Explore Feb 26, 2020

What I Learned From Speaking at Grace Hopper

Advice For Drafting Your Proposal and Preparing Your Next Conference Talk

Are you applying to speak at Grace Hopper 2020? Or perhaps you’re thinking about giving a talk at a similar upcoming conference? My colleague and I had the privilege of giving a tech talk at Grace Hopper 2019 on building multiplayer video games with WebSockets. This post is a breakdown of our process including drafting a proposal, preparing for our talk, and giving our presentation.

 

Writing the Proposal

Prior to submitting our proposal to Grace Hopper, we had already given our talk at colleges across the country and for our colleagues, so we knew the flow and structure of our talk. We followed recommendations for submitting a proposal to Grace Hopper, drafted our own, and got extensive feedback before submitting. We also had a few managers and friends review our proposal to get feedback, though most of our content was solidified because we had already presented this talk.

Tips for Proposal Writing:

  • Read the entire submission application form early on. We didn’t realize until we were submitting the application that we had to include speaker bios and our public speaking experience. We also didn’t realize that including video samples was optional. Luckily, both of us had a bit of public speaking experience in front of large crowds which helped us fill out this section on short notice.

  • Include a very complete outline of your talk with screenshots if possible. Since the panel can’t actually hear your talk, it is best to give them the exact structure of your talk with good details to demonstrate your knowledge of the material. Screenshots are especially useful for technical talks to give a sample of what you’ll be explaining and to show that you’ve already done the work.
  • If videos are optional, include them. Similarly, a short sample of our talk would have been helpful to demonstrate public speaking skills and technical knowledge. This shows the panel exactly who you are and what you’ll be presenting.
  • Make it fun! The panel reads a lot of talk proposals and attendees will too, so draft a proposal that will engage the panelists and make people want to attend.

 

Preparing to Speak

Grace Hopper sent us our acceptance email a few weeks after our submission! We were given a few weeks to officially confirm that we would be attending and to update our title, abstract and speaker bios.

One nice thing, notes from each of the panelists were attached to our online application so we were able to review their feedback and update our title, abstract, and talk accordingly.

Once we officially confirmed our attendance, Grace Hopper sent us their official slide template and we adjusted our material to fit into it. We also spent weeks rehearsing in front of different groups of people, getting feedback, and adjusting our talk as necessary.

Tips for Preparing and Practicing Your Presentation:

  • Look at the slide template early. Start on the slides early so you can become familiar with using the template. We ended up having to create a lot of slides ourselves so that there were more images, less text, and a good presentation format for our topic and talk style. Note that the slides are due in the speaker portal two weeks before your presentation.
  • Practice! Practice for as many different people as possible: technical, non-technical, friends, and managers. Practice helped us iron out so many little details, but also the overall flow of our talk. By the time we were presenting at Grace Hopper, we knew exactly how our talk would go, down to how many minutes each section would take (remember to practice with a timer). Any feedback prior to the talk is useful and can be used to improve your presentation. We found questions our friends were asking to be particularly useful, as they helped us add missing content and prepare for Q&A following the presentation.
  • Practice with microphones. Hearing your voice echo from a microphone can be a bit jarring if you’ve never spoken with one before. If possible, learn how your voice sounds when amplified and when there’s an echo.
  • Practice speaking with your hands full. Practice using a clicker and holding a microphone to simulate what it will feel like when you’re on stage and not just in front of a small room.

 

Attending the Conference

Grace Hopper is a huge conference and the speaker ticket includes access to all of the standard resources, plus additional events for speakers only. Our hard work allowed us not only to share our knowledge, but also to be a part of the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.

Tips for Attending:

  • Network at the speaker reception. One of the most rewarding experiences was attending the speaker reception the night before the conference officially started and meeting other presenters who had similar interests. We had the opportunity to network with some amazing women, and as a result, were able to attend their talks throughout the week.

  • Go to other people’s talks and learn from them before you present. If you’re not the first group presenting - use that time! We had a whole day to watch other talks and it was really good to observe the volume and pace of other speakers. We were also able to see how they interacted with the audience and used the microphones, clickers, and other provided technical equipment.
  • Enjoy the rest of the conference. Don’t be so stressed out by your own talk that you don’t take the time to enjoy the experience of attending Grace Hopper! If you practice a lot before the conference, you won’t need to stress out when you get there because you’ll already be prepared.
  • Use the Speaker Lounge. It’s a good place to relax, prepare, or meet other speakers. Take advantage of it!

 

The Final Presentation

After preparing for months, there wasn’t much left to be done and we were able to relax and mainly enjoy the conference, but there were a few things we did before and during our talk to help it to come off as polished as we wanted.

Tips for The Final Presentation:

  • Utilize the people in the Speaker Ready Room. We had a lot of questions about microphones, clickers, accessing the internet, etc. Getting to the Speaker Ready Room early allowed us to adjust our slides, ensure all of our content was correct, and chat with the technicians about logistics of the presentation.

  • Engage the audience. We used Kahoot! to start our talk since that’s a really cool application of WebSockets (our topic) and immediately engaged the audience. That might not be the best intro for every talk, but telling jokes, getting a show of hands, etc. also helped us keep the audience’s attention.
  • Plan for Q&A. We didn’t have time for Q&A during our talk so we took questions immediately following the talk. A lot of people stayed after to ask questions about our content so it was a really neat way to connect with them and answer any additional questions they had.

Outcome

Speaking at Grace Hopper was a really rewarding experience. Based on the results of our Kahoot! game we had more than 300 people in attendance, engaged with 20 people following our talk, and received very kind feedback from the post-talk survey. It was great to meet so many talented students and engineers, to show off our content expertise, and to share our knowledge. I also learned a lot from attending other keynotes, workshops, and talks, and enjoyed networking with so many other hard working women. Since I had first attended Grace Hopper as a student, speaking was a really cool way to give back, transfer knowledge, encourage students to try out WebSockets in their projects, and teach engineers another useful skill for their toolbox!

A special thanks to all who made this opportunity possible - we could not have done it alone!

Rebecca Kern
Software Engineer

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