Tinker, Tailor, Conference Speaker

23 Jul 2018
Nathalie Christmann-Cooper presenting From Pantomime Donkey to Unicorn Designer Tech Talk at FullStackCon 2018, London

As a first time conference speaker I can honestly say that standing up to give a talk in front of an audience was never top of my list. I hated anything that put you in the spotlight, it’s why I preferred to hide off stage behind my guitar in school plays. But I have delivered my first tech talk at FullStack London.

Although I didn’t want to do this, I knew that at some point I would have to. Back when I was tinkering with code, learning from home, I wanted to find role models of people doing the same. Did older women successfully retrain and move across into tech? I looked for reassurance but the relatable role models I so desperately needed were sadly in very short supply.

6 months into my job as a developer, I was offered training on Giving Engaging Technical Talks. My CTO Dylan suggested that I should be a speaker at FullStack London to put that training straight into practice. Now that I have my job, I always advocate for people to be visible and vocal no matter what stage of their career. Personally, seeing others who were and indeed who are just like me, hearing about their challenges and experiences does make a difference. It was a good idea, how could I say no?

The training course itself was great fun. It was awkward to begin with, standing up in front of a bunch of strangers to talk gibberish for a minute about a hairclip or a cushion. I had no firm idea about the topic for my talk even though confirmation had gone out on social media. There was no turning back and the date was fast approaching. That made the first day’s video challenge hard – delivering a short 3 minute talk to camera. It was tough with just an hour to prepare, minimal speaker notes and no slides to lean on. Watching yourself back on screen was painful, why is it that we hate the sound of our own voice so much? But it gave a focus on where to improve for the repeat run on day two.

One of the attendees compared being a first time speaker to learning to drive for the first time. I loved his analogy. It’s true there is so much to think about. What’s going on with my feet? Why won’t my hands move? Make eye contact, slow down, look around the whole room, pause, move, don’t dance, stop, oh mind’s gone blank… and breathe.

No really, breathe!

Jenny pointed out to us, standing up without preparation and with no backup, this is as hard as it gets. From this point on giving a talk will be easier. You’ll have time to prepare, to practice and you’ll know your subject. You’ll have slides, speaker notes and a stack of tips to help.

The course completed, attention shifted to creating a talk tailored to the FullStack audience. Did I seriously say that this ‘talk’ thing was a good idea? Not anymore. It wasn’t that far removed from how I felt about childbirth, when at the 11th hour you realise that “Shit this baby’s gonna happen, no escaping the delivery.”

That’s when the fear set in and sure enough Little Miss Imposter Syndrome turned up right on cue. Ah, how does she always instinctively know the worst time to come knocking, grinning at me with her double suitcases dropped and overflowing on my doorstep? She whispers.

What if no-one turns up?

Confession time, I did actually have that happen once before. A couple of years prior in startup mode I’d booked to exhibit at the Restaurant Tech Live Show and was invited to talk. To be honest, at 11am when the exhibition was in full swing, listening to some woman ramble on about her dodgy gut was probably not top of the attendees’ list for the day. Of course, it was a no show. In my defence, I wasn’t the only one that happened to that day. Looking to the positive it meant I’d inadvertently written a blogpost. With pictures, bonus! But that fear stayed with me and it grew. She taunts.

What if no-one cares about what I’ve got to say?

I thought I’d stand up to Little Miss and put that theory to the test. Feeling impulsive for #IWD18, I thought I’d be brave and share the result of my training on twitter and look what happened:

I know this wasn’t viral, but wondering if anyone would even notice given the fleeting nature of the twitter timeline, this was enough to boot Little Miss out the front door. I decided to soldier on and put Jenny’s tips into practice.

Once I had an idea I grabbed my phone and recorded myself talking through my thoughts just as if I were talking to a friend. This gave me enough material to turn my ramblings into a script. The idea of scripting out the talk is not to learn it word for word. Reading it out loud over and over helped identify the bits that didn’t flow and also helped me keep my voice. I was practicing my natural tone of conversation, not some polished essay.

I tried to keep to the magic number of three. I can’t say I succeeded on this one, I had 45 minutes to try and fill. Padding out the three main points with maybe three more parts to each wasn’t hitting the right timespan. Now I’ve delivered the talk I can see that perhaps I should have stuck to three. I intend to go back, refine it and apply that restriction when I convert the talk into a blogpost.

Tackling the slides was a funny one. I found it easy to get started but the task itself came with a lot of self-imposed pressure. I was going to be standing up as a designer who’s turned developer so they had to look slick. I remembered to keep text to a minimum and avoid bulletpoints, instead splitting each out onto its own slide.

I wanted to use images to illustrate parts of the talk and made sure they were high quality. I searched through free image resources like unsplash and gratisography, paying a small fee for the odd picture where necessary from shutterstock. I included a couple of video clips to mix it up a little.

Co-ordination has never been my thing and the thought of having to keep pace, remember my talk and use a clicker terrified me. I bought my own so I could practice using the same tools I’d be using on the day.

I’d wait until the rest of the family had gone to bed before I’d start to record the talk with the slide presentation. Then the following morning I’d listen on my commute to work, notebook at the ready. That helped tremendously, not only because it cemented the talk into memory, but it let me have a pretty good idea of timing. This made a big difference on the day, knowing with confidence that I wouldn’t overrun.

I was fortunate enough to be able to practice with a work colleague. He happened to be an experienced speaker and offered to listen and give advice. Not as easy though as I thought it would be given the 1-2-1 nature of the presentation to someone I knew. It did feel a little stupid so I had to make a little mental note to self to just get on with it.  I’m glad I did manage to overcome my hesitation because he helped incredibly, not only by giving me confidence that the talk was of interest, but he gave pointers on where to break, to slow down when giving a name or using a technical term and other gems that can only come from first hand experience.

I’ve learnt early on that when you’re out of your comfort zone it always pays to have a support network. Nerves really took hold during that final week leading up to the conference. I still hadn’t finished writing the presentation and I had a huge wobble. That’s when I find talking to people so helpful. The speaker circuit is very supportive and twitter is full of advice. I’m not sure if I was relieved or horrified, but I discovered that most speakers are still fine tuning their talk and slides on the day. I was in good company sitting in the speaker room making those final tweaks.

Finally the day came to step up and be a tech speaker. Thankfully I was able to plug in my laptop and test the playback and sound output in good time before people started to take their seats. Thankfully, because I did need to make a few adjustments to get the speakers to work and set up the correct screen sharing display. And thankfully because yes, people did show!

One week on and looking back I realise that the prep and the lead up was definitely the killer. It’s the thinking that’s always so much more scary than the actual doing, but talking about your passion makes it easier. Jenny was right, the benefits of talking ad-lib, penning a short presentation to a tight deadline without slides, without notes, that truly was as hard as it gets. Once you’re up there in full flow it’s fine. If you make a mistake, leave something out or stumble it really doesn’t matter. Your audience won’t notice, they’re too busy rooting for you.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the thought of speaking terrified me but I always remember a book that my dad had on his shelf, “Feel the fear and do It anyway”. I never actually read it, but the title stuck with me and has been my motto ever since school.  If you’re wondering about submitting your first proposal, or tempted to give a talk at a meetup then go for it. Your voice might just be the one that makes all the difference for someone else.

You can watch my talk ” From Pantomime Donkey to Unicorn Designer” in full here.