What Works For Me as a Speaker

Recently, I was speaking at ScanAgile, the biggest Scandinavian agile conference. ScanAgile is on a mission to increase diversity and attract more new, first-time speakers, which is laudable. So, they asked us, the speakers, for tips and tricks on becoming a successful speaker. Two things about this. First, what does it mean to be a successful speaker? What is that? I do not have the answer to that. I do not think I am one. That makes it a bit harder to give any advice. Second, I am not a fan of tips and tricks. I have often experienced this as patronising. It lacks context. What works for one person does not necessarily work for someone else. In that regard, I prefer sharing what works for me as a speaker and what I look for as a conference reviewer. Your mileage may vary. Note that, for now, I stopped being a reviewer for personal reasons.

Submitting a proposal

Manifestly, even before becoming a speaker, it all starts with submitting a proposal. To me, that is already quite an achievement. I am not particularly prosaic. Writing is daunting and demanding.

As it happens, it all starts with an idea. Often, people think they have nothing to share. Before speaking, I also thought that. But in reality, everyone has a story to share from what they have experienced in their teams or organisation that is, in all likelihood, worth telling. Chances are, we have even more stories to share. Real-world case studies have a lot of potential at conferences. But it could also be something we are passionate about. Something we dived deep into and discovered new insights worth sharing. I started to keep track of topics and titles emerging during conversations that would be worth writing an article about. Once there is an article, there is material for a presentation.

Once we have the idea, then comes the proposal. Honestly, to me, that is the hard part. It begins with the title. It needs to draw attention and gain the interest of the reviewers. In all sincerity, as a reviewer, the title makes the difference in whether I am interested in the topic or not. It sounds stupid and not fair, I give you that. The thing is, we do this in our limited spare time. I have heard, indirectly, that for some reviewers, the title and the first sentences of the proposal are defining. Some stop there if they are not convinced. I have never done that. Every proposal received the benefit of the doubt. But, I admit, if the title did not entice me, I read the remainder of the proposal with coloured glasses. That is partial. I agree. Once more, we have little time. So, that’s that.

As a side note, what I share here as a reviewer is what I pay attention to. I do not know what other reviewers look for. When reviewing proposals, I am looking for three things. Either I look for novelty or being surprised. Think of unusually combining different practices. Or the uncommon use of a widespread practice. Or a success story of a practice that is most often poorly implemented. Think OKRs. Or a reconfirmation of old technical practices because they still lack adoption. Think all of Extreme Programming. A good few topics are an unconditional no-go. Think agile transformations. We are over this. Any workshop close to psychology run by someone unclear they have any psychology degree. Too dangerous.

Anyhow, look at the previous years’ program to come up with an idea of which topics fit the conference. It might be that the topic is good, but not for that conference but a perfect fit for a different conference. There are some topics I do not submit to some conferences because I know my chances will be low. Or I adapt the abstract to fit more with the audience. It does not necessarily mean the content of the presentation changes. It might be.

For the abstract, Johanna Rothman taught me to start with the problem definition, followed by a glimpse of the solution without revealing too much about the solution. Another piece of advice I often receive from people reviewing my draft abstract is to provide a closing sentence to invite people to attend the session, something inspiring the attendees for their situation. It avoids the abstract ending too abruptly.

The other thing I look for as a reviewer in a submission is a session outline or a timeline. It builds a sense of whether the session will be well structured and organised. How will it be delivered? Which topics will be covered? How much time does each topic receive? Are too many topics covered for the session duration? The timeline does not need to be precise. We only want to have an idea. Often, an outline is good enough, too. When a submission does not provide an outline, I tend to give a lower rate because I cannot answer accurately some of the review questions.

Now, it is not always possible to provide that information. Not all conferences have notes or additional information sections. Some have only an abstract field. Nothing more. In that case, selling an abstract is tougher.

Lastly, providing key takeaways is chief. It gives reviewers an idea of what attendees will get from the session. Also, it helps attendees to understand what they will get out of the session.

Before submitting a proposal, it helps to ask for feedback on a draft submission. I still ask for feedback on some of my draft abstracts. When I started, that was not so easy. I did not have the network I have now. The speaking helped a great deal to build that network. Back in the day, there was this lovely initiative HelpMeAbstract. Speakers offered their help to review abstracts. That helped me a lot. But it seems, unfortunately, that does not exist anymore.

Some conferences offer reviews as part of the submission process. Make use of that. It does make a difference. At other conferences, you can contact the organisers for help on reviewing. They will forward your request to their network. The folks at Software Acumen do that. Recently, I was asked by an organiser if I wanted to help a first-time speaker, which I did. I also had once a first-time speaker reaching out through LinkedIn to ask for a review, which I also did. Make use of that. Speakers are generally approachable. But, I still tend to place some speakers on a pedestal.

How to become a good speaker

Again, what does it mean to be a good speaker? I do not know if, in the end, I am a good speaker. But, over time, I did develop a particular speaking habit.

