I’ve been fortunate to speak at several conferences, and have a few upcoming. In truth I’m amazed I get the chance because I’m just some guy who likes writing code. Each year I submit to about seven conferences and two accept me. A few semi-formal presentations at work help keep up my skills too.
Please read this article as you have time. Quickly find here two fantastic books that I’ve read and recommend. They’re full of details that I’ve successfully used. One is written by a person running major technical conferences, and the other is from a professional presentation designer.
Why Do I Do It?
I don’t get paid to speak so why bother? Firstly, conference organizers award speakers with a free pass to the conference. That has a definite monetary value, but it means much more. Attending gives me a chance to learn from experienced industry leaders. It gives me a chance to meet community members motivated to learn. It gives me a chance to get away from the lab shaking up my brain by seeing someplace else.
Further motivating me to speak is that I genuinely feel good about serving others. My faith inspires it, but my life feels more vital when I’m learning and sharing.
Understanding a subject well enough to promise a room full of professionals that I won’t waste their time means I better understand the subject or I’ll look like an idiot. Locking in knowledge of a thing through speaking is totally real and I recommend it.
Choosing a Conference
Finding out about a conference seems difficult? I look through lanyrd.com searching for calls to speak. Also, I rely on updates from people I follow on Twitter who are more plugged in than me. How do I decide on a conference? Asking questions such as:
- Will it take me to a city that I’m keen to experience
- Will I see core speakers who I respect
- Are the overall topics ones that I want to learn about
I’ll learn plenty about a conference reading through its website. Organizers ought to describe enough that I can figure out if I might be a useful addition to the show. Details such as:
- What is this year’s core subject matter
- What did the schedule look like last year
- Have I been working on something in the area
Once I find a topic matching the conference’s themes and goals I’ll sit down with a sharpie marker and a few sheets of paper. Spending time brainstorming everything that comes to me is an important step in the creative process. If I’m able to write down enough stuff to fill up a page I’ll feel confident proposing a talk.
What do I write down? Websites, libraries, gotchas, things I coded, and what I recall people telling me. I’ll fold up the paper and carry it around in my back pocket for a few days adding to it as things pop into my brain. Once it feels done I’ll put it in a Google Doc so that it’s simply accessed anywhere I have a device. Over the next few months I’ll add exciting things to it, edit away routine stuff, and generally refine the list. This is the foundation of my talk.
Writing the title for a talk is a dedicated task in itself. Starting another piece of paper I’ll keep it handy for a week. Always adding to it. Speaking title choices out loud tests their clarity.
A talk’s title is literally the first chance I have of reaching out to my audience. I treat it as a mini marketing effort because I want to grab attention as attendees scan the day’s schedule. We all want to attract an audience full of interested viewers for our presentation.
As the title list gets more fully defined I’ll pass it by teammates who are perspective audience members. Doesn’t matter if they’re actually going to the conference. They need only imagine being at the show and thinking “Is this a talk that grabs my attention? Would I invest my time going to the room?”
Let your teammates cast votes on your list. Listen to the opinions they’re willing to share. Writing is a solo activity, but there’s always a team that you can draw near to you for help. That brain-trust is crucial for making you better. Don’t forget to return the favor when they need a hand!
Keep working your title. It seems like the smallest part of your talk because it’s the least number of words. In fact the positive impact of a great title is turning eyes towards your talk’s description that leads curious people to taking seats in your room.
Some conferences call this part an abstract. Although this is a more significant portion of your conference submission it doesn’t need to be overdone. My last successful pitch was under 200 words long. Simply tell:
- What’s the content of your talk
- What problem are you solving
- What value are you delivering
- Is this a case-study, subject review, or recounts first-hand practical benefits
- What skill level and background should the audience have
- How does it compliment the overall conference
I doubt conference organizers know me. I’m a nobody grinding away each day in the lab just like everybody else. That said I do have a few positive things going for me. However I can I’ll eagerly list this supporting evidence:
- Github account
- Blog URL
- An app for download
- Twitter stream that’s (mostly professional and) helpful
- An Instagram account offering some (hopefully positive) personality
- Listing my past conference talks
These elements build up forming a little story about me. The intention is helping the organizers discover that I have something interesting to say, a point of view, and that I can deliver. Delivering to their conference, and their attendees, is crucial.
Never let down a conference! Show up. Show up prepared. Be flexible and enthusiastic. When you think about it conference organizers attend other conferences. Don’t you think they talk to one another? Assure that they have something uplifting to recount about you!
Having submitted to about two dozen conferences I can see that they all have their own proposal form, but they’re all starting to look the same to me. I’ll take advantage of that. For example I’ve written my brief bio once and have it set aside. Now I can easily reach for it when filling in proposals. Reuse doesn’t stop at just my bio. I have a link to my headshot, blog URL, GitHub account, and Twitter handle listed in a doc.
With luck, I’ll reuse past talks in their entirety when finding another conference with similar needs as previous ones. I figure the worst that can happen to me is I’ll receive a “thanks but not this time” email. I’ll sigh deeply and go one with my day. Best case they reply “you’re in” and it becomes the perfect opportunity to improve the presentation with all the latest stuff that I’ve learned since giving the talk.
I’ve read things about pitching talk proposals to conferences. I’m sharing a list of helpful items for you to check out when you’re ready to submit. Some of these are written by the people running conferences and you’ll read exactly what they look for, and what the actively avoid:
Submit Your Talk Proposal
Have a think on all of this over a coffee. Look for a conference that you respect, and imagine if you can add value to their show. When you earn your first speaking engagement reach out to me on Twitter and tell me the good news. I can’t wait to hear of your success!