My First Conference Talk- What Worked and What Didn't!

Woohoo, I gave my first conference talk! I spoke about load testing and site availability at RubyConf Australia. The video will be up at some point, but if you're curious you can also check out my slides here.

I'm back from Australia and finally over my jetlag and my landsickness (True fact: if you go on a boat trip for three days to the Great Barrier Reef, you can completely avoid sea sickness but suffer from LAND sickness for a week when you come back!)

RubyConf Australia was amazing. Siena covered most of the highlights in her blog post, but I wanted to reiterate how lovely the conference was (and not just because I got to hold a koala).

I'm not going to lie- preparing a conference talk was a ton of work! But it was totally worth it for me. I'd definitely encourage anyone who is on the fence to try it and see how it goes! If you're thinking about giving your first conference talk or in the throes of prepping one, here are a few things I found worked for me and one thing that didnt. (But obviously YMMV!)

What Worked for Me:

1. Not giving up

This talk was rejected twice before it was accepted to RubyConf AU and it's been accepted once and rejected twice more since then. Some conferences like RubyKaigi gave me good feedback on why it wasn't a fit, others were a total mystery! I highly recommend submitting proposals to and being rejected from a ton of conferences. It has made me totally fearless of CFP rejection!

2. Going from "A Beautiful Mind" to an outline

I found Beyond Bullet Points  to be a bit cheesy but incredibly helpful when I was kicking off the writing process. (It's technically about making Power Point presentations but I used Keynote instead.)

It suggested starting with brainstorming a bunch of ideas onto Post-It notes and sticking them onto the wall. My apartment definitely had "A Beautiful Mind" vibe going on for a few weeks, but I was able to group, arrange, and discard ideas really easily by moving them around on the back of my bedroom door. Once I grouped them together, I turned it into an outline guided by the Beyond Bullet Points story template.

3. Writing out my entire talk word for word before ever making slides

I know this is definitely not something that everyone does but I was really happy I did it. As a former humanities major, I was more comfortable writing, editing, and moving content around when it wasn't already attached to a slide. It helped me see the big picture and work through some of the more complicated technical portions more easily. I just added some dashes ("-----") where I thought the slide breakdown might go. 

It also allowed me to more easily estimate the length of my talk as I went along. I timed myself reading a book passage out loud and estimated that I spoke 150 words per minute, so I just kept checking the word count in google docs. I left some buffer at the end because I didn't want to stress about going over my time.

4. Giving the talk at a meetup first (with a caveat!)

I keep joking that my co-organizers and I started SF.rb so that I'd have a place to give my talk before the conference. But seriously, it gave me a hard deadline to finish my talk and I could relax a bit in the week leading up to the conference. 

HOWEVER, I found the experience of giving the talk at the meetup to be very different from giving the talk on stage to hundreds of people. At the meetup, I could feel the energy from the audience. I could hear the light chuckling from my bad jokes and being able to see the smiles and nods was a very supportive feedback loop. 

Speaking from stage into a dim audience was very different. I knew from being an audience member that the crowd did have great energy, but it was difficult to feel it from stage. Fortunately both reading about it in the book Confessions of a Public Speaker and talking with Lillie about her similar experience meant that I was prepared for the weird feeling.

5. Speaking at single track conference

Initially, speaking at a single track conference scared me MORE than speaking at a big multi-track conference like RailsConf. In my mind I kept thinking that the room would be filled with people who didn't care about seeing my talk but didn't have any other place to be. When I voiced my fears at Women Who Code Who Do Tech Talks, Sarah Mei very wisely told me that if people didn't want to see my talk, they'd just hang out in the hallway outside. 

RubyConf AU was such a wonderful and welcoming conference and small enough that I saw the same folks over and over. By the time I gave my talk on the second day, there were plenty of friendly faces in the audience and lots of supportive tweets (since I have no internal filter and told everyone how I was super nervous to give my first talk).

6. Arriving to Australia a few days early

This was a no-brainer for me, but other people warned that I might ruin part of my trip if I arrived too early because I'd just be worrying about my talk. Because of flight timing and using a different airline to get to the Gold Coast, I ended up having a few days in Australia before I actually *spoke*. I was so grateful to be mostly past jetlag. If I had to speak on one of those first few days, it would have been a disaster and honestly, I was so distracted by being in a new place that I didn't really worry too much before the day of.

7. Uploading my slides the night before

Conference wifi is notoriously spotty. Thanks to a tip from Siena, I uploaded my slides to SlideShare the night before. I was too nervous about screwing up the timezone to schedule the tweet to go out automatically, but I was ready to tweet it out with the conference hashtag as soon as I got offstage. 

8. Writing Myself a Pre-talk Checklist

The night before, I jotted down a few notes for Future Stella and put them in my pocket. Right before I went on I knew I needed to:
Test my remote
Turn off my slack
Turn off my screensaver
Remove my necklace so it wouldn't bang against the mike
etc...

I was so glad I did! I was so nervous that I would have forgotten most of it. It wouldn't have been the end of the world, but it made me feel more prepared and confident.


What DIDN'T Work for Me:

1. Drinking water out of a cup during my presentation

When I spoke at the SF.rb meetup, I felt so clumsy opening the cap on a water bottle in my presentation. So I thought "oh, I'll just drink out of a cup instead!" I even wrote in little notes to myself in my presentation like "Drink water Stella! Right now!"

What I didn't anticipate was that my hands would be shaking SO badly during my presentation that each time I went to take a sip of water, I would slosh it out of the glass. I was so afraid of pouring it on myself that I hardly took a sip. Like I said, YMMV! Β―\_(ツ)_/Β―