the right technology, or talks that are described by a single sentence and a speaker bio that says, “You know I’m awesome!”.

    What I want to see is a novel idea (it doesn’t have to be brand new), that will serve my conference attendees, and let them walk away thinking something new or interesting or making a connection they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Your CfP needs to have a value-proposition. A lot of the submission forms now explicitly ask for that, which makes it easier.

    I also want to know that you understand who the target audience of my conference is. If you’re submitting to a security conference, a Password-Keeper 101 talk is not going to be relevant. If you’re submitting something that seems odd in the context of the audience, you’ll need to justify it. For example, I’m a technical writer who speaks at a lot of developer/coder/devops conferences. What do I know about that? I have to explain that to even make it past the first level.

    Once all the easy choices are made, the selection committee will get down to the rest of the talks — they would like to accept almost all of these, but time and space are remarkably fixed, so instead they talk about whether you have experience, whether this group of proposals covers the same idea, and if so which is the best one. They weigh the advantanges of fresh voices agains known winners, and the disadvantages of anxious speakers against same-old-same-old. And yeah, they talk about money, and whether they should select someone local or someone who has to be paid to come in. People advocate for speakers they know, or recuse themselves from deciding on speakers they know. Hopefully, someone looks at the overall balance of the speakers and tries to make sure it isn’t like this.

    This list of speakers is a little worrisome

    I’m not trying to shame this one conference, but hopefully conference runners are trying to find a speaker lineup that looks more like this:

    © Katura Jensen 2016

    Assembled @theleaddev speakers.
    Photo: © Katura Jensen 2016

    If you want to be a speaker at a conference, it’s going to take hard work from you to pitch, write, and deliver a talk. And it’s going to take good luck, because there are a lot more talks than slots. And it’s going to help quite a lot if the talk selection committee isn’t using some pre-established vision of what a conference speaker looks like.

    Make hard choices

    If you get accepted to a conference, that is SO GREAT.

    When I get an acceptance email, before I write back and confirm, I double-check (or ask the first time) about what the plan is for speaker expenses and fees. Like I said, I don’t have an enterprise behind me, so I try not to donate my time for free very often.

    If they can’t pay you, and you can’t afford it, you have to decline.

    If you have already accepted something else in that slot, you have to decline.

    If it’s across your kid’s birthday party, you better negotiate to bring home a really amazing souvenier.

    Sometimes, even when everything seems like it will be great, you get hurt and have to write the conference organizer at the last minute and say you can’t come (Sorry, @seagl!)

    The key is to tell the conference what is going on as soon as humanly possible. Because the thing they’re going to do is pull up the next speaker who was regretfully turned down and ask them if they can fill in. The longer you delay because you feel bad about saying no, the less time you’re giving the next person to be able to say yes.

    There’s also some stuff in here about making sure you have some time to work and see your family and eat food that you make yourself, but that’s Lady Conference Speaker 301, and I’m still at 201 myself.

    Deliver

    I could write pages and pages on how to write and deliver a talk, but the important things are these:

    • Show up prepared and practiced
    • Respect the work of the audience and organizers
    • Stick to your time limit
    • Work the hallway track

    Prepared and practiced

    This is not a term paper. You can’t write it the night before. You need to have said this thing out loud in front of an audience at least twice. Once so you can figure out what you’re trying to actually say, and once for timing. I usually practice my talks 5 times for a new talk, and 1-2 times if it’s a talk I’ve given before and revised. You are commanding the attention of, say, 50 people. For a technical audience, let’s say that they are worth $50/hr. You need to respect that for this moment, this half hour, you are worth AT LEAST $1250 in attention. How much work would you have to do to feel prepared to earn $2500/hr? Do that much prep work.

    Respect the work of audience and organizers

    It’s hard to sit in a conference chair all day and learn things. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. Even on days I’m not speaking, when I’m through with conference sessions, my brain is full, my legs ache, and I just want to take a nap. The audience is paying attention to you, even if they are also thinking about how what you’re saying relates to their job, and worrying about their accumulating email. The audience deserves your respect.

    The organizers, whew. If you’ve never organized an event with hundreds of people, I’m telling you, it’s eye-opening. There’s all this trivia to deal with, everything from making sure the t-shirts arrive, to making sure people don’t get in without badges, to taking care of speakers who are having technical problems. Someone has to make sure the catering sets up right, while simultaneously reminding everyone of the code of conduct and answering the hotel’s question about when the tables can be set up. Odds are, the organizers won’t get to hear your talk, because they won’t get to hear anyone’s talk. They’re too busy making it happen for us. Do what you can to make their lives easier by communicating with them clearly and succinctly.

