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:
- 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.
- 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 :)
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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).
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.
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