This episode is all about conferences and there is a lot to talk about! Why even go? What makes a conference worth it? How can you get the most of the experience? Is speaking worth all the effort? How can you make your talk amazing? How can you get your talk selected? We chime in on all of these questions plus more.
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That’s right, that’s how we do it around here. Welcome back, JS Party! We have an awesome show planned for you today. We’re talking all about the conference scene, for attendees, speakers, organizers, what have you. We’re gonna dive deep into it. My panel for today is made up of Kball - what’s up, Kball?
Hey, hey! Glad to be here.
And I already referenced Mikeal Rogers… What’s up, Mikeal?
And the incomparable Nick Nisi. How are you doing, Nick?
Hoy, hoy! As promised, we are gonna talk about conferences today - one of the ways that the community comes together and gets to see each other IRL. Some of us go to many conferences, some of us not so many… So we’re gonna talk about why go to conferences, what they’re good for, what they’re bad for, how they could be better - all that fun stuff. Let’s start off with hearing from the panel here why do we go to the conferences, or why do we not go to conferences if we don’t, and what makes them worthwhile? Mikeal.
Me first… [laughs]
You have lots of opinions…
Yeah, but I might be the worst person to ask that particular question of.
Meaning that I ran conferences for many years and stopped.
And stopped. Do you still attend conferences?
A bit. I mean, my time is so limited, and there’s so many events to go to, that I tend to only go to events that I’m speaking at, and then occasionally I’ll go to events that I’m helping out at, or overlap in some way.
The few times over the last literally ten years that I’ve had the privilege to go into an event and not helping staff it, or organize it or speak, have been really, really amazing. It’s just so relaxing to not have any of that burden… But it is actually quite rare for me to do that.
Well, I guess we should mention that this panel is comprised of some conference organizers, some conference speakers, and then we’re all attendees at different times in our lives… And I think most people start of as attendee, or maybe they’ve never been to a conference and are wondering “What’s the point?” Because if you think about it from a life perspective, it costs money if you can’t get a business to pay for it for you, it takes time - this is usually free time, weekends often, or travel time… And there’s a lot of effort putting into deciding which conference to go to, is it worth it… So what’s the pitch? Why do it, if it’s such a burdensome thing to organize in your life?
How dare you? What?! [laughs]
I think it might have been Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, actually… But he was talking about some scientific stuff that ended up happening in the research of cancer… And basically the synthesis of these ideas was people were at a conference and they ran into somebody on the street who was also at the same conference, and that was sort of the germ that connected these ideas together, and then turned into – basically, it turned it into what was the precursor to a research actually working out well, and prevention working out well.
Anyway, but he makes a really good point, in that we’re really used to this world in which all information is just there, and you can just sort of grab at it, and like why would you ever need to go and visit humans in person. But I think what we really miss is that there’s so much information that it’s hard to weed through it, and there’s a huge amount of contextualization and information that is just locked up in people’s heads, and until you go and interact with them and talk with them you don’t tend to get that information out of them.
This is why people talked about the hallway track for so long; just talking to the other people is so important, because this sort of high bandwidth exchange of ideas is really great. And I feel like the best conferences that have speakers at them - because we maybe talk about conferences that don’t even do speakers… But the ones that do speakers, the talks that are the best are just the ones that get everybody discussing a new topic, get everybody thinking about something different. Not necessarily the talks that are just like “Oh hey, here’s a module. Here’s what the readme says”, and you could have gone and read this.
Yeah, I wanna jump in on that a little bit… One of the best reasons I’ve heard and agree with for attending conferences is for inspiration. You don’t go to learn all about something, you go to learn what you should be learning about. You go to learn where are there interesting directions, new concepts, new ideas, new things that you’re not thinking about, and then when you get back – everything’s on the internet; you go and learn. You’re not there to understand all about thing X, you’re there to discover “Oh, thing X is really good for this set of things! I should learn about it.”
Yeah, yeah. In 2012 I ran NodeConf, and I chopped all the talk links down to 20 minutes, and people freaked out. Nobody had done a talk less than 40 minutes at that point. Now it’s really common to have like 30 and even 20 minutes lots at tech conferences, but at the time it was just not done. A lot of conferences were doing an hour, an hour plus a lot of the time, and 40 minutes was considered kind of light. And what I told the speakers was like “It is not your job to educate them on exactly everything they need to know to use this. It’s only to make them interested enough that they go home and do it themselves. You have documentation, they will get through it on their own. Your job is just to sell it, to make it interesting enough for them to go home and do something with, to make them inspired”, as Kevin was just saying.
I would tend to agree. One thing I do at conferences – I mean, sometimes you’re there to talk to people, to meet people… But that’s hard to do for all of us, the icebreaker; an easy icebreaker at a conference when you are sitting next to somebody you don’t know is to ask them “Why did you come?” Because that’s at least the one thing you both have in common. “We’re both sitting right here… Why are you sitting here?” And the answers are very interesting. Lots of times it’s just like “Well, my company sent me.” That’s totally cool. Or “I love being around people.” But a lot of people say “I’m here to learn new things.” This is why some conferences have entire-day workshops, where it’s like “Okay, you’re gonna actually get in there and learn stuff.”
I’ve never thought about going to a conference to learn a skill, or a technology, but I have often thought about the inspiration - I want to discover new things to learn about, or new concepts that are out there in the world, and then I can go learn on my own time. I’m not gonna learn that much in 40 minutes versus 20 minutes. That’s why maybe lightning talks are so interesting. Nick, I’m curious your thoughts on why go to conferences in the first place.
[08:08] Yeah, I think that longer talks - my eyes start glazing over, and I kind of start tuning out a little bit, so I do appreciate the jump to smaller talks on that. That said, I’m more than happy to skip a talk as well, because I really do wanna go there for meeting people, figuring out what people are doing, and why they’re there, like you said, Jerod. But mostly, the last couple of conferences that I’ve been to have had karaoke, so that’s why I show up. [laughter]
Well, we can do karaoke right here on JS Party, Nick. Nothing’s stopping us.
