One of the last things I did before leaving Yahoo! was to help organize the Front End Summit along with James Long and David Calhoun. This is (was?) a yearly internal front end conference that brought together engineers from all over the world. While not the same as planning a public conference, we faced many similar situations: we had to find speakers, we had to secure space for the conference (surprisingly hard, even though the company owned the space), and figure out how to get budget for everyone’s travel, food, and other expenses.

James, David, and I each came in with our own ideas about what was most important to achieve. My personal goal was to create a new speaker program to encourage inexperienced and brand new speakers to give talks. I had this goal for a couple of reasons. First, I strongly believe that giving talks (even small ones) is important to the professional growth of engineers. Second, Yahoo! had just lost some amazing speakers through attrition and I felt like it was important for us to replenish the corps.

In designing this program, I thought back to my early days of speaking and what would have helped me. Mentors are always an important part of any new experience, and so we had a mentorship program. I asked a bunch of experienced speakers to take on one or two inexperienced speakers to guide them through the process. The mentors were there to help go over slides, give feedback, give support for the random freakouts that might happen, organize rehearsals…basically, anything that would help the new speakers feel more comfortable. Any speaker could ask for a mentor to help them, and it was up to the mentor and speaker to work out the best way to work with each other. Some chose to meet weekly to go over their progress, others communicated primarily via email; the mentorship was what they each wanted out of it rather than a rigid protocol.

If you chose to have a mentor, then you were obligated to attend two speaker training sessions (those without mentors were welcome to attend as well). The sessions were designed to go over general knowledge that everyone should have. Jenny Donnelly presented the first session, which was a combination of logistical insights (i.e., how to deal with lapel mics and washed-out projectors) as well as tips of how to design slides and speak clearly. The second session was an improv class. We actually didn’t tell anyone that’s what we were doing for fear that some may not show up. We hired an excellent outside guy to do the two-hour improv workshop designed to put people at ease in front of crowds. This was a huge hit – everyone who participated felt like it helped them tremendously. On top of it, we all got to act silly at work. If you want to improve your speaking and have never taken an improv class, I can’t recommend it enough.

The last part was the hardest: finding the new speakers. Since it was our stated goal to include as many new speakers as possible that meant doing a lot of outreach. James, David, and I had a session where we made two lists: the people we wanted to speak and the topics we wanted to include. Luckily for us, we were working at Yahoo! and there was no shortage of smart engineers. We took care to identify men and women, as well as engineers from other Yahoo! offices. The list of topics was important because the most common concern potential new speakers mention is usually not knowing what to talk about. We wanted to have a ready-made list of topics to give them when that concern popped up. Basically, we didn’t want to give smart people any excuse to not take this step.

I personally approached several of the people on the list, both men and women. I approach them with the same story: you are incredibly talented and do great work, and I think everyone would love to hear what you have to say. The men I was able to convince reasonably quickly to take a shot once I explained the logistics. The women, on the other hand, took a little more time to convince. Whereas the men would give me a response during that initial conversation, the women often asked for more time to think about it. In some cases, I would end up meeting with the women a second time to try to talk them into it. I mention this not because I thought there was anything wrong with how either gender responded, just that there was a very significant difference between how they responded and I think that’s worth noting. The lesson I learned is that I had to approach women differently than men to achieve the same result. And that’s okay.

For both men and women, there were some people that I was just unable to convince. However, the overall rate of success when approaching people directly was pretty high. That’s also worth noting for anyone trying to plan a conference.

We also accepted submissions from others because we wanted to include as many people as possible. Those that we invited were asked to still submit a formal proposal so that they got used to doing so. That’s something that I think is important: to give new speakers a safe and supportive way of going through the process of submitting a proposal. Getting new speakers through the entire process of proposal to practicing to speaking gives them far more confidence than anything else.

And the results? The two-day event was fantastic. All of the new speakers did incredibly well, and to be honest, every single one exceeded my expectations. I wish that my first talk went as smoothly as some of theirs did. They all received good to great ratings on their talks and each new speaker said that they were very likely to speak again in the future. And that was really what we were after. I told each new speaker that my goal wasn’t to get them to love speaking, it was to get them to not hate or fear it. I wanted those new speakers to know that they could give a talk just like anyone else if they put some work into it.

I bring up this experience because there’s been a lot of talk over the past couple of days about conferences and how they choose their speakers. What I learned in my experience is that getting a diverse set of speakers can take a little extra work but it’s not impossible, and the conference is better off for it. I’ve read various opinions where one group says that opening up a request for proposals is the only fair way to get speakers where another says that the only fair way is to invite every speaker specifically. I prefer to do both because each way biases you towards a particular group. An open request for proposals biases you towards people who hear about your conference and feel confident enough to submit a proposal; only inviting speakers biases you to people that you’ve heard of. I think the ideal conference is made up of a mix of those two groups as well as experienced and inexperienced.

Above all, though, what I would like people to take away from this post is that there isn’t a shortage of speakers in the world. Once you get past experienced speakers, you can create new ones from the remaining people. While I realize the logistical issues are different for a public conference than an internal conference, I wish that more conferences would offer some sort of mentorship program to inexperienced speakers.

I want to hear new speakers. Getting them to submit proposals is a great first step, but where is the support system to help them succeed? The goal shouldn’t be just to get new speakers on stage, but to convert new speakers into recurring speakers because they enjoyed the experience. I’m still overcome with pride when I see some of the engineers who took part in the new speaker program at Yahoo! going off and giving talks at meetups and conferences. Public speaking is an important skill, especially for engineers who spend much of their time not effectively communicating with others.

If you, your company, or your conference are interested in setting up a speaker training program like this, please contact me.

Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.

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