Speaker’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been thinking about what I need to be a happy speaker, and what I expect, and what I hope for, and it seems to me like it’s a a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow.

This is absolutely not intended to “call out” any organizer or make anyone feel bad. The vast majority of my experiences as a conference speaker are positive.

Needs

Here are the things that I really need from organizers to make this collaboration work.

Before

  • Code of Conduct. I need you to tell me what it is, and what your enforcement method is. If I tell you I’m worried about something particular, I need you to take me seriously, because as a speaker, I have a different kind of risk profile than an attendee.
  • Conference date on every possible page, email, and communication you send me. No, more. Your conference is a pivot point of your year, for you. For me, it is a thing I am excited to be at, but I need to be sure I got my schedule right.
  • Which airport I should be planning on coming in to. This is especially vital if you are in an area that has more than one. DFW or Dallas-Love? BWI or Reagan? Midway or O Hare? LHR or ANY OTHER OPTION?
  • If there are before-or-after the conference date activities, let me now about them as soon as I accept, before I book my tickets. I hate it when I miss out on the beach day/speaker dinner/rainforest walk/tour because you told me about it after I made my plans.
  • What format do you want my slides in, what is your video input, and what kind of audio are we going to be working with?
  • How long is the actual talk slot, especially if there are breaks that could throw off the calculation?

During

    Everyone will be happier if I get a chance to test my A/V some time other than at the start of my talk.
    If there are more than 10 people in the room, I want amplification.
    If there are any changes to schedules, I’d appreciate it if you made sure I got that message.

After

  • Honestly, there’s not a lot of follow-up that counts as essential. Unless something goes wrong in a Code of Conduct sense.

Wants

Some stuff that makes me more effective or happy:

Before

  • I love those emails that tell me about things that you know about your area or venue. Yes, please tell me about the usual weather, which door of the conference center, and how close I am to local areas of interest. Write the Docs was the first place I saw this, and it’s just great.
  • I’m also excited about reminders that list my schedule, especially extras like interviews or speaker table time. I star those. Extra special bonus points to conferences that send me calendar invites! Sometimes timezones are hard, ok?
  • Give me a speaker liaison and a meeting time. I don’t need this, but it’s lovely to get a tour of the venue, the speaker’s lounge, the backstage, and to have someone I can go to if I need help with something.
  • If you know anything about the audience at your conference, sharing it with me will let me tune my talk more accurately. It doesn’t have to be full demographics, but “78% of last year’s attendees listed Java as their primary language” means that I won’t talk about Python garbage collection jokes.

During

  • A speaker’s lounge is not required, but it is lovely to have. I use it to drop my bag, hang out with other speakers, practice, swap A/V adapters, and grab food because I didn’t get lunch because I was answering questions for attendees. DevOpsDays PDX had a livestream of the mainstage talk in a corner of the speaker lounge, and I loved it.
  • Real-time transcription. It’s useful for me because I know that more people can catch all the things I’m saying, it’s useful for attendees who have language, comprehension, or attention difficulties, and it’s sometimes possible to use it as the transcription on the video. Everyone wins. I’m a huge fan of White Coat Captioning, because they appear to have a cadre of transcriptionists who have pre-loaded technology vocab packs and so are very accurate.
  • Please put water on the podium. I’m sure there are people in the world who remember to keep their personal bottle filled at all times and to take it on stage, but I’m not one of them.
  • I like a room captain or MC to do introductions. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker not to have one, but it’s less awkward, especially for new speakers. An experienced speaker will have tricks to gather attention and get people to settle down and listen, but that’s actually a different skill than delivering a prepared talk.
  • Backup laptop. My slides fail very seldom, but when they do, it’s nice to be able to just borrow a laptop.
  • Adapters and slide clickers. I have my own, but not everyone does, and even if you do, sometimes they get lost or broken, so the conference should have a few to loan out.
  • A/V tech. This is a big request, but at conferences that can afford it, it’s kinda lovely to have someone to make sure the mic, slides, and confidence monitor are all working right.
  • Confidence monitor – that’s something that I can see when looking straight ahead that shows me what is being projected behind me. Many speakers have the presentation on behind them, and what’s on the laptop in front of them is their notes. For talks, especially lightning talks that are given from a different computer, a confidence monitor means I’m not twisting around to check which slide I’m on now.
  • The purpose of a conference after-party, I think, is to let people talk to each other. TURN THE MUSIC DOWN AND THE LIGHTS UP. Most of us are not here to show off our sick dance moves, but to connect with other professionals. Every 10 decibels means that I am thinking about bailing an hour early because I have to be able to keep talking, and yelling all night makes that hard.

After

  • I appreciate it when a conference emails me that my video is up, and here’s the link.
  • I also like and try to fill out the surveys after a conference. I think it’s useful to send speakers both the general attendee survey and a specialized speaker survey.
  • Go ahead and tell me about the CfP dates for next year. If it’s a low-volume list, I’ll stay on it. I will not stay on your slack. I probably didn’t join your slack. I only have so much RAM.
  • If you have collected feedback about my performance, go ahead and share it with me — after you’ve filtered it. I couldn’t do anything about the air conditioning in the room, and you don’t want the abiding taste of your convention to be abusive comments about my speaking. Constructive negative comments are fine, but don’t just pass through the comments page without looking at it.

