Jason Charnes

My Journey into Public Speaking (at Tech Conferences)

2017 gave me the opportunity to speak at six different programming events. 😱

In 2015 I wouldn’t believe it. With my anxiety, there would be no way I could talk in front of people.

Public Speaking in College

In college (around 2011) the idea of public speaking terrified me. No matter what degree program I decided on, I would have to take a speech class.

Luckily, for me, my community college offered it online! I had to record (IIRC) three speeches in front of five people and deliver them on YouTube. Even that was too stressful for me. I spent lots of time re-recording the videos trying to make them perfect.

Though I had yet to speak in front of a real “audience,” I knew public speaking wasn’t for me.

Attending My First Conference

As I settled into my software development career, I spent lots of time watching conference talks. After all, I got into Ruby on Rails in 2012. So, I had to catch up on almost seven years worth of content. During this time, I began to admire people in the community. These people became my heroes.

In 2015, I nervously asked my employer if they would pay for my ticket to RailsConf. It was in Atlanta so that would be an easy trip from Memphis. Plus, one of my best friends was living in Atlanta. I could stay with him, so the only expense I asked for was the ticket.

I mean, after all, I get anxious about stuff like that. 😬

My boss was incredibly cool about it, and I got to go.

RailsConf 2015

I was in awe. In a crowd of 1200 people, I pointed out “Ruby celebrities” left and right. I jampacked my schedule with talk after talk. The conference presented many opportunities to overcome the fear of meeting new people.

More than that, I accidentally overcame my fear of public speaking.

Speaking to a Crowd

The second day of the conference ended with lightning talks. Lightning talks are 5-minute presentations given by the attendees. The conference posted a physical board allowing attendees to sign up to present. I, for obvious reasons, didn’t sign up to give a talk. After all, I would be an anxious wreck with nothing to say.

I, along with 250-300 people, attended the lightning talks. Halfway through the presentations, there were technical issues. The M.C. (Evan Phoenix) asked if anyone had a lightning talk they wanted to give for 2 minutes that didn’t involve a computer.

I can’t explain it, even to this day, but I decided I would get up and say something. Sitting towards the back, I made my way to the stage for the most terrifying 30 seconds of my life.

Standing in front of the mic, I shared that I have anxiety and struggle with my Mental Health.

People clapped, and I walked off stage. I couldn’t have been up there more than 30-45 seconds. However, being on stage for less than a minute reset my outlook public speaking. I realized I could do it.

Speaking at the First Conference

That lightning talk gave me the confidence to give public speaking a try. It was is hard work, though. I’ve spent a lot of time sending in talk proposals, consistently rejected. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I’d have my first opportunity to speak at a conference.

I was so, so excited. A conference finally accepted me! I spent days and days preparing my talk. This event would be my first with a badge that said I was a speaker, instead of an attendee.

The conference had over 1000 attendees! I couldn’t help but imagine how many people would hear me talk. Would it be 50, 100, 200?! The answer is five people. When the AV tech came by to provide me with a microphone, I politely informed him I wouldn’t need it.

I wasn’t disappointed, though. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Those five people intently listened to what I had to say!

Continuing to Speak at Conferences

Since that first conference, I’ve spent a lot of time investing in public speaking. In the last year and a half, speaking took me to New York, Canada, Colombia, Arizona, and Louisiana! (Shoutout to Lensrentals for allowing me to speak at these events!)

If interested, I’d love to talk more about this! Until then, here are four things I’ve experienced over the past year and a half:

  • For every one of my talks accepted at a conference, 5-6 more receive rejection. Rejection gets easier over time, is something I’d love to say. For me, it doesn’t. 😭 Every refusal, though, gives me an opportunity to try and write more relevant and compelling abstracts.
  • I used to tremble 😱 every time I’d get ready to speak. Now, though still nervous, I’m excited 😃 to present.
  • Gauging what people are interested in hearing about is a continual balancing act. ⚖️
  • Sometimes I can connect with an audience; sometimes I don’t. It’s tough.

I’m still trying to become a better public speaker. I don’t consider myself an excellent public speaker, but I’m trying. The more opportunity I have to speak, the more chance I have to grow.

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