Speaking at Meet Magento conference: Motivation, Preparation, the Talk and the Outcome

A couple of months ago, I had the chance to speak at one of the respected Magento Developer conferences. I would like to share with the readers how I prepared myself for the presentation, how the talk went, what happened during the talk, and what the feeling was after I finished my first public Magento speech. I also hope that this will be helpful and inspiring for developers who plan to speak at a conference. If you are interested in the presentation slides, you can view them here: http://www.slideshare.net/ceckoslab/tsvetan-stoychev-mmspeakerseditedfinal-41955664

Motivation:

Motivation will always vary between individuals, even in the case of developers discussing technical matters. Basically, we, developers, are still commonly regarded as technical people who enjoy talking about profound and complicated problems. In my observations, some people consider developers to be tech nerds who have a general dislike for talking and are unable to energize and engage the audience. I believe this to be a myth, a stereotype ordinary people will project upon developers. Indeed, you will hear this kind of myth about all professionals. I argue to the contrary – because we actually take great pleasure in talking and sharing. In my case, I enjoy talking if I have something to share, and there is somebody who is willing to listen. This is great, but I also have a sort of anxiety and occasionally lose my train of thought when speaking in front of a large audience. My chief motivation therefore was to try and speak in front of many people in order to test my anxiety and try to overcome it.

Five years ago I decided to publish some open source Magento extensions and a friend asked me: “Why do you want to do this?” I gave him different answers but I wasn’t completely honest, because I really couldn’t give him the right answer. Basically I said: “I wanted to test the waters.” A month after this conversation I already had plenty of feedback about my extension and I had noticed that people really appreciated my work and respected me. This gave me a huge ego boost and made me feel important. So I spoke with my friend again and told him that I liked how it felt to be appreciated as this really increased my confidence. I realized that my motivation usually comes from the fact that I am ego-driven, but who isn’t? The ego was one of the reasons why I worked so hard and travelled to Poland just to speak in front of people.

What about the expression: “My dream came true”? It does indeed look like a cliché but this was my dream. I wanted – at least once in my life – to speak at a professional Magento conference. I was truly inspired by some of the speakers at the first Magento Developers Paradise at 2010. Ashley Schroder in particular and I wished I could do the same for others.

I’d been lurking around the Magento community for the past 6 years and I had something to say. During the last 6 years, I’d had countless conversations and I had been arguing with different developers. Some of them were against open source, some of them supported it, so I wanted to say to the community in a straightforward way, without projecting my ideas, why I like open source, what observations I had, and what benefits I’d gained doing open source.

I also wanted to have something to brag about in my CV and at that particular moment of my life, conference speaking experience seemed like a great idea – and it still does.

There can be a variety of other motivations, but I think that I’ve covered the most important ones. Oh… I almost forgot! What about having fun and meeting friends, both old and new? I was looking forward to enjoying myself and to meeting my friends from the community. I knew that at this conference I would meet my old friends from Inchoo.

Preparation:

This was my first professional speech and it was all new to me. It was chaotic even though my speech was going to be about something that had been in my head for the past few years. I had to gather all my thoughts, put them on the slides, and make sure that they will make sense to the audience. I adopted the following approach: “Just throw some thoughts on paper and later try to refine and to extract what is important”. I even started talking about the things during lunch breaks to find out if the developers around me were listening and what kind of feedback they would give me. As I mentioned, it was chaotic and I had to adopt different / random kind of techniques. These are just some funny details, but I want to move on with the base points and to mark some interesting situations.

  • Choose a topic:

    What is a presentation without a topic? I had a topic at which I was no expert. It was about open source, but I am not an open source evangelist. So what? I was passionate and I had something to say. I didn’t know if the audience would care, but I had to try. I had some other topics in mind, as well, but I’d chosen the thing that I was truly interested in. So you can start with a topic and write down key moments that you reckon should be mentioned during the presentation. It’s good if you are really knowledgeable about your topic, but you also can choose something that you only know at the surface, a problem you can study and make a great presentation out of it.

