An interview with Sarah Wells, Speaker and Technical Director at the Financial Times

I have been talking to successful women in tech who have built on their work by nurturing a career in public speaking. Recently I interviewed Sarah Wells, who shares her considerable technical expertise at conferences all around the world. You can read her story and many others as part of our Aspiring Women Speakers series, sponsored by Turntabl.io and my company RecWorks.

Here is my interview with Sarah:

Do you feel that getting involved in conference speaking has helped your career?

Absolutely, and in a number of ways. Firstly, when I’m going to talk about something, I really think about it. Because I talk about things that are relevant to what I’m doing at work, I refer back to those insights all the time, they give me a solid foundation. And that also helped a lot to build my confidence in my own knowledge and abilities. When you speak at a conference and people ask you questions afterwards, it helps convince you that you DO know what you are talking about!

Secondly, it turns out that the ability to tell a story well is a skill that is useful in so many work situations. Getting comfortable with standing up in front of people opens up opportunities.

Thirdly, through speaking at conferences I have got to know people from lots of different companies and being able to get in touch with them to ask for their experience of something we are thinking of doing is really valuable. Connecting into the wider tech community is great, and doing it as a speaker is easy — people will come and talk to you about the things you covered in your talk, you learn a lot through that. And also, I’ve made a number of friends through this!

What was the defining moment that made you do your first presentation?

About 6 years ago, I was a relatively new Principal Engineer at the Financial Times, and the Director of Engineering got in touch and said “I want every Principal Engineer to submit a proposal to Velocity conference”, with a link to the submission form. The clever thing about this was that the goal wasn’t to get accepted, it was to put in a proposal. So, I thought about what I was working on and wrote a proposal, thinking “It’ll never get accepted, I don’t know what I’m doing”. Of course, it did get accepted, and then I had three months to work out how to write and give a talk.

Luckily, someone else also got a talk accepted. We booked a weekly meeting where we would talk about what makes for a good talk and in general prevaricated for a while, but eventually we both got our talks written. So, I recommend setting a goal that is within your control — write an abstract, volunteer for a meetup. And don’t think about the next step until you have to!

Do you have any tips or advice for someone about choosing what to talk about?

Writing a talk takes time. At least for the first few times, I would assume it will take an hour to write a minute’s worth of content, so 40 hours for a 40 minute presentation. That includes thinking time, writing time, practising, etc. So, it’s really important that this is a subject you feel enthusiastic about! I recommend doing an ‘experience report’ for your first talk, it removes that sense of being an imposter — if you are talking about your own experience, of course you are an expert in that area.

My first talk was about Alert overload when you adopt a microservice architecture. It was something I was wrestling with at work, and had some ideas about how to improve things, and I also thought — well, if I get to speak on this, the FT will have to let me try out the ideas.

Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about doing their first presentation but a bit unsure or nervous?

I have found that audiences want you to succeed. They want to learn from you, and they are very forgiving of nerves, mistakes, AV issues. Find friendly people in the audience and talk to them (and if you are in an audience, smile and nod in agreement, it is the nicest thing for a speaker). If you already know someone who will be in the audience, ask them to be in the front row, it helps.

When you’re preparing, don’t just write the presentation, you need to practice giving it. Practice with colleagues, friends, partners. Stand up, it makes a big difference. When you say it out loud, you’ll find the places where it doesn’t flow, and you can fix those. And practice the first few slides a lot, because getting started is the hardest part, you want it to be something you know inside out.

Finally any great blog posts you’d recommend on the subject?

Matt Haughey wrote a great post, An Introvert’s Guide to Better Presentations. There are two things from this that I find really useful. The first is a mantra to repeat before going on stage. I’ve used it, you cannot stay nervous while telling yourself ‘you are the prettiest monkey and you know where the bananas are’! The second is the outline that comes from a book called Beyond Bullet Points. I use this outline for my talks, and I also learned from that book to start your talk with a story, to get people engaged — this is much better than starting with a bio. Tell them about when something went wrong, and they’ll want to hear more.

Alice Bartlett is a colleague of mine and wrote a really good post on how to be ok at writing slides, building on advice from Russell Davies and adding plenty of her own too.

If you would like to gain more confidence in public speaking and connect with others on the same journey please get in touch and join our ever growing Aspiring Women Speakers group — it’s just one of 14 tech communities founded and organised by tech recruitment company RecWorks under the #ByRecWorks brand.

For a full list of those communities check out our page here.

Founder of RecWorks (Tech Recruitment), Tech Career Hacker, Java User Group Founder (LJC), London CTOs Organiser, Mentor Match-Maker