Desires

Dreams, wishes, and improbably expensive ideas:

Before

  • Get me from the airport. DevOpsDays Chicago and The Lead Developer do this, and it’s such an amazing luxury to not have to think about that part of my trip, and try to figure out which Hilton I’m supposed to be going to, etc.
  • Book me a room with the speaker block, even if my company is paying for it. Being with the other speakers is a huge value for me at your conference, and as a bonus, you know where we are, and it’s not across town in the middle of a transit strike.
  • Send the speaker gift by mail ahead of time so I don’t have to pack it. ChefConf did this, and it was great, because I am frequently traveling in a way that makes the 4 cubic inches taken by a mug significant.

During

  • Make sure I have food tailored to my dietary needs available in the speaker lounge. Especially if we spoke before lunch or dinner, it’s likely we spent a lot of the meal interacting with attendees and not getting in line, and this is especially crucial if a speaker needs a specialized meal.
  • I don’t know what to call this — concierge service? When I showed up to The Lead Developer Austin with no voice, the organizers got me a whole assembly of throat drops, soothing tea, painkillers, etc, and had it taken to my room. That meant that I didn’t have to figure out how to get to a pharmacy or think about what I needed. Honestly, it was so sweet I cried. Hopefully, a speaker won’t need this, but if you have given them a liaison they can trust, and empowered that person to spend a bit of money, it can make a huge difference. It could be anything from “Today is my birthday” (DevOpsDays Hartford bought me cupcakes!) to “I have a tummy bug” (Immodium, don’t leave home without it).
  • Do an audience count for me. There’s no way for me to do it when I’m speaking, but I am not so good at estimating, and it’s useful for me to know for my job what percentage of the attendees were at my talk.

After

  • Caption/transcribe the video
  • Get the video up really fast. Next Day Video does this really well, and ConFreaks has gotten notably faster and also has live videographers who handle pacers (me) better than static setups.
  • Do roll-up posts on the talks and on the conference as a whole so we have something to link to.

Self-Actualization?

I’ve been thinking about what conference self-actualization would me, by Maslow’s standards and my own, and I think it’s about feeling so confident in the underpinnings of the event that I don’t have to think about them, just like most of you are probably not worried about shelter or caloric sufficiency. Being able to trust a conference is running well means that I can concentrate on higher order things like delivering value and sparking discussions.

My part

This is a long (really long) list of things that conferences should/could provide to speakers, but conference speaking is a contract of mutual benefit. Here is a list of what I think conference speakers should commit to providing to do:

  • Be on time. There is nothing, nothing more nervewracking for an organizer than not knowing that a speaker will be there at the right time. I don’t care if you have jetlag, if you have to speak in pajamas, whatever. Be at the venue an hour before your talk, make sure you check in, show up at your room as soon as is feasible.
  • Fail noisily. If for any reason you are not going to be able to give your complete talk, on time, tell the organizers as soon as possible. I know you’re ashamed, but they are in a worse spot, so suck it up.
  • Prepare. I do often tweak my talk to incorporate things that happen earlier in the conference, but it is super unprofessional to joke about how you just slapped a talk together on the flight over. Think of it this way — assume everyone in the room earns $60/hr (it makes the math easy). Now multiply that by the minutes the talk is scheduled for and the number of people in the room. That is what your talk is worth in human-hour-dollars.
  • Participate. A large part of the value of conference speaking is that you get to attend conferences. If you are only showing up for the part of one day that your talk is in and blowing off the rest of the conference, you’re missing a lot of the value, and so is the conference. I get so many great conversations in the hallway track/lunch line. Sometimes (May, June, September), you’ll get scheduling collisions and these things happen, but I promise you that I will try to go to the majority of the conference, be available for people to talk to, and generally help the organizers out.
  • Promote. As I serve on more conference committees, I see how important it is for speakers to reach out and involve their communities. Think of a conference as the middle of a very extensive venn diagram. Speakers bring in parts of their community, which makes the conference as a whole richer.
  • Bonus: I have been speaking long enough that I have a set of talks that I could give on no notice. I usually let an organizer know quietly that if they have a schedule disaster, I can cover. I try very hard not to make this about me, but about their need to juggle a lot of balls and how I can offer to catch something.

Using Airtable to Manage Conference Submissions

I know, it’s not a very catchy title, but it is descriptive.

A large part of my current job is speaking at conferences and talking about feature flags, systems resiliency, and whatever else I can talk people into. And part of speaking at conferences is applying to lots and lots of conferences. But how do you keep track of it all?

