The journey towards conference speaking

Chris & Dave's PHP User Group Adventures!

Published on 11th June 2016 by Chris Sherry

March 2014, PHP Dorset’s inaugural meetup. This turned out to be an important date for me as not only was this was my introduction to technical talks but also first time I had a conversation with my now Technical Lead and friend Dave Hulbert. Michael Heap from DataSift gave an excellent talk which introduced me to Vagrant and Ansible – tools I now use on a daily basis. Michael is an experienced speaker and one I have enjoyed seeing on several occasions – and now someone I consider a good friend. Back then I couldn’t have imagined myself speaking in front of a group of people about my day let alone my job. How times have changed.

The next month Dave gave a talk at PHP Dorset, which has since become an established event, with a fellow colleague Alex on Silex and Twig (again, tools I now use on a daily basis). I remember thinking that to have given that talk must have been quite a challenge, particularly as it was a last minute stand in for another talk – but both these guys are experienced developers and really know their stuff, they made it look easy. It got me pondering whether it was something I’d ever be able to do.

Next I saw Dave give a talk at PHP Hampshire, which was mostly about pasta. I was nervous just being in a room of complete strangers, and I wasn’t even the one giving the talk! It was great to branch out and meet new faces, many of which I have seen regularly since at conferences and other events. Speaking in Hampshire isn’t something I have done yet but it is on my todo list. It can be a daunting place to trial a talk as not only because they are one of the larger user groups, but they have a stage with microphones and lights, but definitely a place to go as a step towards conference speaking.

That summer I joined Base as a developer, and after my first review, the very item at the top of my goals list was to give my own talk. As part of our process of continuing professional development at Base I was sent to PHP North West with the PHP team and saw some excellent talks. My highlight was sitting front row for a talk by Anthony Ferrara, and as we waited for the room to fill up, he casually chatted with us about our user group. It amazed me how he could be so calm as to do anything other than focus on the talk he was about to deliver. I asked him if he had any advice and he told me that everyone has something to share that someone else doesn’t know yet, and encouraged me to give it a go. I also got to see Jenny Wong talk on the conference’s ‘Unconf’ track about uniting the PHP and WordPress communities – a talk she then bought to us at PHP Dorset later that year.

chris-php-talkAs a combination of being inspired by Jenny and working hard through the year to improve the processes at Base for developing our WordPress sites, a gap appeared in the PHP Dorset schedule in March 2015. So now it was my turn to try. In all I must have spent 4 weekends working on my talk. I kind of knew what I was talking about, but not in depth enough to talk about it, so this started with a lot of research.

The best thing I found about putting a talk together was that it gave me a purpose to really learn and understand the topic well. The more I worked on the talk, the better I understood what I was working on at work, and as a result the quality of both my talk and my code improved.

15018090896_b3b8988b68_k_2I had seen a talk by Ross Tuck at the re:develop conference, and as part of my research I came across his blog, which was full of great advice about speaking. Most notably his advice on anticipating questions and answering them in the talk, or else the audience stop listening so they can remember their questions. I approached this by talking to people about the subject matter for my talk – lots. The more people I talked to the more questions they asked – some answers I knew and some I didn’t. I looked those up, and put as many of the answers into my talk as I could.

The PHP Dorset crowd were fantastic to me with both compliments and feedback. Responses like “If you hadn’t have said this was your first time speaking, I wouldn’t have known” were so nice to hear, and “you’ve clearly practiced this” were spot on – I had. I didn’t have anyone available to practice to, so this is where another of Ross Tuck’s gems came in – I put stuffed animals around my living room, and I practiced talking to them. It sounds silly, but they have happy faces and they don’t interrupt – by placing them around the room I got used to talking to faces all around me, to ensure I engaged with everyone watching.

The audience awaits their talk

The audience awaits their talk

The feedback from talks is also invaluable, without it – all the mistakes and faults from my first version would still exist and I would still be making them. I don’t think there’s any shaming in getting things wrong or needing to improve, but I would be gutted if I made the same mistake more than once, so I can’t thank my user group enough for all their support.

