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Cover image for Speaking At Technical Conferences

Speaking At Technical Conferences

emmabostian profile image Emma Bostian ✨ ・7 min read

At the end of 2018 I set a goal for myself: I wanted to speak at one conference. Little did I know that I would have the privilege of speaking at nine conferences:

  • ReactJS Girls (London, England)
  • React Live (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
  • GraphQL Day (Bodensee, Germany)
  • RuhrJS (Bochum, Germany)
  • React Boston (Boston, MA)
  • All Things Open (Raleigh, NC)
  • Reactive Conf (Prague, Czech Republic)
  • Script Conf (Linz, Austria)
  • Trondheim DC (Trondheim, Norway)

Speaking at conferences is a privilege I am lucky to have, and I don't take it for granted. Ever since I attended my first technical conference, Craft Con in Budapest, Hungary, I've admired the speakers who put themselves out there, in front of thousands of people, to share the knowledge they've accumulated.

I've learned a few things during this conference journey, and I hope it encourages those of you who have wanted to speak at conferences, but didn't know where to start.


Why would I want to speak

Speaking at conferences isn't for everyone, and that's okay! Yet there are many benefits to speaking at conferences, above and beyond getting to meet wonderful humans.

Learning new skills

As a speaker you're often able and encouraged to sit in on the other conference talks. Thus, you're able to learn a lot about many different topics.

Traveling the world

Conferences will often provide travel for you when you sign on to speak, and this can be a great way to see the world! If you can afford to extend the trip a couple of extra days, you may get to see some pretty incredible places.

Meeting your heroes

One of my favorite parts of speaking at conferences is having the ability to meet other people in the industry that I respect and admire. Plus, it's always fun to meet Twitter friends in real life.

Building your network

Speaking allows you the opportunity to reach hundreds, or thousands of people, and this is a great way to build your social media presence and network.


Why wouldn't I want to speak

Burnout

One harsh reality I've faced after speaking at several conferences is that burnout is a true concern. It's important not to overbook your schedule, especially if developer relations is a hobby and not your full-time profession. Moving forward I'm making an effort to limit my commitments to one conference per month.

Fear of public speaking

Public speaking isn't for everyone, and if you're not keen to speak, there's no shame in that!


Call for papers

Call for papers, or CFP for short, is the period of time when conferences are looking for talk submissions. You'll often see the CFP denoted on a conference's website.

Codemotion CFP

A CFP is typically comprised of the following and will most likely be submitted through an online form:

  • Personal information
  • Talk topic & title
  • Talk abstract
  • Talk outline

And though not all CFP reviews are the same, typically the reviews are done anonymously (so as to prevent unconscious bias) where the most interesting topics are denoted by several CFP reviewers.

Thus, it's important to submit a creative CFP.

If you're a member of an underrepresented or marginalized group, I recommend checking out Global Diversity CFP Day.

What makes a good CFP

Conferences receive a multitude of CFPs, so it's important to stand out from the crowd by being creative with your abstract.

  • Here are a few tips for submitting a stand-out CFP:
  • Have a catchy / intriguing title
  • Have a thorough outline that explains exactly what you'll cover and what the audience will learn
  • If you've given the talk before, link to the recording (if available)

Being asked to speak

Although I've applied for many conferences, I've only been accepted to one through the CFP process (ReactJS Girls London). The other conferences I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak.

Sometimes a conference organizer will ask if you'd like to speak at a conference, and this allows you to (most likely) bypass the CFP process.

If a conference asks you to speak, however, you're not obligated to say yes. And as someone who said yes to 95% of all speaking requests this year, I caution you not to overbook yourself.

I am trying not to book more than one conference per month maximum, as this year I booked three conferences in three different countries during the same week.

Don't be afraid to say no, but also don't be afraid to say yes!


Logistics of speaking

Once your CFP has been accepted, or you've been asked to speak, it's time to write your talk (if you haven't done so already). Here are a few logistics of creating a conference talk!

Pick a topic

If you haven't picked a topic yet, now's the time. You can go one of two directions: you can pick a topic you know inside-and-out, or you can pick a new topic you've been wanting to learn.