So… Keep that in mind.
It’s funny, actually… There really is a sort of direct correlation between the amount of time you give people for breaks and the talk length, and the actual attendance of the talks. One interesting thing - when I was still running the Node.js Foundation, they wanted to do a conference, and this was like one of the big conferences. This is not one of the smaller community conferences with like 200 people, it’s like multiple tracks, and it’s in a more boring venue, and the food is worse. All these things that you deal with when you’re doing a bigger event. But I harped on a few things, like “No, we need to have more breaks. No, we need to cut the talk down to 25 minutes”, and the people from the Linux Foundation, who run a ton of events for the LF all over the place, they were really blown away by the amount of people in the talks. They were just like “I’ve never seen this many people actually in the talks.” And I was like “Yeah, that’s what happens when you chop the length down.”
Yeah, they’re less intimidating. You’re not dedicating yourself to as much. There’s just less to bite off, so you’re like “Well, I’ll take a risk on this one, because worst case I lose 20 minutes, or whatever. Best case, it’s amazing.”
And a bad 25-minute talk, you’ll just be like “Oh, okay, hopefully the next one is better.” A bad 45-minute or hour-long talk will just burn you out for the half of the day. You’re just done at that point. You’re not going to any other talks, regardless of what they’re about.
One other thing that I think it’s worth talking about in terms of why to go as an attendee is the networking perspective. We talked a little bit about how hard that can be… But I have talked to multiple people who are now speakers at conferences, who are attending a conference often times on an opportunity scholarship, which more and more conferences have, so - coming back to the funding question, if funding is a challenge for you, you don’t have a sugar daddy… By sugar daddy I mean you work for one of the big companies that will actually send you to these…
[laughs] I thought you meant the candy.
No, I’m always jealous of people who are like “Yeah, I work at Microsoft. They just let me go to conferences, they pay for it”, what have you. But if you are not in that situation, there are often opportunity scholarships that can help you get to these conferences and pay your way… And I’ve talked to multiple people who started that way, and that was what got them out of a bad scene, in terms of they were in a small town, or someplace where they weren’t finding opportunities, or perhaps they were a person of color in a place where there weren’t very many opportunities for people of color, what have you… They start going to conferences, meet people, and there’s an incredible world of opportunities that can open up. And it’s not always obvious… That’ the type of thing that’s hard to plan for.
You can say “I’m gonna go, I see these talks, I’m gonna get inspired by them, I’m excited about those…” The networking is much more haphazard; it’s that hallway track, it’s how do you get out there… And I think speaking is even better for that - we’ll get to this in the speaker section - because it’s such a hack for the networking piece of this… But there’s so many opportunities you can find once you get out and start talking to people from the broader community.
Yeah. And I’m sure we’ll get into this with the organizing part of it, but kind of to what you said, Kball, the organizers, if it’s a good conference, they want people from a diverse set of backgrounds there, and they want new people who may not be able to get there on their own. So a lot of times conferences will be looking for ways to hand over tickets like that.
[12:04] Yeah… I do wanna stop for a moment and just – like, not every conference is the same or equal, and I think that we’re making a few assumptions right now on what we’re talking about when we’re talking about these conferences. I think that we’re talking about conferences that are really connected to the communities that they’re representing. That is just not always the case with every event. There’s a lot of events that are much more business-focused, and it’s really just a bunch of people selling things to each other, and you’re not gonna derive the same amount of value from it.
I would not suggest that you go to GCP, or the big Google event, or the big AWS event, or these events if your goal is to meet people and connect with them and expand your network. You really wanna find an event that is run by a community that is very connected to that community, where the majority of the attendees are individual contributors.
We know from a lot of research that the biggest factor in how much you get paid at a particular skill level is proportional to how big your network is… And if you think about it, it makes sense, because the more people that you know from all these different companies, the more opportunities that you have. So if you have a bunch of opportunities within the same kind of skillset range, you can pick the ones that are the best for you, and often that means the most money… Although sometimes it may be a better location, or remote, or something else.
But that access to opportunity is dependent on your network, and being involved in open source and being involved in these kinds of community events are a great way to meet all these people. If you think about a lot of people who work in offices, they know the people at their company, and they may know people that they worked with at prior companies, but they don’t have a lot of opportunities to just meet a random collection of people from all these other companies that they may be able to get in the door to be hired at some point in time… And we’re incredibly lucky in that through open source and through these kinds of events you have access to all of these people.
Yeah, is definitely worth pointing out that there’s different types of conferences; there’s tons of different types, and which ones you should attend is really a question as well. Mikeal, you just gave your advice there - if you’re looking for new personal relationships with open source developers, Lambda or what the AWS thing is called…
…re:Invent is more of a business-oriented thing, and you’re not probably gonna get what you’re looking for there. So when it comes time to select conferences - some of us have time and money and love to travel, and can go to a bunch of conferences. Other of us have less time, or less money, and have to pick and choose… And so the question becomes “Which conferences are worth it for me and which ones aren’t going to give me the value that I’m looking for?”
So start with your own goal. Ask yourself, “Why do I wanna go to a conference?” and based on that, then you can start to look around and see which conferences are going to potentially fill those needs. So what are some heuristics or what are some things to look for in conferences that you all have found have been a good indicator of “Yeah, this is something I wanna invest my time and money into”? Like, you land on the website and you’re like “Hey, there’s a conference.” What do you look for?
I wanna let y’all go first.
I look for a few things. One thing I actually look for is location. A lot. Partly because a lot of times I’m trying to hack my way there, so I’m trying to get there as a speaker, or get there with the podcast, or something else, so somebody else is hopefully gonna pay for a lot of that travel to get there.
I hope you like Portland… [laughter]
But flipping that around, if you’re paying for your own travel, you may wanna look for things that are closer to home.
