Learning from speaking up

Over this short year, I’ve started sharing my knowledge and experiences at meetups and conferences. And I’m truly grateful for community inspirations and organizers for allowing me to gain such a unique experience. Over time, I learnt to overcome challenges and various fears. And I hope that this write up will also help others to overcome their fears so that they would start sharing their experiences at meetups and conferences too. I’m not any special or well known person, and I’m not super experienced too, but I hope that this relates to you and encourages you to speak up.

My first talk

I started out with my first talk at a small multi-track conference with a very generic topic related to FLOSS. Usually, people’s first talk would be at a meetup, rather than boldly jumping onto conferences. I wrote a proposal for my talk and submitted it in, and never expected it to be accepted because I was a small fry. I’m not going to say that you’ll miss 100% of the shots you take; because you might also miss 100% of the shots you do. Fortunately, submitting a proposal only take some courage and a few minutes of your time. You’ll only need to start preparing for your talk if it gets accepted. In this case, there’s not much to lose.

Motivation

At that point of time, my motivation was the FLOSS community, specifically, Red Hat’s efforts. I admire (and still do) Red Hat’s CEO, Jim Whitehurst. Even though he’s a CEO, he is very open towards his employees and the community. Much like Steve Jobs, if you email him, he would take his time to reply to your email. He put aside his title and ego to get shit done; hence my admiration. Thus, I wanted to share a little on how, in my perspective, FLOSS communities work on an abstract level.

Talk accepted

I was in school and received an email saying that my talk has been accepted. It was a moment of ecstasy and my joy could not be described with words. I began my preparation of the talk and spent hours refining it, hoping that I would not fuck up.

D-Day

It was early in the morning, 0800. I bounced off my bed and was very excited and anxious about my talk that was about to happen within a few hours. I’ve already prepared myself and rehearsed countless times. And I still couldn’t believe that my talk was accepted. Whilst in the train, I met another fellow speaker, Zion Ng. His talk was about his freelancing experience and it was scheduled at the slot earlier than mine and in the same room as me. Which was very coincidental. We had a small talk and learnt more about each other.

We reached the conference location early and we went to the room together. The place was EMPTY as hell. Bloody ghost town. Room wise? Deadass empty too. Zion waited several minutes before starting his talk. The amount of people in the room could literally be counted with a pair of hands. Multi-track conference problems, room was very isolated and distant, “freelancing experience” was too generic, he wasn’t famous and to make it worse, it was just 10:00AM. Despite all of that, he put on a pretty neat talk.

Same thing happened to me. There were one or two more people just because it was scheduled right after his. I felt anxious and disappointed. I was anxious because I was unprepared for an empty room. I was disappointed because I had high expectations.

Learning points:

  • Its just a talk. Although it might be your first, its still just a conversation, no biggie.
  • Have low or zero expectations so you will not be disappointed.
  • Conferences should always avoid multi-track, unless its a huge conference. Even Singapore’s iOS conference, which has 400++ audience, is single track.
  • Conferences/meetups should encourage more first time speakers to share an experience. Build a culture of learning and experience sharing.

I didn’t stop

Subsequently, I continued sharing my experiences at meetups. I kind of enjoyed it, despite being time consuming. Other than that, I was also getting encouragement and support from the community. I realise that most of the time, technical content attracts an audience but doesn’t mean that they would stay for your talk. What makes an audience stay is more about delivery and personal experience. Your content could be really amazing but bad delivery would ruins everything. If your content is bad but delivery is good, it is still a bad talk where the audience doesn’t learn anything. You need both good content and delivery, with a touch of personal experience.

Why delivery is important

In a conference, people can only listen and absorb so much — they wouldn’t remember your talk unless it made an impact. They maybe in the room but their soul might have left. People using their laptops and phones during conferences is also a norm, so there are even more distractions. Isn’t ironic where people pay a few hundred dollars to use their laptops at conferences? Some people do have valid reasons such as urgent work.

Delivering an engaging talk

So how does one deliver an engaging and understandable talk? It depends on your audience! The crowd might be more of a quiet one — for example, a talk that I gave at VoxxedDays Singapore. Whenever I tried to engage the audience by asking questions, etc, there would be an awkward silence or no hands raised.

But in general, here are some learning points:

  • Rehearse, a lot. Practice gives you confidence. Record yourself a few times and watch it. If you’re lucky, Engineers.SG would record your live talk. With confidence, you’ll be more relaxed and natural; which brings me to the next point.
  • Be natural, be yourself. Express your personality and if you’re awkwardly morbid and sarcastic, you should look like me whilst speaking. It is more genuine that way too, and generally, people prefer listening to genuine people.
  • Introduce yourself and talk about some interesting about yourself. We able to better connect to someone we know. Other than that, humans are also creatures filled with curiousity.
  • Research and understand your audience. At the start of your talk, ask them about their knowledge level and tune your talk to their level or bridge the gap by giving additional context.
  • Ask for a third opinion whilst crafting your presentation — would the audience be able to understand this?

It doesn’t end here

After delivering your amazing talk, things don’t end there. Some folks might have questions and that’s where the real conversations begin. Assuming you’ve done some read up and research on what you were talking about, you will do a pretty good job answering questions. I’ve been asked on things that I don’t have answer to, and I said, “I don’t know”. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is okay to be honest and say “I don’t know”, rather than making up bullshit on the spot. Don’t be afraid of not knowing something, you can always learn something from the audience too. It’s never just a way one street.

Postwar Evaluation

Ask for feedback and ways to improve yourself! The only way to learn is through constructive feedback. The community is filled with helpful people. When someone says your talk was good, thank them and ask which part of the talk did they like or find it useful. Try to further improve that part and adapt to use it for future talks. If someone says your talk is bad, thank them for their feedback and ask which part of the talk was bad. And obviously, work on that part. Gather your thoughts and take a rest, you’ve done a great job.

Next topic?

If you ever find something extremely interesting or worked on something interesting — why not share it through the next talk?

Make sure you are enjoying yourself whilst giving a talk. If you don’t find it fun, then there would be no point to it. You’re not doing it because your boss wants you to, you should be doing it because it’s fun and you enjoy sharing your thoughts on certain topics. Always remember that!

I hope this helps you, in some way, to speak up! If you have any questions or thoughts or feedback, as usual — feel free to leave them right below.

Author: Woo Huiren

Howdy, I'm a IT student who is currently serving my full time national service. I do lots of things related to IT but I have an exceptionally great love for the web and opensource, so expect me to blog a lot about it! :)

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