The second option is a bit more risky, as it can be nerve wracking to learn a skill and then teach it publicly to potentially hundreds or thousands of attendees, but it can also be a great way to spread knowledge.

Write an outline

  • Once you have your topic, start with an outline. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself.
  • What are the key things you want the conference attendee to learn? 
  • Is there a fluid story line throughout the talk / does the flow make sense? 
  • What level is your talk (beginner, intermediate, advanced)?
  • Is there foundational knowledge you should explain before diving into the topic?
  • Can all of this be covered in the allotted time frame?

Create a catchy title

To peak attendee's interest, you can start with a catchy title. Personally I am terrible at creating catchy titles, but I always admire a catchy one when I see it. Here are a few examples of titles that stand out from the crowd:

  • useSubscription: A GraphQL Game Show (Alex Banks)]
  • The Magical Living Room (Saron Yitbarek)
  • Everything You Need to Know About GraphQL in 3 Components (Eve Porcello)]

Make your slides

Making your slides is most likely the most difficult part of the presenting process, and there are many approaches you can take to presenting your information.

I personally choose to have many slides with a small amount of text, or a diagram/image, on each. I find that the fast-paced flow with the reduced cognitive overhead of minimal text keeps the audience engaged.

Rehearse

It doesn't matter how much experience you may have publicly speaking, you should rehearse your talk. Rehearsing allows us to iron out pieces of our talk and perhaps realize "hey this part actually doesn't flow well with the rest of the information."

You can rehearse out loud, but it's best to rehearse to a friend or colleague who can provide objective feedback.


Speaker fees

Once you've been speaking for a while, you may want to consider a speaker fee. While this issue is controversial, there is nothing wrong with monetizing your work.

I didn't charge a speaker fee for any conference this year, however due to the number of speaking engagement requests I've received, coupled with the fact that I take vacation days to complete the talks, I may start asking for a speaker fee for "for-profit" conferences, or conferences that sell tickets in order to make a profit.

Many community conferences cannot pay speakers, and as a result I generally do these for free, if the conference dates work and the mission statement aligns with my personal values.

It's up to you to decide whether or not to charge a speaker fee. For someone who speaks a lot, it can range from $1,000 to $2,000; it's not set in stone. Do what feels right, but as a general rule for work in general, don't feel bad monetizing.


Pulling out of a conference

Sadly, due to unforeseen personal changes, I had to cancel five conferences this year.

It saddened me to to end to have to email the conference organizers and back out, however the reality is that life can be messy, and people would rather you admit you need time for yourself rather than give a talk which isn't up to your normal standards.

If you must cancel a conference, it's important to give as much notice as possible to the conference organizers to allow them to find a replacement speaker. Additionally, if you can find a replacement speaker for them, this would help greatly.


If you're nervous to speak at a conference, don't be! Conference speakers don't have special powers; we're humans just like you, and we also get nervous! You have nothing to lose by submitting a paper to a conference, so if you're thinking of applying, GO FOR IT.

Discussion

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citizen428 profile image
Michael Kohl

Public speaking isn't for everyone

That said, don't let your fears stop you either. I used to be terrified of public speaking and hated when I had to it in school or elsewhere. But it's something I wanted to do, so I started with meetups. First smaller ones (10ish people), then larger ones (50-60 people). Then I got my first talk accepted at a tech conference and was speaking in front of several hundred people. The more I did it the easier it became and this year I not only gave my own talks, but also emceed two events. There's still a lot I'd like to improve about my speaking, but I'm very happy with the progress I've made in a few short years.

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miku86 profile image
miku86

Totally agreeing.
It's like Math isn't for everyone or Tech isn't for everyone.
If you don't practice the stuff, you're bad at it.
If you're bad at it, you feel very uncomfortable doing it.

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douglasfugazi profile image
Douglas Fugazi

Thanks for being so supportive

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lauragift21 profile image
Gift Egwuenu

Thanks Emma! Really insightful

For someone with a full time job that is not devrel how do propose they speak at conference when there's limited time to do this?

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gklijs profile image
Gerard Klijs

It depends on your employer. They can use you speaking there to promote the company. So in my case I didn't have to take vacation days. Still I didn't get any time of to prepare, so there's still it takes a lot of spare time to prepare.

