Giving My First Talk

So yesterday I gave my first talk since becoming a developer, so I thought I would share the experience and reinforce why developers should get up there and give talks.

My initial concern about giving a talk as a new developer was... what do I talk about? What can I possibly offer to people who have been doing this way longer than me? I guess I didn't want to feel like a little lamb being handed to the slaughter; being interrogated with questions I didn't have to knowledge to answer. So how do you get around this?

Well firstly I think most people understand that having the confidence to get up in front of a room full of people and talk is nerve wracking and they probably wouldn't want to do it themselves, therefore they should generally be encouraging rather than having the intention to rip you to shreds. Most people are good people and would only ever want you to do well.

Secondly just because you know a subject well doesn't mean every one else also does. Even if you wrote a talk about seemingly fairly basic concepts, it may act as a nice reminder, or new way of remembering/looking at things for people with more advanced skills. There is stuff that I know I have read and learnt, but still forget and have to look back at. There is a lot of information that developers need to retain so it does help people to be refreshed on these concepts.

It is of course very important to think about your audience. If you don't want to start by talking to people with a lot of experience maybe aim the talk at people just starting out. That is what I did. This seemed like a good option because I definitely know what it is like starting out as a developer so I knew it would genuinely be insightful for others who were looking to do the same thing.

I did my talk at a Codebar meetup called 'Talk the Walk'. Codebar runs a weekly event that encourages diversity in tech by teaching programming skills for free. Therefore the attendees were likely to be in the fairly early stages of learning to code. The venue was Skills Matter in London:

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This was the first talk I had delivered since graduating into the real world. I wouldn't say I am a particularly introverted person but I do kind of bully myself a bit and I wanted it to go well. There were many negative thoughts going through my brain... what if I had a memory blank or said something wrong and ended up digging myself a hole I never meant to dig? I was especially worried about this with covering a sensitive topic such as women in technology. That was more than enough to make me nervous.

In terms of getting up and talking in front of people, I was always quite into drama growing up, nothing major but I studied it at GCSE and A Level and sometimes helped the younger kids out with their performances, so I had always enjoyed being on stage. I did dance exams regularly from ages 7-14 and I was in Milton Keynes classical guitar ensembles from age 11-18, we played at the end of each term so I knew I had it in me to get up in front of people... but my confidence was tarnished by one bad experience...

This experience came in the form of a university guitar performance exam. To be fair I massively crammed in learning some of the material for it, so I wasn't as prepared as I could have been. But anyway, before the exam I performed the whole thing to my boyfriend and it all went really well. I went in to the exam, was pretty nervous but got through the first 3 pieces fine (one of which was the one that I had crammed in learning). The last piece I had been playing for months and I knew it really well, but half way through I had a memory blank (even though I had the sheet music) and just froze. I started again and the same thing happened, it was like my mind was blank and I just couldn't think. I burst in to tears in front of the whole audience and ran out of the room where I continued to cry loudly outside the door whilst the audience awkwardly sat in silence on the other side.

I know it wasn't the end of the world. But I was really upset because I had cared a lot about it and I just really wanted it to be good because I loved playing guitar. Maybe the fact I had put so much pressure on myself was what caused me to snap. I think I was just exhausted at the time and it all just got too much and I cracked.

Since then I had given a few presentations at uni, and they had gone ok but the thought of the random anxiety kicking in and causing a blank out still weighed on my mind.

Something that helped calm my nerves for the Codebar talk was that in preparation from the talk I went to a brilliant workshop run by Lynda Russell-Whitaker. Lynda is a professional presentation and pitch coach who also attends Codebar, so she wanted to support the cause by helping people who attend improve on their public speaking abilities.

Myself and two others (who were also speaking at the event) went over to Lynda's house in Islington. I think this helped create a nice relaxed environment with lots of breaks for tea and it was a really great day. We started off by performing 5 minutes of material from our speeches. I was a bit under prepared and had spent the train journey desperately trying to memorise the lines, but I need not have worried as the others were really supportive so even though I was a bit nervous I got through it ok. The main feedback/advice I got was:

  • Keep a good pace, not too fast or too slow
  • Don't be scared to pause
  • Work on intonation, start with a lower pitch
  • Make eye contact with the audience
  • Keep posture strong but natural
  • Breathe
  • Advice on the structure/content: introduce yourself, advice on engaging the audience (telling stories) and making the message of the presentation clear from the start

We worked on various exercises over the course of the day and by the end of it I felt much better about delivering the talk.

