Technology conference speakers come from a wide range of backgrounds, experience levels, and interests. At CFP Land, we highlight different speakers every week in our Speaker’s Story blog posts.

Like many speakers I’ve interviewed, Mike Miles understands that working in technology is about much more than just writing code. While he has done plenty of that, Mike started speaking to raise his confidence and force himself to learn something new. Now, in addition to speaking at dozens of conferences, Mike hosts a podcast called Developing Up, which covers a wide range of non-technical topics for software developers. We spoke about some of the advantages of public speaking for your career on the show, but in this interview, Mike goes into some of his tips and the opportunities that speaking has afforded him as well.

Tell me about yourself. How did you get into public speaking?

Since 2009 I have worked at Genuine, a full service digital agency headquartered in Boston MA, USA. My current role is V.P. of Development, which entails leading the development department and the individuals in it. My day ranges anywhere from meeting with clients, building project estimates to fixing bugs, building features or leading technical architecture for a client project.

I first got into public speaking by presenting lightning talks at local technology meetups. I started by asking development questions, presenting about projects I was working on and demoing solutions I had built. As an introverted person I was nervous about getting in front of and speaking to a large group of people. I knew for myself and for progression in my career, public speaking was something I wanted to improve on.

In 2013 I started submitting talks to conferences and forced myself into the deep-end.

What do you like about speaking at conferences?

Submitting talks is a great excuse to learn something new. When I submit a talk proposal it’s usually on a topic that I am not an expert on, but one that I am interested in learning more about. I then have a motivator to deep dive into the topic to learn about it. This has the challenge of learning enough about a topic to be able to present it in a way that others can understand.

For technical talks in particular, this means being able to break down the subject into basic terms and concepts. This practice has come in very helpful for my career and day job interacting with clients. Being able to explain technical issues or aspects of your project in simple ways is very helpful for improving communication abilities.

More self-serving is the added benefit of being able to travel to different locations around the world to present talks. Most technical conferences will cover the ticket cost (and sometimes airfare and lodging) for speakers. This affords me the opportunity to visit places I may not be able to on my own and get introduced to new communities of people. The benefit to my career from this is that I’m able to grow my professional network. As well as, I have opportunities to listen to a large range of talks by other great speakers.

Finally there is the benefit of building up my self confidence. The more I present the more confident I become in my abilities to do so. This has helped with my social anxiety and with my ability to interact with clients or potential clients. Thanks to my years of public speaking I am now not afraid to join in on conversations with little or no preparations and be confident in what I am going to say.

Do you remember your first conference talk? How did it go?

My first conference talk was in June 2013 at the conference Design 4 Drupal, hosted at MIT in Cambridge MA. I co-presented with a co-worker on responsive design in a talk titled “Bumps in the Road to Responsive”.

As it was my first time speaking in front of a large group, I remember being very nervous about it. To prepare for the talk my co-presenter and I printed out scripts of exactly what we were going to say. Then we practiced many, many times, all the way up until the hour before our scheduled time slot. I do not remember much about presenting (it was all a blur), but we made it through it. People stayed through the whole thing and we had many follow up hallway conversations - which means attendees took away something helpful.

My second time presenting and first time presenting solo, was in April 2014 at a conference hosted at the UN building in New York City. Again, I was very nervous about presenting and spent weeks rehearsing my talk. I had moved away from printing out a script and relied on having practiced my talk. That did not help my nerves and I remember hyperventilating, and my hands shaking. Yet I managed to get through it and covered all the points I wanted to talk about. I even managed to throw in a few (bad) jokes in my talk. At the end, I was very proud of what I accomplished and how I managed to present on my topic.

Mike Miles, “To Patch Contrib or Write a Custom Module”

How many conferences have you applied to and spoken at?

Since 2013, I have applied to 40 different conferences a majority of which have been tech focused. Of those 40 I have spoken at 34 conferences, presenting 38 talks on 9 different subjects. This has given me a chance to present at conference in 4 different countries (US, Canada, Iceland & Germany). On average I build about 1 - 2 new technical topics a year, and present each at 5 - 6 different conferences.