[15:51] I think location is actually a very key piece. I look a lot to how are they presenting themselves in terms of community engagement. Who are they pushing forward? Is it the big corporate people, or is it big open source contributors, people I recognize? Are they showing all white men, or do they have a diverse speaking panel? Are they making an effort in terms of talking about and publishing a code of conduct?
We went to React Amsterdam earlier this year, and they had a big push around open source projects, and elevating up open source, and picking different open source things, and I was like “Okay, so that tells me that they are focused on the community piece of this, and the open source piece of this, and not just React corporate down”, for example.
So yeah, lots of things about how they’re presenting themselves; am I able to see that they’re making the effort around community, around making sure people feel safe, around making sure that this is not just some sort of corporate top-down thing. And location. I love cool locations.
They’re very different places in their maturity cycle. So if I had a message that I really wanted to give to the Rust community or to the JS community, in the JS community I would worry a lot more about getting in front of a lot of beginners, because that defines that community. It doubles every year in size, roughly, so half the people are new. So getting to one of the bigger events may actually be beneficial.
Whereas if somebody was doing a Rust event in a hotel ballroom, with booze, I would be very skeptical that they understand that community enough right now, and where it’s at in its maturity, to actually bring the audience there and then give me an audience to address.
I did a NodeConf like that; I used to go to an event called Funconf, which was phenomenal, that was like that… And you can see a lot of other organizers that were at a place where they didn’t have to prove a lot to everybody. JSConf sold out many years in a row without posting a speaker list yet; they eventually would post speakers, but they would sell out long before that.
When you have that much trust in the organizers, it’s not just that “Hey, they’re gonna do a good job, and that’s why people trust them”, it changes the feeling of the event. People are not looking for the event to prove something to them; they’re showing up with a lot of just expectations about the experience that they’re gonna have with other people, and there’s a lot less complaining about little things.
I was in an event in Berlin recently called DTN (Data Terra Nemo), that Paolo Fragomeni put it together. He does this event every four years, and it’s a selection of just random decentralization topics. And there’s no schedule, and you can get Wi-Fi in the room, and all these things that if you were at a bigger event, with a bigger budget, you would really complain about, and nobody cared. Nobody was upset about that; everybody was just happy to be there.
Because there was a hand-curated list of interesting people and talks, that you wouldn’t have found any other way. You couldn’t have had a committee bring together that particular group of people. And a lot of times when events like this happen, the organizers are going out of their way to grab people and to get them to do particular talks.
[20:03] When I did NodeConf 2012, there were only two talks that people had brought to me that “I wanna do this talk.” Every other talk was “I have a topic that I wanna put in the slot. I know the exact person that should give that. Hey, you, you should give this talk.” That ended up with a very linear sort of narrative over the whole conference, where each talk sort of bled into the next, and it covered things in more of a narrative form… And you can’t really do that if you’re just sort of like “Hey, we have an open selection process.”
And also, you can’t do that kind of thing if the expectation from the community is that everyone gets an equal opportunity to speak at this event, and they get to go through the same process for speaking that everybody else does. And representation aside, because a lot of events that do an amazing job of representation are actually going out and finding under-represented people to give talks.
It’s just there’s this view, once you have an event of a particular size, especially an event that is making any kind of money. The community events are not making money. But any of these bigger events that are run by media companies, or foundations, or whatever, there’s an expectation that “This should be a fairly open place that we can go to present our ideas, and there should be a somewhat fair process for getting things in.” And I think that that’s the right thing for those events, but it’s not necessarily the event that I would prioritize going to. I would prioritize going to an event where people trust the organizer so much that they’re gonna go no matter what, and they’re gonna trust that organizer to find great talks.
Another thing I would prioritize is the format. What is actually going to be happening at the conference. For example, you can have anywhere from like a single-day, single-track conference, or a multi-day single-track. But then you can start getting into multiple tracks, and I’ve been to a conference that has had 20 tracks going on simultaneously. So there’s a good chance that nobody at the conference attended the same conference, because everybody is just going in and out of these 20 different rooms the whole day.
Some people can really enjoy those conferences, because they made the right decisions. Other people made the wrong decisions and ended up in the wrong rooms, not seeing the talks that they wanted to. And those conferences are also kind of detrimental, because they have 20 rooms, or whatever - they can’t really spend the budget on filming 20 talks at a time, and then publishing those online… So you just miss out on those talks, and can’t really go revisit them later.
I’d like to queue up something here, and we’ll take it on on the other side of the break, because I want you all to think about it here for a second… One of the things that we talk about with conferences - the networking, the inspiration, really the maybe not intangibles, but the serendipitous things that can happen in your life or to your life because of attending a conference. So I would like everybody to dig deep and think about something that’s happened because you went to this conference that may or may not have happened otherwise, that’s been a positive impact on your life, maybe as a source of inspiration for the folks who were on the fence about getting out there and attending conferences themselves.
One of the things that happens at conferences are things that you wouldn’t plan, and you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes you don’t even realize that this is a big deal in your life; maybe it’s a job, maybe it’s a new friend… Who knows? These things happen. So as examples of that, we’ve all had our lives changed in big and small ways because of conferences. Nick, do you have a story for us?
Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily call it serendipitous, but it definitely helped. I’m at my current job because of attending JSConf US 2013. But it was kind of a pre-planned thing. I just happened to be going on my own, and the company I’d applied for let me know that somebody from their dev team is going to be there as well, and so it gave me a great opportunity to meet them, learn more about the company, and talk to them in person rather than over Skype, or whatever. I think that helped me overall, and it was definitely beneficial for me to learn more about the company by being able to sit down and talk at the breakfast, or at the hackathon things that they had going on, and just… A lot of fun that way.
Kball, your serendipitous event is kind of related to mine, or ours here at Changelog and JS Party.
Yeah. I am on JS Party indirectly because - well, I guess even directly - of a conference I attended. I was at All Things Open a few years back; probably 2016…
And I was speaking about Zurb Foundation, which was a big open source project run by my employer at that time… And I met up with Adam, and actually did a whole interview with him, that never aired. I think he said he lost it, and whatever. It doesn’t matter. But a couple years later –
He lost it.