Obviously I was very lucky to have a session like that with a professional speaking coach. But if you can't, then I would advise rounding up some friends and practising before hand. 3 weeks went by and I didn't really work much on the talk, a bit here and there but not much... then it came to the point where I had a week to go and I still hadn't finished writing it so inevitably the panic started setting in.

Preparation is really important... fail to prepare, prepare to fail and all that... but try not to over stress. Learning in small productive chunks is definitely the best way to go about it. Unfortunately I took more of a cramming approach. A few nights before the talk I tried to perform it to my friend to get some feedback. He has worked as a developer for a few years so I knew he would be able to give me some constructive opinions as to the content as well as the performance.

To be honest my performance was pretty bad, I kept forgetting it and had to keep looking at my notes. He helped me re-write certain parts of it as there were a lot of points where I was just kind of reeling off lists of stuff rather than getting straight to the point. That evening was a good reality check as to what I needed to improve and really helped, so if you can get a friend to help you out then do it!

I rehearsed every evening for the next 3 days and blue tacked the bits I was struggling to remember onto my desk at work so I could read over it every now and then in the day to try and cement it. I started recording the talk using a web cam and that really helped. I would say absolutely do this if you are practising public speaking, because I watched the first one back and thought “this is so bad”. Eventually I kept changing things, my pace, my posture, until I got to the point where I watched it back and thought it looked quite professional. I sent it to Lynda and she gave me some feedback (on my posture and advising me to not hold my notes!). I also watched some talks for inspiration. Obviously TED is a good place to look. I really liked this one I just thought she spoke with a lot of passion and confidence.

So in the end, even though it was crammed into a week, I did put quite a lot of practice in. The thing was, in my mind I just really wanted it to go well, because I thought if I got over this first hurdle, then it would be plain sailing from there on (it probably won't be but that is how mind works for now). If it went badly then I felt that it would be even harder next time.

On the day of the talk I went through a freaking out session, probably around 11am where I just felt incredibly nervous to the point where I was struggling to concentrate on my work. I went on Youtube and watched a video which really helped calm me down. Basically in this video the guy talked about how in worrying about giving a presentation, you freak out that you are going to mess up, but you need to realise: it isn't about you, it's about them (the audience). I don't know what it was about hearing that sentence but after that I kind of felt fine, like the pressure in my mind was shifted off of me and moved elsewhere.

I ended up getting to the venue about half an hour early (definitely a good idea so you have time to get sorted and in my case dry off from the rain). I had no idea how many people would come, in the end only about 10 people showed up. I wasn't too upset about this because it kind of took the pressure off. It was being filmed so I thought maybe new developers may still watch it online and find it in useful even if not many physically turned up.

I was a bit nervous, I felt like my voice was shaking a little at times but overall I was really happy with how it went. It helped me remember why I had enjoyed doing performance stuff when I was younger. So even though it was only 16 minutes long and only ten people turned up, I really felt this experience helped me because I really enjoyed it, I know I can do it now and therefore can do it again.

So why is public speaking useful for developers? Well if you can share expertise on a subject matter to a mass amount of people, then it is quite possible there will be someone in the audience who will think you did a great job and want to hire you to work with them on something related to that topic.

One of the great things about the developer community is the ethos of sharing knowledge, so I think it is great to give back to and be a part of that.

I think it also makes you more confident as a person, less worried, less fearful, and if your ability to communicate in front of new people improves then hopefully things like interviews, client meetings, conference calls, pitches etc will become a lot more natural.

For me the thing that most appeals is the idea of sharing knowledge and learning from other people. I think it would be amazing to one day travel to different places around the world to attend conferences. This way I could learn from people from all around the world, as well as share stuff I have been working on as my skills build up. So that is what I hope to build up towards over the next few years.

I would definitely recommend giving public speaking a go to other new developers. I think it proves you are the kind of person who is willing to step out of their comfort zone and give something new a go, and courage is a desirable skill. I would say start off small, find audiences that will be supportive and just throw yourself in there. The world will still keep spinning if it doesn't go perfectly and people will admire the fact that you had it in you to get up and give it a go.

For advice for new developers thinking of giving talks, from someone with a bit more experience in it... I recommend you check out this guide.

Here it is my first talk