As a public speaker, one of the questions that comes up occasionally is “How did you get into public speaking?”. Everybody has their own personal story; this is mine.
In my 20+ years in IT, I’d never had a job where it was normal for me to go to conferences. This changed when I joined bol.com, an online retail platform, in 2017. At bol.com, going to conferences was very common. As it turns out, I really loved going to conferences.
Some of the things I particularly enjoy are hearing about new technologies I might not yet be aware of, or new and different perspectives on technologies I already know. Also, I’m interested in hearing stories about challenges people face in other companies and industries, and how they solve their problems (either with or without specific tools). My favorite conferences are the ones where I come back with a bunch of ideas of new things to try. In addition, I very much enjoyed meeting people and discussing our thoughts on software development in the so-called “hallway track”; the conversations that happen in the hallway in between talks. While talks can often be watched online after a conference, meeting new people and having conversations with them only happens in person.
Meeting other speakers
To expose myself to more ideas, I created a Twitter account and started following speakers I liked and people I met at conferences. One of those people was Peter Hilton, whose talk I saw speak at CodeMotion Amsterdam 2017 and later met at Joy of Coding in 2017.
Peter was the one who convinced me to submit a lightning talk to Joy of Coding in 2018. He told me that as it was only 5 minutes, if I really didn’t like it, at least it would be over quickly. Of course, what he didn’t tell me is that it could be worse: I could end up liking it and wanting to do it again! Also, it wasn’t until I was accepted to do a 5-minute lightning talk that people told me that short lightning talks are actually harder than regular, longer talks. If you only have 5 minutes to get your point across, you have to be really clear about what that point is!
Picking a topic for my first talk
For my very first talk, I chose a topic I was very enthusiastic about and actively using at the time: Cucumber & BDD. I had started using Cucumber the year before and even started making open source contributions to the Cucumber documentation as well as cucumber-jvm (the Java implementation of Cucumber). My team at the time was using Cucumber to describe the intended behavior of our applications, and these automated tests helped safeguard this behavior by making sure we didn’t break it when making changes and adding new features. Being an active user and contributor, I had way more to say about this topic than I could fit into 5 minutes, so I had to bring it down to several core points I wanted to make.
Practice makes perfect
Since it was imperative that I keep it under 5 minutes (I was told that the microphone would be cut after 5 minutes; no pressure!), I practiced my talk. A lot. The way I did this was by setting a 5-minute timer on my phone, and practicing my talk in the mirror. Every time I went over the 5 minutes, I would think about what went wrong. Often, it would be a tangent I went on that would take too long, so I would try to cut that and try again. Eventually I managed to whittle it down to 5 minutes and focus on the core idea(s) I wanted to get across.
On the day of the conference, I was extremely nervous but also excited. It was pretty exciting to see my name on a speaker badge!
There were several people doing lightning talks and the organizers had been kind enough to let me go on first, so I didn’t have to continue to get more nervous while waiting for my turn. Standing on stage for the first time was weird; it can be hard to know if the audience likes your talk if they just sit there quietly.
Fortunately I managed to get my story out within the 5-minute limit, and then I got to sit and watch the rest of the lightning talks. I’ll admit I didn’t really process a lot of them as I was feeling like a deflated balloon after my talk; or at least that’s how I describe the feeling of coming down off the adrenaline after a talk. To be honest, I still feel that way after talks these days, despite having way more of them now. It is not as bad as the first time, but I still get nervous before each talk and still need a bit of time to recover after. And yet, I still continue to do it!
Upsides of public speaking
This is how I got into public speaking. It started with a lightning talk on a topic I was enthusiastic about, and based on personal experience. It’s lead me to speak at many other conferences, share my knowledge and experience, meet many more amazing people and learn from them. And speaking is now part of my job as a Developer Advocate at JetBrains!