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emmabostian profile image
Emma Bostian ✨ Author

Unfortunately I take vacation days! It's not optimal, which is why I'm going to start charging a speaker fee, but it's sadly one of the few options.

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simonholdorf profile image
Simon Holdorf

If I may jump into this: Have you ever thought about DevRel and doing this as part of your job?

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emmabostian profile image
Emma Bostian ✨ Author

Yep - I don't think I'd want to do this full time

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simonholdorf profile image
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0x12b profile image
Simon Aronsson

Simon, for us that have considered it and still think we want to do it; do you have any advice? 😅

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hexrcs profile image
Xiaoru Li 🇨🇳🇩🇪

Lots of great info, thanks so much!! Speaking at a conference is on my 2020 "dream-comes-true" list. 😄

(The links in the post seem to redirect through Medium.com, maybe an oversight?)

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citizen428 profile image
Michael Kohl

Speaking at a conference is on my 2020 "dream-comes-true" list. 😄

I'm involved in organizing two conferences here in Thailand and know quite a few other conf organizers around the globe. Feel free to reach out, happy to help you turning this particular dream into a reality if I can 😃

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hexrcs profile image
Xiaoru Li 🇨🇳🇩🇪

That would be totally awesome! 🤗 Will PM in a bit. 😄

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derickhess profile image
Derick Hess

Greta write up. Thanks for this! I love speaking at conferences and also being a convener for sessions. Convening a session also a lot of fun and work, You get to meet and coordinate with people all interested in the same topic.

I only got to speak at one conference this year. The Euopean Geosciences Union annual conference in Vienna, Austria. Hoping next year to do more speaking engagements.

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cathyc93 profile image
Cathy Casey-Richards

Awesome tips, Emma! Thanks for sharing. I'm curious if you need to have a lot of experience speaking at small gatherings or anything similar in order for your CFP to be accepted. Have you encountered different requirements in regards to past speaking experiences?

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helenanders26 profile image
Helen Anderson

Thanks for another great post Emma, it's really inspiring to see all you've accomplished this year.

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emmabostian profile image
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bianca profile image
Bianca

This is so inspiring. I have always wanted to be a speaker and hopefully I'll be a prolific one someday. My first tech conference was when I attended AWS re:invent. At the time I was a young girl from a small village in Africa, Kenya. Everything was amazing and seemed I was inside a chip. I was in a panel discussion on diversity series. It was my very first time in-front of thousands of people. Wow! I was so nervous yet so excited. This piece is a wake up call to get up and explore what the world of tech has to offer!!

Thank you Emma.

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simonholdorf profile image
Simon Holdorf

Hi Emma, thanks for sharing! Does your employer support you or do you have to do it in your free time?

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emmabostian profile image
Emma Bostian ✨ Author

They support me to an extent but I do use vacation days!

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richard21266663 profile image
richard

Quite Interesting article

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hannahyan profile image
hannahyan

Thank you for the excellent sharing, Emma! I wonder if the level of the talk is in-between 2 levels, say beginner and intermediate, is it better to go down or go up?

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scrabill profile image
Shannon Crabill

Being asked to speak at a conference is a dream 😍.

You mentioned having to use vacation days. Did those conference that asked you to speak cover travel/lodging?

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emmabostian profile image
Emma Bostian ✨ Author

They have always covered travel & lodging, otherwise I couldn't afford it :)

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shahsank3t profile image
Sanket Shah

Hi Emma, It's such an insightful post.
I have attended my very first conference this year and ever since want to speak one myself and that's why I have decided to start speaking with the local community meetups before actually trying for the big ones.
Your article gives me confidence in how I should prepare myself for the same.
Thanks a lot for sharing!

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piannaf profile image
Justin Mancinelli

Related to speaker fees:

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stevenvachon profile image
Steven Vachon

Do they all pay the travel costs, at least? And do any of them pay for the hotel?

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anjankant profile image
Anjan Kant

Quite Motivational :)

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ceblakely profile image
Christina Blakely

This seems like an amazing experience, this is my goal for the future!

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msamgan profile image
Mohammed Samgan Khan

@@emmawedekind where can get all your conf. pictures. ?