Axxes IT Consultancy

My passion for speaking

People sometimes ask me why I go through great effort to speak at conferences. And when you look at it from a certain angle, I can see where that question is coming from. I’m away from my family and hometown friends, preparing talks is hard work and you don’t get paid for speaking. So why do it?

Sharing knowledge

Is it the recognition then? I would be lying if I said recognition doesn’t play a part in it. It’s nice to be recognized for the things you are good at. But it is not the main reason for me to get on that stage. The thing that drives me most to do this is that I really like sharing my experiences. If you have ever talked to me, you will know that I’m an open book and you can talk to me about anything: about my family, my guitar-building hobby, the projects that I worked on and even the burnout that I had a few years ago. I just love it when I can share a story.

“I would be lying if I said recognition doensn’t play a part in it. But the thing that drives me most is to share a story that people can learn from.”

And what I love even more is when people can learn something from that story. So many aspects of my job are centered around helping other people grow: being a competence coach, taking up lead roles at my customers, teaching juniors at our traineeships, organizing training and knowledge sharing within our company, etc. I realized a long time ago that working with people to help them achieve more is very rewarding. And that often, while doing it, I will learn something myself too. It makes me genuinely happy to do that. Speaking at a conference is just a way of doing that on a larger scale.

Meeting like-minded people

When you give a talk about something, the people who come and listen are interested in the subject you are speaking about. These are people who are facing similar problems, people who are working in a similar area or with similar technology, or people who are interested in that particular thing you are speaking about. If you’re lucky, they will come and talk to you in person before or after your talk. The great thing about these conversations is that you have a shared understanding or background, so the conversation can get very specific very quickly. And because all these people have different experiences and insights, I will usually learn something myself too, even if the conversation started with them asking a question about my talk. And sometimes, you’ll continue the conversation over lunch and you make a new friend.

The other speakers

But wait, it gets better. When you go to a conference as a speaker you will have the chance to meet the other speakers. The organizers usually host a speaker dinner, there is often a speaker room for talk preparation, and because we usually all stay in the same hotel, we run into each other all the time. There are so many opportunities to grab food together, go explore the city together, etc. In my experience, the other speakers are very welcoming of new people. Anyone will get invited along, and you’ll feel like a part of the crowd really quickly.

These are all people who put effort into answering Call for Papers, preparing talks and being far away from home. This means they are pretty passionate about it. It also means they are often very passionate about other things too: their job, their reading, their personal growth, their hobbies, etc. I’ve had so many interesting conversations about so many different topics, many of them not even programming-related. Some recent conversations I remember were about removing CO2 from the atmosphere, knitting and coaching other people. They are awesome people to spend time with.


Getting in

So maybe you’re thinking “that sounds awesome, sign me up!”. But unfortunately the hardest part for a new speaker is getting your first talk accepted. You might be mistaken for thinking that if speakers don’t get paid, you won’t have trouble landing a spot at one of these events. Nothing could be further from the truth. The competition is huge. The average conference will get a lot more proposals submitted than they have slots for talks. For some conferences, it can even be ten times the number of available talk slots. So don’t give up if you get rejected. We all get rejected, and even the rockstar speakers get rejected from time to time.

“Unfortunately the hardest part for a new speaker is getting the first talk accepted. The average conference will get way more proposals than they have slots for talks. Don’t give up!”

So how do you get started? There are better blogposts on that subject. If you’re really interested, check out Conference speaking like a boss by the awesome Jennifer Wadella.

In terms of landing that first conference talk, this is what worked for me:

  • Submit content relevant to the event.
  • Don’t submit the same subjects everyone else is submitting about, unless you actually created the thing or have a unique take on it. If a framework or tool is trending, they likely have 10 submissions about it, including one from the creator. Your chances of getting in go way down.
  • Spend time crafting a catchy title and a good abstract. Spend extra time on the first 2 sentences, if they don’t captivate the content committee, the rest might not even get read. Remember, these people are usually scanning through hundreds of submissions.
  • If you get declined, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. You don’t always get feedback, but anything they tell you can improve your next submissions.
  • If you’re at an event as an attendee, talk to the organizers. Tell them who you are, and tell them about your ambitions as a speaker. They may remember you for next year.
  • Don’t give up! If you do all the things above, it is a matter of time. Just keep submitting to those CFP’s.

Preparing talks

And when you eventually get it, the time comes to deliver on the ‘promise’ you made at the CFP. The organizers have taken your word for it that you can deliver a great talk about your subject to their audience. If you do well, you might get invited back.

Make no mistake about it, everyone works hard on those talks. Some speakers will tell you ‘I made this talk on the plane over here’. But what they really mean is: I used the time on the plane to make the slides for this idea that has been sitting in my head for weeks. And I spent a bunch more time in the speaker room and my hotel room finetuning it and practicing what to say. If you go to a conference talk, and you feel like it was a story well told, you can be sure the speaker spent ample time preparing.

Also, the shorter the talk, the more time you will spend on it. A 1 hour conference talk will often take 3-5 days to prepare. This is without counting the time needed to write the code you might want to publish on GitHub. And if you want to make that into a 30 minute talk? You’ll spend even more time condensing the content, practicing the presentation, re-writing, re-ordering, …

I always reserve time for preparation when I know I have a talk coming up. But due to this guy called Murhpy and his law, that time often gets taken up by other priorities. So when it boils down to it, my talk preparations often take place at night, when my kids are in bed, on the plane, or during that bit of time you reserved to go sight-seeing at the conference city. And having met quite a few speakers, this holds true for so many of us. But when you are on that stage, and you connect with your crowd, that makes it all worth it.

“Make no mistake about it, everyone works hard on those talks. But when you are on that stage, and you connect with your crowd, that makes it all worth it.”

Pushing the limits

When you get to know the speakers and the organizers, and you do a good job on your talks, more opportunities will arise. Recently, I had the chance to do my first PubConf. For those not familiar with the concept: it is a conference at the pub, where some of the conference speakers deliver funny Ignite style talks while the attendees are having free drinks.

Ignite talks have some rules: you have 5 minutes to make your point, with 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. No clicker, no ways to diverge, no rooms for mistakes and no waiting for people to finish laughing! You have to know what to say at every slide, and hold composure until the end. Scary stuff! And at PubConf, you will probably do this while you already had a few drinks yourself.

But the reward is the same: you get some recognition, you get to hang with awesome people and the audience will learn something. Nothing useful this time, just that there are crazy people willing to put a lot of effort into making something fun for the afterparty. Thanks Todd, for letting me be one of them!

Hannes Lowette - Axxes speaker at conferences

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