At first I tried to use Google Calendar, but that did’t work. I tried Trello, but there weren’t enough dimensions. I wanted to track these elements:

  • Name
  • Location
  • Start date
  • End date
  • Talks submitted
  • Submitted/accepted/rejected/conflict
  • Speaker tasks
  • Tasks remaining

That’s a lot! I complained about the problem, and Thursday Bram suggested Airtable, as a beautiful mashup of a taskboard and a spreadsheet. Since then, I’ve suggested it to several other developer relations people and I know some of them are using it. I’m now paying for the full version, which gives me the calendar view, and that’s been my killer feature. It really helps me to be realistic about how conferences stack and overlap with each other.

Spreadsheet

Airtable main view

This is the main view. I have it sorted so that conferences that are over or that have not accepted any talks from me are not showing, because I really only need to know about what is coming or may be coming. I’ve grouped it by the Talk Accepted dimension and then the date. At a glance, I can tell what I have coming, and what talk I’m giving (if I remembered to enter it, because I’m sometimes not great at that, as you can see.

Cards

I can drill down into any talk title for a card that has a bunch of information on the talk. Frequently I include the proposal I submitted here, along with information about how far along in the process of creation the talk is, all configured by me. Have I drafted it? Made slides? Practiced it on my own or in front of other people?

Cards Pt. 2

Further down on the talk card, I can see all the conferences I submitted the talk to and whether it was accepted or not. That gives me a good overview of whether a talk is “wearing out” or less likely to be accepted than another kind of talk. It’s useful information.

All of those features are available at the free level, and it’s powerful enough for most people, but did I mention I apply to a lot of conferences? More than there are weeks. You probably don’t need the full version.

Calendar View

Airtable calendar view

This view right here is worth everything I spend on Airtable, and I’m certainly not a power user. But it tells me about conflicts in a way that has been very hard for me to predict from just looking at dates. (If we were all good at predicting conflicts from dates and times, we would not have Outlook Meetings Calendar, is what I’m saying) Now I can tell ahead of time that I can only accept one of those three conferences starting on the 24th, and that allows me to be a more polite speaker. Sometimes it’s possible to look at this and make better arrangements. For example, DevOpsDays Chicago is a great event, but it’s literally the day before I need to be in Dusseldorf. Rather than discombobulating myself or the conferences, I can ask now, months ahead of time, to speak on the first day of DevOpsDays Chicago and toward the end of SRECon. That gives me an error budget for weather/flights/etc. Most conference organizers are lovely about helping me out with these things.

Conclusion

Airtable is a super useful tool for being able to organize data when some parts of it are fixed and some parts change and you need to be able to keep the associations together. There are bigger, more heavyweight databases that can do that, of course, but this is a pretty, friendly, usable implementation of the theory.

If you’re interested in trying it yourself, here is a link to the original workspace I set up: Heidi’s Conferences. Feel free to give it a spin or fork it for your own needs.

2017 Speaking Recap

This was the year that I got more organized as a speaker. I took up Airtable as a way to track all of my conference proposals, and so I actually have a record of everything I submitted.

Summary

  • Attended 27 conferences, spoke at 24
  • Spoke at 3 user groups, 2 podcasts, 1 video interview, 1 twitch stream
  • 14 unique talks, in a variety of configurations
  • Learned to use Twine as a presentation tool, how to give demos on an ipad over lunch, how to change from saying “I’m a technical writer” to “I’m a developer advocate”

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Longer version

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Why I Speak at Developer Conferences

I don’t write code for a living, and I never have. Developer has never been part of my job titles, and my Github history won’t impress anyone. I think that’s why people are surprised that I speak at developer conferences — next month I’m going to RubyConf, PyconCA, and Nodevember.

When I started speaking at conferences, I thought I was only “allowed” or “entitled” to speak at technical writing and generalist conferences. As I got more confident in my messages, I realized that there is a lot of value in cross-pollination of ideas. As I talked to more developers, I realized that the talks they found the stickiest were not about how to do something, but rather, what it was possible to do.

Think about talks that you remember after the conference. Are they the bravura live-coding examples of how to execute something tricky or new? Or are they the talks about what you could do, how you could think about things in a different way, what might be possible in the future? The demonstration of current things is important, but so is the discussion of where and who we want to be in the. future.

Most conference committees seek to balance talks and speakers based on experience, representation, intended audience level, technical depth, and appeal to attendees, sponsors, and employers. We need to have deeply technical talks, and we need to have talks about mental health and accessibility and usability. it’s not either-or, it’s also-and.

So I speak at developer conferences to bring balance to the force. I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world. I want to share my decades of experience with people who have poured their energy into learning different things. I think I bring value, and evidently conference organizers agree.

Have you thought about what you can add to a conference by being different? If you feel like you can’t compete because you don’t have anything new to say about the topics that are usually covered, consider covering a topic that you haven’t seen at the conference. If there are a lot of code demonstrations, consider doing a feature overview. If you have expertise in something that you can relate to the conference topic, sometimes it helps people grasp what you’re talking about in a different way. I have a talk about how knitting and documentation and how we teach code are all linked together.

If you’re a “non-technical” technical person, don’t let that stop you from proposing to conferences – you still have valuable and meaningful experience to share. If you’d like to brainstorm about it, go ahead and leave me a message.

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!