Speaking Tips: There is a Conference That Wants You

For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. Nothing big, nothing formal, just periodically I’d find somebody that wanted to get in front of audiences and speak, and either they’d ask me some questions or I’d get the feeling that they were open to some suggestions, and things would sort of go from there. Now, as I start to wind down my speaking career (some), I thought I’d post some ideas and suggestions I’ve had over the years.

There is a conference that wants you

This is probably one of the first obstacles most would-be speakers run into when they start thinking about speaking. They look up at the speaker on stage at the international conference and think, “Man, I wish I could be that speaker.” After some internal conversations, and maybe a few external conversations with friends and family (all of whom universally encourage them to “go for it” and “follow your passion”, which is simultaneously both encouraging and useless), they then work up a few feeble proposals, and submit it to the international conference. Then, when the rejection comes through, they think, “See? Not good enough, not going to work out”, and abandon the idea.

Stupid.

Think about it—if you were thinking about trying to play futbol/soccer competitively for the first time in your life, do you immediately pack up and head over to training camp for Manchester United? If you decide you want to learn to run, do you immediately fly out for the Boston Marathon?

Of course not—and that’s why it’s stupid. While there are exceptions, very few first-time speakers are ever going to get the time of day from a professional speaking event. That may not seem “fair”, that may seem “exclusionary”, but it’s not unreasonable any more than it would be for the New England Patriots to put the ball in your hands during the season.

Fortunately, the NFL isn’t the only game in town. Thanks to the explosion of conferences that are springing up all over the country (not to mention the world), there is, quite frankly, a shortage of speaker talent out there. If you know your stuff, and you’re willing to stand up in front of an audience, somebody out there wants you.

Which means now it’s just about finding them, or helping them find you.

Finding them

(EDIT: My wife thought this one ended rather abruptly, and needed a few more paragraphs to it, so I decided to take her advice. The below is what’s new.)

Finding conferences is become ever easier, thanks to sites like Papercall.io or even just plain Google, but more often than not, you’re going to prefer to follow recommendations from colleagues and peers about what shows are going on around you.

However, remember, if you can’t find a conference and/or don’t want to submit to conferences yet (and frankly, you shouldn’t until you have some speaking experience underneath your belt and have some prior art to show organizers—you are recording your talks, right?), there’s always user groups in your local area. Can’t find one? Go hit Meetup and look for anything that’s in your general interest area via keyword search. Frankly, unless you live in Siberia, there’s almost a guarantee that there’s a user group or two around you. (Yes, I’m also 98% certain there’s a user group in Siberia—it’s an expression.)

And if you still can’t find a meetup group, then start one!

There is absolutely no reason you cannot get the experience you need (and you do need experience—speakers who’ve been thrust into conference speaking before they had that experience, well, it didn’t go well, and that’s me commenting on having seen it happen) to build your way up the ladder to speaking at the conference you have your sights set on.

It’s just about finding the opportunities to speak.

Helping them find you

This is pretty straightforward: Build a website. Put your speaking topics on there. Put your demos there for download. Put your slides there, but don’t publicize the links. (I’ll explain why another time.) Make it truly easy for somebody doing a Google search to find you to find your speaking topics of choice.

Case in point. It’s not the world’s most organized collection, I get that—I have some cleanup to do on the JSON file that serves as its data source—but ultimately, if an organizer comes to me and says, “I want you to speak, what are you interested in speaking on?“, I just point them to that page and say, “Take your pick”. Of course I’m willing to create new material, and/or combine some of the existing material into something new, for a conference if they ask, but 98% of the time, their response is, “How about X, Y and Z sessions?” and we’re off and running.

Make it absolutely as easy as possible for people to discover that you are a technical speaker—top link off your home page and all that.

(And if you don’t have a website, fercryinoutloud, come on, this is 2016, and how will anybody take you seriously as a technologist without one? Go create one—use Site44 and host a static site out of your Dropbox, if nothing else, since that’s all free for the first site.)