How to Conference

Sep 21, 2016

I often struggle to choose which talks to go to when I go to multi-track software conferences. My old method was to pick based on whether the title and description matched my interests. But many times that method has led me to boring talks.

A better way is to choose the best speaker per time slot. Good talks are given by good speakers. Good speakers are interested in their topic. They couldn’t hide their interest if they tried.

Good talks are also about presentation: does the speaker move through their content at the right pace? Is the information packed in good chunks with the right density? Can they manage their self-awareness loop and waylay cringey neuroses? Do they balance difficult abstractions with concrete examples? Are they entertaining?

Here’s a process to choose which talks to go to for a given time slot. For each time slot,

  1. Look up all of the speakers on YouTube. Note if they’re not on YouTube.
  2. Watch around 5 minutes of their most recent talk. Skip around a little and get a feel for how you’d like the talk if you watched it all.
  3. Pick the speaker you like best and go to their talk. If you don’t like any of the speakers, pick one that you couldn’t find on YouTube or plan on getting coffee with a colleague.

A few good things will happen if you do this. Your perspective will broaden. You’ll be more likely to hear a digestable take on an approach or domain that’s foreign to you. The talk probably won’t be boring, even if the content isn’t that new to you.

I tried this approach at StrangeLoop 2016 and it worked great. I ended up going to a talk I would’ve never gone to, one about languages for 3D industrial knitting. Disney researcher, Lea Albaugh, gave the talk and it was one of the best I saw at the conference.

Corollary: conference speakers should always strive to improve their speaking skills. If you’re a regular speaker or thinking about starting out, don’t talk about stuff that doesn’t interest you. Study speakers you like and learn from their flow. Practice and record your talk. Ask yourself: is this a talk that I would want to go to?