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Blog: 7 speaker tips and the road to 50 (conference sessions)

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Blog: 7 speaker tips and the road to 50 (conference sessions)

No I’m not (yet) 50 years old, I still have some years to go until that milestone. But today I presented my 50th ‘normal’ session at a conference. That’s excluding workshops, ignite talks and sessions at meetups, customers etcetera. I thought that milestone was a good reason to write down my experience and give a few tips for anyone who wants to speak at conferences or other public events. By Johan Janssen

The beginning

I’ve never had any issues with speaking in public. Even in high school I was often the one who did the presentation for the team. I even remember the time when I had my final exam for public speaking in Dutch. It was only when we walked to the classroom that I came up with a topic. The presentation was pure improvisation and wasn’t great, but I received a good mark for it. After reading this you might think that it all goes naturally for me and I cannot give someone tips who doesn’t like public speaking. That’s not the case, in fact I think I’m more an introvert then an extrovert. Maybe even a bit shy and definitely not the popular kid in class. The thing that convinced me to speak in public is that I like to share knowledge. Of course I could have opted to write more articles or maybe even a book. But I find it quite hard as it’s one way communication where you don’t receive any feedback. If you present something then the audience can ask questions and you can adjust the content to the need of the audience. So I truly believe that presenting or training with a live audience is most effective to share knowledge.

After graduating from University I started working at Info Support. They encouraged me to present for instance at our weekly meetups and for costumers. At one point my then manager asked me if I didn’t want to speak at conferences like J-Fall, Devoxx and JavaOne. At first I was a bit reluctant to speak at such a big stage, but later I thought why not? But getting selected at a bigger conference can be difficult. They look at your topic but also at your previous experience as a public speaker. I had spoken a lot in our company and at other locations, but never at conferences. Luckily I could convince my manager that it was a good idea to start with speaking at smaller conferences. After that I started submitting some proposals to various conferences.

Speaking at conferences

Luckily JavaCro selected my proposal for their conference in May 2014, and not only one, but two of them. I had to quickly prepare for two sessions before the conference started. The conference was great with an awesome location and I really enjoyed it. My sessions went quite well and received a good rating. So I decided to continue submitting proposals to conferences and was allowed to speak at JavaOne and J-Fall in the same year.

After that I think I got a bit addicted to speaking at conferences and traveling around the world. Today around 3,5 years after my first conference session I presented my 50th ‘normal’ conference session at JavaZone. JavaZone by the way is one of the best if not the best Java conference I ever attended :).

JavaZone will not be the last conference as I already have some more conferences in my agenda. I still like speaking anywhere and traveling around. It’s a nice way to visit new places and make new friends. Luckily the audience also likes my talks. I regularly end up in the top 10 or top 10 percent of the best rated talks. For one of my sessions at JavaOne I even received the JavaOne Rockstar award.

The hardest part is the number of conferences available, it’s hard to select a few to attend. There are so many interesting Java conferences, but with a family back home and my day job as a Java teacher I have to limit my traveling a bit. Luckily we’re now organizing our own conference nearby: JVMCON . Everyone can submit sessions to the conference. The attendees that already registered vote on the proposals. The top proposals are included in the conference. So you can create the program if you register yourself :).

Some tips to get started

So maybe you want to speak at a conference someday? Maybe you think it’s hard? It definitely is and I still get rejections, but if you don’t try it you definitely won’t make it. The following tips can be useful if you want to start speaking at public events.

Start now

My biggest tip is to just start with it. Come up with some nice topics and see if you can create a session from it.

Don’t decide if your topic is interesting

I often hear people saying that they don’t work with interesting technology and that they have nothing interesting to talk about. The same time I see talks at conferences on subjects that those people work with every day. So don’t underestimate the story that you have to tell. Simply submit your ideas to some conferences and let the program committee decide if your talk is interesting.

Topics

If possible try to come up with different proposals. Conferences work with tracks such as Java, Enterprise Java, New & Cool etc. Some tracks are popular and it’s hard to get selected in those tracks. If you have various proposals in different tracks you can increase your chances of being selected. I started with talks on SonarQube for code quality and Docker for continuous delivery. I also did talks on Akka, Alexa voice recognition, Lego trains with Raspberry Pi’s, Profiling with Flight Recorder etcetera. It not only increases your chances but it’s also more fun for yourself if you can give different sessions instead of the same session over and over again.

Align your proposal to the conference

I’ve been lucky enough to participate in a number of program committees. Which enabled me to gain a lot of knowledge of ‘the other side’. What surprised me most was the quality of the proposals. Some were badly written and regularly it was unclear what the relation of the proposal was with the conference. Most people will probably understand that submitting a Python talk to a Java conference is unlikely to be successful. But often people fail to realize that they should create a connection to the conference in their proposal. I’ve seen proposals talk about cool ideas but it was unclear if it was done in a programming language or another way that was interesting for the conference. So if you submit to a Java conference make sure to include the word ‘Java’ at least ones in your proposal.

Try to do something new

There are a lot of speakers submitting sessions. If you submit a session with the same topic as one of the creators of that topic then it’s quite likely that they won’t select you. But what if you can give it a unique twist? I’ve ran Spring/Akka and Spring Boot code on Lego trains with Raspberry Pi’s. Is it new? Not really, there are lots of excellent speakers that talk about Akka. But I haven’t seen one that combined it with Lego :). The same goes for Docker, I was one of the first to present sessions on the topic, but quickly everyone talked about Docker. So I came up with a new angle namely to run graphical applications such as IDE’s in Docker. I don’t say that it’s necessary to do something new, but it can increase your chances of being selected. Next to that it’s of course more fun for yourself to play around with something new :).

Nervous

People often tell me that they are to nervous and they assume that I don’t have that issue as I already presented so many times. That’s actually not the case, I’m still nervous wondering if there will be any attendees, if the equipment functions properly and about many other things. For me being nervous is a good thing, it means I care about something and want it to go well. If I would lose that then probably I no longer care about it or I’ve done it so many times that it all goes automatically. I hope that never happens :). So don’t worry if you’re nervous, you’re definitely not the only one…

Don’t give up

Maybe you’re not accepted the first time, not the second or maybe not the first dozen times. That doesn’t mean your talk is not interesting, it simply didn’t make the cut that time. Conferences receive way more proposals then they have slots available for sessions. Especially the popular conferences, so try some of the smaller conferences first. I had a great time at most of the smaller and a bit less known conferences. Also don’t feel embarrassed if you’re talk is not selected, it happens to everyone, even the best speakers receive rejections.

What are you waiting for?

Start creating one or more proposals and submit them to a conference. There are many conferences and some sites try to create an overview such as https://github.com/softwaremill/it-cfp-list and http://lanyrd.com/. You can use those sites to search for conferences. But those lists are not complete, there are many more conferences which you can find on Google and Twitter.

I also like to help people that start speaking with improving their proposals and their session. Feel free to contact me on johan.janssen@infosupport.com or on Twitter @johanjanssen42 if you have any questions or would like my help.

Thank you

As a last point I want to thank Info Support, the company I work for. They have always supported and encouraged me and without them I wouldn’t be able to speak at conferences. The reason is that most conferences don’t cover travel expenses which makes it quite expensive for speakers to speak at multiple conferences. Luckily Info Support has always provided me with the necessary financial backing and they allow me to travel in their time. Next to that I would also like to thank my family for being so supportive while I’m often away on trips to great locations :).

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