Setting yourself above: speaking at a conference

Whenever I tell a colleague that I am speaking at a conference, the common response is usually along the lines of, "you get up in front of people and talk? I could never do that." The fact that I am here in the flesh writing to you now proves that this daunting task is easier than many think. What's more is the fact that it's not just about doing something intimidating or challenging, it's all about sharing that little bit of knowledge that you have with someone to make them better.

It has been said that when you attend a conference (technical or creative) the speakers at that conference represent the top 5% of minds in your respective fields. Essentially the cream of the crop. While the attendees can very easily benefit from this type of talent and knowledge, speaking at a conference can benefit you just as much. Surrounding yourself with this type of knowledge is in infectious; which can only improve you as a person, personally and professionally, and as a subject matter expert.

So you may be saying to yourself, "Ok so I can get smarter and/or more knowledgable. Big deal. Is that all?" Well no of course not. Keep reading.

Investing in your skill

I can speak from experience that there is nothing more embarrassing than getting up in front of a group of people and you start receiving questions that you don't know the answers to; especially when you are live-coding. It's awkward for you and the people attending your talk. So how do you avoid this?

It's simple: do your homework.

While you may be pretty comfortable with your subject matter, there is always an opportunity for you to add just a few extra facts to help draw in your audience even more. More often than not, these facts, pointers, or how-to's are items that you probably don't already know. A common requirement for conferences is for you to stage your code on GitHub or any other equivalent with any associated documentation. A bi-product of this requirement is clean code and detailed how-to's; all extremely effective tools who may not be experts. It's these little nuggets that help validate you even more as a speaker.

What it did for me

For example, in preparation for a session that I was going to give on the Ionic Mobile Framework, I had to familiarize myself with multiple deployment platforms. I am an Apple/Mac guy: I have multiple iPads, several iPhones, and a couple Apple computers at home. However to think that everyone else works on the exact same devices I do would be naive and frankly, stupid. So I invested in a cheap PC as well as an Android phone so I could broaden my scope of documentation; allowing me to understand the ins and outs of Android Studio and the Java SDK (software developer kit). Boy am I glad I did. I found more than a couple "gotchas" that could have easily derailed my talk.

All of these items require time. This is time that you spend becoming even more familiar with the documentation and processes and thus committing even more information to memory. In the end you solidify yourself within the minds of your attendees as a subject matter expert.

Building yourself up

If you want to speak publicly, you don't necessarily have to immediately jump into the conference environment. Speaking in front of complete strangers with zero context on who you are or where you come from can be frightening. I get it. Fortunately I can vouch for the fact that there are several other opportunities for you to speak before taking the conference plunge.

Client meetings

One opportunity that commonly gets overlooked is client meetings. While you may not be speaking in a traditional workshop session type setting, you are in fact speaking to people who are not familiar with your content; requiring your to explain in detail how you came to a certain conclusion. What's more is you may receive questions on your conclusions forcing you to think quickly on your feet thus placing even more emphasis on your preparation.

Focus groups

Another type of meeting that is common in the agency setting is a focus group. This can be a meeting that was called between like-minded people to decide on a process for the larger masses, or this could be an open forum during a lunch and learn. Each setting has a different type of audience make up all with unique skillets and knowledge, but each requires you to be prepared and explain your content in detail to ensure no one is left behind.


While not necessarily formal, putting yourself on a YouTube video screencast is another great starting place for you to begin speaking. You don't have the pressure of a live audience, allowing for additional focus on your diction and flow of the presentation. As an added benefit, if your videos get popular you begin to make a little ad revenue as well!

Promotion - self and company

Being in the industry that we are in, it could be safe to say that we take the concept of marketing for granted. We consistently market a product or idea to others while not necessarily putting a lot of effort in marketing ourselves or our employer's brand. It's this notion of brand recognition, of either ourselves or our company, that attracts like-minded talent and brand recognition.

People and thus word of mouth are the best way for a message to spread. I'm sure that all of you social media people can agree. This is how viral threads get started, word of mouth, or a social presence; which is in fact an extension of our voice. The more advocates and content that is in the public eye with your brand being connected to only fuels the message.

In my opinion, a common misconception of brand recognition comes associated with award winning work. Design periodicals and other marketing resources continuously push the draw of awards to their readers. Don't get me wrong, awards are great: they create great magazine material and are awe-inspiring when you enter the front doors of the office, seeing all of those trophies on the walls. However these awards can be all but useless if the message of your brand is lost.

Stereotypically when you speak at a conference, you introduce yourself and the company that you work for. At this moment you are instantly bringing your employer's brand to the fore-front of your attendee's minds. Just like a creative TV advertisement, that recognition will be associated with the content that you are about to present; not only making you appear better but your employer as well.

So you want to speak? Great you have help.

While you prepare for your session, one thing to keep in mind while you prepare is to remember that you do not have to go through this process alone.

Your company leadership has a number of professionals that have attended conferences of various sizes that have an enormous wealth of information. While the subject matter may be different, that doesn't matter. Having a fresh perspective on your content can only help you during the preparation and feedback stages.

Refer to the section above about the various settings that you can utilize to help you get your feet wet in speaking publicly. I understand that this is not an easy task for everyone. I can place myself in that category at one point in time. However just like everything else, practice makes perfect. Keep reviewing your notes and always be open to feedback; good and bad.

At the end of the day, the people who attend your talks want you to succeed. No one attends your sessions looking for you to fail. Determination and hard work yields quality for your talk and for you as a presenter.

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