All you need to know about speaking at a tech conference
I just gave my first two Android conference talks. I’m relieved, satisfied, and slightly exhausted. For lots of people, it’s scary to think about getting up on stage in front of hundreds of people and then talking to them. I was one of those people, too. That’s why I wanted to share what I learned and how I prepared to give my first two Android conference talks. Hey, if I can do it, you can too.
I’d been meaning to speak at conferences for years, but I’ve always put it off. After I attended the Droidcon Berlin event in July 2022 and witnessed the awesome power of the Android community, I was inspired to prepare a conference presentation of my own.
Why you should speak at a tech conference
A key aspect of a good developer is the ability to transfer knowledge. You can do this by speaking at conferences, writing blogs, and all the rest. But to transfer knowledge well, it’s essential to put time and effort into the process.
Conference presentations allow you to present your research to a large and diverse audience. You get feedback on your work, learn from other presenters, and expand your professional network.
Conference speakers quickly become well-known and regarded in their community. Also, their market value increases, too, which never hurts. Speaking at a meetup or conference is one of the most effective tools for accelerating your career as a developer.
How to get started
The first step starts with choosing a topic. I wanted to talk about something accessible and interesting for developers of all seniority levels. So, I chose to talk about splash screens. Chances are every Android developer will work with splash screens sooner or later. I had just implemented a splash screen in a project, so I was familiar with how to do it. Knowing your topic is a great way to establish credibility with your audience.
Next, you need to choose the right conference. I wanted to speak at one known for its excellent content and for drawing seasoned and rising experts worldwide. Droidcon is the industry’s largest Android developer conference, so it was a natural fit for me. So, I applied to Droidcon events in Italy, Egypt, and London.
There’s always a sense of excitement that comes with submitting your talk. Members of the program committee review and select the candidates for the conference. They’ll also notify you if you’re accepted or not. If you’re not accepted, ask for feedback. You can use that feedback to learn and improve. Every rejection will help prepare you for the future.
Landing your first conference talk
When you apply to a conference, you first go through the “call for papers” step. This is where you’ll write your abstract about what you’ll cover. I wanted to catch the attention of the conference organizers with my abstract. I wanted my presentation title to clearly state my topic and grab people’s attention. In the talk description, I mention the specific problem I’m trying to solve, why I want to give the talk and my approach to solving the problem. At this stage, selecting the topic and writing an abstract are the only things that you have to do.
The most common excuse I hear from developers is that they don’t know what to talk about. It can seem like all the popular topics are already covered by other speakers. It’s true that some topics show up more than others. But, this shouldn’t discourage you.
You see, some things just don’t click right away, no matter how much documentation you read. But then, when you hear someone else’s way of explaining the same thing, everything suddenly makes sense.
That’s what happened with my talk and one of the attendees at Droidcon Egypt. She approached me afterward, thanked me, and said that my lecture was simple and easy to understand for a beginner like herself. Receiving positive feedback like this is one of my biggest sources of motivation.
If you’re working with some new technology, it’s your chance to shine. If you’ve encountered any challenges with the technology, chances are someone else has faced them too. Writing down what you’ve experienced — the good and the bad — will provide enough content for your talk. You’ll also transfer important knowledge to a larger community.
Write your abstract well as you can; this will increase your chances of acceptance, but it’s not a guarantee. For instance, I wasn’t accepted for the Droidcon London conference, but I didn’t take it personally. I understood that the reviewers preferred other papers, so I used the rejection as motivation to fine-tune my abstract so that it gets accepted elsewhere.
How to make your talk walk the walk
Finally, after lots of hard work, my talk was accepted at Droidcon Italy and Egypt! Then it hit me: I actually have to do this thing.
The reality is that it takes a lot of time and effort to create a presentation at this level. It adds up like this: a 40-minute tech talk takes weeks of work, maybe even more if it’s new content you’re covering.
A good presentation needs editing before it’s shiny and sparkly. Explore and outline your ideas before you create the first slide. At first, you might have a ton of information and wonder how to get it down to a couple of words per slide. That’s fine. Edit until your message has the bare essentials. My initial draft had 110+ slides. Rehearsal for those 110+ slides lasted over an hour. I had to cut it down. After iterating, I reduced the presentation to ~80 slides that fit into the allotted 40-minute time slot.
