How to Survive Conference Speaking & Travel

September 2, 2019

In February, I spoke at a conference for the first time. And then I did it again. And once more (for good measure). How did I get there? After years of thinking I wasn’t ready to speak, I sat down with a friend and we each forced the other to write up their “outlandish” talk idea. Even though I had been discussing mine with everyone who would listen for months, it wasn’t real to me until it was down on paper. I began to submit talk proposals with reckless abandon.

Each rough draft brought feedback and after a few rounds of revisions, people were interested in my talk. Finally being accepted after a few rounds of rejections made me feel on top of the world! I only got scared when I realized I would be traveling to four different conferences (including two international ones - in Belgium and the Dominican Republic!). I hadn’t crossed an ocean in more than a decade, and I would do it twice during my one-month “tour.” With all that travel squished into such a short time, I expected at least a few learning moments along the way. I wasn’t wrong!

Address pinch-points in your schedule

If you know that something in your schedule will be difficult, ask to change it. For example, I was asked to speak on the same day I would need to leave for the airport. It only occurred to me as I was rushing on the morning of my talk to pack and bring my bags to the conference center that I could have avoided all this unpleasantness by sharing my travel plans and asking to speak earlier in the conference. There will be times when you just have to pull yourself together and do the logistically difficult thing but there’s no reason to not ask if you can foresee the grind.

Ask, ask, ask

Ask as many questions as you need of your conference organizers. Anything you need to know to feel prepared, really. Ask it far enough in advance and your organizers may put together a Q&A for others. You aren’t the only one. (And this counts double for first-time speakers!) Ask about the mic & what clothing it clips to best, if you’ll have time for an on-stage “dry run” the night before,… Anything you need. Ask wildly and with reckless abandon. Ask as if you couldn’t imagine anyone judging you. You’ll learn they aren’t.

A few logistical questions that ease my mind:

Plan your practice time

Plenty of it. 2x, 4x, 10x* what you think you need. Carve out some time for some nerve-working-out practice a day or two before as well. You may not see other speakers doing it, but they are. Go sneak off for some self-care practice.

Get yourself in front of a crowd

Look for ways to practice in front of an audience before your big day. Even an adapted version of your talk will give you valuable feedback. Check in with Meetups, offer to speak at work or to academics in a related field. One friend who did this found a Meetup organizer that was willing to shuffle the Meetup’s event schedule to accommodate a practice session. I wasn’t able to fit into the busy NYC Meetup scene, but I did get the chance to give a related workshop by asking about speaking opportunities. Amazing things can happen!

Talk to yourself

If you can’t get an audience to help you work through your nerves, there’s technology to help you do that! I had the habit of stopping and restarting when make a mistake and that’s not something you want to do during the real talk to avoid bringing attention to your mistakes! I challenged this habit by using Quicktime to make a video that included my screen and my voice as I walked through my talk. It felt like someone was watching! Some use these screencasts during unrecorded talks so they can promote themselves online. Alternatively, some practice in front of folks who aren’t paying attention to them—it’s just enough pressure you’ll keep going but may be more helpful than talking to an empty room or screen. If you’ve ever wanted a reason to “perform” in a crowded place, I’ve got your excuse right here!

Plan those posts

Get serious about pre-planning your social media posts. I use twitter to keep in touch with conference and work folks, so I use TweetDeck [my #conferencefriend Sarah has some tips!] to schedule tweets a few days ahead. There will be things you want to tweet as they happen (cheers 🥂to the live-tweeters—your thumbs are far faster than mine!), but a lot of tweets can be planned before you arrive. You know you’ll want to announce your talk time/location for the folks on-site and that you’ll want to send your slides out shortly after you get off stage, right? I promise you’ll completely forget in the moment. Do as much prep as you can to make sure “future you” has less to think about day-of.

Your nerves are normal

I feel like I have the flu for about a day before my talk but these symptoms disappear in the hours before I speak. I imagined this would get better with time but several speakers spoke about similar reactions, even for subjects/talks that they have given several times. I guess a tummy’s got to do what a tummy’s got to do. Whatever pre-talk nerves you have, if you can let them be there, I think you’ll be a lot happier. I’ve heard of folks acknowledging their nerves to their audience and I told myself I would do that if I felt myself getting lost. Acknowledging your stress (even if only to yourself) gives you the chance to recognize you are facing an unknown (It’s ok! I’m safe!”) and make it easier to avoid shutting down. Having a plan for my “worst case” made me a lot more comfortable.

Jerks on planes

As glamorous as travel can look, like any series of new experiences, it will stress your body and brain in ways you didn’t expect. Sometimes coexisting with an airplane full of other similarly strained humans ends in rudeness. If you’re already in “I’m just happy to be here” mode and questioning you are truly excellent enough at what you do to be traveling and speaking about it, you might feel you have to comply with the entitled asks of strangers. For example, if you choose to graciously accommodate another passenger's request to swap seats, it's a gift, not a reward for the other person demanding it. Sometimes you're just sitting next to a jerk and you should respond however seems best to you. But "no" is always ok.

I do a lot of planning to both help myself feel prepared and to avoid having unfortunate things happen. While I do have a tendency to always imagine the worst case scenario, but I realized on this complicated, multi-stop, multi-talk, and terrifying and amazing adventure that I’m experiencing more nuance in my speaking stress than I did before. If I can indulge in my copious planning (and thus let myself think about all those negative outcomes) without feeling stress as if the negative outcome is coming unless I act, I benefit from planning without inviting its more anxiety-filled flip side: Being too worried to enjoy all the good things I’ve planned for.

Going through life avoiding one “worst” after another can be a hard habit to break. If we can shift to celebrating each of those previously anxiety-inducing steps, we can be a lot happier. Planning ahead is self-care, after all, and we could all use a little more of that. I have had a lot of contention in the past over the negativity inherent in always imagining the worst case scenario but putting myself through the stress of travel is getting me a little closer to finding balance. I want a future that is guided more by the carrots than the sticks.

Last year, attending three conferences in one month overwhelmed me. This February, I attended four and spoke at three of those and haven’t really stopped since. I’m really proud of this growth, but I’ll be the first to admit that I was terrified as my plans were coming together. The “what-ifs” were staggering. My support system was amazing as I prepared. I had pairing buddies, speaking buddies, “you’ve got this” buddies, and one extra-amazing bud who sat next to not-used-to-traveling me and helped me press the “purchase” button on the plane tickets for two international flights. Thanks for the help, squad. You helped me “tear the bandaid off” my conference speaking fear and I’m super-proud and excited for everything that comes next.

This was written at the end of February 2019 but posted in September 2019 because the conference adventures continued! While many of my perspectives have changed, hopefully my initial speaking thoughts will be helpful to others. Thanks to Kayla, Khalid, Kate, Deborah, Sarah and Andrew for pre-reading this post.

* Please note this was written well before all that “10x developer” nonsense hit the internet.