Terrified of speaking at a conference? Submit anyway!

By Anita Singh

I never thought I’d face a room full of people and speak words out of my own free will, but here we are! This was my first year of submitting to tech conferences, and I had the pleasure of speaking at three of them — Android Makers, Droidcon Berlin and 360AnDev ❤.

I was nervous throughout the process — from picking a topic, writing an abstract, to delivering the talk. So much so that when I got my first rejection, I was relieved and ready to throw in the towel!

I’m glad I didn’t, because sharing what I learned through speaking has been an incredible experience, even though 100% terrifying. In this post, I will share what worked for me in getting started:

No two people explain concepts the exact same way, so it absolutely worth sharing your knowledge even if it is something that has been spoken about before.
  • People will come to your talk to hear about your experience and perspective on a topic, so don’t hold back!
  • If speaking is about sharing what you know…well, what do you know? To refresh your memory, I recommend making a list of ALL the projects you worked on in the last couple of years and what you learned, spare no detail! Then proceed to summarise each point with a phrase, like “worked with Android gestures” to extract potential topics out of them.
  • If you feel unamused by the topics related to your past projects, make a second list of topics you wish you knew more about. If you think you will be able to sufficiently explore a topic before the conference, then it is fair game!
  • My advice would be to pick up to three topics that you are either most excited or confident about (or both), and get started!
  • First, read the conference’s website where they post their CFP. Often they list topics or what they are looking for, which can help you brainstorm or tailor your abstract.
  • Go through websites of conferences earlier in the year and read the topic proposals to get a sense of how to structure them. You will see that abstracts are a talk’s MVP (minimum viable product) as it is the minimum amount of effort you need to make. You only have to write the talk once it gets accepted!
Keep your abstract succinct and focus on what the audience will learn from your talk.
  • The first two conferences I submitted to used language like “I will share how I..” instead of saying “you will leave this talk knowing how to..”. Don’t know if this is a coincidence, but once I changed the language, my talk got accepted!
  • Try to work with a colleague, friend or ask someone from the community to review your abstract. The conference committee may not be familiar with your topic, so having someone else review this will ensure that the abstract is understandable, and they might have suggestions for the content as well. Thank you Corey Latislaw for reviewing my abstracts ❤.
  • Rejections are part of the process. As mentioned above, get feedback from the community as early as possible and don’t be like me and wait for rejections to do this. Don’t hesitate to ask for feedback from the conference committee either, but don’t feel down if you don’t get a response since they are busy people dedicating their free time for this.
  • Practice slowing down. When you are in front of people, adrenaline kicks in and you will likely speak at a faster speed than anticipated. Record yourself if you are feeling brave to improve on your delivery (but don’t obsess!).
  • Give the first version of your talk at a safe space like your friendly local meet-up or in front of your colleagues and ask for feedback. I recommend taking questions in these safe spaces as they can help you improve the content of your talk for next time.
  • Be mindful of your posture and body movements when delivering the talk. Be 100% yourself, but the nerves can result in you playing with your hair (guilty!), sleeves, and so forth while giving the talk, which can be distracting for the audience.
  • This might seem silly, but do the power pose and give yourself a pep talk right before the talk! If possible, surround yourself with positive people leading up to it, this helped me the most.
The audience is on your side, and if you *think* you messed up during your talk, just keep going.
  • Chances are nobody noticed, you are your biggest critic, and we are only human! I blanked out once and I internally panicked, but it looked like I was just taking a breath to everyone else :-).
  • You don’t have to take questions on the big day, and it is perfectly acceptable to say you will get back to someone if you don’t know the answer. The audience will not mind getting their time back.
  • Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously, you are not carrying the weight of world peace on your shoulders! That worst case scenario that you are dreading will NOT happen since you are so nervous about it. And besides, what is the worst that could happen?

I have anxiety about this whole process, and what convinced me is if I don’t enjoy speaking, I never have to do it again, but it is worth trying at least once.

You don’t have to do this alone, lean into your developer community and check out organizations that can support you, like Toastmasters, Write/Speak/Code, Women Techmakers Berlin and so forth.

I hope the above tips are helpful, would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. Looking forward to hearing you speak, here are some conferences that you can submit to right now!