Conferences  can be stressful even if you are not giving a talk. On the other hand,  speaking can really boost your career, help you network, allow you to  travel for (almost) free, and give back to others at the same time.

I’ve given over a dozen conference talks in the last few years and I want to  share some of the things I’ve learned from my experience here.

Applying to Conferences

It can be tricky to get accepted at your first conference. Your best bet is to speak at local meetups, user group meetings, or nearby events  first. The people who run those groups are always happy to have  volunteer speakers and the audience is much more forgiving when you are  starting out.

Before speaking at my first conference, I met lots of people by speaking at local events. This really helped to boost my confidence enough to start  projecting my voice better and make eye contact. After a few local  talks, someone recommended that I apply for a new, local conference. I  got in! Then one talk led to another and here I am today.

Here are some conferences I recommend applying to:

  1. Any  local conference — They love to attract local speakers because it’s, A:  cheaper, and B: better for local advertising and promotion. You can  also usually connect with the people who run it beforehand and ask them  to give you a chance as a first-time speaker.
  2. NDC conferences — These  are very well run conferences that are hosted all over the world. They  pay for your airfare, hotel, and some events, meals, and, of course,  give you a free ticket to the conference. It’s not just about the free  stuff though; they attract top notch speakers and a wonderful community  of people. I’ve personally been to NDC conferences in London, Sydney,  and Minnesota. I plan on applying for many more in the future, so maybe I  will see you at one soon :)
  3. Python  conferences — The Python community is known for being very open and  welcoming to newcomers. Many of the conferences are low cost or free and  you can sign up to give a five minute lightning talk if you just want  to get your feet wet. The people at all of the Python conferences I’ve  been to are so nice and will try to help you and give you feedback on  what you can do better.
Inner bemusement listening to answers of questions posed to the CEO, Celebrating Women's Day, women who work in high tech, many from India, mostly here on H1-B Visas, UX designers, PMs, coders, scripters, testers, attend a  lunch meeting (with former Infosys CEO visionary Dr. Vishal Sikka, out of frame), Bellevue, Washington, USA

Making a Proposal

Once  you have found a conference you want to apply at, you have to write a  proposal for the talk and come up with a title. Most of the time, the  requirements will be similar or the same so you can pretty much  copy/paste to reuse talk proposals. Here are some general steps to  making good proposals:

  1. Research the topic:  Usually, you can see a list of the speakers and talks from previous  years on the conference website (unless it’s the first year, of course).  Take note of about what people spoke about and which topics were  underrepresented. Most of the speaker profiles will also link to contact  information, so you can reach out to individual speakers and ask them  their opinion on the conference and for advice on applying and getting  accepted.
  2. Make a catchy title:  The title is the first — and sometimes only — thing attendees see when  they are scrolling through a list of talks online or in the brochure at the event. It has to grab their attention, so conference organizers look  for great titles when they are reviewing talks. Pick out some of the  titles that pop out at you when you scroll through talks from previous  years and keep a list of them for inspiration as you are making your  proposals.
  3. Create a proposal:  Make a quick list of things you will cover and in what order. It’s good  to write down an overview of what the talk will be about and then make  notes about what you want the audience to get out of the talk.  Experienced speakers have always told me to talk to the audience in the  proposal and tell them how they will directly benefit from attending.  From reviewing lots of talk descriptions in the past, I have found that  it can also be good to start the description with a question to pique  interest. Here is an example: “What if we could build apps that aren’t  just functional, but also fun to use? Done right, gamification can  vastly improve user experience as well as boost…” Some conferences will  ask you to do an abstract as well as a description and some will ask  only for a description and then truncate it if they need a shorter  version. Either way, the method of writing the proposal is about the  same.
  4. Ask someone to review it:  Several experienced speakers have helped me a lot over the years; from  reviewing my talk proposals to giving me advice to helping me practice.  It can never hurt to ask someone for help. The title of my last  conference talk, “Game on! Gamifying your apps for fun and  profit.” — and the idea for making it — came from another speaker I met  years ago who has helped me with encouragement and advice for almost  every talk I have given. People can seem scary, but they are usually  nicer than you think.
  5. Save your proposal:  Many conferences manage their proposals with something like  Sessionize.com or PaperCall.io so you can log back in and look at them  in the future. Some conferences, however, have their own forms that you  won’t have access to, so it’s best to save the title, abstract,  description, tags, and any other information you enter in a separate  location just in case.

Rejection

Everyone  gets rejected. It happens all the time, even to experienced speakers.  You never know if it was because you are a new speaker, or maybe the  topic didn’t fit in with one of the tracks, or they might have had too  many people applying to give similar talks. It’s not personal, you just  have to keep applying and you will get in somewhere.

Planning & Preparation

Like  I said before, practice the talk at local meetups first. If you have  already been accepted, then you have to prepare the talk anyways — you  might as well use it more than once. Meetup.com, Facebook groups, and  local coding bootcamps are great places to ask if they will listen to  you give your talk.

When  I get accepted for a conference, I like to make a map of what I have to  get done and by when I need to do it. Preparing for a talk is not easy.  There is research to do, code to write, and slides to make. If you  don’t plan and start working in advance, the time for the conference will arrive with you scrambling to get everything done. This makes an  already stressful situation even more stressful.

