Lessons Learnt at My First Conference

Nov 17, 2015

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Brno PHP 2015 conference. I have visted (and spoken at) a couple of user group meet-ups before, but this was my first time attending a conference.

My first comment is a thank you to the organisers, in particular Jakub Zapletal, for looking after myself and the other speakers so well. The only thing I had to worry about over the whole trip was my presentation, and it was great to be able to relax and enjoy the whole event without other concerns.

As this was my first experience of a conference, I tried to put myself in learning mode to absorb what I could. What follows is a list of mental notes that I made over the course of the weekend for future reference.

1. Be Ready to Adapt

During the first couple of talks it became apparent that the slides with darker backgrounds were harder to read. This became a problem for a couple of speakers and could have been a problem for me. Luckily, I had two things going in my favour:

  1. My presentation was near the end of the conference and I had time to adjust and test.
  2. I was using reveal.js and could change the theme of my presentation by using a different CSS file.

Neither of these two points were intentional. I did not choose my time and I picked reveal.js because I thought it looked nice and was easy to use.

If I had been first up to speak, I doubt I would have arrived with enough time to test my presentation and make any necessary adjustments. Luckily, I learnt this lesson the easy way!

2. Ask Questions

Although I am new to speaking, I have given enough talks at user groups to know very well that anxious feeling as the end of the presentation is reached:

Have I engaged the audience enough for anybody to ask me a question?

In my experience, originally the floor is quiet for questions. Sometimes there might only be a solitary hand up and sometimes I have had to wait a few seconds for someone in the audience to think of something to ask.

Luckily for me, after the first couple of questions the audience has always opened up and asked more freely. I can think of a few reasons for this:

  1. Some people do not want to be the only or first person to ask a question. Safety in numbers.
  2. Some people need time to reflect on the presentation.
  3. Some people are reminded during question time about parts of the presentation that they found interesting.

Regardless, I knew before the conference that I wanted to try and ask a question at every talk. Had any of the talks been around a table at a bar, rather than in a conference, I would easily have asked many questions without even thinking about it.

On top of this, many of the speakers at the event were highly skilled developers drawn in from around the continent. It would have been a wasted opportunity had I not got their insight on any of my curiosities.

3. Repeat Questions Back

I had this feedback from a friend who attended a talk of mine at a user group:

Repeat all questions back to the audience

This gives you an opportunity to think about your answer and gives anyone who did not hear the question originally another chance to hear it.

This was the first time I had a chance to practice this and I am sure that it made the process clearer.

4. Consider Your Audience

One of the things that I try to do when I speak is put a bit of a barrier between myself and my audience. This helps reduce my exposure to nerves, as at any given moment I feel like I am only talking to a single member of the audience.

This sounds like a great idea, and it probably does do my presentation style more good than harm. However, it has previously resulted in sections of my talk being delivered at a pace that is too fast for an audience that is largely unfamiliar with the topic that I was introducing.

In Brno, this was especially the case as my audience contained many attendees who did not speak English as a first language.

5. Get Feedback

Do not just throw a link to joind.in at the bottom of your slides and hope that you will receive a plethora of constructive feedback. Make an effort at the end of the talk to explain why feedback is important to you and highlight the channels that they can use to deliver it to you.

After all, point 4 of this article came from a helpful comment left on the joind.in review page!