A First Time Speaker’s Journey from CFP to Stage
One Week to Decide
On October 29, I found out The Lead Developer New York had open CFPs — and the deadline was November 5.
I sent a slack message to my team saying “I’d love for us to send proposals regarding how multiplatform development, specifically kotlin multiplatform, changes your team, development, processes, lowers technical risk, schedule risk, cost, etc, etc.”
This was the first time I ever thought about responding to a CFP and didn’t know if it made sense to the company, to my schedule, or to any of my colleagues. What I did know was:
- When I came to NYC 3 years earlier, I discovered a few amazing people and started following them — @lara_hogan, @lolarobot, @whereistanya, @polotek, @lizthegrey, @skamille, @attackgecko, @kathleenyano, @kartar, @loriabys, @fulhack. Over the years, I’ve added many more engineering leaders to my follow list.
- The conference was very well aligned with the path I wanted my career to take
- Touchlab needed more people getting comfortable with speaking so @kpgalligan wasn’t the only one
- The audience would be different than Touchlab’s usual circles at @NYAndroidMeetup, @droidcon and @kotlinconf.
Thankfully, @namnum was super supportive, immediately responding to my slack message with “Hell yes! How can I help?”
Since this is a “Lead Developer” conference, I roped in @samhill303, our head of engineering, to go through the process with me.
We only had a week, so we had to work fast. Here’s what we did:
- Brainstormed titles with very light outlines to add some context
- Talked through which ones resonated more with us personally, as a company, and the potential audience
- Stopped thinking about the ones that didn’t resonate
- Added more definition to the outlines that survived
- Talked about what makes a title and description interesting (both @kpgalligan and @namnum have read and written a lot of proposals)
- Turned 2 outlines each into descriptions with interesting titles
- Quick peer review
- Send 2 proposals each
Two Months to Wait
Normally, The Lead Developer organizers get back to applicants within a month, but, because of the holidays and some unforeseen scheduling changes, we had to wait until January.
I didn’t know that until they sent a note mid-december so I was looking at my email pretty often until then. Waiting is definitely not fun, but it is important that the people reading through proposals take their time to figure out if the talk will fit well with the conference goals and time-slots. I talked to @Geek_Manager afterwards about this and I was very impressed with how much effort the organizers put into choosing the talks for a successful conference.
The CFP response form also asked whether the talk could be 30 minutes or 10 minutes. Since I checked both options, I had the extra suspense of not knowing how long I would be on stage if I were accepted. Though that added to my anxiety, I was glad to have both options available.
In early January, I finally learned that I was accepted to give a 10 minute lightning talk!
Three Months to Prepare
The Long Outline
We had a lot going on at Touchlab in January so “prepare for the conference” was in the “Important but not Urgent” category. Being the first time I’ve done this, I really should have gotten started immediately, but, at the time, putting it off a little later made a lot of sense (see @allspaw).
The urgency came when I found out there was an opening for the February meetup. I got started right away (Feb 4) on an outline which turned into a MUCH longer effort than I planned so @kpgalligan filled in my slot with some KMP updates.
I promised to have things ready for the March meetup — and I did! It was difficult because I had such a long outline. The prep I put into the outline — organizing, researching, reorganizing, more researching, more reorganizing — was invaluable not only for putting together the meetup slides but for sharing knowledge with Touchlabers, and speaking more intelligently with existing clients and prospects. In fact, as a concrete benefit, I published an initial blog post for some of these which got picked up by Hacker Noon!
The Meetup Slides
Even though the outline was so long, it was incredibly useful for speeding up the slide making process. Here’s what I did:
- Move the outline 1:1 to slides — copy/pasting line items into slides, batching multiple lines into one slide if that seemed appropriate
- Replace outline in slides to more slide-friendly bullet points and move outline to speaker notes
- Lower the amount of text on each slide by incorporating graphical representations
- Replace outline in speaker notes with natural language
I went through a few iterations of graphics, speaker notes, and slide CRUD. By demoing sections of the slides internally, I could incorporate feedback and iterate towards the following goals:
- Language sounds natural
- Individual slides aren’t confusing given what I’m saying at that point or what I’ve said up to that point
- Individual slides aren’t distracting
- Organization of slides tells a story
- The story isn’t more than 30 minutes
Not all the goals were met for the meetup but there was very good progress. Here are the Meetup slides with some transitions removed. The talk came in at about 20 minutes, there were a ton of good questions at the end, I was told the content was good, my ability to present was good, and, most importantly, I felt much more confident afterwards.
The Webinar Slides
This event was a “crazy idea” from marketing. We didn’t know if it made sense or if it would actually happen but from the blog post and the success of the meetup, we knew it could happen.
The meetup slides didn’t include the images from the blog post and our webinar was meant to be more about “How to Evaluate Mobile Multiplatform Solutions” so I worked on editing the Meetup slides to include them and also update the story for a different audience.
I followed essentially the same process as putting together the meetup slides, the big difference being Touchlab’s designers (Nelmer, Frances) gave me some help. They had only a few days to improve my slides and we were all working feverishly until 5 minutes before to integrate designs into the final version. It didn’t all get done, but they did an incredible job, and we knew this wouldn’t be the last time they could help (the real show would be Lead Dev). Next time, I’ll bring design in earlier, much earlier.
