March 5, 2020

How I went from 0 talks to 7 in one year and why you should speak too

I want to begin this post by saying I'm an introvert. Public speaking has always terrified me and I have generalized anxiety disorder. I don't know when it crossed my mind that speaking at conferences and meetups was a good idea, but here we are. I've spoken to many people in the tech community who have amazing stories and knowledge to share, but feel under-qualified to speak or don't know where to start. I hope that sharing my story helps someone be able to start their journey.

In 2018, I gave my first talk ever. It was at a local mechanical keyboard meetup and the organizers had reached out to me asking if I would be willing to do a beginner-level talk. I was terrified... but excited. The biggest reason I said yes was because I had never seen a talk like this and it was something I wish I had when I was first starting in the hobby. So I agreed. Yes, it was terrifying. Yes, there were moments when I wanted to back out. But I did my talk. The response was great and I found people coming up to me afterwards, both in person and online, telling me how much they learned from and appreciated my talk.

Fueled by a new passion for public speaking, I made it a goal to speak at 4 events in 2019. I started by reaching out to other local meetups (this time focusing on React and JS, since that's the stack I work with). Two were gracious enough to welcome a new speaker like me and now Seattle ReactJS has a special place in my heart (Seriously, they're an incredible community and a great environment for new speakers). As I gained more confidence, I decided to apply to conferences. I had never written a CFP (call for papers) or talk abstract before, much less knew where to find conferences to apply to.

I reached out to friends I had in the tech community and started brainstorming talk ideas. My strategy was simple: pick topics I want to learn (more) about and write a proposal around it. I had always felt that conference speakers needed to be the expert in order to talk about something and I didn't feel that I was at that level (see: The Truth About Imposter Syndrome). So instead, by focusing my talks on topics I didn't know, I could force myself to deep-dive into the topic and become confident in my knowledge of it.

I went on to write talk proposals (including an abstract and more in-depth objective) for all the ideas I came up with. Some I scrapped, but most went on to live in my GitHub talks repo. This public repo not only makes it easy for me to keep track of all my talks, but also acts as a resource for attendees after the talk where they can find my slides, code, recording, and maybe even discover previous talks that interest them.

This repo is always evolving, but once I had a solid foundation, I started applying to conferences. My technique now is similar to what it was when I first started. I mostly scour every few months to take note of any interesting conferences where my talks could be applicable. Then I apply! I might send in multiple CFPs, depending on the type of conference. From my experience, it doesn't hurt to send in multiple CFPs to a conference, as long as they're all high-quality, thoughtful, and varied. Just be reasonable about how many you send. Two or three might be fine, but more than that is pushing it. Don't forget there are real humans on the other end who have to read through all the submissions.

Following this strategy (and thanks to my company being so flexible and supportive), I was able to speak at 7 different events this year (both meetups and conferences), including an international conference! Although every conference still gives me the jitters, I'm proud for pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I've been able to meet so many wonderful people that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise and the interactions I've had have kept my hope in the tech community strong.