  • Create the draft presentation:

    I began to drop slides which just contained titles and brief text. This was challenging because I was looking at some notes and trying to extract the essentials from them. The problem was that my thoughts were not organized yet. There were too many questions and doubts. Every time I looked at my notes and tried to put something on the slide, I spent so much mental energy figuring out what was relevant and what not for the slide. Finally I had something, but that certainly it wasn’t something I could call a presentation. OK, that was still better than nothing. I had a draft version of the presentation, now I had to polish it. This exercise also helped me figure out how much I understand the topic. Some additional questions emerged as well and my notes grew.

  • Polishing the slides:

    I stared reviewing the slides and eventually rewrote a large part of the text. I inserted some screenshots and code examples. It was now looking prettier. Some more re-readings. Some screenshots were replaced, some grammar corrected and some code examples were changed. And more text was added to my notes.

  • Review by a professional linguist:

    For my blog posts I usually employ the services of a professional linguist. I have the right friend for this. So I sent to him my slides and we had an hour’s online hangout correcting and discussing the presentation. I got some really valuable feedback and moved on to the next step.

  • Getting to know how professionals do it:

    I started watching different tutorials on YouTube in order to see how professional speakers do it. This was very helpful because they gave me a lot of hints, what is good and bad to do during the presentation. I also had brief discussions with some of my teammates and they gave me some good advice and references to helpful articles. Getting to know how other speakers do it, and reading theory about speaking in front of the public was a crucial moment in my preparation because I was able to set some standards and goals.

    This self-education taught me some interesting best practices:

    • It’s good to start the presentation with an interesting story. This helps attract audience attention.
    • It’s good to energize the audience with something interesting every 15 minutes because this is people’s average attention span. For example I can ask the audience a question or tell an interesting story.
    • Don’t stay too long on any one single slide. 1–2 minutes per slide is fine.
    • Don’t turn your back to the audience because they want to feel respected and important.
    • Don’t read from your notes. Maintain eye contact with the audience and show them you know your slides.
    • If you make a mistake, try to be honest with them. They will respect that and will recognize if you try to lie to them.
  • Practicing alone, a.k.a. ‘Talk to the hand’:

    After work and at the weekends I would talk to myself in some quite place. I preferred to do this beside a lake near my home. I tried to explain each slide to myself and from time to time I was cheating (looking at my notes). One weekend I put a camera in the office and started recording myself delivering the presentation from beginning to end. I noticed a lot of problems in my speech. I am not a native English speaker, and I would get stuck on some sentences. I also found that serious issues in some of the slides. For example there was this particular slide I had to spend 4 minutes on in order to say everything about it – and I was also forgetting what I was talking about. I was lost. It wasn’t going so well. The outcome was 2 hours of video material. Honestly, I haven’t watched these videos so much, but I got an idea about how I moved around the presentation screen, how I sounded, how I looked from outside and what my body language was like. It was awful. Well, better than nothing! I got some feedback about where I stood.

  • Test Drive – Speaking in front of the public:

    When my slides began to look good, and I felt confident about knowing what was on each slide, I started to present to different people. For example, on two occasions I was out for a drink with developers and somehow the conversation turned to my presentation. I had the slides on my phone and I briefly explained each of them. My friends enjoyed it: beer + a talk. I got valuable feedback and later some slides were removed, others changed. I grew more confident but meanwhile the time for the actual presentation was drawing closer. I needed to do one more ‘test drive’. This time I spoke in front of a small group of my teammates (3 of them). While I was speaking, I made some mistakes but this wasn’t the end of the world, this was just a test before the real speech. My teammates were taking notes with criticism and suggestions. This version of the presentation contained 5 examples and a teammate told me he’d got confused after the third example; he was wondering how many examples I would show and when this presentation would end. So I decided to reduce the number of the examples from 5 to 3. I also had a video recording of this ‘test drive’, so I had a chance to look at myself from a different point of view. Recently, I watched this video and noticed that there were a couple of small pauses in which I was asking my teammates if they’d understood me or if they had any suggestions about how the sentences could be made more comprehensible.