When building your slides, feedback is crucial. Ask your colleagues for honest criticism. They’ll spot problems you didn’t notice and help you troubleshoot others. And then repeat until you’re satisfied with the end product.
Finally, do a dry run in front of your colleagues or at a meetup. This is your chance to get feedback from the smaller audience and catch any outstanding issues. A dry run is also your chance to get feedback on your presentation skills and improve them before the big show.
It’s conference time!
Being a speaker comes with extra perks. For example, many conferences have a speaker dinner the day before the conference. This is a great opportunity to connect with like-minded people from the industry and make new friendships.
At Droidcon Italy, there was an optional dinner for speakers and conference organizers. At the dinner, I got to mingle with other speakers and conference organizers. I met a lot of interesting people this way — all while enjoying delicious Italian cuisine.
At Droidcon Egypt, the conference organized a special day trip for speakers before the conference. The trip included a visit to the pyramids and old Cairo and ended with dinner. I was impressed by the friendly and welcoming people, tasty Egyptian food, and the first sight of the Pyramids of Giza as they came into view. I very much enjoyed the trip and connecting with the Egyptian community.
Another perk is that speakers usually get a special room. A green room, of sorts. Speakers use the room to work on their talk, catch a moment of silence, or recharge their minds and bodies. Some conferences even give swag bags to speakers.
Try and get your work done before the conference so you can enjoy all the goodies that go with it. Mingle with other attendees, listen to other speakers, and support them throughout the conference. It’s a great way to make new friends and contacts.
At this point in the game, I wouldn’t recommend any last-minute tweaks to your talk unless necessary. There’s always a chance you’ll break something or be too stressed to tell whether a change is worthwhile.
My final preparations include doing one final rehearsal the night before the talk, and then I’m good to go.
Time to talk the talk
I wasn’t always the type of person to get in front of a crowd and talk. To this day, I remember my first one. It was in February 2018 at a local meetup in front of around 30 – 40 people. The room was small, so it felt like it was packed. I was terrified. Somehow, I delivered a great talk, and people loved it. This encouraged me to keep working on my public speaking skills. One skill I picked up along the way was to pay attention to audience comments and incorporate those comments into my subsequent talks.
After that first one, I presented at local meetups, online events, guest lectures at local universities, and so on. This experience helped me prepare for my first conference talk in front of 100-200 people. The more you do something, the better you get at it. Eventually, you even get used to it.
Feeling prepared significantly helps me reduce stress and anxiety before any presentation, but there’s no magic trick that makes it all go away. One thing that helps is to focus on breathing deeply. This will relax you and help you feel more confident. And after the first couple of slides, the anxiety always decreases.
Also, time flies when you’re presenting, so make it count. Maintaining good posture shows that you have confidence in what you’re talking about, and your audience will be more inclined to listen. Also, eye contact! Make plenty of it with your audience.
Here’s another trick, too: avoid reading your presentation. We’ve all been to one where the speaker just reads bulleted text to you that’s right from the presentation. This can be yawn-inducing. Don’t forget the reason you’re speaking to people is that you have the communication skills necessary to engage your audience. It’s your job to leave them educated and inspired.
Use stories instead of bullet points. Show instead of tell. Slides should illustrate your point. Your words are your primary point of emphasis; whatever is on the screen should back them up and bring them to life. Look at your audience, not your slides. People can’t connect with your story if they can’t connect with you.
If you are relaxed and having fun, your audience will be too. And, before you know it, people are clapping. It’s done.
Don’t miss out on trying something you might be unsure of
Getting on stage and presenting is one of the best things you can do for your career. This kind of exposure can lead to opportunities you never would’ve had before. It’ll also help you at work: you’ll learn to speak up in meetings, promote your ideas, and present yourself as a professional. Communication skills are crucial for personal and professional success.
And remember, you’ll never know everything. You can’t. There’ll always be someone in the crowd who knows more than you. The whole point of sharing knowledge is to learn from successful and unsuccessful experiences and to expand everyone’s collective understanding.
Ultimately, you’ll be glad you follow through with it all. That rush of adrenaline at the end makes it worth it! And finally, it’s an experience you’ll have for the rest of your life, one that you can even watch on YouTube.