by Umar Hansa
The Benefits of Speaking at Tech Conferences
I’m a web developer. Having spoken at a few tech conferences, I thought I’d share some benefits I experienced through speaking️. If you’re considering speaking, maybe this article can provide some extra insight.
When you decide to speak at a conference, it’s not just that 20–40 minute talk slot you’re involved with. Other factors come into play like preparation, travel and money.
There are some more obvious benefits, such as learning new technologies, getting out of your comfort zone, and personal branding. But in this article, I hope to share some of the less obvious benefits, such as traveling, easier access to future conferences, and some other aspects.
For me, the biggest benefit is travel️. All-expenses-paid trips to new countries can be really great. If you want to go traveling but money’s an issue, being a speaker at an international conference can help with that.
I’ve been lucky enough to explore the Netherlands (🇳🇱), United States (🇺🇸)️, Ireland (🇮🇪)️, Czech Republic (🇨🇿)️, Switzerland (🇨🇭)️, Poland (🇵🇱)️, Ukraine (🇺🇦)️, Romania (🇷🇴)️, Greece (🇬🇷)️, Germany (🇩🇪) ️and more. All I really paid for was food and additional accommodations.
There are huge benefits to traveling in general which I won’t cover here, but you can research yourself. Conference organizers are usually happy to help you explore their city in a way which makes you comfortable. They can tell you the good spots to go to without you having to read through endless TripAdvisor reviews which have questionable integrity. You can ask organizers for advice at pretty much any stage, and they’ll try to accommodate you.
If you have a partner or a close friend 👬, you may both be able to tick off traveling from your bucket lists. If you ask the organizers, your partner can probably attend the conference and speaker’s dinner too. They may not be interested in the conference topics, but it will still be an experience for them to see you speak. On a few occasions, I requested the organizers book a flight for my partner too, and this typically came out of my speaker payment️.
I find a good strategy is for your partner or friend to explore the city independently while you’re at the conference. You can meet up afterwards. But the real benefit of the ‘travel’ aspect is through the extra days you book where you don’t have important commitments to attend to.
The trick is to extend the days you’re located within that country. When the conference has a decent budget, the organizers will pay for your flights plus a few nights at a hotel, but you can request the return flight is (for example) one week after the conference️. In between, you’ll want to stay at an Airbnb or a hostel, rather than the expensive hotel they book for you on conference nights.
On one occasion, I negotiated with the conference organizer to cover a very cheap Airbnb for me and my partner for a whole week instead of a fancy hotel for a few nights. All we had to pay for was food and bus tickets for that whole trip.
In my experience, it’s almost always been super fancy hotels by my standards. It feels unusual at times, but definitely an interesting experience. If the conference pays for your hotel, they’ll probably include a hotel breakfast too!
When you arrive at the conference city, rather than paying lots of money for a roaming data plan, the organizers can hook you up with a prepaid sim card which includes data. Make sure you ask about this if you believe you’ll benefit from it.
Some conference give speaker gifts 🎁️ too, which is very nice. It’s also very touching to receive a handwritten card. Extra touches like these create strong positive vibes on the trip and makes the overall event a rewarding experience. Be careful to manage expectations with yourself however, otherwise you’ll take these things for granted.
One time, I received a wireless keyboard plus fitness tracker as a gift, which was a surprise!
When you network with conference organizers, it’s not unheard of that you’ll be invited back again in the future, maybe as a speaker or an attendee. I was once fortunate enough to be invited back to run a workshop.
Networking allows you to gravitate towards people you care about. Here are some types of networking I’ve observed and experienced:
- A previous speaker had returned as a photographer (so there’s room to grow into other roles if you meet the right people).
- Another previous speaker had taken over the video editing work a conference needed. I guess a dedicated audio/video production team would normally be contacted, but in this case the organizers went with someone they knew personally.
- Sometimes, attendees who work at cool companies happen to work nearby, and it’s not uncommon to get invited to their workplace for a lunch and chat…and maybe pool.
The organizers pay for an economy return flight on the dates I ask for. On multiple occasions I’ve asked if I can stop-over in a new country and usually pay for the extra flight cost.
Tip: You may want to do the stop-over in your return journey since your talk would have finished by that point.
On a few occasions, after arriving at the conference destination, the organizers were waiting for me at the airport to direct me to a taxi which took me straight to the hotel — very convenient.
If you might want to use public transport later on, you can ask the organizer what sort of travel card to buy (airports sometimes sell these) — this can also be useful if you don’t speak their local language.
A note on recycling talks: that is, giving the same talk at multiple conferences. Generally, this is fine. If in doubt, ask the organizers.
Once you’ve given a talk, you can reuse the following at a new conference:
- 📑️ Your talk proposal document (such as ‘In my talk, the audience will learn…’) which you send to the organizers for them to consider you
- 📽️ Slides
- 💬️ Speech
And those three reusable points can save many days worth of preparation. Realistically, you’ll iterate upon your slides but for the most part things can stay the same.
You’ll have to use common sense to decide when to stop reusing your talk, however one big factor for me is: when do I stop learning? If I continuously reuse the same talk, I won’t have any new topics to learn about. Using a conference talk is a great excuse to learn a new technology, technique or concept.
Speaking even just once allows you to build and maintain a personal brand. This can help with future speaking gigs and work opportunities. For example I met the CEO of a company which I was later employed by. I met this CEO during the break of one conference right after they complimented my talk!
