How to Become a Conference Speaker, and Why You Should
There seems to be a constant and steady stream of any number of tech expos, conferences, and summits—all looking for great speakers. Why not you?
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In any week somewhere in the world, you’ll find a pack of programmers, product managers and startup founders hitting their choice of conferences, expos, trade shows, summits, or talks. There are more than a few people who, like professional Hackathon competitors, spend a good part of each calendar year carrying a souvenir tote bag and wearing a lanyard at a convention centre. So much so, in fact, that their life becomes a blur of venues, after-parties, long lunch lines, and darkened rooms where a speaker on stage shares their wisdom—all on someone else’s dime. But while you’ve probably attended a least a few events so far this year, have you ever thought of speaking at one? Let’s take a look at how you can become a conference speaking and how it might benefit you.
Why Do You Want to Be a Speaker?
Why do it? Unless you’re in a job where your role explicitly requires public speaking such as working an evangelist, it might not be something you’ve thought of before. Speaking at a conference or event is a way to share your ideas, stories, and experiences with others, invite debate, and build connections. DZone Leader Chris Ward is an experienced conference speaker and has presented talks in Berlin, Brussels, Croatia and other far-flung places this year. He commented:
“I like public speaking because I have opinions I want people to hear. I like to travel and meeting people at events is great. It’s also a chance to build my profile out there in case of future opportunities.”
Coraline Ada Ehmke, Principal Engineer at Stitch Fix and best known as the creator of the Contributor Covenant (the most popular open source code of conduct in the world), explained:
"Through sharing my perspective on stage, I have had the chance to establish myself as an expert in my field. I’ve had the pleasure of many long conversations diving into the details and implications of my talks. Going to conferences and speaking has given me the privilege of meeting some amazing people that I admire and respect and am happy to count among my friends (and even future co-workers). But best of all for me, the very process of writing and giving a talk challenges me to question my assumptions and dive deeper into the way I approach my craft, which in the end makes me a better developer and a better person."
Notably, none of the various speakers I chatted with about their speaking gigs referred to money as an incentive. Payment for speaking events is not common, especially with smaller events that may instead put the money back into equity scholarships to increase access for attendees or a really great speaker’s dinner. It takes a long time to become a "professional speaker" that commands five-figure fees.
Choose Your Conference
If you’re looking for speaker opportunities as a newbie it’s worth not limited your gaze to more famous events like Web Summit, Oscal, or Devoxx. It’s likely that your first presentation isn’t going to be for Ted (although one of their independently planned and organized TedX events in your neighborhood may be an option).
I spoke to Daniel G. Siegel when I attended Voxxed Days Belgrade about how he got into delivering conference talks. He explained:
“I started small with lighting talks at meetups then gradually worked my way up over time with lots of practice to become a keynote speaker. It takes lots of practice in working on speaker CFP, writing your talk and slides and being able to present your ideas to a crowd of strangers.”
The advantage with smaller and local speaking opportunities, like your local meetup groups, is that events are most often run by unpaid volunteers who are desperately looking to fulfill speaker slots each week. In turn, attendees typically aren’t paying to attend and thus are more forgiving of newbie quirks. It’s also worth casting your eye outside of your home country. Daniel said that your cache as a speaker can increase if you are from somewhere else in the world. Don’t disregard small or volunteer-run conferences; they might not have the big glitz that you’re used to, but the relationships you build will be significant and they’ll welcome you back like family in the future. I recommend FOSDEM and IT Arena as a couple of great events to check out.
If you want to start planning for future speaking world domination, Lanyard enables you to keep track for upcoming conferences that typically require calls for proposal (CFP’s) at least six months in advance.
Create a Really Good Call for Proposal
Before you even start writing your talk, you’ll be asked to submit a Call for Proposal (CFP) detailing what you are planning to speak about and why your experience and passions about this particular topic suits the conference you’re applying to.
Codeland has a really nice CFP form that you could use in nutting out your idea.
Chris advises that you should talk by looking at what themes and topics the conference wants to cover as well as past talks and presentations. Conferences organisers are busy people so make their roles easier with a succinct, easy-to-read CFP; you can refine your actual talk and title closer to the date. I’d also encourage you to take a look at the words of Karolina Szczur, part of the team at @jsconfau, @cssconfau, and @jsconfeu, about how to write a successful conference proposal. I’d also add that if you have an idea that’s doable like a demonstration of something you have built (for work or for fun), a format that differs from the typical lecturer room scenario, put it forward!
Unlike most other conferences Codeland also provides mentoring in preparing your conference talk “to finalize your slides, make sure it’s a good fit for our audience, fact-check, and help you craft a strong narrative. Because giving a talk is a performance, we will need to finalize your slides and do remote rehearsals of your talk before the conference. You can expect a minimum of two work sessions where we will connect remotely to finalize this talk.” It’s a great practice, at the very least, get some experienced colleagues or friends who’ve done talks before to take a look at your proposal for feedback.
Build Your Brand
Yes, it sounds a bit tacky but the reality is that conferences are looking to use you to draw people in. Do you have a brand? Maybe you’re active on social media, Medium, in your local tech, open source, or code-specific community or in other volunteering capacities. These are all great ways to build your presence digitally before you try your hand at reaching out to conference speakers. They’ll probably ask for your social media ID. If you haven’t been on Facebook since 2012 and the only account you’re following on Twitter is someone else’s dog, you might want to get to work.
Face the Fear
The art of public speaking is a skill that’s beyond the reach of this article. But I did ask a number of conference speakers about nerves and dealing with the fear of being up on stage. Coraline commented:
“To deal with nervousness, keep a few things in mind. Your audience wants you to succeed. They are there to hear your perspective and learn from you. If you make a mistake, they will forgive it. You are there representing a perspective, and even if they end up disagreeing with you, you were the one that the organizers selected to be on that stage. They put you there for a reason.”
Chris agreed and noted:
“Bear in mind that if you know your subject then you’re one of a small percentage of people in the room attending that even has the guts to get up there in the first place. Secondly, don’t worry if you aren’t confident or slick, if you are passionate it will come through.”
Events and conference rely on the active participation of people who are willing to put themselves out there. Give it a try, it might lead to great things.
This article is the first of a two-part series about tech events and conferences. The next one drills down into the issues of tech conferences and diversity and how it is possible to make things better.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.
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