Yesterday I attended the annual unconference that the London Java Community runs. This is a pretty small affair compared to other technical conferences I’ve attended, but its also one of the most fun due to the great community spirit. It doesn’t invite in speakers, but you get a great range of talks. Part of the reason for this is that the LJC puts a lot of effort into helping mentor and grow speakers within the community itself.
Not only that but there’s a whole bunch of people who have come out of the LJC and have started to talk at better recognised conferences. Credit here goes to Martijn Verburg, Ben Evans, Simon Maple, Trisha Gee, John Stevenson, James Gough, John Oliver, Daniel Bryant and Mani Sarkar for kicking things up a notch. The same ideas can apply in a lot of technical communities, including companies, so I thought I’d try to write up my perspective on has worked for us.
I’ve previously advocated that developers should talk at and attend technical conferences. Its a great way to both learn things and also get better acquainted with the software community at large. Its really important to encourage those around you to go and speak at conferences. There's no way I'd have started speaking without the suggestion and encouragement of fellow LJCers.
Recently Trisha and Martijn have started doing a new speakers clinic. This is an event designed to give novice speakers the opportunity to have a first run at speaking and by the end of the session everyone in the room will have given a 1 minute talk to the other attendees. Since public speaking is a huge fear for all of us when we first start out its great to provide a comfort zone. There is also a mailing list in order to support this effort which lets people share advice and questions about public speaking.
its also a good idea to look into formal reading material for speakers, such as the Presentation Patterns book. If you're running a local technical book club or reading group, you can cover a book on presentations occasionally to supplement the existing purely-technical content.
The LJC itself provides a fantastic venue for novice speakers. A great place to start is giving a lightening talk at an LJC event where there is already a speaker. There's no requirement to have prior speaking experience and you’re nearly guaranteed to have good attendance. Whilst for many people it might seem a bit unnerving for me to be suggesting that you want to give talks in front of a lot of people, early on its definitely better to have a full room than an empty room.
The LJC also happily gives people the opportunity to give full-length talks even if you don't have prior speaking experience. These are frequently held at skillsmatter in London. There's also the aforementioned unconference which is another welcoming place to give talks at. This can provide a bridge between a one-off talk session at an LJC event and speaking at a larger and better known conference.
Give advice and reviews
As with any skill, when you first start giving proper technical talks you aren't going to be an expert on day one. In fact your first public talk is probably going to be quite bad. Even if you have prior speaking experience in your job or academia there's still different requirements for speaking at conferences. You don't just need to have solid content: you need to engage the audience.
In order to get better, however, you need to get honest and constructive feedback about your talk from someone you trust. I've found there to be plenty of support and advice available in the LJC for people giving talks. In fact pretty much every talk I've given in the last two years has had the slides reviewed by another LJCer. Not only that but its great to ask for feedback about your talks from attendees you know in order to see what they got out of the talk and what they thought about it. That means no matter how well or badly things went you can always improve.
Another good way of helping you bootstrap your speaker credentials is collaborating with other people in your technical community. Collaborating gives you the following pluses for speaking:
- Two people are smarter than one.
- It can be less stressful to deliver the talk if you know someone else has got your back.
- The feedback loop on talk development is more rapid.
- Co-speaking with someone better known improves the chance of acceptance at a major conference.
That's not to say that its hassle-free and you certainly shouldn't con yourself into thinking that its half the work of one person talking but its a great way to get started and level up.
Sponsor other Speakers
Helping other members of your technical community get a leg on the speaker ladder is pretty important as well. I've seen a few different examples of how to go about doing this:
- If you're on a conference programme committee make a case for people who you know are good speakers but aren't yet known outside your community.
- If you're invited to speak at a conference which you can’t attend and you know of a viable substitute recommend them to the organisers.
- Introduce up and comers in your community to known figures outside.
- Setup a wiki page listing your local speakers and their specialities.
I hope other people find these tips useful. They've worked out well for the LJC and credit to Martijn and Barry Cranford for their successful implementation.
Thanks to Martijn Verburg, Trisha Gee and Daniel Bryant for their feedback on this post.