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Presenting at DrupalCon — A first time speaker's guide

by Lisa Webster

How To Present At Drupalcon

Curious to learn how to prepare for a talk at DrupalCon? Our Drupal Developer Lisa Webster shares her best practices to make a lasting impression on stage.

A few weeks ago, I had the exciting and nerve wracking opportunity to speak at DrupalCon in Prague. My talk was on a topic that is very close to my heart and one I feel incredibly strongly about: accessibility. 

It was an experience that I won’t forget for a long time and couldn’t recommend more to anyone in the Drupal community. The road to getting to the conference felt like a long one, so I wanted to write this piece and break down how I managed to become a speaker and my trip to Prague. 

Hopefully this will encourage other developers, project managers or content strategists to take the leap and share their perspectives with the wider Drupal community. 

“Speakers Wanted!” — How I applied for DrupalCon

Going into the application process, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about; I had given the same talk on common web accessibility issues a few times to my colleagues, so I felt somewhat prepared. On Monday, 18th April, I submitted my application. 

Was it a difficult and time consuming process? No, not at all. 

  • I provided the name of the talk and a summary of what I planned to talk about. At this stage, the presentation didn’t have to be complete with every slide perfectly prepared. 
  • I could choose whether I wanted a 20 minute slot or a 45 minute one; since this would be my first time at DrupalCon, I went for the shortest. 
  • I then gave a few details about myself and manifesto.

All in all, the process took about 20 minutes, so if you’ve been considering speaking at DrupalCon, you might as well apply. What’s the worst that could happen?

Prague-tice makes perfect — Preparing for my talk

On Friday, 20th May, I found out I had been selected for DrupalCon with an initial time slot for the talk. That was it. No more steps, just “yep, that seems good, we trust manifesto, here’s your ticket.” 

I had gone into this process thinking they wouldn’t select me: hundreds of people applied, and I’d never done anything before in the Drupal community. Needless to say, my initial response was to freak out somewhat. I’m a crier — I cried (to clarify, my tears were out of excitement and nerves, not unhappiness). 

From there, I started working on my talk, making sure I knew everything I could about accessibility and what was coming in WCAG 2.2 and WCAG 3.0. I worked on my presentation and began giving more talks within manifesto, getting advice from my incredible and supportive colleagues. 

By September, I felt like my talk was ready. I had got it down to 20 minutes with a bit of wiggle room for anything unexpected and was happy with the content in my slides. I was ready for DrupalCon.

How To Present At Drupalcon Body

A time for firsts — Arriving in Prague

This event was the first of many things for me: it was my first DrupalCon, my first time meeting some of my colleagues in person, as well as my very first time in Prague. The conference was amazing and inspiring and I had never felt such a sense of belonging and community amongst fellow developers. We did everything, from getting involved in group projects to speaking with the companies whose tools we use about exciting new features. 

As a group, we were able to cover a wide variety of talks and report back to one another at the end of the day, or if we went to the same talk it was great to share our thoughts and perspectives. Every day at DrupalCon, our team got to know each other better, inside jokes about baked beans were formed, and we grew stronger and closer. Getting together as a team after years of working alone in home offices was the best part of DrupalCon for me.

The moment of truth — Speaking at DrupalCon

My talk was in the final slot of the conference, and my nerves had slowly been building each day. I used to be a teacher, so I know how to speak in front of people: talk at a steady pace, move your hands naturally, make eye contact, and most importantly, breathe. It’s been five years since I taught anyone, but I think some of this training stuck somewhere because, despite the intense amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins, I think it went well. 

My team sat in the front row, shot me encouraging smiles, and then distracted me by taking some photos at unflattering angles. The audience seemed engaged, they asked questions, nothing I’d prepared for, but that’s the way it goes. 

My 20 minute slot felt more like 2 minutes, I was shocked at how fast it went. But then soon enough, I was done speaking at DrupalCon. It was quick and mostly painless. Afterwards, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and relief, and once again I cried (to clarify once more, tears of joy, not unhappiness).

Tips and takeaways

If you are considering speaking at DrupalCon, or any other event, here are some tips I’ve learned from my experience.

  • Just give it a go. Applying was painless and there's no harm in trying. 
  • Practise your talk with trusted colleagues and friends. It’ll help get your timing down.
  • Never plan to talk for your full time slot. Leave time for technical issues and questions (you don’t want to add to your nerves by watching your time dissipate in front of you).
  • Breathe and have water with you when you’re giving the talk.
  • And one from my colleague Nic Borda, who said to me on the day of the talk: “It’s your day, so take your time and relax, even if it means you miss other talks at the event that day.”

I am very thankful to manifesto — and especially my team — for supporting me in this journey and advising me while I prepared my talk. A final thank you goes to the people who first took me under their wing and are the reason I love Drupal and am passionate about building a more accessible online space.