As SeMI Technologies’ head of developer relations, my job is all about connecting with developers in our open-source community. That means going to events and taking every public speaking opportunity. And, since SeMI is a remote-first company with employees on several continents, I’m also engaged in helping other team members to become effective advocates in their own far-flung developer communities. Not to unnecessarily typecast a diverse group, but many developers aren’t natural performers. All the more reason, then, to write this post.
Weaviate – the vector search technology that we create – is like a great toolbox. It doesn’t do anything by itself. But in capable hands – of builders, dreamers and creators – it can be used to build amazing things. So, it’s super important that we connect with “doers” and developers all over the world.
Even though we’ve all adapted to remote work, I prefer giving talks in person as opposed to remotely. I need that person-to-person connection. I want people to know, “Oh, Sebastian is a real person; someone who exists in the world, not just in this 40-minute talk.” The real opportunity comes afterward. When people come to you after the talk, with questions and ideas, that’s when you build relationships.
This isn’t a job that can be delegated to sales or marketing; they’ll write a beautiful sentence, but eight out of ten words will be buzzwords. That may work on a CEO or even a CTO, but if you use more than two buzzwords in a paragraph to a developer, they switch off. It’s like, “What are you selling me?” We speak differently when we talk to each other.
Decide what you want to achieve. I like to excite people and most of my talks are technical, so I tend to live-code on stage. I want to do something from scratch and say, “Here’s something you thought was difficult and yet look what I did in five minutes; you could do the same.”
In a talk like that, I want to teach someone to do something new. But you may merely want to educate the audience about your tech and show them what’s possible, or to inspire them. The idea here is not necessarily to teach them to repeat what I do, but for the audience to realize that there are new possibilities within their grasp.
When preparing a talk, I like to begin with a very high-level outline; something that can be encapsulated in three to five bullet points. Then as I develop my script, I circle back from time to time to make sure that I’m achieving those tightly defined objectives.
It’s essential to know your audience, and the understanding that they bring to your subject. Otherwise, you risk losing them at the beginning. Of course, there’s always a risk you’ll lose some people, which is a good reason to structure a talk in several distinct sections. That way if someone gets distracted or lost in one segment, they get a chance to come back to you. They’re like, “Oh, I kind of got lost there, but here’s a new segment; maybe I can start paying attention from here.”
One thing that can really help you to create great talks is paying attention to your own emotions as you research and learn about the topic. When you find something that gives you a real, “wow” moment—whether it’s interesting, or exciting, or even terrible—integrate it into your story because you will be 100% authentic in that moment.
You have to rehearse your talk—and not just to a blank wall; rehearse it to people and get feedback. Were there parts they loved, or places where you lost them? It’s also very useful to have a designer look over your presentation; they’ll tell you a very different perspective.
Then, it’s time to practice some creative destruction. I always delete my script before talking to the audience, because I never want to fall back on reading it. Some people have to have a script but I recommend a few bullet points or keywords at the most.
A lot of people experience imposter syndrome; they worry that they don’t have complete, global expertise on their subject. But you know enough; the event organizers would not have booked you if they weren’t sure of that. If you’ve prepared well, you’ll do well.
I’m an extrovert, so I get energy from my audience. However, if you feel a bit nervous, look around the audience, there’s always someone who will nod along with you as you make your first point. Spot one or two such people and deliver your talk to them!
Your water bottle is your friend! Taking a sip of water turns an awkward pause into… just a pause. So, take a sip of water if you lose your place and need to collect your thoughts—or if you’re killing it and want to give your audience time to let a key point sink in.
If you pitch a talk at a major conference and aren’t selected to speak, don’t be disappointed. It’s a good idea to start out small anyway. Find a Meetup group to practice on. Don’t beat yourself up if your first few talks are underwhelming, either.
Most talks have two basic goals: to make people aware of your technology—in our case, vector search—and to make the audience care about your company and about you as people. Ideally, you’ll achieve both of those but at the beginning, consider it a win if you succeed at even one of those things.
As you improve, make sure to get a good video recording of some of your talks. At first, these will help you to improve your presentation skills and later, you can send a video to conference organizers, to show you’re worth putting on stage. Note. don’t be too alarmed if you hate your recordings, especially at first; most of us are quick to spot our flaws and little mistakes, and slow to realize that we’ve done many things quite well.
As a developer, it’s easy to think of public speaking as a soft skill that’s optional in your career. But great talks don’t just increase awareness of your company or products, they can be an important part of the brand. And the ability to deliver them can certainly be a beneficial part of your personal brand, so it’s a skill worth developing.