I know, right? Obviously, that means “Oh, you sounded terrible, but…”
[laughs] Well, you know, on-sites can be difficult, and as you know - and I know as well - it’s totally possible to lose recordings when you’re on-site.
I have lost people’s recordings, so no judgment whatsoever. Anyway, long story short - a couple years later I was no longer with that employer; I was on my own, doing stuff. I was doing more media stuff, I was writing for InfoQ at the time, and doing other stuff… And Adam reached out and said “Hey, I noticed you’re doing this stuff. Would you be interested in a podcast?” And that was when you all were about to re-kickstart JS Party, and I was like “Yeah, that sounds amazing. Let’s try it!”
So I am here on this show today because of a conference I attended, and the kind of serendipitous trail from there.
There you go. Mikeal, what about yourself?
Well, I’m not here because of a conference… [laughs] But that’s okay.
You’re here because of io.js, indirectly. Because that’s how I met you. It was during the Node/io.js fork, we had you on the Changelog.
Oh, yeah, yeah. I have a very long history with conferences. I think the conference I ever went to, I was like 16, I went to Devcon. Which is crazy, by the way. But I think the first real professional conference that I went to was an OSCON, kind of mid-2000’s. And my view of conferences was very much shaped by OSCON.
I had some great people that were really already very involved in the community and involved in Apache, that could kind of take me around that event. So I had a really good time, and got to meet a lot of really good people. But it was entirely hallway track, entirely off the main path of the event.
That was great, and I think I spoke at that event, and decided to start speaking at more events… And eventually – I had not even left the country, really; I didn’t have a passport. I ended up traveling internationally for the first time in order to speak at the International Python Conference, and some other stuff when I was at Mozilla. But I never thought about running an event or getting involved beyond just speaking and attending.
With the big events there are parties, but they’re always run by companies, and they can’t support the entire conference at the event. So the idea that the social fabric of the conference would extend beyond the sort of 9-to-5 of the event and into the social spaces was really revolutionary. I met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and I had a much easier time talking to people without somebody to shepherd me around like I had at OSCON… And that sort of started to reshape how I thought about events in general.
I had also gone to some sort of unconferences, and that was the beginning of the unconference trend… Which is no talks, just discussions with people. And I’d had some really good experiences with a few of those, but they’re also very hit and miss… So I was interested in what made some hit, and not others… And I was generally doing a lot of just sort of community-oriented stuff at the time.
Then I ran an event in 2009 for CouchDB called CouchCamp. I worked for that company at the time, so it was just sort of like on the company credit card. But I ran that event, and we ran it Walker Creek Ranch, which is this summer camp run by Marin County Schools and… It was phenomenal. It was the best time ever; everybody had a really good time. That got back to the organizer of JSConf, and I had been thinking about doing something for Node, an event for Node, but I didn’t actually know how to run an event without my corporate card to book everything on… So Chris kind of helped me out.
So yeah, I think that landscape of events - I was somewhat involved in helping create it, but I’m definitely a product of it. I don’t think that any of the communities that I’ve been involved in, or the work that I’ve done really over the last ten years would have happened without these kinds of community dynamics and without these kinds of events. That’s really important. That definitely affects how I think about speaking at events, and which events that I wanna go to and speak at…
Usually, when I give a talk, I wanna tell a narrative; I wanna go to an event where people are really going to engage with that narrative, where they’re going to engage with me after the talk, and it’s not just gonna be like a one-to-many broadcast. You can look at all of the accomplishments in my career and sort of directly tie them into a lot of these – not any particular talk that I gave, but just into the landscape of community events in general.
Yeah. So when we look at the speaker perspective in terms of “Why go through all the effort to speak?” You have to come up with a pitch, you’ve gotta submit the CFPs, or you have to be invited perhaps, if it’s that kind of conference… Then you’ve gotta prepare a slide deck or some sort of visual aid, and you’ve gotta get your timing down, and you’ve gotta tell a story…
Let’s face it. Over the last decade or so, the game has been upped in terms of talk quality at this point. I mean, there are some people who are very good, and they are professional speakers, they do the circuit… And I wouldn’t say you’re competing with them, but in terms of like - you wanna be at a certain level. So why is all that effort worth it? Let alone the travel and the money; hopefully if you’re a speaker, you’re not paying for your own way, but there’s a whole lot put into speaking at conferences. Not to mention the fact that public speaking is one of the greatest fears that humans have, so you have to overcome that as well. So why do we go through this? What’s the point? Why speak?
[32:21] First off, let me say, you should not pay your own way if you’re a speaker. If a conference is asking you to do that, that’s ridiculous.
Yeah, it’s absurd.
I’ll second it, yeah.
I’m putting that out there, because I periodically do see questions about that, and I know that that is something that especially as you’re starting to get into this, if you’re coming from a place where you don’t know anyone else who’s ever spoken at a conference, you’ll get that pushback and you might think “Wait, is this normal? Is this not normal?” You should not pay to speak. The conference should pay your way, they should pay your hotel, they should get you there and you should not have to pay to do that.
That is true, and that is something my wife goes through a lot. Oftentimes your institution or your company will pay for you to go, and I totally get that as a budgetary need, especially with smaller conferences, where you say “You know what - we can’t actually afford this, so we’re gonna let you know that upfront”, and so you’ve gotta get another institution. But if they’re doing that, they should also have a scholarship fund that will help folks… Because it is absolutely a sort of inclusivity and diversity question. If you’re an independent, if you are working at a small company and they won’t pay for you to go, that’s shutting off access.
My personal opinion is this day and age it’s pretty unacceptable if a conference is trying to make speakers pay their own way. Asking to get their company to pay - yeah, if they can.
I run incredibly small budget conferences, and still paid for a fair number of the speakers’ travel, and then just a lot of other local speakers filled in the rest. The trick from an organizer’s perspective to do this on a low budget is to set stipends, so you know what the budgeting is ahead of time, and just base ticket sales on the things that you know are going to bring in money, and you can bet on it actually covering this.