I used to submit an abstract about a vague idea. Many speakers do that. It follows the lean principle. Do not invest too much upfront for an unknown value in return. Once selected, I started developing the idea in bullet points. Often, each bullet point is a slide. It then becomes a script. But, eventually, that way of working became too stressful. I usually had the plan to start two months in advance. Which never happened. Because of procrastination.

Nowadays, I try to have an article before even sending an abstract. However, most of the time, that article is not enough to fill a presentation. It needs more research. The article gives structure but still requires additional work to prepare the presentation. There, I am caught again by procrastination.

In the week before the conference, I start practising out loud, like for the whole house. My kids have quite some fun with that. Practising out loud allows me to detect errors in the flow, the slide transitions and the wording.

As some people know, I am not particularly keen on public speaking. I am pretty shy and introverted, but I keep doing this. In front of a speaking engagement, I feel miserable. Why am I doing this? But once I finish speaking, I look for the next speaking engagement. Silly, not?

In this regard, over the years, I have adopted several coping mechanisms.

Because I have trouble finding words on the spot, I need to practice to a great extent to memorise the script as much as possible. For some of my talks, I know the script entirely by heart. It gives me great flexibility.

I need to walk around on the stage to feel comfortable. When standing still in front of the audience, I feel utterly awkward. I need to be busy when speaking. Knowing the script by heart helps with that. Also, I gesture a lot. From this perspective, handheld microphones are a nightmare.

It might sound silly. But, I like to go on the stage of the room I will be speaking at early in the morning when it is still empty. It allows me to feel and absorb the room. How big is the stage? How much room do I have to walk around? Does the lecture stand have room for a glass of water? Where is the lecture stand on the stage? In the middle? On the side? How far can I walk away in case I have a blackout? Can I use the whole stage, or is the projector standing too low and I will be walking in front of the screen?

Lastly, before speaking, I do stretching exercises to circulate the blood. Last year, a public speaking coach shared with me they advise that to new speakers, but nobody does that. So, he was surprised to see me doing that. Also, keep your shoulders and back straight, with your hands on your hips to increase confidence.

The hours before speaking, I go nuts. Eating is somewhat impossible. However, I do drink coffee before. I usually skip the talk before mine and go to my hotel room to find some sort of peace. In the 15 minutes before speaking, my heart goes wild. That is also when you need to set up the AV. Not helpful. I try to keep that under control by listening to music.

And then it starts. It is like jumping and flying into the unknown every single time. But, once I start speaking, I get into a kind of flow. I am not aware anymore of what happens in the room. I am purely focused inside my bulb. However, I scan the audience for confirming nods and keep eye contact with these people.

One advice I can give: do not forget to start the timer. It happened to me all too often of forgetting to start the timer. That is troublesome. It adds unnecessary additional stress of being worried about time. Am I still on time? That is a crazy experience. Either, I start covering less of the material and tend to stop too early. Or the room’s timekeeper announces ten minutes left when I still have to cover 15 minutes of material. That is outright tense. For the next time, I should have a sticky note on my laptop saying: “Start the timer!”.

To me, the fun part is the questions at the end and all the attention. But that is not the case for everyone. It is your choice whether to take questions at the end or not. My friend, Steve Smith, makes it a point at every conference he is involved with by saying: “It is the speaker’s choice whether to take questions or not. If they accept questions, make sure your question is a question and not a statement!”. I am so thankful to him that he firmly states that.

Generally, it is advised to start speaking at local user groups and meetups. That feels safer. However, I did not do that. I went straight into the conferences. Was this a good idea? Probably not. Especially given my first speaking experience was quite a failure. Surprisingly, I still scrambled my stuff together, stood up and continued the journey. So, yes. I do think starting small is a better idea. Or at least exercising a first conference talk in front of a small audience. But then again, I despise exercising in front of an audience other than it is something official, like at least a meetup. But that is me. It might work for you.

Closing thoughts

It is ok to make mistakes when speaking. That is being human. But yes, when attending conferences, I also had the irrational belief speakers were flawless humans. That is not true! I happened to have a complete blackout. I was on the opposite side of a 20-meter-wide stage from my laptop. I embarrassingly informed the audience I had a blackout and calmly walked towards my laptop. Attendees are exceedingly forgiving. Often, they do not notice the flaw. In all fairness, with my current experience, this is easy now. If this occurred in my early days, I would have wanted to sink through the floor and disappear.

In closing, to increase your chances of being selected, I can only suggest submitting to conferences running blind reviews. Reviewers do not see names or genders. They only see a title, an abstract and additional information for reviewers. From my experience, these conferences seem to have a higher diversity rate and more first-time speakers.

Blind Review Conferences

Here is a list of conferences I know about that do blind reviews:

Conferences with reviews as part of the submission process


Bunnahabhain, Tamdhu and Tomatin for the creative support.

See also