The PyCon Speaker Experience (is phenomenal)

The PyCon 2018 website is up and the January 3rd deadline for talk proposals is approaching steadily. Could there be a better time than this to reflect on my experience as a first-time speaker at PyCon 2017 and maybe encourage someone else to be a first-time speaker in 2018?

I’m not a seasoned public speaker by any measure, but I have talked in front of audiences while waving my arms at slideshows a hand-full of times, and somewhat regularly go to events where others do the same. I’ve also been humbled by how hard it is to stage even a small speaking event while co-organizing Ignite Ithaca.

Based on this negligible but non-zero prior experience with public speaking, let me tell you: The PyCon organizers are phenomenal at supporting their speakers!

From one first-time PyCon presenter to a potential next first-time PyCon presenter, the following is what you can expect if your talk gets accepted.

Before the Conference

Several weeks before PyCon 2017, speakers received surprisingly detailed communication about both technical details as well as the timeline of events leading up to the conference. For example, this included instructions on when and where to submit slides early to aid the live captioners’ preparation and such banal but important things like the screen aspect ratio of the projectors. I owe a big thank you to Ewa and David for responding to all my questions surrounding the logistics of having to set up a factory on stage.

Before the Talk

On-site at the conference it was great to have the speakers-only “Green Room” with coffee, snacks, and experienced PyCon veterans to answer newbie questions. From what I could tell, Julia never left the Green Room during the entire PyCon weekend and helped me a bunch.

I saw many speakers use the green room as a quiet space to go through their presentation “one last time”, or some others working on their slides up to the last minute. In general, the atmosphere in the Green Room was somewhere between library reading room and quiet cafe. I caught a few annoyed stares while disturbing the quiet when I was unpacking and testing the conveyor. Sorry!

While speakers were invited to come to the Green Room on every day of the conference, they had to arrive there 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of their talk.

Getting on Stage

Those often stressful last 30 minutes before the talk were so well executed, I forgot my nerves and felt like a celebrity instead.

Before the talk, my assigned handler walked me from the Green Room to the talk room. It’s practically impossible to show up to the wrong room or at the wrong time, both things I have seen happen at academic conferences before.

Once in the talk room, the session chair took over and helped with setting up my laptop and all those cables as well as reminding me (again) of the talk length and the protocol for audience questions. At the same time, the sound engineer clipped on my mic and did a quick sound check. Just before going on stage to introduce me, the session chair double checked on the pronunciation of my name and then got the talk started exactly on time.

During the Talk

This was my first time presenting to an audience in the hundreds. I enjoy being on stage, but I can see how one may feel intimidated by it: The lights are very bright, the people in the back are really quite far away, and the live caption screen shows every word you say in a foot-high all-uppercase font.

The session chair gives a quick introduction with your name and talk title, and then the stage is all yours. During the talk, they sit in the first row and show the remaining time every five minutes. A few speakers I saw tested the time limit and seemed to get increasingly urgent signals. I didn’t, and the session chair kicked off a Q&A for the remaining minutes of my talk slot. Some speakers had the session chair take questions, others did it themselves, and a few seemed to have asked to skip the Q&A altogether.

Want to feel like a celebrity? Give a PyCon talk.

For that one hour just before and during my talk, I felt like everyone’s objective was to make me look good. I honestly believe that this level of professionalism is a big part of why PyCon speakers all seem like public speaking professionals in their Youtube videos.