The webinar surpassed expectations! We were expecting about 50 people to show up…we had over 100 and 70% stuck around for the entire presentation!
The Lightning Outline
The meetup presentation was about 20 minutes and the webinar was about 30 minutes. I needed to take what I made and learned from both, and bring it down to 10 minutes. Making the meetup 30 minutes from the original outline was difficult enough, so I knew there’d have to be some drastic changes.
So I made a new, hyper-focused outline, the lighting outline and got to work slicing, dicing, mixing, and matching the meetup and webinar slides.
Keeping the technical model from the webinar, the 3 dimensional perspective inspired by the above-the-line/below-the-line framework, and the timeline from the meetup — even after removing all but the most currently relevant solutions (goodbye RoboVM, j2objc, etc) — it was nearly 20 minutes 😩.
The Lightning Slides
In order to make this a 10 minute lightning talk I started thinking of it as a movie trailer. If a 2 hour movie can have a 2 minute trailer, I should be able to bring this down to 10 minutes. Luckily, White October Events has a youtube channel with all of the past Lead Dev recordings. I could use previous lightning talks as inspiration.
I removed the intro to me, Touchlab, and the talk. I removed orienting the audience with what I will talk about. I removed extra details/context for various slides.
This got it down to 13 minutes…nearly there. I experimented with talking faster: down to 10 minutes! OK, but I didn’t want to rush too much. What was left was editing the speaker notes. I removed adverbs, adjectives, combined sentences then simplified them. I was ruthless in prioritizing details and removing the less important ones. Then, finally, I ran through a couple times clocking in under 11 minutes 😅
Editing down from 30 minutes to 20 didn’t take very long. Editing down from 20 to 13 took a little bit longer. Editing down to 11 took a lot longer because there’s so much that I felt important that I didn’t want to lose and when I made the decision to lose it, I’d read through again and want to bring it back in favor of losing something else.
I knew I couldn’t make it shorter without modifying pacing so that’s what I worked on until the day of the conference. I also found out there would be a clicker and confidence monitors, so I tried to recreate that the best I could too.
One week before the conference, I was about to submit my final slides. But then Touchlab announced partnering with Square and introduced the Kotlin Xcode Plugin. These were both such important news I had to find a way to add them to the slides. I already had one slide where I described what KMP will look like for iOS in the near future so I broke it up into multiple slides to showcase the partnership, the plugin, and a few select multiplatform libraries that are pushing the ecosystem forward. My final lightning slides were finally final and I sent off the email to make it official.
10 Minutes to Speak
After all the prep — the meetup, the webinar, the seemingly endless rounds of practice while editing down to 10 minutes — I was feeling really good. I was still nervous (even writing this, thinking about “the day of” is making my heart race and my hands shake) but I knew it would work.
Thanks to the speaker’s dinner, I got to meet people I’d be sharing the stage with. Talking about stuff other than “the day of” allowed me to relax and, most importantly, understand that everyone else on the stage are also people who get nervous and have to prepare. I could think of them as friends which meant when I walked to the venue the next day, it felt like a reunion.
Because of my prep the weeks before and because of the speaker’s dinner, I was much less nervous. What I was worried about was the execution. Since I used Keynote, I expected the layout, size, animations, graphics would all be fine. But I had never used confidence monitors before and I knew from practice that it’s possible my speaker notes would be too small, I’d get lost in my notes, lose my pacing, and potentially choke (not really, because I did get lost in the Meetup and it was fine, but this was crossing my mind because anxiety is real).
That morning, I saw other speakers running over their talks one last time, I saw them chatting about nothing in particular, and I saw them go to the stage before the audience arrived to become familiar with the setup. So I asked to pull up my slides, I stood on the stage, and flipped through the first few to test the speaker notes. They looked great.
I spent the rest of the time before my talk watching those before me, getting into the feel of the conference, getting wowed at the presentations (while not feeling bad about mine).
And then it was time to mic up. I talked to @lara_hogan, @Geek_Manager, and @samhill303 before the lights dimmed. Then started feeling my hands shake again, but I wasn’t first on stage, so I did some breathing and thinking (sorry @iamagiantnerd for not giving you my full attention).
And then I was on the stage shaking @lara_hogan’s hand. And then I started to talk. And then I noticed I didn’t have the clicker. And then I saw the countdown clock. And then I heard the audience laugh. And then I saw some people look interested. And then I was done.
Speaking in front of so many engineering leaders was amazing and I spent the rest of the day winding down talking to other speakers, audience members, sponsors, and even some potential business partners.
When the recording came online, I was expecting the worst. But other than looking down at my notes a bit too much, I’m actually really proud of how it turned out. Once again, @whiteoctevents did an amazing job with everything.
I know for sure that I have grown in so many ways from this experience and I plan to speak again. The personal benefits of going through this entire journey are immense and I highly recommend giving it a try. I hope writing down my journey helps you on your journey.