    Stick to your time limit

    It is a jerk move to exceed your time limit. The audience needs those 5-15 minutes to get to the next talk, possibly with a bio-break on the way. The next speaker wants to get in and set up and make sure the mic is ok. The organizers are praying the schedule doesn’t go awry in one of their rooms.

    I know myself well enough to know that my talks inflate when I get in front of an audience. There’s just something that happens when I have people reacting that makes me go longer. So I always time my talks to run 5 minutes short of the limit, and I assign someone to wave frantically at me at 10 and 5 minutes before the limit. Some people talk faster in front of an audience, but an audience will always forgive you for going 5 minutes short, but not 5 minutes long.

    Work the hallway track

    After you give a talk, a funny thing will happen. For the rest of the conference, people will recognize you. They’ll stop you in the hall and say they liked your talk. Don’t argue with them, although that is the natural instinct of many of us who were raised to be “modest” and “not brag”. Just say, “thank you” if you’re on your way to something else.

    If you have time, you will make this person’s day by stopping to talk with them about your content.

    • How will it apply to your work?
    • Was there anything especially meaningful?
    • Do you wish I had included something further? I did lots of research that didn’t make it into the talk.
    • What would you want added if you could hear this again?

    These questions are a combination of engaging them in talking about their reaction, and figuring out how you can do it even better the next time.

    Also, when people give me compliments on my talk, I tally them up at the end of the day and email the tally to myself, because sometimes I need to open that kind of email. “22 people stopped me to compliment my talk today” has a way of kicking Imposter Syndrome in the ass.

    NOTE: At no point are you required to talk to someone who is being insulting, argumentative, or creepy. Giving a talk is not the same as giving up your right to ignore people.

    In conclusion

    I believe in you. You are going to go out there and make us proud! And you’re going to do it by talking about things that you want to understand, or want other people to understand. I hope you can find a good mentor in your community, but if you can’t, reach out and find one online. Some conferences even offer explicit new-speaker mentoring, which is great!

    Guest Post on OpenSource.com

    I was supposed to be at SeaGL this weekend for an awesome conference with the opensource world. Sadly, I fell in the garage and dislocated my shoulder, so I can’t attend. On the bright side, the post I wrote to promote my talk at the conference is available!

    Four Steps to Better Documentation

    In it, I talk about a few simple steps to making sure you are writing the documentation that people need, and making it as relevant and accurate as possible.

    Enjoy!

    Tech events and alcohol: a proposal

    I was just at a conference, which was much like any other conference in their after-hours events. The food was pretty good, the beer and wine flowed freely, and the mixers were Coke, Diet Coke, and sparkling water.

    There’s a lot of complicated parts of throwing a conference, especially in a hotel, and each of the events had professional bartenders. This means the conference is not devoting someone to handing out alcohol, the hotel has some belief people will get cut off, and it all works great. If you want to drink.

    But more and more, as I go to these things, I wonder why we want to drink. I mean, seriously. We are here to have high-level conversations with the leaders and up-and-comers in our fields. That is not improved by artifically lowering our IQ or our inhibitions. As a woman, I am especially sensitive to the fact that it is extra dangerous for me to appear drunk, when statistically, at least one of the men eating cheese and wine in this room has not been great about consent with an intoxicated partner. As a person with migraines caused by time-shifting, lack of sleep, and sulfites, alcohol is not a great idea if I want to keep performing at peak efficiency.

    What could the conference spend this money on instead?

    • Paying for more under-indexed people to attend.
    • Paying speakers
    • Providing childcare
    • Paying open-source maintainers
    • Really excellent pop selections (Mmm, Fentiman’s)
    • Space for other organizations that can’t afford it
    • Community support/outreach

    I want to be clear that this is not about any one conference. In fact, the one I went to, I didn’t see any sign of misbehavior. I just think that the economics of it are counter-productive and reinforce existing power structures. I hope that in 20 years, we will feel about the open bar at tech events the way we feel about the smoke-filled room today. It’s a thing people can do, but it’s not a requirement to network.

    What is the advantage of providing free alcohol?

    • People who care about free alcohol are happy

    They are a big demographic, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think that anyone who would refuse to go to a dry conference because it was dry is someone who is likely to be in a position to add a lot to the conference. That’s a pretty hard line to take when you can always buy a cocktail in the hotel bar 50 steps away.

    For more on this topic, read:

    Model View Culture: Planning Tech Events with Non-Alcoholic Options

    Let’s Talk About Alcohol At Tech Events

    Does Our Industry Have A Drinking Problem?