Presenting at a conference seems like a pretty straightforward task. You prepare your materials, practice, present, and then go home. 

These were my initial thoughts when I was presenting at The Learning Conference for the first time in 2023. I was wrong. Being a presenter taught me lessons not just about presenting, but about life. 

All of this was surprising because I did not think my conference proposal would be accepted, which leads into the first lesson I learned from being a conference presenter. 

1. No idea is too “crazy” or “out there” 

If you have a story and a passion about it, others will want to listen. I thought my topic was too “out there” to be accepted. Why? My session did not focus on any of the common topics you see at conferences like these. It didn’t focus on using AI, upskilling, data analysis, or any hot button words. 

Instead, my session focused on lessons I had learned in my own life. It was titled, “You’re Not Saving the World: The Importance of Reframing Your Energy.” I started by showing a writing assignment from when I was in fourth grade: 

All I wanted to be since I was a child was to be a teacher. I talked about how I achieved this dream, only to find out it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I also talked about my parents, and how while they achieved the “American Dream” as immigrants, the price was having no identity outside of work. In short, I talked about my life and what it has taught me so far, and how it has led me to have a healthier and more sustainable approach towards work. I thought that no one would want to hear a twenty-something talk about how quitting her childhood dream and watching her immigrant parents work themselves to the bone taught her the importance of how we spend our energy. Thankfully, I was wrong. 

The day of my presentation, not only was every seat full, but people were sitting and standing wherever they could. All this for a session where I thought no one would care. 

The first lesson I learned from presenting at The Learning Conference is to have confidence in myself. Yes, that is a cliche that everyone says, but I don’t just mean more confidence in my ability. I mean more confidence that who I am as a person; my history and the history of my family is an asset even in a professional environment. Here I was, talking to a room full of the best in the industry, about how my life experiences have helped me approach work in a healthier way. We don’t need to leave our personal histories at the door when we clock in. We need to learn how to make it an asset. I am now more confident to be my authentic self at work. 

2. Talk about what connects to you, not what you think others want to hear

A detail I haven’t mentioned yet is that I submitted two proposals for Learning 2023. What was ironic is that the session I thought would get accepted, did not. Looking back, I am glad it didn’t. It’s not that I thought the proposal topic was boring or irrelevant, but I realize now that I didn't feel passionate about it. 

When submitting a conference proposal, or doing anything in life, do what connects to you. In the proposal that wasn’t accepted, I had submitted an idea based on what I thought people wanted to hear. People don’t want to hear the same ideas over and over. What they want to hear is stories about real people. What have others learned in life that they haven’t? We all have unique life stories and experiences. I learned that sharing what I am passionate about is more important than sticking to the status quo. Don’t do what you think is expected or “normal.” Do what speaks to you, and that connection is what will make it worthwhile to others. 

3. People’s kindness will surprise you 

The last lesson I will share is about an unexpected act of kindness I received at the end of my presentation. 

After my presentation, I had an attendee come up to talk to me. I had never met him before, but our interaction is something I will always remember. He referred to a part of my presentation where someone had asked if my parents are supportive of what I am doing now. I laughed and said no. My parents would have much rather I continued as a teacher. We all had a good laugh, and I continued with my presentation. 

The attendee in front me referenced that interaction, and told me that what I was doing today, presenting, was still teaching. He continued to say that while what I was doing was in a different setting than in a public school, I was still making a difference. 

I was already moved by this stranger’s kind words, but what happened next truly made this interaction memorable. He offered to email me pictures and videos he took of me during my presentation. It may seem like an unusual offer, but he explained that he thought the pictures and videos could help bridge the gap between my parents’ understanding of what I do and the reality. 

I was completely taken aback. I felt deeply moved by this unexpected gesture of empathy. A complete stranger recognizing my struggle to gain my parents’ understanding while also validating that what I am doing does matter, was an act of kindness that I did not expect but was beyond grateful to receive. 

This interaction taught me that every moment is an opportunity to create authentic human connection. Even in a professional setting like a work conference, we can bring empathy and understanding when interacting with others. Although I was on the receiving end of this interaction, I hope to initiate more connections in the future. 

When we attend conferences, it’s usually because we want knowledge to be better at our jobs or to run our teams more smoothly. While those are valid goals, my interaction with that one attendee reminded me that another goal we should have is to authentically connect with others outside of the context of work. When I attended Learning 2023, I thought it would be all “business”. I was pleasantly surprised that the most valuable lessons I learned were about the value in connecting with others and believing in myself.

From the editor: Interested in speaking at Learning 2024? 

Don't miss this opportunity! The call for proposals for a chance to present at Learning 2024 is open until midnight on March 29. Submit your session ideas today. Learning 2024 will take place December 4-6 in Orlando, Florida. See you there!