What I learned giving a lightning talk at PyCon

Overcoming doubts, and giving thanks

Posted by Michelle Fullwood on May 8, 2014

So I went to PyCon 2014 in Montreal and it rocked! I had no idea I would enjoy myself so much or meet so many brilliant and interesting people.

Now, when I started this blog, I promised that I’d write about what I learned from PyCon, but honestly, in the case of the talks I attended, you’d be better off watching the videos yourself. The one thing I can tell you about that’s unique to my experience is about what I learned by giving a talk at PyCon.

Yep, I gave a lightning talk at PyCon 2014, about the Fuzzy Arabic Dictionary! I’m still pretty surprised about it myself, but there is documentary evidence that it did happen: video, slides, and the photo in the header, taken by Ruben Orduz.

Here’s what I learned along the way.

A PyCon talk doesn’t have to be about Python

I hadn’t come to Pycon thinking I would give a talk, or even knowing I had a talk to give. Ned Batchelder, one of the organisers of the Boston Python User Group, had suggested that I talk to the group about the Fuzzy Arabic Dictionary, but I felt the Python part of the project was too trivial to present, so I said no.

Then, on Friday evening at PyCon, I watched Jack Diederich’s lightning talk about the physics of bowling, which didn’t contain a single line of code, let alone Python code. In fact, a lot of lightning talks were that way: 4.5 minutes of “here’s my problem”, and 30 seconds of “and I built something in Python to solve it”.

There will always be someone who’s interested

There are more than two thousand PyCon attendees. Someone, somewhere, is going to be interested in what you’re talking about. Although what I was talking about was a problem faced by second language learners of Arabic - a rather small constituency - I discovered a whole community of (natural) language geeks who either listened to me jabbering on about the Fuzzy Arabic Dictionary and didn’t shut me up, which encouraged me to give the talk in the first place, or who liked the talk enough to come and talk to me about it afterwards. Some of us might even set up a language geek open space next year!

I can give a talk before >1000 people!

The keynotes take place in this gigantic room the size of an airplane hangar, they come and put this professional-feeling headset on you (with a battery pack you drop into your pocket), you know you’re going to be videoed for posterity, you look out over >1000 people (my talk was right before Van Linden’s and Guido’s keynotes), you’re nervous as hell…I was sure up to the moment I started talking at I couldn’t do it. Then I started talking and I did it.

And it’s not just me. Everyone’s terrified, and everyone manages it anyway. And if it’s feeling daunting, remember that it’s just five minutes! Trust me, five minutes won’t feel very long, especially when they’re telling you that your time’s up and you have to stop!

Conclusion: if you think your talk isn’t technical enough, that no one will be interested, that you can’t possibly talk in front of so many people…you’re wrong. Go and do it! I hope I will again next year!

Lastly, thanks to these people:

  • Ned for insidiously planting the idea of talking about the F.A.D. in my brain
  • Jenny my fellow PyLady for giving a lightning talk that made me feel that "people like me give talks!" (watch her awesome talk here!)
  • Kamal Marhubi, who probably didn't realise that this tweet would actually make me go and do it:
  • My roommate Leena for telling me not to give up when I was on the verge of it the night before
  • Hy Carrel, whose reassuring presence was a great help while I set up for the talk.