So put it next to your venue in terms of what you know that you’re gonna have to pay out, and then rather than doing reimbursements, set stipends so that you know that you can cost-control a bit. And that’s actually nicer sometimes for the speakers as well, because when they’re submitting a talk and deciding if they wanna go to this place, they know exactly how much money they will get in order to travel, and that they won’t have to do this annoying expense reimbursement thing, or convince you to sync up with them to buy their flight, or whatever. It’s actually somewhat preferable to a lot of speakers.
Coming back to the original question of “Why speak?”, it’s an incredible networking hack. Most of us in this industry - and I think in the world in general - feel a little awkward just going up to someone and talking to them. If you’re a speaker, people will come up and talk to you. You don’t have to go that extra mile necessarily. It makes it so much easier to connect to other people at the conference. And on top of that, it gives you a great excuse to reach out to the other speakers. You can reach out to somebody who would otherwise be really intimidating for you, and say “Hey, I see you’re speaking at this conference. I’m speaking, too. Can we meet up at some point? Maybe in the speaker room, maybe for a coffee, what have you. I’d love to talk with you.” And the fact that you’re saying “Hey, I see you’re a speaker, I’m a speaker”, that breaks the ice wonderfully.
[36:08] So between those two pieces, I have found that speaking at a conference - other than possibly going with the podcast, because then I can say “Hey, I’m gonna be there. Do you wanna do an interview?” But speaking is the number one networking hack I’ve ever found.
Yeah, I’ll completely agree with that. I’m gonna let Nick get in something though.
Yeah, I agree with everything that you’re saying. Another perk, especially if it’s a conference not where you live, you get to travel. So if you have the added perk - which you should - of the conference paying for all of that, then you have a free ticket to whatever city that’s in, and can plan accordingly to see sights, or whatever. Totally not related to conference speaking at all, but it is just an added perk to think about.
I’ve mentioned location is a factor in deciding… That’s because I don’t work for a sugar daddy company, and various other things, but I do try to hack conference travel as a speaker or podcast host, and I absolutely bias on location. I wanna see cool places.
Well, let me just say this… JS Party, here - we love conferences. You’ve seen us live at many events. We love remote locations. If you are running a conference in a remote location and you would love to have a live show on stage, something a little bit different, break the ice, break the redundancy of just speaker-speaker-speaker, you’d love to have JS Party with you - we love to send Kball, we love to send Nick, somebody representing us come to your conference, whomever it happens to be, and do a JS Party thing. So reach out to us, and…
Write a check to Kball, and just send it directly to him in a DM. [laughter]
There you go. Quick pitch for conference organizers looking to partner with us. We do love those opportunities.
So what about speaking success? There’s reasons to be a speaker, maybe you’ve decided “I’d love to speak”, maybe you’ve started to and have struggled, or you’ve never given a talk before. I mentioned that the game/bar has been raised; there’s a lot of high-quality talks, and nobody wants to go out there and throw out a dud, so what are some tips and tricks for speaking success, maybe – let’s take it from the perspective of somebody who’s either a first-time speaker, or let’s just say an inexperienced speaker… What can they do to give themselves the best chance of having a successful talk?
I would say the number one thing is people are going to remember the messages that you’re trying to get across, so that’s the most important thing. If you stumble over a few words, or – like, you should plan around technical difficulties, and things like that, but if you can properly convey your message, then that’s the most important thing. People won’t be remembering that you messed up a few lines here or there.
I was just at a conference two weeks ago, and the technical demo completely failed, the whole time, but it was still one of the best talks I went to. So that doesn’t necessarily matter all the time.
How so? [laughter]
It was a talk on using machine learning to detect movement, using the Bluetooth and the accelerometer in your phone; so connecting via Bluetooth to the computer, and then detecting – she was trying to do street fighter moves, so like “Hadouken!”, throwing your hands out in front of you, or punching up, or kicking, I think. So she was trying to use machine learning to figure out when the phone moves like that, you’re doing the punch up. And there was just like Bluetooth connectivity issues, so it just never worked. But it was still one of the greatest talks, because it did work one time…
Like a triumphant final try? [laughter] Lots of good drama right there.
[unintelligible 00:39:41.08] it thought she was doing a Hadouken, but she did a punch up… But it was still just hilarious, and it added to it… And honestly, seeing a speaker have to stumble through that and work their way through that - it makes the talk better for me, because if it went perfect, it wouldn’t be as memorable.
[40:03] It’s very humanizing. [unintelligible 00:40:04.17] I think one of my favorite talks ever was this talk in Dublin, that Emily Rose gave. It was supposed to be a Node hardware demo talk, but voltage differences between Ireland and the U.S. blew everything out. So instead, she just plugged in the smoke machine and let it go crazy, and was just like playing music, and then talking about random hardware things. [laughs] But it was great, everybody loved it. It was so fun.
A thing that I think is a meta lesson from that is what makes a successful talk is you as a person being there, in your whole self, with energy. A lot of us obsess over the details; we wanna get this right, we wanna get that right, we wanna have the perfect slides, we wanna tell the perfect joke, things like that. But really what makes for a successful talk is you’re there, and you show up, and you’re present with energy; you have your stories, you’re bringing yourself into that, not some dry “I’m reading the words on my slide” or “I’m talking about this technical thing.” Those are helpful to have, it’s good to know what you’re talking about, but what’s gonna make you successful as a speaker is just being there and bringing energy.
You can always get better as a speaker. I’ve seen amazing speakers who are able to time everything perfect, and they have their humor, and they’ve got their slides, and they’ve got this, and that, and everything works perfectly, and those are super-impressive, but they’ve worked for years on that. I’ve also seen a first-time speaker come and everything went wrong, but they were there, and they had energy, and they told stories from their life, and they were engaged, and they were clearly just so excited about their topic, and for me as an audience member that was just as good. Because we go for inspiration, we go to connect, we go to find people, and if you’re up there, talking about something you’re passionate about, and that excitement and that joy shines through, I don’t care if your slides don’t work, I don’t care if half of what you’re saying doesn’t make sense…
…because if your energy and joy is shining through, that’s what I like.
