DevYarns

How to Give a Talk Without Being an Expert

August 23, 2020

I just gave my first conference talk last month! I spoke at WPCampus 2020 Online on how to improve your WordPress site’s performance, based on a case study of a non-WordPress web app (written in Python and Flask) I had worked on.

In this post, I will discuss:

  • why you don’t need to be an expert,
  • my experience submitting to WPCampus,
  • and how I arrived at my final topic.

You Don’t Need to Be an Expert

I’m not even sure experts exist.

I’m a firm believer that the smartest people know what they don’t know and know how to ask for help instead of trying to learn everything themselves.

The more I learn about a subject, the more I realize there is to know. Learning something new opens the door to five other new things that build on that knowledge.

Through the process of applying, working with the director to fine-tune my topic, and actually writing and giving my talk, I learned that you don’t need to be an expert to give a great talk. In fact, I think it’s probably better if you aren’t!

What to Be Instead

Be passionate! Be curious! Be willing to ask questions and willing to be wrong.

My Experience Submitting to WPCampus

I’ve only given one talk (plus taught a few knitting classes and sat on a Meetup panel once), so I’m no expert. 😉

I spent a long time worrying about whether I was smart enough to give a talk, whether my topic ideas were interesting enough, whether my ideas were unique enough, and on and on.

WPCampus has a supportive, inclusive, welcoming community of organizers and attendees. I had attended a couple times in the past so I knew what to expect from the conference, which helped me feel comfortable applying.

As a sidenote, I had actually submitted a talk for their 2019 conference, too, which was not accepted. I attended that year and someone else gave a talk that was on a similar topic to what I had proposed, but was all-around better. Honestly, I would have chosen his talk over mine, too.

My original 2020 topic submission was completely different from what I ended up presenting. Like, not even in the same ballpark. The conference director, Rachel Cherry, reached out to tell me that the organizers would like to have me speak, but they didn’t think my topic would work for their conference.

She was really helpful in getting me thinking about other potential topics. She asked me a few questions to get my brain working. What excites me? What have I worked on recently?

I submitted some additional ideas and together we decided on the website performance topic. I ended up writing a talk that was 50% a case study of my web app refactor, and 50% how the attendees can apply what I learned to WordPress.

How I Arrived at my Topic

Here’s what I did to come up with my final website performance topic.

1. I looked to my experience.

What had I done or learned recently that stood out in my mind from the rest of my daily work?

I had recently refactored a web app to triple its Lighthouse performance score. I learned a lot about performance optimization along the way.

I knew there were lots of people who already knew everything I had learned. I hoped there might be others out there like me who did not and who could benefit from hearing about what I had done.

2. I thought about what my coworkers had expressed interest in.

One of my colleagues in particular was impressed by my work refactoring the web app. He is one of the most encouraging and enthusiastic people I have worked with. His enthusiasm about the project and his curiosity about what I did helped me along the path to creating a talk on the subject.

I hoped others might be as interested as he was.

3. I thought about questions I wanted answered.

I needed to think about how to make this talk appeal to a WordPress audience. There are a couple concerns when working with WordPress that the app refactor didn’t address. This meant I had two questions that needed answering in order to make this applicable to WordPress:

  1. How do you optimize images for performance in WordPress?
  2. How can you mitigate the effects of third-party themes and plugins on performance?

4. I did research to answer those questions.

I did not know the answer to either of those questions when I submitted my talk, but I knew I could do some research and find the answers. It actually wasn’t until a week or two before giving my talk that I had the answers, or at least my answers.

I spent some time optimizing a WordPress site I own (arbortwist.com—my knitting pattern company), focusing on the above two questions. I learned a lot, plus it had the added benefit of making my site better!

Looking Ahead

I had a great time speaking and I definitely want to do it again. The next time I’m brainstorming talk ideas, I will follow the framework outlined above and ask myself:

  1. What in my experience has been a bit unique or stood out in some way?
  2. What are my coworkers interested in that I have done?
  3. What questions do I have? What do I want to dig into further?
  4. How can I answer those questions?

I am really curious to hear how others come up with talk ideas. Do you do something differently than me? I would love to hear about it on Twitter! Tweet me at @rleggos. 😊


Rachel Leggett, an Ann Arbor-based web developer and knitwear designer, spins some yarns about web development, web accessibility, and other tech topics in the DevYarns blog.

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