Speaking at DrupalCon

In September last year I gave a talk at DrupalCon in Dublin, on the topic of offline first. I wanted to reflect a little on that experience.

The topic covered how modern browsers allow us to build websites to work better under poor or non-existent network conditions. I chose this because my previous experience writing native mobile apps has given me some insight into the issues with mobile connectivity. Until recently, that’s something that native apps have generally been better at addressing than the web, but now that’s changing.

I wanted to talk for a number of reasons. Firstly, I felt by sharing I could contribute to the Drupal community at large. This is a relatively new area, one in which people are still figuring out opportunities, particularly how to apply it to Drupal. Secondly, I hoped that by stretching myself there would be a sense of personal and career development for myself.

When I received the email informing me my talk had been accepted I was really excited. I hadn’t spoken at this size of event before, so I wasn’t expecting my proposal to be picked. My aim had been to build up my speaking experience and perhaps try for something like this the following year!

If you want to speak at a conference, you do need to start off at a smaller event. DrupalCon itself asks for speakers to have had previous experience, and ideally you want to be giving an established talk you’re confident on rather than a brand new one!

If you’re based near London, Drupal Show and Tell is an ideal place to start - 3 short talks once a month, about 15-20 minutes each. They are always looking for new speakers too! It’s friendly and informal, a nice opportunity to test out a topic without the huge commitment of a larger event.

I first spoke there in May. I came away feeling like the subject was received well, but also that the talk needed restructuring. A useful exercise, as these are the kind of things you only find out by putting yourself in front of a real audience.

I then worked on the material, turning it into a longer, 35-40 minute session, which I presented at the Brighton and Bristol DrupalCamps. It’s easy to underestimate how much effort goes into such a talk. The abstract itself takes quite a lot of time to prepare, but it’s what delegates will use to decide whether to attend or not. You want to get this right - who are the people that will most benefit from the talk? What experience do they need to have beforehand, in order to learn something new?

If you aren’t that experienced in public speaking, get some help! One of the benefits to being based at The Skiff co-working space is the community, and I was fortunate enough to attend a public speaking workshop run by Steve Bustin. Public speaking isn’t something that comes naturally to me, so I learnt a lot and was certainly out of my comfort zone!

Leading up to giving a talk, I’d recommend you run though it as often as you can, preferably with an audience. Local companies will often be willing to have you give it to their their staff - you get the practice and they get a conference talk for free. In my case, The Unit in Brighton were willing to be guinea pigs.

Some practicalities at the conference itself: firstly, pace yourself during the event and do something relaxing the night before. Secondly, get to the venue early and spend some time in the room while it’s quiet. It will take away any unfamiliarity of the room, and also you’ll have plenty of time to deal with any technical problems! I had some projector issues, but the conference staff were excellent at sorting them out.

I really enjoyed the talk itself. I felt prepared, something that was probably the biggest contributor to how well it went. People in the audience asked some good questions, and a nice little spontaneous discussion happened straight after.

A couple of things weren’t so good. Firstly, I wished there had been a more diverse audience. This is something that we as an industry have to get better at, and I’m glad work is being done in the Drupal community to help. Secondly, DrupalCon has an anonymous feedback mechanism for talks. My feedback was generally positive, but it still left me with thoughts of what I could have done better. After the talk, when the adrenaline has gone, its easy to feel quite vulnerable.

Overall though, I’m really glad I did it. I learnt a lot from the experience and developed personally as a result. I’d love to talk again, perhaps jointly with someone else next time.