Yeah. I think what you’re looking for when you’re a first-time speaker is primarily like - you should be getting better at this. That’s the main thing. You could have a really good talk or a really bad talk, but the main thing is that you figure out what worked well and what didn’t, and then you can come back to it.
I think so often the thing that we tend to forget about is the value to the individual, and just going through a process. When I was having a kid, nobody said that it would be enjoyable to me as a person, for my own reasons…. [laughter] It was entirely like “No, it’s gonna be awful. It’s gonna take up all of your time, and they’re gonna get benefits and you’ll suffer.’ And actually having a kid is incredibly rewarding to you as a person. You get to re-experience parts of your life again… It’s great. But a lot of the value to you as a speaker is taking work that you’ve done and trying to recontextualize it for an audience that isn’t you.
You get to work through and think about all the things that went into that, all of your ideas, and really codify them into a story, into something that other people can understand. And doing that early and often can be really beneficial to the work that you do. It keeps you from going off in like a crazy direction that nobody can understand, it gives you a much better way to interact with your peers, it increases just your overall communication skills… Yeah, so I think that there’s huge benefits just in going through that process, even if your talk doesn’t go super-well. And speaking is just like any other skill - the more that you do it, the better you’re going to get at it, and the more that you sort of reflect on it, the better you get.
If you took an afternoon and wrote a module, and the next day you find out, “Oh, somebody already wrote a module that does that”, it wasn’t actually a waste of time if you learned something.
Me too. [laughter]
And tied to that, you can give the same talk multiple times, and it will help your talk.
Give that talk at a local meetup, give that talk to your friends, give that talk to just your phone, taking a video of yourself. And then if you can bear it, force yourself to watch it, every time you do that, your talk will get better. So if you want to have a great talk – I’m reading a book called “Talk like TED”, that’s focused on what do TED speakers do, and one of the things they talked about is many times those speakers will have given that talk dozens or hundreds of times, practicing, leading up to the TED talk, and getting feedback, and just refining and practicing. You don’t have to keep this unique to the conference audience. Tune it, practice it. The more you do it, the better it will be.
Yeah, I didn’t do that for years, and – I just couldn’t bring myself to do the same talk twice, for some reason, and then I ended up being booked on just this crazy tour in Europe, where I did four events in two weeks… So I had to do the same talk; there was no option of running four talks. And by the end, the talk was so good. It was so much better than the first time. I kind of felt bad for the first conference a little bit… [laughs] And that just made me a much better speaker, because I got to really refine throughout that whole process.
Find local meetups, find other smaller stuff, because there’s not enough big conferences for you to really – you can’t do the same talk for multiple years usually… Unless you’re [unintelligible 00:45:31.15] So yeah, I think that finding more localized venues to do it in is really helpful.
Speaking of TED talks, have you guys seen the TED talk where the guy gives the formulaic TED talk, as his TED talk? It’s spectacular. I’ll put it in the show notes. The style of the TED talk, at this point, has become so refined, and somewhat formulaic, that this guy basically gives a completely empty TED talk, but he’s just commenting on what he’s doing next… It’s really funny.
That reminds me of the Boy Band Song title of the song…
Exactly like that, yeah. Same concept. Hilarious.
I just remember the TED talk with this guy who kind of crashed it. They thought that he was a real speaker, but he really wasn’t.
He just started spouting random stuff, and it was really funny, because there was a lot of TEDisms in there. That’s the one that I remember the most. He goes, “We looked at the data…”
This might be the one that I’m thinking of, actually.
It’s just a chart with nothing… [laughs] Just amazing.
One other quick tip that I actually just experienced at NEJS Conf - for first-time speakers especially - transparency is important, and it’s incredibly humanizing, and you have to understand that as a speaker, people don’t necessarily know who you are, so they don’t know “Is this Mikeal Rogers and he’s given four talks in two weeks, and this is his fifth one… So he’s given lots of talks”, or “Is this somebody who has never talked before?” So they come with that expectation of like “Well, I just hope this is good.” But what – I can’t remember her name; Nick, if you can think of it… She came up and she said (I’m paraphrasing, of course), “Hi, thank you for coming. This is my first ever conference talk”, and she got an ovation at the very top of her talk; first of all because she’s up there, she’s being bold, and she’s facing the fear that we all have, and she’s given it a go… And we’re all rooting for it. At that point you go from being skeptical and like “Why is this person not very polished?” to being on her side, like “I want this to be awesome.” By the way, it was very, very good.
So that’s a small tip of a way that maybe you can disarm an audience that might otherwise not give you the benefit of the doubt. Just say “Hey, this is my first time doing this. Here we go!”, something like that is very helpful, and it definitely puts people on your team.
And I will just throw out, selfishly, as a meetup organizer - your local meetups want you to speak, so please take advantage of that. And there are things that you can learn just from giving the talk in front of somebody else, or in front of a group of people, and that’s timing. Especially comedic timing, if you’re trying to throw in some subtle jokes, or puns, whoever would do that…
[48:14] You definitely learn the timing of that by doing it in front of other people, and when you should dramatically pause for applause, or not, or to make it more awkward, depending on what you wanna do… You won’t do that by practicing in front of your cat. But in front of other people you can definitely learn that.
You can almost always slow down and wait longer. People will think you’re being thoughtful or giving them time to think, even when you think you’re struggling to figure out what to do next.
One aspect of speaking is you’re not the only one who speaks. There’s other speakers. One of the perks of speaking, as we’ve mentioned before, is you get to meet those other people, and have excuses to talk and network with them. Kball, you have a note here in our speaker perspective about supporting other speakers. Do you have thoughts?
