The Case for Public Speaking

Speaking in front of a live audience can be quite a daunting thing to do, but it can come with a number of personal and career benefits.

I’ve given talks regularly over the last ten years or so, and more recently I’ve been encouraging my colleagues to do the same - a challenge that Tim, Sandro, Marko, and Salma have all risen to.

In this post, I’ll share my own experiences, and some of my team’s perspectives, in the hope I can convince you to give it a try.

Jon Topper on stage at DevOpsDays London 2019

Jon Topper on stage (photo by Paul Clarke for DevOpsDays London)

While we teach, we learn

Learning new things is important to me - in fact, we enshrined it as one of our company values. One of the main positive outcomes I’ve got from presenting at conferences is the opportunity to learn something new. When I asked the team about the benefits they’ve seen from their public speaking outings, pretty much everyone cited this one.

I have, on a number of occasions, planned a speaking engagement or a webinar about something I want to learn more about: I became more familiar with the details of AWS IAM using this method! Having a deadline and an expectant audience works as a great motivator for me.

Preparing to teach a topic to other people is one of the best ways to learn it. When you prepare to teach a topic, you’ll think about it differently, increasing your own understanding significantly.

As my colleague Sandro puts it, “if you can explain a complex subject in plain terms it means you’ve really nailed it”.

Building Confidence

We’re team of consultants, which means that a regular part of the job is demonstrating domain expertise to an audience of strangers, so the skills we learn when presenting have direct relevance to our day jobs.

Tim told me that “as a consultant, public speaking means I’m much more confident working with clients to explain technology”.

One other skill you’ll build as you take more speaking engagements is the ability to field questions from the audience. Sandro shared that “sometimes questions from the audience make you see the topic from a different angle that you have not considered or anticipated”.

Sometimes people will ask questions for which you don’t know the answer, or that you need to dig into in more detail than your time on stage permits. Learning how to confidently say “I don’t know the answer to that right now, but let me get back to you” without feeling like a fraud is another good skill that speaking live will help you develop. Salma told me that learning this has come in handy at times during her consultancy work.

You’ll know that you’ve made it as a speaker when you can confidently put down the “not a question, more a comment” guy at the end of your talk.

Creating Opportunities

As a founder, putting myself out there as a speaker has opened up a number of business opportunities. It’s not unusual for an audience member to come up to the stage after a talk to discuss a specific problem they’ve been having. Sometimes this is a problem that they’re willing to pay real money to get rid of.

You don’t have to run a company to benefit like this - I know contractors who’ve found work this way, and folks who were headhunted by a hiring manager from the audience.

It’s not just potential customers either, in many of the interview conversations I’ve had with people who’ve applied to work for us, I’ve learned that the individual first heard about The Scale Factory because they saw me speak at a conference, and that’s why they applied. Great news for those of us who are always happy to avoid paying recruiters their pound of flesh.

Why does this happen? In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called Priming whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus (thanks Wikipedia). It’s the reason why if you think the word “red” to yourself, and then look at a bookshelf, you’re more inclined to notice the red books. It’s also the reason why, if you’ve seen one of us give a talk recently, a Scale Factory job advert on a website you’re using might jump out at you.

Friendship is Magic

All of the above sounds quite mercenary, but it isn’t just potential hires or customers who you’ll get to meet.

If you’ve seen me on a stage, it may surprise you to learn that I’m naturally quite introverted, and don’t always find it easy to just dive in and chat to people during conference networking sessions. When you speak at an event, you don’t need to do that: people will come to you! Over the years I’ve made some good industry friends this way.

At some conferences there’ll be a speakers lounge, and dedicated social events for presenters, which is another great way to make friends with other people who are experts in their field, without having to fight for their attention with everyone else.

Tackling Your Objections

You might have nodded your way through the preceding paragraphs, and agree with me that all of these sound like great benefits, but still have some concerns about trying it for yourself. Let’s address those:

But I’m too scared

Speaking in front of a group is an act of vulnerability, and it’s natural to feel nervous about it. You might sweat, feel your heart pound, and notice your voice wavering.

This can be managed through preparation. The more you’ve practiced giving your talk, the more confident you’ll be in delivering it. Speak it out loud alone, or present to a small audience of friends, family, or colleagues. The better you know your material the easier it is to enter a flow state on the stage, and in that state you’ll find the audience fades into the background for you.

You’ll find that public speaking is a skill like any other: the more you do it, the better you’ll be at it, and the easier it will go.

Even if you do still feel a bit nervous from time to time, it’s fairly likely that the audience won’t notice. One of my colleagues shared a video of a talk he gave several years ago, and said he hadn’t done any public speaking since then because of how uncomfortable it made him feel. I watched back the recording, and he seemed relaxed and confident, with a clear understanding of the material, entirely the opposite of his own experience of the event.

But I’m not an expert

You might be thinking “I’m not an expert, nobody will want to listen to what I have to say”. I’m here to tell you that regardless of where you are in your career, your understanding and experiences are valuable. This is doubly important if you’re from anything other than the “white dude” demographic.

At Lead Dev in 2017, I saw a talk by Slack employee Carly Robinson, herself a junior engineer at the time, about how to effectively mentor and support junior engineers.

I, and much of the audience on that day, have almost nothing in common with Carly. We’re from different parts of the world, different educational backgrounds (her degree was in musical theatre), and she was entering the industry as a junior 20 years after I was in that position, and of course there’s our gender difference to consider too.

In her allotted 30 minutes, I learned from Carly how best to support a new junior. We’ve since put much of that advice into action at The Scale Factory.

Newcomers to a subject come to the table without the preconceptions or prejudice that years of experience causes. These are valuable perspectives for those of us who’ve lost the ability to think like a beginner. Please share them.

But I don’t have time

Preparing a talk can be a time consuming endeavour. If you’re just starting out, I’d suggest setting aside one or two days of preparation for every hour of content. As you get more experienced you’ll need less time.

You might be inclined to think of this sort of activity as something that you do in your evenings and weekends, and if you have family or other commitments outside of work, you might find it difficult to fit this in.

I’d encourage you to talk to your employer about permission to spend work time on this. As I covered above, it’s good for a company’s reputation to have their staff known as industry experts.

At The Scale Factory, we give everyone a budget of Development Days (10 a year to start with) that they can use for personal development, including public speaking preparation. As an incentive, when they give a talk, we give them another day for their budget.

But I don’t know where I’d give a talk

If you’re not sure how to go about finding a speaking opportunity, the first thing to do is to check out what conferences and meetups are happening in your part of the industry. With most events having been forced online in the last year, you don’t even have to restrict yourself to events in your own city.

At The Scale Factory, our focus is AWS and DevOps, so between us we’ve spoken at AWS re:Invent, DevOpsDays, various nationwide DevOps and Kubernetes Meetups, AWS ComSum Manchester, HashiDays, PuppetConf and more. Some of these have been international events, providing opportunities for travel, and to make friends from around the world.

I’m one of the organisers of the 7,500 member AWS User Group UK Meetup, and I’m friendly with a number of other meetup organisers. They all share the same main challenge: finding speakers. If you want to give a talk about something, there will almost always be an opportunity to be found somewhere.

Many of these groups, including ours, are especially looking to offer speaking opportunities to people from less commonly represented backgrounds, and to support these first time speakers through coaching and training. If you’re someone not from the “pale and male” demographic, now is a great time to get involved.

Wrapping Up

I hope I’ve convinced you that the benefits of public speaking outweigh the challenges. My colleagues and I have found it a valuable and rewarding experience, and we believe that you would too.

Interested in joining a team that supports your public speaking ambitions? The Scale Factory is hiring.