There are dozens of solid ways to level up as a developer. Online video, blogs, niche mailing lists, books, reading source code on GitHub, and of course simply building something. So how do conferences compete? What are they good for? Where do they fail?
I’ve presented over 70 sessions at conferences across North America and Europe over the last three years. I’m clearly a big believer in the format. After attending countless sessions, I’ve discovered a simple principle: Developer conferences should be about why, not how.
Stop Teaching, Start Selling
Many developers start their speaking career by fixating heavily on the how. They want to explain the details of the implementation. They strive to walk through as much code and technical detail as they can jam in an hour. “This parameter does this…This overload initializes that…” This is a mistake.
Effective conference sessions aren’t fixated on the how. They’re about the why.
It’s certainly possible to teach the how at a conference. But lets consider the strengths and weakness of the conference format by contrasting a typical conference session with alternatives like a book, blog, or online video.
The typical conference session lasts one hour. This arbitrary constraint creates a fundamental challenge: How do I address my topic comprehensively in this short timeframe? Books, blogs, and online video allow you to select the length based on the complexity of your topic.
This arbitrary constraint means you must carefully select a small subset of the actual topic when presenting at a conference. There’s no way you can cover it all in one hour. It’s unlikely you can do so in a four or eight hour session either. So why not focus on the why, when, and where instead?
Books, blogs, and online videos can optimize their message for a very specific niche. Consumers of these formats enjoy a broad range of options, so they can select the medium and focus that suits their skill set and learning style best. In contrast, conferences have anywhere from 100 to a few 1,000 people who are choosing between a handful of concurrent sessions.
This means presenters are incentivized to select broad, introductory topics that will appeal to a wide swath of attendees. Niche and advanced topics are rarely accepted since they’re destined to have thin attendance. Ultimately, the attendees in a given session have a far broader experience base than those who select a specific book, blog, or video. Thus, choosing the ideal breadth and depth is impossible with a diverse audience. So why not spend your time selling why, when, and where your topic is useful? Why not focus solely on getting your audience excited to learn more?
A room full of people with widely varying experience creates a nightmare for pacing. Due to this issue, nearly every session and pre-compiler I’ve attended that sought to teach the “how” has struggled. Teaching “how” is likely to bore one half of the audience, and move too fast for the other half.
In contrast, books, blogs, and online video allow people to consume at their own pace. They can skip sections that are familiar. They can watch the video at 2x. They can skim and search a blog post to get the big ideas. They can pause consumption at any point so they have time to think through and experiment with the examples. In short, books, blogs, and online videos are a far superior format for exploring complex technical topics.
Sure, the best conference speakers regularly adjust their pace based on audience feedback. But there’s no way to please everyone. This is why sessions that fixate on the how lose a large part of the audience’s attention before the session is over. Why not create a compelling pitch for the why, when, and where instead?
Thus far I’ve been shooting conferences down, but this is where they shine. Conferences offer a unique opportunity to interact with your audience. Great speakers tailor their delivery, gather alternative viewpoints, and maintain engagement. One could argue this interactivity makes conferences a great place to teach the how, but the aforementioned issues with pacing, timeframes, and audience continually fight against you. Yet the interactive nature of conferences makes it the perfect place to truly change people’s minds. This is your precious opportunity to call people to action.
Salespeople understand that in-person interactions are the most powerful way to change minds. They know that a blog post, brochure, or video are highly unlikely to incite action. That’s why salespeople spend their lives traveling to meet their customers face-to-face. Conferences offer a unique and precious opportunity to get your audience excited about your topic.
You don’t build interest or incite change by enumerating details. You build it by contrasting the current state with the potential of a brighter future.
Pick A Better Goal
Conferences are awesome. They build community. They present new ideas. They open your mind. But when we seek to teach technical minutiae to a room of 100+ developers, we quietly fail. It’s not about the presenter. It’s about the medium. The tight timelines, pacing challenges, and diverse audiences at conferences make this format ill-suited to teaching technical implementations.
So I propose a simple rule for future conferences: Focus on the why. Your goal as a speaker shouldn’t be to teach someone the technical details of some new technology in one hour. You’ll almost certainly fail to engage a large portion of your audience. You don’t have time to deliver comprehensive coverage anyway. Thus, I propose a new better goal: Get your audience excited enough to dig deeper.
Words that are carefully framed and spoken are the most powerful means of communication there is.
– Nancy Duarte
Duarte, author of Resonate says great presentations strive to complete a transformation in the audience. Ask yourself, what is the transformation you want to foster in your audience?
Success is about getting the crowd excited enough to explore further. There’s no better medium for getting people excited than a short, engaging, in-person presentation. In-person interactions are powerful. So when you plan your next conference talk, avoid the temptation to merely enumerate technical details. Instead, sell the why.
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