Erik Sasha Romijn

Why you should speak (at Djangocon Europe)

In early June, Djangocon Europe is held in Cardiff, Wales, and the call for papers is still open until the 18th of March. The aim is to not only have familiar names in the schedule, but to achieve a good mix with first time speakers as well. There are even speaker mentors offering to help. However, if you’ve never spoken in public before, or rarely, it can be a quite daunting to submit to a conference as large as Djangocon. I’m a fairly experienced public speaker, and hope to dispel some of the doubts you may have about submitting. Much of this will apply to other conferences as well.

What could you speak about?

Finding an appropriate subject is one of the hardest parts for me. I have to understand it sufficiently, it should fit the conference and the audience, and I should be able to explain enough about it within the available time to make it useful.

Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that you have a vast amount of knowledge and experience that most of your audience will not have. Everyone does. However, knowing these things is often so natural and obvious to those that know them, that it’s hard to realise all the things you know.

Even though, at Djangocon, we all know Django, it is a vast ecosystem of which we all only know parts. So whereas a general introduction of Django views may be too simple, perhaps you’ve learned a few best practices in your work with them. Many of us know the basics of Django testing, but perhaps you have experiences from adding tests to legacy applications. If you just migrated to Django, you may have learned interesting lessons. And it doesn’t always have to be about code: Djangocon is also a good place to talk about user experience or accessibility in the widest sense.

There are just so many things you know that the most of us don’t. It could be a war story of how you tackled complex problems, a new look on a feature we all know about, but never really understood, or a new perspective on a way in which one can use Django. It can even be something that’s not specific to Django, but does or should matter to almost all of us, like accessibility. For example, I have no idea whether my websites work well in screen readers, how I could test that and how to improve it. I bet 90% of the Djangocon audience doesn’t know, but would care more about if they knew how.

Make it something you’re passionate about. The things you feel you do right, but many others do wrong. The parts of your work that make it different from most, or your beliefs on how our world should or could work.

Do I know my subject well enough?

Once you manage to come up with a few possible subjects, doubt usually strikes. What if you don’t know enough? Won’t everyone else know more than I do already? You may know there are other people at this conference that know this subject much better, so what gives you the authority to speak?

I have never spoken on a subject on which I was the absolute expert. Or anything close to that. I’m a generalist, which means that although I know quite a lot about quite a few things, there are a lot of people that know more about any single one of these things. I am not the best Django developer, Python developer, iOS developer, security expert, or anything like that. Yet I’ve spoken on all these subjects, and often with people in the very same room that knew much more about it than I did.

What matters is not that you know everything. Or that you know more than anyone else in the room. What matters is that you know enough to tell something new to many people in the room. If you know more than most people in the room, or if you have a new perspective or a new story for most of your audience, that is a worthwhile talk. There is absolutely no need to know everything.

In fact, sometimes it can be helpful to have less experience than others. Every once in a while someone who recently started with Django, or a particular part of Django, speaks about their experiences. This holds a mirror up to those of us with more experience, and helps our community become more welcoming.

So what gives you the authority to speak, over the other person at Djangocon that knows more about the subject? It’s the simple fact that you submitted a proposal, and put in the time to make this work, and they did not. Or, they submitted a proposal with an entirely different angle, of which the organisers thought it would not work as well. It simply does not matter whether you know the most of everyone in the room: what matters is that you took the effort to share a story that most of your audience does not yet know.

Also, don’t underestimate how much you will learn while preparing your talk. Taking the knowledge you have, and forming that into a sensible story, requires you to rethink and restructure everything you know. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn.

Lastly, if you’re worried the audience may already be too familiar with your subject, remember that all proposals are reviewed by the organisers. And if they believe that what you have to say has value for your audience, why wouldn’t you?

On rejection

I’ve entirely lost count of how many conference proposals I’ve done that were rejected. There were a lot. But I’ve never regretted submitting, even after a rejection. Within the Django community, I’ve never heard of anyone being ridiculed for making a proposal that was a bad fit. So if your proposal is ridiculous, the worst case is that it’ll be rejected.

Rejection isn’t fun, but it’s inevitable: there are simply always more submissions than slots. The organisers need to ensure a good mix of subjects and skill levels. Nobody will look down on you for having your proposal rejected. It can even be a chance to learn as well: I sometimes ask organisers whether they have any feedback, and have used that in the past to refine my proposal and get it accepted at another conference. There is no point in arguing a rejection with an organiser though.

Most of all: if in doubt, submit the proposal anyways. You will regret not submitting a lot more often than submitting.

Why Djangocon?

Since my first Djangocon in Berlin, Djangocon Europe is my #1 conference. I never have doubts on attending Djangocon Europe. And I’ve never been disappointed.

Not only is Djangocon a good place to start because it’s such a good conference, but also because the Django community is the friendliest and most welcoming community I know. And this is improving every year. In other communities, I’ve seen people ask questions to speakers in ways which were set up to push the speaker into a corner, nitpick on insigifnicant errors in the slides, and so on. But never at Djangocon. If you come to speak at Djangocon, even if it isn’t perfect, we’re happy to have you, and grateful for your contribution.

If you’re still a bit hesitant, get in touch with the speaker mentors. I’d be one myself if I had the time. I do know most of the people on that list, and they are excellent people that can be a great help.

I look forward to seeing you on the stage at Djangocon Europe 2015. The submission deadline is March 18.

From this blog, you may also like my 31 practical tips for public speaking.