How to (not) give your first conference talks.

Full disclosure and TL;DR

My talks at RESTFest were not the fairy tale ending of a Cinderella story.  They were really, really bad.  Skip to the bottom end if you would like to watch them, without the results of my retrospective process.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca

If we go by that definition, I was not lucky at RESTFest this year.  My preparation game was seriously lacking.  I had the opportunity, but through hubris, indecision, and a touch of nerves I spoke impassionately and poorly about topics which deeply engage me.

What happened?

During my preparation for the conference I rode the fence and was indecisive about topics I wanted to present.  The conference added a great workshop by Shelby Switzer on hypermedia APIs and clients, which made me feel like my hypermedia talk would be largely redundant.  In short, I squandered the preparation time by I talking myself out of presenting a topic I felt passionate about but I was never fully convinced.  When I arrived, the environment was far more welcoming and supportive than I had dared anticipate was possible and I was convinced to develop and present a long form talk despite conventional wisdom against this type of action.  I wasn’t prepared for speaking in this environment, and my lack of preparation came from an entirely unexpected (by me) vector.

This is where the hubris comes in. For most of my school and professional life I’ve found success in even the most important of speaking scenarios by knowing the material well, compiling a light list of touch points and allowing myself to flow freely through the material.  I was sure, despite all evidence I read to the contrary, I would have no difficulty in ‘shooting from the hip’ in this way.  Ha ha ha… nope.

Speaking at a conference with an unknown audience is very different from any other forms of public speaking I’ve encountered, it requires you as a presenter to have strong confidence in your delivery structure in the absence of a rich interpersonal feedback loop.  I was unwittingly relying on an undeveloped and unknown muscle for reading the audience and adapting my tactics to the audience.  I assumed my confidence in my mastery of the material would be enough to power my presentation with zest to inspire all to immediately pick up the hAPI banners and charge forth.  Ha ha ha … nope.

This perfect vision was about as far away from reality as possible, while still delivering any talk at all.

What the audience got instead was a couple tone deaf lectures, presented with obvious discomfort lacking any semblance of passion or inspirational energy.

To the attendees of RESTFest 2017:  Please accept my deepest apologies for putting you through such a difficult talk.  Please also accept my sincerest gratitude for your benefit of the doubt in allowing me to finish the experience, and the tremendous support you all showed after my talks.  I did my material a disservice, gave an uncomfortable talk, yet you still welcomed me with honest, constructive, and yet reserved feedback.

Seriously, you guys rock.

Sorry Seneca, I’m not buying.

I’m choosing to reject Seneca’s definition in this case, because it doesn’t afford me any obvious path’s forward.  I obviously have future talks, but I had this opportunity and failed to truly capitalize.  Instead I’m looking at this as a win, not for my pride but because I can learn from this win and use it as a base to move forward.

Being such an introspective person, I’ve been repeatedly beating myself up over this failure since I walked away from the podium.  It’s only gotten worse since I have seen proof my initial analysis was accurate.  As little as one year ago I lacked any motivation whatsoever to speak at conferences, yet in September found myself at the very same conference which formed the foundation of my understanding of hAPI architecture.  Then in front of my proxy teachers, colleagues at large, and even someday perhaps my peers I stood and presented my ideas.

Thanks to Ronnie Mitra for offhandedly diagnosing my condition as “Imposter Syndrome” to explain the sudden nerves which nearly froze me in place.  It was a very new experience for me to feel nervous to voice my opinions or ideas.  The monotone lecture way I spoke came as such a stark contrast to my typical passion (bordering on fervor), to put a positive spin on it, that I usually speak with as I discuss anything I care deeply about.  Yet with the support of my family, this community, and my commitment to these goals I’m not running away.  I have more talks in the near future, and it is my hope there are yet more still to come.


Despite my poor performance at RESTFest these topics are things I’ve become very passionate about, they are all connected and worthy of my time.  Working to help refocus the tech industry on providing value to people; making it easier for developers to help people; expanding the definition of developer to include more people; recruiting more people to this cause of helping people; the connecting thread is a deep seeded calling to help people I’ve uncovered in the last year and a half.  I refuse to look at my poor performance as a failure, because it would be an anchor with a strong pull to stop or change course.  Yet, I’m not standing at an inflection point; I’m standing at a fork in the road between the hard path towards my goals or the easy path towards some consolation destination.  This failure of mine is actually an opportunity to prove my resolve and grow.

“If not now, when? If not you, who?” – Hillel the Elder

I’m choosing to view this as a win, because a lot more somebodies have to do it and having seen the opportunities I can’t willfully abandon them.  I was lucky at RESTFest, Seneca’s definition is not the only one.  I may have struck out, but at least I got the chance to bat in the first place.  Obviously this is a rocky start down this path, but I’m choosing to own it – it’s my rocky start.

I usually like to refrain from discussing things as intimate as this since my thinking sometimes comes off as alternatively grandiose or convoluted, but the recordings are available and I can’t change the past.  I can only control how I respond to it and what I do next.  I’m using this raw disclosure as a way to provide some excuse free context to the videos and a guiding light to keep myself on course.  I’m claiming responsibility for the lack of preparation and defining a path to grow into this speaking world I find myself in.  Sure, I haven’t given myself easy or short term goals, but I now do have a way to objectively track my progress and observe any deviation on the long path to my goals.


If for some reason you have read this far, and you still have the desire to view my talks I’ve included the links below.

Last warning – As of the writing of the post, I’ve only been able to suffer through the first short talk and about 9 minutes of the second.

Stop burning your customers and users.

Human Conversation Services.

Leave a Reply