Steven HicksAboutSpeaking

My 2016 recap

2016 was a ...year that happened. Love it or hate it, it happened. At a personal level, I had a pretty fantastic 2016.

I discovered what I want to do when I grow up

Nevermind that I am a few weeks from being able to say I'm a man, I'm 40! It was 2016 when I realized what it is I want to do with my career - I want to speak.

When I was an intern at State Farm in the summer of 1998, I was forced to attend Toastmasters on a regular basis. I hated it. It seemed like a bunch of old people who liked to hear themselves talk.

But I was not bad at it. One of our assigments was to give a speech about..well I'm not sure what, actually....and in silent protest I gave my speech about all the ways I procrastinated writing it. It went over really well, and I was voted my group's finalist, which meant there was a chance I would have to give it in front of the entire group of interns. My instructor told me I was "quite a wordsmith" (+1 for vocabulary), but I could use some practice.

I ended up not being picked to speak in the finals, which I was pretty excited about. I left that summer with a bad taste in my mouth for Toastmasters - though to be fair, I was young and hated everything.

But I also left with the knowledge that I didn't hate the actual act of speaking. Throughout my career I've been happy to speak to coworkers in internal lunch-and-learns. But until recently, I had never gone much further than that.

In late 2015, having done a lunch-and-learn on TDD, my boss asked if I was interested in getting out and speaking outside of the company. My TDD lunch-and-learn was not great - lots of bullet points, and too much information crammed into tiny spaces. But I enjoyed it, so I said yes.

So in 2016, my goal was really to get out and speak. And when I did - I realized I love it. I love the amount of learning I do when I research a topic to death, because I don't want to look foolish. I love telling jokes that not everyone gets. I love telling stories that reframe technical ideas in terms of real life. And despite the 10 minutes of "oh crap this is really happening" I feel as the talk is about to start, I love the rush I feel 15 minutes into the talk when the audience is engaged, and laughing at my dumb jokes, and listening to my dumb stories about grocery shopping.

So I did some speaking in 2016

I spoke at Milwaukee meetups twice in 2016. Once on static site generation, and once on clean code, as a lightning talk. These were my first two times speaking outside of my job. The thing I noticed the most was that people were actually engaged and listening. I thought speaking in front of co-workers would have been easier, because they were people I know...but since so many people are just there to pass some time while they eat their lunch, the engagement level isn't very high. When you are speaking outside of work, you are speaking to people who actively sought out your talk - so the engagement level is way higher.

I also got lucky enough to get into four conferences/camps in 2016!

My first conference speaking opportunity ever - at Chicago Coder Conference - was at a conference that I didn't know anyone on the selection committee. That felt pretty good. I did a variation of my static site generation talk. I met some great people, and had a really fun time in downtown Chicago for a couple days.

Later in the year, I spoke at MKE DOT NET and Milwaukee Code Camp. Each time I've spoken, it has gotten easier. At MKE DOT NET, I got a ton of great reviews in our follow-up survey.

I also got to speak at another Centare-run event in December - QA Camp. This was an event for QA professionals, and I tag-teamed a talk with my co-worker Tyler Evert, called "Tight Feedback Loops with TDD and DevOps." This was my first tag-team talk, and it was really fun. Again, we got a ton of great reviews in the follow-up survey. I feel like I am on the right track.

I really wanted to get into That Conference in 2016, but it didn't happen. Looking back at the abstract I submitted, I am not surprised. It was wordy. I was crafting it as if the reader had nothing to do on a cold winter Saturday, poured themself a cup of coffee, kicked their feet up in front of the fireplace, and read my abstract.

I got some great speaking advice at That Conference

Probably the best part of That Conference is the Open Spaces, in which anyone can propose any topic, and anyone can attend. I facilitated one on "becoming a tech speaker", and it was amazing. I had tons of great speakers stop by to give advice and answer questions. It was in this session that I realized why I probably had my abstract rejected. I am still trying to figure out how to get my abstracts selected, I feel like it is a game that I just haven't figured out yet.

Some of the other great things I learned about speaking:

  • It's okay to reach out to organizers for feedback on why your abstracts weren't selected. I have used this advice several times already, and no one so far has declined my request for more info.
  • Have backups for everything! This was a theme for me this year. At Milwaukee Code Camp, I thought I had accounted for everything...until the projector stopped working. At MKE DOT NET, Scott Hanselman worked with us to make sure we had backups of everything, including a projector...but we somehow missed a backup microphone, so obviously that's the one thing that started to die five minutes in. At QA Camp, the batteries in Tyler's clicker died halfway through. So yeah....backups for everything.
  • Have a checklist of all the things you want to verify during the setup of your talk. Cory House has a very thorough example. This is incredibly helpful in those ten minutes before you start up, when your brain is freaking out a little bit.
  • Find what works for you. You will get advice from everyone about how to get started speaking, or get better at speaking. It turns out...you and that person may not agree on what makes a good speaker. Or you may learn differently than they do. Much like the adage about the most effective gym workout being the one that you will not quit - the best speaking tips are the ones that work for you. Which reminds me....

I stopped hating Markdown

As early as a few months ago, I despised Markdown. It was too cryptic for me. But I realized that a weird combination of PowerPoint and OneNote weren't really working for me, for developing talks. I discovered that there were plenty of web-based alternatives, which would allow me to write my notes as an outline from the start, and iteratively build them up. The feedback I got from other speaking coworkers was that they sucked.

But I settled on RemarkJS and tried it anyway, and it completely works for me. I have written several talks with it, and will continue to write my talks that way.

Like always, different strokes for different folks.

As a result, I've now written talk outlines in Markdown enough times that I don't need a cheatsheet to do everything. Me from three months ago would not have believed this would happen.

Looking Forward to 2017

I am really happy with my career right now. I am submitting to conference CFP's any time I can. I am not being accepted a bunch -- yet. I love that Centare is giving me a ton of opportunity to speak.

In 2017 I plan to speak a bit more at local meetups. I have a talk scheduled in late January with the local ReactJS meetup group, and I think spreading my brand locally is a great way for me to get regional conferences to notice me.

And speaking of brand, I know this is something I need to work on in 2017. I am a bad self-marketer, and I need to get better.

I am also hoping to get into several regional conferences this year. I'm submitting like crazy. It's not happening as quickly as I want it to, but I know this is what I want to do, so I'm going to keep submitting.