What I learned from speaking at LeadDev

What I learned from speaking at LeadDev

This week I gave a talk titled "Scale up: How to grow your team without growing headcount" to about 450 folks at the LeadDev conference in San Francisco. The talk was ten minutes long, but I spent roughly 75 hours iterating over it and rehearsing it. Here's what I learned from the experience, and what I hope to improve upon next time.

The good stuff

πŸ’‘ Topic

First off, I think I chose a solid topic! It really has been a hard year for hiring in tech. This hit home when one of the first attendees I met told me a story about the large number of layoffs that hit their company recently. And while it was validating to hear this, it was also a somber reminder that this is a hard topic that has likely had very personal implications for many of the folks in the audience, and I should be sensitive to that.

It felt really good when three other speakers referenced my talk during their own talks. These talks intersected with mine in the areas of writing culture, effective delegation, and development of first-time tech leads. This was further validation that I had focused on areas that others valued.

But the highlight came when I spoke with a startup engineering leader who told me my talk had a "pivotal impact" on him. We discussed the challenges he's facing with his team and I think I was able to ask some questions and share some relevant experiences that were helpful. It meant so much to me that I was able to have this kind of impact on someone.

πŸƒπŸ½ Movement and expression

This was my second experience with public speaking. One of my gripes with the first talk I gave was my poor use of the stage, and my lack of movement and physical expression. Depending on where an audience member sits, a speaker can appear as a small, abstract figure. This time, I tried using gestures, movement to different points on the stage, and body language to make a stronger visual impression and engage the audience. From what I can recall I was able to do all of these things. But ultimately the jury's out until I can review the recording and see whether I did all of these things well or whether I hallucinated. πŸ˜‚

I also wanted to improve upon my internalization of my talk. At my first talk, I felt like I was kind of stumbling through things, leaning on the slides too much and feeling unfamiliar with the thread of the talk. For this talk, I recorded myself rehearsing the talk about twenty times. Eventually I was able to deliver it without my slides. During the talk I still needed to use my speaker notes a couple times, especially towards the end, but this time I felt like I was truly delivering my thoughts instead of struggling to recall what I was supposed to say.

A still from one of my recordings. I'm speaking in my living room while my dog watches me.

The not-that-bad stuff

πŸ–ΌοΈ Slide design

The DALL-E illustrations I created for my slides seemed to catch people's attention. Most of the people I talked to seemed to remember that I had used DALL-E to create the artwork. So I think the slides worked as a hook.

Here are a few of my favorite images that didn't make the cut.

DALL-E art for the prompt, "Shelves of glowing scientific experiments, by Norman Rockwell".
DALL-E art for the prompt, "Psychedelic mind’s eye in a magic intergalactic brain, digital art".
DALL-E art for the prompt, "18th century ship flying into the clouds with birds flying, beautiful oil painting by Johannes Vermeer".

On the other hand, I think my slides lacked substance. They caught people's attention and people remembered them as pure visuals, but they didn't enrich the ideas that I communicated. Some of my favorite slides were ones which helped me understand an idea more clearly through visual story-telling, like this one by Javier Cardenete Morales:

Next time I'd like to try expressing my ideas using visual story-telling tools like charts and graphs, in addition to slides that simply grab the audience's attention.

During other people's talks, I sometimes had difficulty noticing when a slide had changed if there wasn't enough contrast between one slide and the slide following it. Also, some folks moved from one slide to the next too quickly for me to fully digest it. I'll watch out for these bugs when designing slides for my next talk.

🀩 Audience engagement

When I asked the audience a thought-provoking question, I felt like I was hitting a climactic note. This felt the same as those rare moments when I ask a colleague just the right question phrased just the right way that enables them to unlock the solution. I wish I had been more intentional about this with my talk. For example, when describing the importance of fostering a writing culture I could have asked the audience what kind of processes would their team benefit from having written down. I could have followed that up with some examples from my own career, like onboarding and offboarding docs.

I mentioned earlier that a few speakers incorporated references to my talk into their own talks, and others brought up recent events that connected to their topic. I loved how this made their talks feel more authentic and relevant. I wanted to do this too, but to be honest I was scared of throwing myself off after spending so much time rehearsing.

I also tried to make eye contact with the audience but the stage lights were blinding. A few years ago I had eye surgery which causes halos and other light artifacts in my vision, which I'm sure did me no favors. Not sure what I can do about this – maybe wear sunglasses?!

🀣 Jokes

A few other speakers mentioned to me that they found the audience's sense of humor unpredictable – not laughing at some jokes, and laughing at bits that weren't intended to be funny! I had a similar experience. I think I got a few laughs but I felt like many of my jokes didn't land. I laughed the most at other speaker's jokes when they were delivered dead-pan and had an absurdist angle. That's just my sense of humor... which is probably the sense of humor I should be injecting into my own talk anyway.

Stuff to work on

😰 Nerves

Before the talk I felt nervous. My mouth was dry, I had trouble swallowing, my breathing felt weird, and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. At one point I swallowed and some spit caught in my throat and I couldn't shake a terrible image of getting on stage and choking on my own spit in front of everyone!

I had a couple technical difficulties when I got on-stage. I couldn't find the clicker and then my headset fell off, but neither was catastrophic. During my talk I also mis-clicked the clicker a couple times – once I clicked backward when I meant to go forward and another time I clicked ahead by accident.

I think all of my rehearsing paid off because I felt pretty comfortable flowing through the talk despite the nerves and missteps. At the same time, I didn't really feel present. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I was talking, moving around, and getting through the talk, and then all of a sudden it was over. Did I talk too fast? How much time did I use? I had no idea. I knew I had just spoken to a crowd for ten minutes but my short-term memory only contained bits and pieces of it, like Guy Pearce's character in "Memento".

To be fair, I had also struggled with sleep the previous night. I had tried turning off the thermostat in the room because it was such a cold night, but this particular hotel's bedspread had not been designed with layering in mind. The only way for me to get comfortable was to run the air conditioning and sleep under the blanket. Lesson learned.

As soon as I stepped off-stage, my nervousness was replaced by relief and euphoria – like I could go right up and do it again! I felt physically light, as if I had taken off a backpack full of rocks. This is the feeling I'm going to try to remember ahead of my next talk in order to calm my nerves.

A photo of me at the conference, displaying the eye bags from my terrible night's sleep.


Another attendee gave me some excellent feedback on my talk: my stories were too general. Some of my favorite stories told by the other speakers were brimming with little personal details. For example, Plum Ertz's description of "TTN" – their hero-centric incident remediation metric that measures "Time-to-Nick". I think my stories were too verbose, and I ended up using too much time to share too little information.

I focused on creating narrative arcs with my stories, but I think a ten-minute window is too short for that. Next time, I think I'll try to communicate my stories more succinctly, sticking to this basic structure:

  • Define a problem I tried to solve
  • List the ways I tried to solve it
  • Explain which solution I chose and why
  • Describe what I learned

I can also give myself more time for these stories by cutting out long intros. For example, I spent precious minutes establishing my bonafides when I could have simply stated, β€œIn my years as an engineering leader, what I learned is…” Of course, if my talk had been 30 minutes long I probably would have spent more time on my background.

'Til next time!

I think I've come a long way from my first talk, but I think I have much more to improve on. Now that I know what to expect, I'm looking forward to applying the lessons I've learned from this talk to the next one.

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