Do you have a pre-talk routine?

After every presentation I take time reflect on how well I did and think of ways I can improve my process. This has lead to an evolution of a pre-talk routine that works for me.

My current routine starts with preparing my mind, about a week before I am due to give my talk. I start by booking a conference room in my office for an hour each workday morning. I use this time to practice my session out loud.

Yes, I present my talk to a brick wall and yes it looks and feels awkward, but that is the point.

I practice the way I’ll present the talk to work out the quirks and get the flow correct. By the time I’ve spent a week doing this, presenting my talk becomes muscle memory. I then do not have to worry about what I’m going to say and can instead focus on how I’m saying it. This allows me to react to any audience questions and manage my allotted time. This is the most important part of my pre-talk of my routine. After this time I DO NOT edit my presentation, doing so would only throw everything off.

The day before and day of my talk I prepare my body. I start by making sure to get to bed at a respectable time and get a full night’s rest.

The morning of I have a good breakfast and if possible practice one last time. The hardest part of this phase is that I do not drink any coffee or caffeine leading up to my talk. I have found that since I still get nervous any caffeine over activates my nerves and leads to me speaking quickly and being shaky during my talk. I also use the day before / morning of to prepare backups of my presentation. I create a PDF version (that I can then share with the audience), back up to a cloud service, create a short link and if possible place it on a USB device. This way if anything catastrophic happens to my laptop or the internet goes down, I can still give my talk.

The hour before my talk I spend clearing my mind. I’ll take a break from the conference I’m at, take a small walk and focus my mind on nothing. This time gives me a chance to calm down and relax. Fifteen minutes before my talk I find the room I’ll be presenting in (if I have not already done so) and sit in on the talk currently being given (if there is one).

Then it’s time for me to get on stage, hook up my laptop and start talking!

What advice do you have for new speakers?

First, you do not have to be an expert to present on a technical topic. Build a presentation around an interest. You do not have to be a subject matter expert and building a talk is a great motivator to learn something new.

Second, practice, practice, practice and practice out loud! You will not get a feel for your talk by practicing it “in your head”. Practice the way you present your talk. Standing up, hooked up to a monitor and not facing your slides. This allows you to build a muscle memory around what and how you are going to present.

Third, when possible practice your talk in front of a trusted friend or family. Ideally someone who is not knowledgeable of the material. They will catch things about your presentation that you are not aware of and give you helpful feedback on the story you are telling. I cannot tell you the number of spelling and grammar mistakes my wife has found in my presentations.

Fourth, do not be the person that edits your presentation hours/minutes leading up to your talk. Doing so means you are going to have to figure out what you want say while presenting. Losing the message / lesson you want to convey to your audience.

Number five is do not be afraid to submit your talk to many conferences. You do not need to build a new talk for every CFP and the information you’ve built will be beneficial for many audiences. Plus the more times you give your talk the better you will become at it.

Finally, number six, mistakes will happen and when they do move on. I’ve seen some technical talks derailed because the presenter spent too long trying to get a code example to work, or wait for a file to load due to a bad internet connection. If something is not going correct, move on to the next part of your talk, your audience will thank you.

Are there any other speakers you look up to? Anyone who’s inspired you?

There are two speakers who I have looked up to and have inspired my career as a technical speaker. The first is Larry Garfield. Larry outlined the methods he’s used to build technical talks and his guidelines. These have helped me numerous times to build session proposals that have been accepted by conferences. You can read Larry’s guidelines here.

The second speaker is Jeff Eaton. Every time I have seen Jeff present, it is with enthusiasm and passion for what he is presenting on. As an attendee at one of his talks you feel this in the way he presents and you walk away feeling empowered (at least this has been my experience). The way Jeff Eaton presents is something I have striven to replicate in my own presentation style.

Where can readers find more about you?

Interested readers can find out more about me in a number of different ways:

If you’re a tech conference speaker, email [email protected] to tell your story. 💌

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