Revolutionizing conference speaking

Posted by Sam Elamin on March 26, 2016

What exactly is the problem?

The inspiration for this post was from an idea that struck me where most geniues ideas come to us mortals.

In the shower!

Let me explain, I am a bit late to the game, there have been multiple posts on conference speaking, – from Todd Motto’s So you want to talk at conferences? piece, to Basia Fusinska’s Conference talks, where did we go wrong? and Pieter Hintjens Ten Steps to Better Public Speaking, to Seb’s recent What’s good feedback from a talk? post. There’s a lot of very useful general advice in those posts,if you follow some of them(whatever suits your style) you will invariably end up becoming a better speaker than you are now.

However we still have the underlying issue, people come to conferences to learn. Unfortunately some speakers do not try hard enough, not for lack of effort but I think its just natural complacency. If you are speaking at 20 events then its unreasonable to expect the speaker to prepare as much as they would if they were only doing 3-5 events a year. Sure if a speaker was doing the same talk then preparation becomes easier, this is not the case if a popular speaker has a variety of talks he or she does throughout the year.

While it is understandable the more talks you do the harder preparation becomes, it is unfair to the attendees especially the paying ones. The overall accepted (more like attempted?) solution to this problem is to enable a feedback system to allow the speakers to get anonymous and honest feedback to his or her talk. Either via a web app or a red/yellow/green card system. That said this isn’t exactly a solution for multiple reasons.

For one thing it is very difficult to put in detailed feedback onto cards, some of the worst feedback I received was “This talk was like a fail!” or “Not enough coding” “Good personality but try again!”. for those very same talks I would also get “Best talk of the day” or “Amazing story! Great Speaker” or even get people come up to me and say “I really enjoyed that, thanks for sharing”. I understand its very difficult to go up to someone and give them bad feedback so its easier to do it when you have something nice to say. Not everyone does and while splitting opinions is normal. (what 5 devs would all agree on something!) as a speaker I would like to know or engage more with attendees of my talk, especially if they did not like a part of it. Going back to them to ask why they did not like something? Get more details on their experience to try and improve for my next talk

Another reason is how do you measure success? Sure if you delivered a talk and everyone enjoyed it then you succeeded for that particular conference? How does it ensure you will succeed at the next conference?

I feel like as a conference attendee I want to go to a conference and have at least 90% talks where I leave the talk saying “Wow that was amazing!” I never thought about things that way”. While this is extremely optimistic and unrealistic it’s still a goal I try to aim for when doing a talk

Which brings me to a side point. I think we are in a very unique industry where we learn from our failures, no other industry has that. I am sure anyone in IT has a memory etched in his brain about a failure that taught them alot. As such if I am speaking at a conference I would like to talk about my failures. A question I always ask at interviews is what technology/framework/{insert random tech thing here} do you like? and what do you hate about it? If the interviewee cant demonstrate what they hate about it, then they have not used it enough in anger! They haven’t failed enough on it

Anyways lets get back to conferences and the issue at hand

Reframe the problem

How do we ensure the quality of speakers remain high and attendees would benefit and learn something from them?

Well lets think outside the box for a moment, this might be the ramblings of a mad man on drugs but bear with me for a moment.

If we think of a speaker as a component that we are maintaining on production, feedback as logs for this component and conferences as versions.

We can build a centralized place where we put all our logs/feedback (no I am not reinventing Logstash :D) and when as time goes and I speak at more conferences, Sam the speaker goes from version 1.0(Local Meetup) to 1.2(First free conference) to 3.0(paid conference), while at the same time accumulating a large collection of feedback on all their talks

We then as speakers can share this feedback with conference organizers when submitting talks so there can be visibility

I.e Here are my reviews so you know what your getting

At least the conference organizers can have a good idea what people thought of this speaker and whether their attendees would like this session based on what people have said previously

Of course this raises the question on what if this is your first talk ever, but I leave that problem for the organizers to fix. Just kidding I am a software engineer, I try to come up with solution (not necessarily good ones!) so how about 30% of all speakers are new to give people a chance to get into the circuit

We can also add the ability to let conference speakers interact anonymously to their feedback givers to delve deeper into why they might have scored them low and what the speaker can improve on for future attendees.


So thats it folks! I realize not alot of people would want to share their feedback, its brave and difficult especially if the feedback wasn’t great. But at the end of the day the feedback is supposed to be constructive, and hopefully if the community knew this feedback would be shared with other people they might be more constructive?

What do you think? I think for an industry that is so far ahead technically than others we still give feedback in a very rudimentary way. We need to do better can we can!

As always feedback is always welcome!