UpFront Conf 2019. Attendee to Talker

March 29, 2019

If you have read any of my blog posts before you may think this title is a bit weird. It was only a year ago that I did a blog post about attending my first conference. Fast forward one year and I am now talking at the same conference. how in gods name did this happen?

How did this happen

I had just booked fresh tickets for UpFront Conf 2019. As I said, I went the year before and the talks were outstanding. It was a great event packed full of informative and entertaining talks. I got the tickets before the main talkers had been announced, it was still a coming soon section on the home page but I knew they would be good.

Approximately 2 weeks after getting the tickets a received an update email which had a bit of small print at the bottom calling for lightning talk speakers. It was open to applications from anyone. I thought why not, I might as well apply for it. On the application page, it said what will your talk be on and that it’s okay to suggest anything. You can still change your topic later down the line. I wrote in ‘the ease of setting up node and express rest API’s for front end developers’. I wrote this because I had recently started dabbling with node and express to serve up some data from my old abandoned projects. I realised it was much simpler than I first thought and this could be great for front end developers who are scared of jumping into the backend world.

Around a week passed and nothing had come back. Being about 5 weeks away from the conference date I presumed that I hadn’t got it. I would just be going as an attendee. I checked my email one last time and one new message from the event organiser, I’m in.

What the fuck have I done. I have not talked to a room full of people before, nevermind a conference hall bursting full of paying people. Fortunately, UpFront Conf realises that most people applying for the lightning talk bursary have not yet done a talk before. They provided a free training day which was due to be hosted on the 25th of February.

Training day

The day of the training session is here. This is the day where I get trained up in public speaking. I will get to do a few practice runs of my session and the organiser gives us pointers and tips on how to tweak and improve our talks. I can tell you one thing. It’s a good job that I had this session. The trainer covered a range of talking tips throughout the day and prepared some useful exercises.

One of the exercises really caught my attention and I thought it was a very valuable training tool. The trainer had placed a bag full of objects on the table and you had to go up to the table and grab one of these random items. You then had a couple of minutes to plan a 2-minute talk around it. I picked up an elephant with a missing tusk (from the trainer’s house). I sat down and googled a couple of elephant conservation facts and some facts around the elephant tusk trade and did my 2-minute talk around that. It went surprisingly well and gave me quite a good confidence boost. The talk made sense and I managed to throw in the line ‘Elephants never forget, so donate now.’ Yes, it’s super cringy but it got some laughs.

After doing a couple of similar exercises he asked us to start planning out our talks. The training session was with 6 other lightning talk first timer. I spent 45 minutes of planning and had a basic idea formed. It would be around my abandoned projects and how I am using node and express to drag them out of the water by building API’s, providing meaningful information to the front end applications. I was also going to do a live coding example.

45 minutes up, time to do a run through. The first run through was shocking. I fell apart. We had five minutes to talk. I think I talked for about 2 minutes and then spent about 5-10 minutes starting to build this app whilst trying to explain it. Eventually, I asked how long have I been going to which the trainer said ‘9 minutes’, at that stage, I just froze up and said ‘shit’. Better now than on the night I guess.

After this session, the trainer pulled us all one at a time to give us feedback and suggestions on what to do to improve. For me it was simple. You cant build an API on a stage in 5 minutes in front of an entire audience. So for that, the recommendation was to have a couple of code based images in my slideshow and explain the code in it. Also, remove all the database connection stuff from my talk and focus on the routing and returning of JSON in my API. Explaining all the database stuff is a talk on its own. The last piece of advice was great for the nature of my talk. the trainer said why don’t you add a slide with a grave in it saying these are all my dead projects and then put a resurrection picture in at the end to round off my presentation nicely.

The last talk practice run-through of the day and I went ahead and compiled the slides to have a grave slide in at the start and a resurrection slide in at the end with some code examples in-between. This time it was miles better rounded it off to around 6 minutes. This was much more respectable than the undefined didn’t finish from earlier on in the day.

One month remaining

Now is the time where I should say I practised every night for a month and I have memorised every line and it’s all running as smoothly as can be. I can’t say that at all, the month before the event I did not have one single practice run. I started working on a project at work and have been pulling long hours for the duration of the month. I simply have not had the time and energy to put into it.

The day before

One day before the big event, no practice runs completed. Slides not complete. I didn’t go to university, but I am told this is precisely what it is like. Prioritisation time. I neatened up the slides which had not changed once since the planning day (I don’t even think I opened them since) and fired them over to the event organiser. Talk about last minute. I had a mental run through in my office saying what I would say in my head and tried to think if it all made sense. Seemed fine here. Best get a good night tonight.

The big day

The big day has come, I woke up really early (maybe its the nerves). I ended up getting to Manchester an hour and a half early. I went to work and played a few games of pool in an empty office whilst I waited for the time to arrive to get to the conference. maybe I should have been practising instead of playing pool.

I got to the venue around an hour before the conference started and met one of the event organisers who was running the lightning talk section. She was surprised I was so early (I was the only non-event organiser in the building). I sat down and did my first practice run. In front of my laptop whispering out the talk with my phone timer out by the side (I whispered so people didn’t think I was nuts).

The talk slot for lightning talks was out 2:40, After lunch, so that was relieving. It meant I could have a relaxed morning and enjoy the talks. The talks where amazing too it was just as good as the year before.

The morning seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was having lunch. Time seems to fly when you want it to slow down and vice versa, how fucking irritating.

Lunch ended, the first talk after lunch complete, Lightning talk time. Luckily I was second out of the panel of 7 lightning talks. So I had five minutes to think before I went up. The five minutes for the former lightning talk to finish was an extremely nerve-racking period, probably the most nervous I have been. Then she finishes. My turn.

The talk

I walked up on to the stage, turned around and saw the room full to the brim with people. That was intense. I could feel the nerves kicking in as everyone looked back. I started the talk as planned with the picture of my tombstone with the words ‘MY EXTENSIVE LIST OF ABANDONED PROJECTS’ photoshopped onto it. I then winged it and said ‘can I have a show of hands for who here has a bunch of projects that they have abandoned’. Nearly the entire rooms hands went up, I imagine the ones that didn’t go up were lying too! This was a tip I remembered from the training day to try and involve your audience. This helped break the ice for the nerves I initially had, but I was still hella nervous. I could hear the nerves in my voice. Although shaky I managed to do the talk with only minor blips where I said the wrong word in place of something I was supposed to say, I pressed on. I recall flipping my UpFront lanyard around in my hands about 30 times whilst speaking. That five minutes felt like it lasted about 3 hours. I have the utmost respect for the talkers in the day who did hour-long talks. I finished the talk and ended on the resurrection slide and concluded. I got the round of applause and basically sprinted back to my seat and sat down, heart going 700bpm, Talking should be a form of cardio.

What did I take away from

Although it was one of the scariest moments of my life, it was amazing. I would do it again. However next time I am going to focus a hell of a lot more on planning this shit out, get slides in order and do practice runs. One thing I would recommend is practice:

  • practice in front of colleagues
  • practice in front of family
  • practice in front of a god damn mirror

I wish I had done this more.

One of the key talkers said to me at the post-conference party. As vain as this sounds you need to learn to love your own voice. Watch videos back of you talking see where you can improve to nail it out. get comfortable doing it.

The biggest takeaway from doing this is the only way you will ever do this is to put yourself out there. The hardest part of the entire journey is putting your foot on the first rung of the ladder, the rest will fall in place.


Kieran Venison. 2020, Built with