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