How to Become a Conference Speaker
For the first time I have applied and been accepted to speak at a conference. If you've ever thought about doing the same then read this.
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As the clock struck midnight on the new year I set myself to the task of deciding what my goals were for the year. I find that if I give myself a specific task to attain then I usually manage it. This is how I managed to motivate myself to write a book a couple of years ago.
This year I decided I wanted to speak at a conference. I’m a pretty good public speaker so I had no fear of the actual speaking (although I’m discovering creating enough material for 50 minutes is a daunting task), and I thought it would be something really good for my resume.
I had literally no idea what I was doing or what applying involved. I’m guessing most people don’t. So I thought I’d write a little guide in case it’s something you’d thought about.
There are two big things to say upfront:
It’s really easy to apply
The worst they can say is no
Which is my way of saying, after this, you really should apply.
This was probably the hardest bit for me. At the moment I’m galavanting around on a world trip. I vaguely knew what countries I’d be in at certain dates, and specifically that I’d be in the US in June. So, I aimed for that window.
Twitter is amazing for this. If you follow smart senior folk who already talk at conferences, you’ll find they’ll either retweet when there’s a conference looking for speakers, or just to say they’re speaking at a conference (and there’s a chance they’re still looking). Whenever there’s a conference linked, go on the website and look for the speakers section. Normally you’ll be looking for “call for papers” or something similar.
Obviously if you’ve already been to a conference in previous years you enjoyed, or there’s one you always wanted to go to, go to their website. Do not be put off by your lack of experience- they can only say no. I ended up being rejected by the smaller conferences I thought would say yes, and I got accepted by a big one (RedHat DevNation) which I assumed would be a no. Apply to everything.
Even though it’s usually called “call for papers”, the submissions aren’t massive research papers. These conferences receive so many applications it’s unreal (which is why there’s no need to be disheartened on a rejection). As a result, the applications are tiny, normally no more than a few paragraphs.
I’d recommend creating one proposal to send to all of the conferences. Coming up with presentation ideas is hard, and writing the copy for it is hard. If you get multiple presentations, presenting multiple presentations would be a huge effort. Much like how stand up comedians tour one show repeatedly for a year, conference speakers do the same. It’s OK to use the same presentation multiple times.
The level of your presentation will directly affect which conferences you will probably present to. Some conferences want technical, in-the-code presentations, whereas others want high level practice talks. You can’t please everyone, so instead focus on the presentation that you want to do. Decide what you want to talk about and at what level, and then apply accordingly.
Spend the time in your favorite note taking application to write a really good proposal once. You want a high level “what is this presentation about” of 300-600 words, and a “what you will learn” section with bullet points. If you get this down, you’ll find you can use this as the basis for most your applications irrelevant of format.
Send this to friends and colleagues and get feedback. I wish I’d done this as I think my application lacked some punch which would’ve been caught if I had.
Then, apply! Every process is different but shouldn’t take long. Make sure to keep a spreadsheet of:
Where you’ve applied to
What date the conference is
Date of your application
Date applications close
Date you should hear back if listed
It pays to be organized!
Also make sure you follow the conferences on Twitter, and if you can find them, the individual organizers. It always helps to have a bit of banter with them so they know your name before they read your application.
Dealing With the Lack of Experience
I thought this would be a bigger issue, but most conferences don’t even ask if you’ve spoken before. However, if they do, one of the easiest ways to assuage them is to do a pitch video for your presentation and put it on YouTube. Some conferences insist on this, but even if they don’t, it’s a great way to prove you’re capable of speaking in sentences.
I was also able to post to YouTube some programming videos I’d done, a startup panel on careers I’d spoken at, and a video course I’d created. If you’re looking for experience then go to a meetup and/or start doing YouTube videos. You don’t need many, but it all goes as evidence to show that you won’t embarrass them if given the slot.
That’s it! Once you’ve applied you just need to wait. I found a number of conferences will come back and ask questions, so keep your eyes on your email so you can respond promptly. Also, keep your fingers crossed.
A Word On Payment
I ignorantly went into the process assuming that conferences would provide some sort of compensation, or at least transport. Whilst some conferences may reimburse some basic transport costs, I’ve found that most will give you next to nothing; one night in a hotel if you’re lucky. Chances are if you do get a conference slot you’ll be out of pocket for doing it. This sucks (particularly when the conferences are over $1000 a ticket) but if you want to get on the conference circuit this is something you have to accept. It’s obviously really good for your career, and if you’re a good speaker then you can build it up to where you’re asked by the conference to speak, which is where the money can start to roll in.
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