I have thoughts. Well, I have a few different thoughts. The first thought is it’s hard to speak. There are some folks who have been speaking for years and say they still get nervous before every talk. It’s hard to get up there and speak. As an audience member, if you’re listening to this, you should know that too, but as a speaker you know it doubly, because you’re facing it.
One of the things that I try to do as a speaker is go out of my way to support other speakers, and there’s a few different ways to do that. One is if you’re going up to talk with the speaker after their talk. No matter if you have a criticism, a question, whatever - open with saying “Nice talk, thank you for speaking.” Give the positive feedback. It was hard to do that. It doesn’t cost you anything to tell them “I enjoyed your talk, and I have this question…” or “And I think this thing might not be quite right”, or whatever, but “Thank you for speaking, I enjoyed your talk.”
Another thing that I have started to do is any time I’m attending a talk, I actually try to live-tweet quotes from that talk, tagging the speaker in. And I do this for a very particular reason. I was experimenting with Twitter at some point and I did this at a conference once, and at the party after that conference one of the speakers came up to me and said “Oh my gosh, you made me feel like a rockstar. I came off stage, I cooled down a little bit, I checked my phone, and there were all these things tagging me, quoting me. This is amazing, I’ve never felt like that.” And I heard that and I said “Gosh, all I was doing was just listening for the things I thought were cool”, and instead of taking notes for myself, I was publishing those notes out and tagging them on it, and yet it had this incredible impact on that speaker. Doing something very hard, they come off and they get this automatic reassurance that “I wasn’t speaking into a vacuum. There’s somebody out there listening.”
[51:59] So those are my two quick tips if you’re a speaker especially, if you’re an attendee - good advice as well… Whenever you’re talking with a speaker, open with a “Thank you for speaking” or something that gives positive affirmation no matter how critical your comment or question is, and if you’re taking notes anyway, do them in a way that perhaps is public, so that that speaker sees that they’re being heard.
Those are absolutely good things. What about those who wanna speak, but haven’t had success at all even being selected to speak? Because you can’t just walk up on stage and start talking… Or I guess you could, but you might get thrown out. As I mentioned before, a lot more people are speaking now, there’s a lot more events, but there’s just a lot more people submitting talks. I know at NEJS Conf, over our five years, we had more and more submissions every single year, and I don’t think that was necessarily an effect of the conference; maybe a little bit, just because you get more established, but mostly I think there’s just more people submitting.
So how can you stand out from the crowd in that regard? Because it’s hard to speak, but it’s also hard to get selected to speak, and there’s probably some people out there who submitted their CFPs, and they’ve been on PaperCall or the different websites, and they just aren’t’ getting picked. That can definitely wear you down as well. Thoughts on how to get a talk that’s gonna get selected, so you can be a speaker?
I think that one big thing is to try and tailor the CFP to the conference that you’re submitting to. It’s much like a resume, in that regard. If you just have a generic resume and you’re sending that off to a bunch of different companies, it can be effectively the same. But if it has tweaks that are specific to what that company is looking for, or what that conference is looking for, then it has a higher chance of sticking out, because it’s more authentic and it helps to better align with the conference’s goals. And that said, make sure that you understand the conference’s goals; go look at their website, go look at what they’re really looking for in the CFP process, and make sure that the talk that you’re submitting meets those needs. Because if it doesn’t, then you’re probably not gonna get selected.
Yeah, do not submit a TDD talk to a conference about emerging technologies, or something… Right?
Well, we have received a lot of Java stickers.
That’s true. [laughter]
And at the zoo – so we hosted our first and our last conferences at the world-famous Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. Better than the San Diego Zoo, just to mention that, Kball… And the zoo thought we were a Java event, so they plastered that a few different places. It was well-intended.
I will say, on the zoo front - I’ve met somebody who’s randomly from Nebraska, and they were so impressed that I knew about the zoo.
Oh, nice. See?
Thank you, gentlemen. Even though San Diego Zoo everyone knows about, you’ve let the audience listeners know Nebraska also has a pretty darn good zoo.
I wanna see a talk at an event just about this zoo. [laughter] I love talks that are not about technical things at technical conferences. Aaron Quint gave an amazing talk on making bacon at one of the JS conferences.
I think I remember that.
It was a phenomenal talk.
I think it was so popular that it actually resonates with me… Like, “Yeah, I remember. I wasn’t there, but I remember people talking about it.” So that’s one way to make a splash.
The first time I ever heard of something like this was I think Simon Willison gave a talk at one of the Python or Django events, about the ships made of big balloons - what do they call them?
Blimps, yeah. He’s like really into blimps, and he gave a whole talk about them. It was pretty cool. Coming back to talks that would actually get accepted at a conference…
[55:57] Yeah, yeah… A blimp talk will probably not be accepted. When I run events, I tend to put stuff in the instructions that are about the kind of talk that I wanna see. Not everybody does that, but if people do do it, it really does inform how they’re looking to see their idea presented. A few other things, like if you know that the CFP is blind, they’re not looking at the names, then it’s really important how you frame the story of your talk includes some notion of like why you should be giving the talk. Not who you are, but… If you were somebody involved in creating a technology that’s relatively popular, you should be giving talk that’s unique to that perspective, and that should be shown in the talk.
For me, when I’m reviewing talks, I find it really important to see a narrative in the talk. Some kind of perspective that’s coming through. I don’t care as much at all about the exact details, every bullet point, and the flow, and everything. I just wanna know what that story is, and if that perspective is something that I feel like needs to be at the event.
I would agree with that. I look for thoughtfulness in the actual description. It doesn’t mean it has to be long, or it doesn’t have to be thorough with regards to, like you said, Mikeal, “This is how the talk is going to go.” But I can tell if somebody has put thought into effectively what is a pitch, an idea for a talk… And then of course, don’t – not necessarily don’t, but if you’re going to do a talk about a popular technology such as a React X, Y or Z talk, know that you’re gonna be facing against 17 other React talks. You’re basically lumping yourself into a competition, and now you must stand out from that crowd somehow. So if you’re going to do that - maybe you have an amazing talk about that - that’s fine, submit it. But make sure that you stand out, and it’s not (like Mikeal said) Vue for enterprise; it’s not gonna catch the eye, unless this is Vue for Enterprise Conf.
