What A Year Of Conference Speaking Taught Me

“It’s the year of Chris.”

I didn’t understand what Allison was telling me. Having known her for a few years, I’m accustomed to her riddles. At Dallas Agile Leadership Network, I asked why she chose me to co-present with her at Dallas Tech Fest. That one sentence in January would change the course of my year.

No comment on if I was her first choice.

In reality, Mrs. Pollard’s co-presenter had to drop out at the last minute. Our past conversations made her confident in my grasp of the material. We ran through it once via Hangouts, and the ALN meet up was a pre-conference dry run to work the kinks out.

Speaking at conferences was something I had always wanted to do. The entire process gave me a spark. I love preparing slides. Getting to workshop material. Having the opportunity to connect with people in new ways. Deep down, I also believed that people hold recognized speakers in higher regard.

It’s a completely arbitrary reason, but nonetheless true.

With that, I pursued this goal and up until 2016 was unsuccessful. Somehow, that changed. Showing up for DTF, I got to share the good news with Allison my acceptance to present on my own at Keep Austin Agile. Then came the acceptance into Agile 2016. She dared me to keep submitting, and the good news kept getting emailed.

Looking back, I asked myself a few questions. Were my previous entries poor? Once I found a topic people wanted to hear, what’s the right amount of times to present it? What made this year special?

There’s nothing wrong with your topic.

When I first started submitting abstracts, I thought the same way I did about my blog: content is king. If you have good content, people will come to listen. Sometimes, I would just copy and paste blog posts as conference submissions. I could have not been more wrong.

Content is still important. Yet, presenting it in the right format is almost just as critical as your idea.

I learned this by volunteering to review abstract submissions for conference committees. It gave me a unique insight into just what I was going up against. There are dozens of formats to use in presenting your topic. So I noticed those selected and started using some of their techniques.

Often, a catchy headline and brilliant opening paragraph are all you need. A known name also helps too.

You can help that nobody knows who you are yet, but they will soon. Just help selection committees see why your topic is compelling and different.

So you have an interesting topic, now what?

I started submitting to conferences because of the cost of attendance. Many companies don’t see the value in conferences. This meant paying for them out of my pocket unless I was a speaker. My only cost would be travel (if needed).

ThoughtWorks is different. They see the value in marketing the company and the amazing people that consult here. So, when acceptance for my topic started, encouragement came for more submissions. Again and again, the invitations came.

What a thrill it was.

Giving the same talk in various formats and time lengths allowed me to explore the idea to it’s fullest. I presented it at the largest Agile conference ever. In front of a small group of designers. Wrote a white paper. Traveled to CanadaBlogged about it. Spoke for 517, 30, 45, 50, and 60 minutes. Was even invited to travel to Brazil, but was unable to because of current time commitments.

When my final engagement of the year was complete this month, I was exhausted in many ways. Tired of the topic, but I learned more about this topic than anyone else. Feedback improved my understanding.

Slides changed order. Updates made to phrasing. I improved takeaways. In all, people got the best material possible from me because I kept refining it. There’s a topic you have that’s worth exploring. For your audience’s sake, I encourage you to repeat it as many times as you can.

Why was this so important to my 2016?

Let’s go back to that January ALN. I didn’t know it at the time, but the office principal for ThoughtWorks Dallas was in attendance. Our conversation afterward started a friendship that continues to this day. He was the one who offered me the job a few months later when I was ready to make a move.

My career will never be the same.

I also had a challenging year on a personal level. There were days when I didn’t have much to look forward to but the next speaking engagement. At the conference would be connections I will never forget:

  • Ty and Allison got to see the fruits of all the hard work they put into me.
  • My friend and life coach Pradeepa pulled me aside to offer her help in my trying times.
  • Natalie pulled me into the amazing community Women in Agile. She’s one of my best friends, too.
  • Billie, Samar and I will always have the Collective Soul concert in Atlanta.
  • I saw Howard Sublet…everywhere. And I loved it.
  • If I’m walking down a dark alley, I want Stephanie Ockerman next to me.
  • The triathlete David Hawks is a beautiful person in every way.
  • Colleen Johnson is freaking brilliant and taught me a ton about my craft.
  • One of the most positive people I’ve ever met is Stacey Louie.
  • Attending a conference with ThoughtWorkers is amazing. Thanks, Inger!
  • Thanks for loving me Mr. List.

Attending a conference is most valuable in the between times. Skipping a session slot to sit in a lobby and chat opens hearts and minds. Staying up late in the hotel bar helped me see my experiences matter. Watching each other present refined my skills in new ways (and flattering).

I’m not sure I’ll ever experience this ever again in my career, but it’s what I needed this year more than any other. It was a strange year, but looking back it’s made me hopeful for what’s on the horizon in 2017.

Happy New Year!

Tagged: abstract, agile, blogging, conference, content, courage, feedback, friendship, inspiration, leadership, learning, media, speaking, technology

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