Why and how you should speak at a conference

You may think that speaking at usergroups and conferences is reserved for a select group of elite professionals. Let me tell you right away that this is not the case, and that you should seriously consider a rewarding side career as a speaker at usergroups and conferences!

Here’s the why and the how.

I’ve done a few speaking engagements at usergroups, SQL Saturdays and online, on GroupBy. Without exception, I find it an exhilarating challenge – it helps me develop as a person as well as a professional. There’s a real rush of adrenaline every time I present, and it’s immensely gratifying to show other people cool things.

This post started developing in my head after reading this Twitter thread from Brent Ozar as I was on my way home from SQL Saturday Holland.

Why should you become a speaker?

There are a number of good reasons why you should try public speaking.

Good karma

Sharing knowledge is just an awesome feeling. What this knowledge is may not be perfectly apparent to you now, but think of something you’ve done at work that might be interesting to others in a similar spot. Did you find a particularly cool development pattern? Do you have an interesting process or setup where you work? Have you solved a hard problem?

Meet new people

Speaking at a conference puts you in a spotlight and dramatically improves your odds of meeting new people in your line of business, and that could be really good for you, both on a personal and on a professional level. Maybe you’re daydreaming about a new job, or perhaps you’re looking for new clients? Or maybe you just need to widen your professional network so you can find help or recruit future colleagues?

Get paid

Not really. But the lunches are usually free.

Learn people skills

Being an introvert technologist myself, I’ve found that one of the most rewarding aspects of speaking for me is learning how to interact with a group of people – whether it’s a few of your colleagues in a conference room, or a hundred conference attendees in a big auditorium. You cannot depend on authority, you can’t (legally) force people to like you, so you’ll have to know how to earn their trust and respect.

Presenting grows your self-confidence, teaches you communication skills (how to explain and sell an idea), and you may better understand how different people learn things differently.

You will very likely pick up something about leadership, but without the whole suit-and-tie charade.

Work on that raise or promotion

Speak at conferences long enough and your employer (or other employers!) are bound to notice. What’s good for your professional development is usually also good for your employer, and that’s incidentally a conversation you should be having at your next performance review.

If your employer doesn’t see things this way, or perhaps even perceives this as a threat, maybe you should look for a more appreciative work environment.

Cool story, bro…

… but I don’t know anything interesting

Yes, you do. It doesn’t have to be a level-500 deep-dive into a new or obscure technology. Remember, there are many beginner sessions that are just as good (or even better) than the advanced ones. You’re here to show people something they can learn from, not to get a PhD.

… but they will boo me off the stage

Just speaking for the SQL Server community that I’ve seen, people are generally very friendly. And as a rule, if they decide to attend your session, they want you to succeed, they want to know what you’re sharing. Let your passion for the subject be the driver for your presentation and they will love you for it (but work on your presentation just in case).

Where to get started

Make a one-hour presentation at the office – gather the team and show them something that you’ve learned. This allows you to practice your presentation skills in front of people you already know and (hopefully) like. In many tech workplaces, demoing new features and development work is actually already a thing as part of the daily agile process.

Or find a local SQL Server usergroup – I know they’re looking for up-and-coming speakers and they can help you get started with ideas and pointers, as well as a slot at a usergroup meeting where you can try out your first public session.

Want to jump straight into a SQL Saturday event? Write a good abstract and submit it. At sqlsaturday.com, you can see a list of planned events as well as their due dates for abstract submission. Remember that you only need to send in an abstract before the deadline. If you’re accepted, you’ll typically be notified a few months ahead of the actual date.

The last hurdle: the imposter syndrome

No pressure.

Do you say to yourself “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t know enough”, “I don’t have the experience”, or perhaps, “I’m a fraud, these people will expose my bluff.”

This is the essence of what’s known as the imposter syndrome.

The cure is fortunately pretty simple: Just do it. The adrenaline rush is supposed to be there, it’s what keeps you sharp. Do your prep work, practice your session, and remember to have fun.

One more thing.

If you didn’t know, I’m hosting a SQL Saturday in Stockholm on May 4, 2019, as well as co-hosting SQL Saturday in Gothenburg on September 14, 2019. Also, I’m working with a few other passionate volunteers to run GroupBy.org after Brent decided to pass on the baton. All of these are good places to either attend or even host a presentation!

Let me hear your thoughts!

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