Yeah, yeah. I see so many people when they get rejected for a conference, they’re like “Well, I guess that conference doesn’t care about my thing.” And it’s like, “Well, no, they may. They just accepted somebody else’s talk about it.”
And often, especially with the blind review process, it’s not about the person giving it, because nobody even knows the person. They literally just wrote a better proposal than you did.
And it’s also important to know that conferences, even a small one like ours - we got over 200 submissions to the CFP, and we got to pick ten. So we have to disappoint a lot of people, and there’s just no way around that.
And that brings up - there is a bit of a numbers game. Apply to ten conferences, maybe get to speak at one.
Yeah, and be ready for a lot of rejection. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong, it’s just the numbers game.
Until you make it and you’re a name that people are reaching out to… Which I have never done, but I was talking with Emma a little bit, and she was overwhelmed, because all of a sudden she’s a name and people are reaching out to her, and she’s like “How can I handle them all?” So be aware of that as well. There are people that are just showing up everywhere, and part of that is they’ve established themselves, they have a name; don’t feel bad that you’re not there yet. It’s a stage you can get to if you speak and do well, and especially if you’re associated with some key technology, or you really make a name some way.
The fact that they’re there doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re writing CFP responses than you. They might be, but they may also have a name from somewhere else.
There’s often a moment where a certain talk given really well is really – that was the talk that everybody needed to hear at that time, and so every other conference suddenly wants that talk and that speaker, and will reach out to them. If you find yourself in that position, remember you don’t have to say yes to everybody, just because you weren’t getting this kind of attention before. It’s okay to say no to a few people. I’ve seen a lot of people burn out this way.
There was definitely a point in Node.js’s lifecycle where I was just being invited to things all of the time, because everybody wanted to hear that talk about Node. But it doesn’t happen for everybody, and that’s okay. Some people just keep doing cool work and keep getting unique talks about unique things accepted here and there.
Parting thoughts from the party about conferences… Any upcoming conferences that y’all will be at, or things that you’d like to say “Hey, this is a good conference”, or anything else before we call it a day?
I will say that I have loved every JS Conf affiliate that I have gone to, and I think also all of the Node Confs that I have been to have been good. And that is definitely not true of every other type of conference. There is a lot of hit or miss, but those particular sets of series - Mikeal was highlighting that they come from a common lineage, and there was a lot of shared thought; they tend to be more thoughtful, more diverse, have a wider range of different types of talks, and just more fun.
Yeah, I’ll agree with that. I don’t run events anymore, but I tend to keep to those. Actually, I haven’t been to a Node Conf in a while. There’s been so many new ones sprouting up that I haven’t been able to go to. I have a lot of FOMO about not have made it to Colombia, and some of these other ones that have been popping up.
That conference was amazing…!
Yeah, I heard… [laughter] And I know some of the organizers, and some of them I’m sure have been at my Node Conf before, but… Yeah, the stuff has now gotten so big that I just can’t actually go to everything.
Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded, as Yogi Berra once said. [laughter]
Well, that’s the cool thing about this community - most of the event keep themselves relatively small, and we’ve dealt with the growth of these technologies by just having more events, and not by having giant events, and having that one event turn into like 10,000 people. And I think that there’s a lot of advantages to that method of scaling. So none of them are too crowded, I’ll put it that way.
[01:03:05.17] Alright, y’all. That’s our show for this week. We hope you get out there and hit the conference scene. Let us know how it goes if you have a talk. I’ll just put this out there myself - do you have a submission? Would you like to become a speaker, and you would like some help refining said submission? Holler at me in specific. I see some head-nodding amongst the panel here; oh, everybody’s nodding. So Jerod, Kball, Mikeal, or Nick, we’re all willing to help out with these things. I think that’s something you will find.
Oh, I was meaning I’m gonna send you some CFP responses… [laughter]
Oh, you’re like “I’m emailing you right now!”
But no, I’m also happy to help. I’ve never been an organizer of a conference. I’ve done a bunch of meetup organizing, but… So the three other people on the panel may be more on the CFP reviews.
Another thing too is I really wanna encourage people to try to speak at meetups first, and to get involved in their local communities before they jump into the conference side of things. And with that in mind, there actually are a bunch of meetups that sort of came out of the same culture of JS Conf. There’s all of this sort of burrow JS’es in the New York area. There’s Brooklyn JS, and Manhattan JS, and I think there’s Jerseyscript… I think there’s a Bronx one now, too. And then in San Francisco we have WaffleJS, which is phenomenal. That’s my local – yeah, that’s an amazing event to go to or to speak at. In Portland they have DonutJS, and there’s probably some other ones that I’m forgetting. But yeah, there’s a lot of great meetups as well in different areas, depending on where you are, that you should try to check out.
So attend a local meetup, speak at a local meetup, and if you don’t have a local meetup, you’re not like in Manhattan and have six of them you can pick from, or whatever it is, start a meetup. That would be a worthwhile endeavor as well.
Yeah, yeah. Or if you know that you’re gonna be at one of these places for some other reason.
Yeah. A surprising number of people at WaffleJS are just in town then, and it’s like their time at WaffleJS and you’re like “But you don’t live here?” and they’re like “It’s San Francisco, we’re here enough.”
“We came for the waffles.”
There are also virtual conferences that you can attend, that are all online. They don’t have quite the same level of conference track and networking and things like that, but you can attend them, and you can get some of the same levels of inspiration, you can apply to speak at them… So if travel is something that is not very easy for you to do for whatever reason - maybe you’re a caregiver, maybe you have other things - doing a virtual conference is another opportunity.
That’s our show for this week. Thanks so much to the panel, thanks to you all for listening. Hey, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. See you next time!
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