A friend and I were chatting recently about speaking at conferences. Now this person is smart and I've learned a thing or two from his in-depth engineering blog posts. Yet there he was, telling me I'm so super good at communicating ideas (implying he's not so super good), and besides he has nothing to say worthy of a conference talk.
Uncalled for praise is jarring, but I took it—2021 was heartless, OK? Still, the subtext of magic bothered me. That I am somehow special. A born natural. So I told him my secret formula. And now I'm telling you.
Here is how to be a totes natural conference speaker…
Mope around all the time about how you don't really know [Topic X]. Sooner or later an opportune Call For Proposals will slide into your Twitter stream or Slack or Discord. (It is very important to mope around all the time. Also, please cultivate several topics to mope around about. This guarantees that every moment is an opportune moment to propose a talk.)
Foolishly jump at the chance. Write a proposal to talk (or teach a class) about said [Topic X].
Congratulations! You have now made a public commitment, and opted into the specter of falling flat on your face before all and sundry. Let the feeling sink in.
When it does, panic and feel obligated to start making something already, because what if you can't actually figure out [Topic X]? Because then you must recuse yourself before it's too late. Proceed to have trouble starting, toss and turn in bed many nights in a row, and finally start typing something—anything—into your computer.
Make and trash at least 3 shitty first drafts. Feel like an impostor and almost withdraw your proposal as many times.
If your proposal gets selected, GOTO 3 and start over. If it doesn't, GOTO 8. If you are back here after the do-over, GOTO 7. If you got here and you don't know why, well that's because GOTOs are Considered Harmful.
Somehow arrive at a version you don't totally hate. Then make minor edits and tweaks for days and days until you're fed up. (Actually you are fed up because the talk is just a week away by now, and you haven't rehearsed even once.)
Corral friends who are way smarter than you, and get them to hear you out. (Actually there's a step zero. Get very lucky in life and land up with such friends).
Listen to them and don't make any more edits. Seriously. Try to rehearse.
Second-guess yourself 48 hours before your talk, mid-way through your first actual rehearsal. Proceed to commit the cardinal sin of refactoring the whole bloody thing "before shipping to production", because apparently it's all completely wrong now. Don't sleep much, of course.
Wake up with a start on D-day. Curse at yourself in the mirror. Drink an unconscionable quantity of coffee, while feverishly reviewing your material. Entirely miss the "hallway track" and fail to make new friends or to have a good time.
Somehow make it to the other end of your presentation. It's OK, everybody forgets half the material (especially those painstakingly crafted turns of phrase and clever asides), and still somehow runs out of time. Spend the rest of the day in a growing fog because the adrenaline wore off, but the caffeine didn't, but you're wiped-out from the excitement and sleep-deprived.
Luckily, that also means you forget everything you did on your talk day. Now you just have to make sure you never ever watch the recording of your talk, if they publish it.
Bask in the certain knowledge that you too have become a 100% Totally Natural Conference Speaker. (As a veteran of this process, I can tell you it works. Every. Single. Time.)
Jokes apart, it really is like that. There is no magic. Only student syndrome.
Just remember that you always know more about something than someone, and/or almost certainly have a different, unique take on something that you believe to be common knowledge. Not infrequently, I find someone's interpretation of something I am intimately familiar with, and the interpretation remarkably changes how I see/feel/understand/relate with the thing. (Frequently it does not, and it's rubbish, but that's fine. I'm not the one for that one.)
Why? Well because no topic is objectively too small or too silly or too useless, for the right audience in the right context. Look no further than !!Con, for example. People have i!!ega! amounts of fun there!
So do yourself a favour. Allow yourself chances to suggest your [Topic X] to the world, even when it's just your take on your favourite thing that maybe everybody already knows. Because maybe the world will say…
"Sure, why not?".