Next up I took my talk to a couple of Barcamps, we had one here in Bournemouth, and there was another in Southampton. These were different audiences than at a PHP user group and there are several tracks people can choose from, I was pleased to have people attend both, even if the turnout was lower than at my first attempt. At Barcamp Southampton in particular, I a grand total of 2 attendees at my talk. This turned out to be great though, as I found I relaxed into a less formal style and the talk become more of a discussion. It was still really valuable and worth doing because both the attendees were really interested and judging by the feedback they seemed to take a lot away.

Meanwhile Dave had started to experiment with a tool called phpspec. He began formulating his talk for this as an internal workshop with the other PHP developers at Base, and by September he was ready to take the talk version to a bigger audience.

Jenny had been asking how my talk went at PHP Dorset and I showed her the video from the website – and alongside my friend (also called Dave) Baker from the Dorset user group started tweeting user groups telling them they should ask me to give my talk to them. I had requests from Brighton and Surrey and so me and Dave decided to team up as a speaking double-act and start our tour of the South’s user groups.

I really loved seeing the different crowds and the variety of venues that host the usergroups. Unfortunately I hadn’t had time to improve my talk much and particularly at Brighton there were a few mistakes where I had changed a few slides and not tested them. This was good in a way as it gave me some valuable experience in dealing with when my slides let me down – and as a result I knew to give this talk to a bigger crowd I would need to memorise the talk much better so it wouldn’t trip me up if something technically went wrong. Both Brighton (September) and Surrey (November) were great experiences.

This was also a chance for us to test out our silly pub game we had previous invented with Michael Cullum at the social of Symfony London – ‘Syntax Error’ – A card game for PHP developers who haven’t had enough of writing code during the day.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 19.12.29

I decided it was time to put my talk in for a conference. Of course I didn’t think for one second that I was ready to speak at a conference but I thought it would be good to go through the CFP process and get used to how it worked, perhaps get some feedback on my abstract. I applied to a local conference PHP South Coast – of which the PHP Dorset team helped found and organise, I felt on the small chance I got selected that I would feel comfortable there.

I was absolutely stunned to find that I had been selected, and a minute of dread swept over me until I saw that Dave had also been selected. This was massive for me as Dave had been there every step of the way with my speaking and knowing he would be alongside me in the speaker line up turned that dread into excitement. I guess I’ll never know exactly why or how I managed to get selected – I know for a fact there were 315 submissions for talks, but credit really has to go to the organisers of PHP South Coast for selecting me and so many other first time speakers for the conference, I believe it was almost a 50:50 split.

From there on the key thing was practice. Myself and Dave must have given our talks to each other at least 10 times over to the point where I am fairly sure we could have given each other’s if we needed to. I also spent a lot of time working on the slides themselves – my slides were good enough for a user group but fell short of what I needed for a paying audience. I plan to write something about how I improved my slides in the near future.

Me and Dave completed our tour with a visit to PHPBerks, who kindly let us visit to practice our talks in April to get ready for the conference. This was extremely valuable as it meant I could try out some new slides I had written to a real audience and also get feedback from a crowd which included some top WordPress developers, including Jenny who pointed out some really big errors, such as the slide tweeted below.

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Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 18.45.12

So here we are, June 11th, PHP South Coast 2016, last night we had a speaker dinner where I sat side by side next to some of my aforementioned heroes such as Anthony Ferrara and Michael Heap and many others who have inspired me to talk.

I’ve just watched my partner in crime Dave absolutely nail his talk about PHPSpec in an earlier slot – and answer a round of questions so confidently it was like he had put plants in the audience. There have been problems with microphone feedback so they can’t be relied on, and everyone has sat through a day of talks and are looking fairly tired so I’ve really got to bring the energy. Here goes nothing…


Look out for a post on how it all went very soon!

Photo of elePHPant herd by leafnode.

Published on 11th June 2016

Web App Engineer

Chris Sherry