    I think that it’s valuable to share the draft notes that I got after the ‘test drive’

    What wasn’t clear for the audience:

      • Explain the agenda. People will feel more comfortable and will have expectations.
      • Make a better transition between the first and second example because the audience thought that I was still talking about the first example.
      • Explain the OSL 3.0 license (briefly).
      • Be clearer about the Benefits (No needed to explain the screenshots).
      • Say that this is former Jarlssen and we are now Session Digital Germany.
      • Stress that the majority of examples are based on the code of my teammates a.k.a. don’t get all the credit.

    Advice:

      • Drink more water! At least 3 times. Your voice is getting lower after 10 minutes of speaking. Taking a sip of water will also give you a chance to focus on the next slide or correct yourself if you are lost.
      • Perhaps you should remove the widget example. It wasn’t that interesting.
      • Check the code of the CMS example.
      • Add a slide with links to our repositories of the examples.
      • Stress the problem that I am going to explain. Follow the workflow – Problem, Solution, Benefits and Advice.
      • “I am going to give you some advice.” Don’t say “I will share my thoughts.” People should get the feeling that you are doing them a favor when you advise them.
      • Put short links to the blogposts for each example because some people will want to check them during the presentation.
      • Reduce the extension examples from 5 to 3.
      • Publish the presentation online after you complete the speech. Some people will want to show it to their teammates after the conference.

The talk:

After all the hard preparation, I had to face reality and enjoy my 30 minutes of fame. The conference was in Poland and took a flight to Warsaw. Unfortunately, the Munich subway was closed for maintenance and I missed the flight. I had almost given up because I was out of budget to buy a new ticket. With the help of my teammates and relatives I finally got a ticket, but had to wait 10 hours at the airport. This actually gave me an idea that I could start the presentation with the story about missing the plane in order to get the audience’s attention and energize it. So I added 2 more slides at the beginning. I also had a chance to take another look at the presentation and to make some last minute changes.

Before the start of my presentation I watched the presentations of some other speakers. I wanted to see how they did it. I also asked a couple of questions at the end of one of the presentations and this helped me check the acoustics of the room and how my voice sounded when I spoke on the microphone.

The moment of the truth came. The presentation room was not crowded. I climbed on stage and waited a bit while my presentation was loading on the laptop and the first slide was shown on the screen. I was also looking at the counter, so that I knew where I stand in my timeline at any one moment. Unfortunately there was nowhere I could put a glass of water so I lost the option to drink water if my voice got lower.

I opened my talk with the question: “Have you ever missed a plane?” Only I raised a hand and quickly explained how I’d missed the flight, what thoughts I’d had and that I’d been thinking of missing the conference but my final decision had been to “risk” it and meet the Magento community. I think this did the job and I drew their attention. I moved on to the next slide and introduced myself. Later I shortly explained the agenda and moved to the part where I showed 3 examples of open source Magento extensions. For each of the extensions I had a short story explaining what problem it solves and how it helped us improve our development workflow. Before telling the story, I asked the audience how they would solve this problem in order to get their attention.

Everything was going smoothly. At one moment I even used the expression that the open source is like a causal relationship. Seems that the adrenaline rush really hit me and I didn’t feel any difficulties. The time for Q&A had come. There was a question about how we could make money from open source and if it was good idea to have a free product and another one which is paid but has more features. I gave some examples but my answer was incomplete. Ben Marks asked for the microphone and gave an example how Magento actually does it. The example was about Magento CE and Magento EE. That was really great because the focus moved from me to the audience and actually the audience initiated the discussion. For me that meant that they had listened to me over the last 25 minutes. There were no further questions, but Damian Luszczymak asked for the microphone and explained that there was a composer repository where we could download open source Magento extensions. He also briefly explained how we could upload our own extensions there. Basically that was it. I said Thanks to the audience and climbed down the stage. My first Magento speech was already in the past!

The outcome:

This is a great personal achievement. One of my dreams had come true. I got a valuable experience and made new connections inside the Magento community. During the presentation there were many visits on the company website during my presentation because people from the audience were actively tweeting.

What really pleased me was the fact that 3 of attendees shared with me that my speech inspired them and they would try to publish some of their extensions as open source because they saw they could benefit from this.

I am really happy that during this journey I got help from friends, relatives and teammates. I would advise and encourage anyone who has doubts about being a speaker to give it a try, because they only can benefit from this. Special thanks to my teamlead who was pushing me all the time to do this presentation!