By building my brand, I’m pleased to say I’ve been a Google Developer Expert for over 5 years ✨️!
Note: conference speaking has helped, but is not the main reason I was accepted into the GDE program.
When you arrive back home after a conference, you’ll want to take a retrospective look on what happened️. For example:
- What did you gain and was the whole thing worth it?
- How was timing and pacing during the talk?
- Did you feel fully prepared before the talk? If not, what was left to do?
For myself, it’s inevitable that I’ll feel motivated and passionate to achieve new life goals. This probably sounds cheesy, but that’s the effect of being put into a new location with a new routine!
A while after my talks, I sometimes get:
- 💌️ A thank you email
- 🖼️ Professionally shot photographs of me speaking
- 📼️ A video link of my talk
So if ever I need a normal looking photo of myself, maybe to use as a profile picture somewhere, or because an employer is asking, I can use the ‘professional’ looking photo.
My conference talk videos have helped me out too:
- If I ask to speak at a new conference, I can simply send that video link to the organizers so they get a feel for my speaking skills.
- If done tastefully, you can include a link to your video in job application cover letters, it normally reflects well.
- When I watch my talk well after I’ve presented it, I pick up on all sorts of mistakes which helps me improve for next time.
When I receive the video from the conference organizers, which is after the conference has finished, I embark upon one final task. Getting conference talk material online so others can benefit.
- Removed any references which don’t make sense in a non-speech environment.
- Replaced all live demos with either videos, or code demos.
- Link to the video from the slides.
This combination of steps helps ensures the content is still useful to the tech community after the talk is given. I’ll also leave a comment in the YouTube video linking to the slides. Where possible, I’ll go through the video and collect timestamps️ corresponding to the individual topics. This is so folks can easily jump to parts of the video without having to watch the whole thing.
All of this post-conference activity doesn’t take very long, helps provide value to the community, and results in building up your personal brand. If your content is good, your talk will live on!
Tip: If you speak about a niche or specialized topic, there’s a chance you’ll be presented with opportunities 👥 for work as and when others in the industry encounter your slides and video.
There are many industries where the employer will not support you in attending conferences, but tech is not one of them. I’ve written some advice on this topic before, go and have a read if you think it applies to you.
Almost all of my employers have supported me in attending conferences. This means:
- I can attend a conference during ‘work time’ 💻️ without booking holiday.
- I can travel during ‘work time’ as the conference will increase my skill set for work.
- I don’t always get paid for speaking, when this happens, a few employers allowed me to expense transport costs.
- To solidify what I’ve learned and to share knowledge with my peers, they’ll encourage me to give an internal tech talk which in turn increases my evangelism skills.
Some employers ask you to book holiday if you are speaking at a conference. They might do this if they feel the conference topics are unrelated to what you do, or maybe they’ve never allowed such a thing before. If so, consider communicating to your line manager about the benefits of you speaking or even attending a conference.
Here are a few things to watch out for:
Sometimes I end up in interesting situations like:
In this photo, I believe a local television network wanted me to say nice things about the developer community in their city but I get nervous with those things. Looking back, it’s really no biggie if you pass on an opportunity you’re uncomfortable/shy/nervous about…apart from the talk itself!
Another example is a Q&A session after your talk, if you’re not into it, just let the organizers know as early as possible so they can have an alternative plan. Looking back on this opportunity and many others, I don’t regret a single one!
Each Q&A, panel session, group chat and recorded interview was an honor to be part of and I am glad I did it.
People thinking you’re smarter than you are ️
I am a front-end web developer. With all the speaking, some employers and potential employers end up thinking I’m much more skilled than I actually am.
Not everyone makes the distinction between evangelism and web development. Many speakers I’ve seen are real experts at their craft so this won’t apply to everyone.
A wrong way to travel?
I don’t really think there are right and wrong ways to travel since people desire different experiences which changes throughout one’s life. I feel a lot of my traveling for conference were very luxurious (such as airport pickups). This is however totally within my control, if I want a more independent experience, I can simply mention I don’t need an airport pickup and fancy hotels to the organizers.
Just a heads up however, doing conference speaking for long enough can warp your perspective of what it means to travel.
Conclusion / Recap
Speaking at a conference is a unique experience:
- You’ll get out of your comfort zone
- You’ll learn a new technology (assuming your talk is about something you don’t already know)
- You’ll build a network of friends
- You may receive some cool speaker gifts
- You’ll get to explore a new location and culture
- You can get a holiday out of the whole experience while paying very low expenses — your partner or friend can also share this benefit
- You’ll have a bunch of resources and assets from your talk which you can use in CV’s, cover letters and portfolios
- You’ll improve your personal brand and evangelism skills
- You’ll get out of your usual routine and be exposed to a different culture
Public speaking will bring a bunch of goodness to you regardless of the industry. Here’s a big list of call for papers where you can submit a talk proposal and have the organizers consider your talk.
For my next talk, I’ll get some videos up onto my YouTube channel so you can understand exactly what goes into preparing for a conference.
- I post lots of developer tips on Twitter — also, if you have any questions or you’d like to work together, get in touch with me through Twitter.
- I have a mailing list for Chrome DevTools tips.
- I also post on Instagram.
A post shared by Umar Hansa (@umarhansa) on Dec 1, 2016 at 12:32am PST