Three years ago I remember sitting in a session, one of many, and thinking how cool it would be to be a speaker at OSCON. I mean seriously, OSCON is the best software conference in the world, who wouldn’t want to be a speaker? As speaker, you join an elite group of software enthusiasts and it looks great on your resume (not to mention the great parties…). I’ve been fortunate to realize my dream for two years in a row now. This year was a dream come true as I was able to provide not only a session, but a tutorial as well. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity, and thank everyone who attended my talks. More importantly, I thank my co-presenter Joseph Hill. Without his contributions and technical expertise, my dream would have never materialized.
So while I’ve been able to realize my dream, I see myself in many other convention attendees. I see them thinking to themselves about speaking at OSCON at a future date. So let me share something I’ve come to appreciate these last two years. Speaking at a convention like OSCON is not without its sacrifices. Perhaps the biggest sacrifice of all is missing out on the convention itself. Sure, there is a lot of work preparing slides and whittling your message down to its most simple and concise form, but for most speakers, speaking during the convention means you’ll miss most of the convention.
My experience has perhaps been more extreme than most. So far, in all of my OSCON talks I’ve collaborated with Jospeh Hill, founder of Mono Live. While we always try to prepare as much as possible before arriving, he lives in Texas and I live in Puerto Rico. So the only time we have to practice is when we arrive in Portland. Most of our conventions have been consumed with practicing our talk, perfecting our demonstrations, and synchronizing our interaction. This year we spent all of Monday, Tuesday morning, and most of Wednesday working on our talks.
From interacting with other presenters in the speaker lounge, I would confess that our final preparations are extreme, but not uncommon. Even Damian Conway in his “Presentation Aikido” recommends extreme practicing prior to a talk. You might be thinking, well if I had the opportunity, I would arrive prepared. Yeah right! Larry Wall of Perl fame has long confessed that the reason he wrote Perl was because of being lazy. Let’s face it, if you are going to speak at a conference, it is most likely an extra workload on top of your day job, and probably on top of your evening pursuits. From what I’ve seen from other speakers, it is very common to arrive in Portland, ahhh, let’s just say not quite ready for your presentation.
Of course, I take speaking very serious. Once again, to borrow from Damian, speaking is a honor. When people attend your talk, they are giving time from their precious lives, so don’t suck away their lives for nothing. I try not to, and I hope the results show that extra effort. That extra effort meant this year that I missed all of OSCamp, I missed almost all of the keynotes, and only attended one session before my session talk. I would not have wanted to miss the opportunity of speaking, but just know that if you enjoy attending OSCON, you might want to consider what you might have to sacrifice to make your dream happen. I can’t say what my future holds, but I think that next year, I’ll take a rest and just enjoy the show; because what a great show it is!
A little advice
If you are going to take the plunge, then I’d like to share from my experience some tips. All the way from proposing talks to your final delivery, here is what I’ve learned these last two years.
- Call for Topics
- Propose what you know - When I have been accepted for speaking at OSCON, and at other forums, I’ve found that the selection boards weigh heavily your recognition as someone knowledgeable on that topic. When ever I proposed topics that were cool and perhaps interesting, but where I didn’t have any demonstrable evidence on the Internet (evidence that I already knew about, worked with, studied, published, etc. on the topic), the topics were denied. Propose talks on what you know, on something others can see that you know about that topic. If you don’t know anything well enough, or lack the evidence, then you still have about six months before the call for topics for OSCON 2007 closes.
- Preparation and Speaking
- Presentation Aikido - By far, the best advice I can give is for you to attend Damian Conway’s “Presentation Aikido” presentation. It is simply the best training for speaking at OSCON. Hands down, end of discussion. If you can’t attend or haven’t (yet) I’ll share my biggest take aways from having seen it twice
- Put on a show - Contrary to popular opinion, conference attendees do not attend sessions to be educated. They want to be entertained. While the technical content should be accurate, useful, and hopefully interesting. Whether it is a 3 hour tutorial or a 45 minute session, the audience wants to enjoy themselves. Put yourself in your potential audience’s position. Do you remember what it’s like to sit through “Slide after unrelenting slide”? Or my favorite, witnessing demonstrations so technically challenging that there is literally no hesitation in moving from one complex screen to the next. You typically only have five free minutes where any audience will pay attention, after that, you’ll have to keep them entertained or they’re likely to bail to the session down the hall. As you saw above, that’s why I always refer to OSCON as a show. It’s a show because the experience is unique and very entertaining.
- Speak about what you know - Yes, I know you proposed what you know, so just talk about that. Even up until the last practice session, if there is a bullet point or slide where you are not totally prepared to speak from confidence, then ditch it. Your audience will thank you.
- Finally, practice, practice, and then practice some more. Do it out loud, do it standing, and make believe you are talking to an audience. Practice your gestures, practice how you will move, hold your hands, drink water between slides, everything. It will be the best investment of your time other than ditching meaningless points and slides.
- While at OSCON
- Hang out at the speakers lounge - this is the coolest place to be besides the hallway track. All of the speakers you’ve seen before are probably there. Definitely stop by and say hi to Vee and spend some time getting to know her. Regardless of what Nat thinks, OSCON is really Vee’s show. She is just so unassuming that she let’s him get up on stage and think it’s his gig. One other thing, if you’re running low on caffeine, there is always tea and coffee available in the lounge. Oh yeah, while you’re in the lounge…
- Interact - Don’t hesitate to introduce yourself and ask questions. Be respectful of speakers who are, uh, putting some last minute touches to their presentation or slides, but of course, that NEVER happens. The people in the room are leaders in your industry and typically keen on meeting and sharing with you. Who knows who you might meet in there?
- Have fun! - Most of all, enjoy yourself. This is the pinnacle of software geekdom, relax (if possible) and revel in your moment. This will carry through to your session as well. If you’re having fun, then you have a great head start on the whole speaking as entertainment thing. I guarantee you that if your having a blast giving your talk, then your audience will pick up on that vibe and will have a blast too!