Every  talk will be different, but I generally find myself following similar  steps to prepare. For example, I usually make a list of relevant  articles and books to read right away because that takes the longest. Once I have done some research and have lots of notes, I go through them  and write out a detailed outline of what I will cover in the talk. Then  I decide what framework I want to use for my slides; if I can reuse  styles from someone else’s template, all the better. After that, I make  some placeholder slides for each section of my talk and then work to  fill in the details. Note: it’s a  good idea to keep the description of your talk nearby where you can see  it while preparing for your talk. This will help to make sure your  content doesn’t diverge from what you promised the conference and your  audience.

Once  I have the talk and slides almost ready, I will start practicing it.  This helps me find holes and inconsistencies that I might not notice  while creating individual slides and sections one at a time. If the talk  is longer than 30 minutes, it can be hard to practice the whole thing  many times over. In that case, I shoot for at least 3–6 complete  run-throughs, depending on how well I know the topic. For long talks, it’s easy to start practicing and then have to stop and go do something  else: Thus, it’s important to make sure you aren’t only practicing the  beginning, but the middle and ending as well.

In addition to preparing your talk, here are a few items to remember to bring with you to the conference:

  1. I  like to prepare cables for my laptop and any dongles just incase the  conference doesn’t have the right ones for my setup (most will, but you  never know).
  2. I  also store a copy of my talk in the cloud or on a thumb drive just in  case something happens to my computer. If you are using slides.com,  google slides, or something similar, they have the ability to export as  html or pdf files.
  3. If  you are doing any sort of live coding, you should probably have a video  or slideshow backup. All sorts of things seem to happen when you are on  stage and it never hurts to be extra prepared. Video backups have saved  me a few times.
  4. I always make sure I have business cards to give out after my talk in case there is someone I want to connect with.

Arriving at the Conference

You arrive in a new place with lots of strange people around you. What do you do? Who do you talk to?

Silver Girl

The  best thing is to arrive at least a day early and get situated. This can  really help to relax your nerves and feel more confident. I like to  check out the conference venue in advance and make sure I know how to  get there. I was late for one of my talks once because I got lost in a new city trying to get to the conference. I felt terrible about it for the rest of the trip.

When  you arrive at the conference venue, the first thing you will see is an info desk where you can check in and receive a speaker name tag or badge and whatever official swag they are giving out. If the room you are speaking in isn’t marked  on your name tag, make sure to ask them so you know where it is and  aren’t scrambling at the last minute.

As  a speaker, you will probably have access to a few rooms that other  attendees do not. Most conferences have a tech check room where you can  plug in your laptop ahead of time. Make sure you ask about this at the  info desk if you can’t find where it is. There will also be a speaker  room for you to work on your talk and relax or chat with other speakers.  This is probably the best place to go to meet people when you initially  get there. It’s a relaxed environment and it’s great to start  networking with other people in the speaker circuit as soon as you can.

When  I started going to conferences, I would hide in my hotel room during  meals if I didn’t know anyone. I don’t do that anymore. Now I make  myself sit at a table with other humans and start a conversation. The  other people are usually just as awkward and nervous as myself and I’ve  met lots of cool people like this.

On Stage

If  you are more of an introvert, it can feel very overwhelming to know you  are about to go on stage and start speaking. In the past, I have even  had panic attacks before giving talks. It’s just something you have to  push through if you want to become a good speaker. Remember, everyone  wants you to succeed, especially your audience. I like to go into the  bathroom beforehand and take a few deep breaths. Then I arrive at least  10–15 minutes early to get set up in the room where I will give my talk.  This has really helped in calming my nerves.

I  once listened to a talk by Robert C. Martin — author of “Clean  Code” — and asked him for speaking advice afterwards. He told me that I  have to believe that I am the expert in the room and the audience is  stuck there listening to me no matter what, so I might as well have fun  with it. It was a simple thing to say, but for some reason it stuck with  me and my speaking improved after that.

Remember,  it doesn’t have to be perfect. Everyone has good and bad speaking days.  It can be a good idea to lead off the talk by saying that it’s your  first conference and that you really appreciate XYZ conference for  allowing you to come and speak. It’s always a good thing to start off by  getting your audience to relate to you somehow, and that will probably  make you feel more comfortable too.

If  I have more than a few minutes left at the end of my talk, I will ask  the room for questions and try to answer them in front of everyone.  Otherwise, I will wrap up and tell attendees that I would love to answer  their questions or talk to them afterwards.

Note:  there may be times when you only have a few or even zero attendees.  I’ve personally seen this happen to two very experienced speakers.  Sometimes, it’s a topic that people aren’t interested in, or there is  another famous speaker scheduled at the same time as you, or it was just  a bad time of day (early in the morning after people went out the night  before, or at the end of the day when people are worn out).

Afterwards

You’re  done! Almost… Be sure to stay around for questions and discussion. If  there is another talk after yours in the same room, just say you’ll be  in the hallway after. It’s a great feeling to finish and then have  people tell you thanks and give you compliments.

Don’t  forget to thank the conference organizers for allowing you to attend  and give a talk. If you don’t want to do it in person, a thank you email  is great too. Tweet or write about your experience on a blog like  freeCodeCamp’s.

Wrap Up

Don’t  be afraid to speak at conferences. It’s a great way to improve your  speaking skills, meet new people, and travel, among other benefits.

I  hope to meet many of you at conferences in the future. Please let me  know in the comments or on Twitter if there are good conferences that  you have attended in the past. I’m always looking for new ones to  attend :)

My Twitter: https://twitter.com/gwen_faraday

My YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxA99Yr6P_tZF9_BgtMGAWA