Gus Childs speaking at DrupalCon New Orleans 2016

The Road to Speaking at DrupalCon

Earlier this year I was fortunate to speak at DrupalCon New Orleans. I'd been working towards speaking at DrupalCon for a few years and it wasn’t until after I spoke that I reflected on just how much effort went into it. I had underestimated the process. Because I’m likely not alone in doing so, I’d like to share what I have learned along the way.

I'll start with why I wanted to speak at DrupalCon. I'll then share my story before providing some concrete advice for every step of the way.

Why speak at DrupalCon?

The audience benefits

We’re an open source community and a well-crafted presentation is a valuable form of contribution. It provides information in a format that is often more effective than lines of code and walls of text. It also provides attendees with immediate access to the author for questions. Not to mention, the audience in the room is a small percentage of whom a recorded session will reach.

Your organization benefits

Sponsoring an event like DrupalCon isn't always within reach for a smaller organization. While a session should never be a sales pitch, each one is a marketing opportunity. A chance to mention the organization, sport its logo, and hand out swag. The success of a session can also boost the perception of a given agency or organization.

You benefit

Public speaking is an effective way to conquer a common fear and build confidence. Even veteran speakers still get nervous. Battling those nerves and coming out victorious is an excellent feeling.

Public speaking engagements are also an impressive line on a resume. Or perhaps it helps convince your boss that you’ve gone the extra mile and deserve that raise.

Finally, even though you’ll be the one presenting, you will learn a lot while preparing. It’s common to believe you don't know enough about a topic to talk about it. If you're interested in a topic, propose it anyway and use it as motivation to dive deep into that topic.

My story: You want to speak at DrupalCon? Start smaller

I first proposed a session hoping for a benefit I didn't already mention: a free ticket to DrupalCon Austin (2014). I'd co-founded a self-funded company and we were trying to save money. We submitted a session together and I knew we were in trouble when the proposal asked about our previous speaking experience. We didn't have any and our session wasn't selected. Strike one.

The company didn't last (not because we had to pay for the ticket), but I still wanted to speak at a DrupalCon. I now knew I would need to first speak at smaller events.

I was living in Chicago and MidCamp 2015 accepted one of three sessions I proposed. I then proposed three for DrupalCon Los Angeles shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, MidCamp was after LA session selection so I still had little to show. Once again, my sessions weren’t selected. (Of course, it could’ve also been because my topics weren’t worthy.) Strike two.

Shortly after LA I moved to Golden, CO, and shortly after that I spoke at DrupalCamp Colorado. Unfortunately my session didn't get recorded, but I was refining my skills nonetheless. Months later I spoke about theme functions and render arrays at BADCamp 2015 and I loved it. After BADCamp, I felt like I had established a track record and found a topic worthy of DrupalCon.

I took a third swing. I proposed a session on render arrays to DrupalCon New Orleans (2016). I spent over five hours writing just the proposal. A month or two later I was ecstatic when I received word that my session was selected. Home run!

Speaking at DrupalCon was a lot of fun, and was worth everything it took to get there. Looking back, I am thankful that the organizers consider experience at smaller events. Without that experience I would have been much less prepared. Speaking at DrupalCamps helped me refine my techniques and mental approach. It helped me build the confidence it takes to speak in front of a couple hundred people.

Advice for speaking at any Drupal event

There are plenty of websites, articles, and videos dedicated to providing advice for public speaking. I'm going to keep my advice to a list more tailored to Drupal events. I will link to some of those websites and articles when appropriate.

Picking an event

  • Drupical is a great way to find DrupalCamps and other events. If nothing else, attend and attempt to speak at the camps closest to you.
  • If you’re able to travel for a DrupalCamp, you might as well attend the bigger ones. You can often find camp websites from previous years. See how many sessions they had, who from the community spoke, and how many people attended.
  • Speaking at local meetups is another opportunity to practice. You may find the smaller and more familiar audience to be a benefit or it might make you more nervous.

Picking a topic

  • Consider the event's audience when brainstorming topics. DrupalCons often focus on the newest technology. Sessions at smaller events are more likely to be about less ambitious topics.
  • Only speak about topics you’re excited about. If not, it will be difficult to prepare for, and the audience will suffer from your lack of enthusiasm.
  • If you don't have confidence in your knowledge on intermediate topics, propose a beginner session. There are plenty of beginners at Drupal events and they need those sessions. That said, your lack of confidence may just be Imposter Syndrome speaking.

Proposing a session

  • When proposing a session, tell a story. Another simple formula: introduce a pain point, allude to your solution, and explain what you’re going to cover. Be sure to proofread it! Compare it to those written by seasoned veterans and try to determine if yours is on the same level.
  • Update your profile on the event's site with your picture and information. Make sure your online presence elsewhere, such as your Drupal.org profile, is up to date. Most events don’t do blind selections and they will look around to determine if you’re worthy.
  • DrupalCon track chairs and DrupalCamp organizers make themselves available for feedback on session proposals. Ask them about yours! Listening to their suggestions and building familiarity with them is only going to help.

Preparing and practicing

  • When preparing slides for a session, I’d recommend the design tips listed on speaking.io. I’d recommend reading the entire site, actually. It is my favorite resource on speaking about technical topics. I also bought the remote he suggests and I love it.
  • I aim to finish building my slides a week before my talk. I then practice once a day for the week leading up to the talk. This reduces the pressure and gives me time to tweak anything I don't like while rehearsing.
  • I also rehearse my talk in front of my wife. It helps get over the nerves because it’s hard to practice in front of someone you know well. She often has no idea what I’m talking about, but if she still doesn’t after 45 minutes of talking, I may have failed. Her questions often expose weaknesses in what I'm saying.

Presenting a session

  • I received great advice before first speaking at MidCamp: If you've arrived early and are waiting to start your session, talk to people in the audience. It helps break the tension.
  • Most Camps and all DrupalCons record the sessions. This may require you to remember to start the recording before you begin speaking. A volunteer will explain the technology to you, so you don’t have to worry about that. Just don’t forget to hit the record button!
  • As for the rest, I’d again recommend reading speaking.io’s advice on scoping out the room, dealing with nervousness, delivery, and handling questions. Zach covers these topics better than I ever would.
  • Start talking and have fun!

That’s about all I’ve got. Please reach out on Twitter (@guschilds or @chromatichq) if you have any questions or any ideas to add to the list. We are an open source community, after all!

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Gus Childs Headshot

Gus is a mobile first front-end developer that prioritizes user experience. He isn't afraid to write a module and is a community contributor and speaker.