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Blog: How to Become a Conference Speaker

Once again, I waxed verbose in response to a question on Quora:

How do people go from being developers to giving talks on stage at events?

and wanted to preserve the answer here.


There are several steps, but fortunately they’re not terribly difficult:

To start, learn the basics of speaking in front of an audience, including both writing and delivering the presentation, and getting over your fear of it (if any) as best you can.  For this I recommend Toastmasters International.  It’s one of the cheapest, most effective, and actually most fun ways to learn communication and leadership skills.  In particular, emphasize the parts about conveying information or inspiring your audience, depending which kind of talk you want to do, use of the whole stage area, and visual aids, since conference talks these days usually have slides.

One big difference though is that, at Toastmasters, you are eventually expected to completely memorize your speech, rather than use notes.  Not necessarily every word; you can remember the overview and wing the details, maybe even use notes but do so subtly.  At a conference, you probably have a laptop with presentation software on it (like PowerPoint, Keynote, etc.), and these things usually have a “Speaker View” so you’re not seeing the same thing the audience sees.  You can have notes in the Speaker View, anything from a broad overview to a full script.  Again, if you use these, use them subtly, not just standing there staring at the notes and reading them out.

Toastmasters also focuses mainly on relatively short speeches.  Their “standard” timeframe is five to seven minutes.  Conference talks are usually at least twenty minutes, more typically 30 or 45, frequently an hour, and I’ve seen up to 90 at one stretch (will do that next month) or 150 broken into two stretches (did that in 2019).  That’s not even considering workshops, which can go all day or even multiple days, though doing those requires a lot of additional skills, in teaching.

Next you can scale it up, from five to ten minute seminars at work to your immediate group, maybe more, to ten to twenty minute talks to local user groups, and eventually try out for twenty to sixty minute (or more!) talks at conferences when you think you’re ready.  You can do sort of a mix, a shorter talk in front of a fairly large audience, by volunteering to do a “lightning talk” (usually five minutes, sometimes ten) at a conference.  This is usually done via signup on a physical board at the conference, but some have advance signup and selection like with regular talks (see below for more on that).

Speaking at length, in front of a large audience, enough that you need amplification and can’t see each face, has its own quirks, but you can learn a bit in advance again.

For this, I went through the Toptal Speakers Academy, and had practice sessions with their mentors, of which I am one now.  You have to be admitted into Toptal (a consulting network for devs, designers, project managers, product managers, and finance people) in the first place; please use my referral link: https://www.toptal.com/#accept-only-candid-coders (the anchor part is what tells them it’s my link).  If you can’t get into Toptal, at least you can buy the book we used (at least back when I went through it, around 2017), TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.

Also attend conferences.  Pay attention not just to what’s being said, so as to learn as usual, but how it’s said, the patterns of word choices, movement around the stage, visual aids, etc., and how each thing helped or hindered getting the point across (whether informational or inspirational or whatever).

The next step is to think up something you’d like to say in front of an audience.  It doesn’t have to be something cutting-edge, nor high expertise, just your own unique take on something.  Found (or invented) an interesting technology, technique, or idea, that you think is useful, or have a “hot take” on some conventional wisdom?  Tell us about it.  Brand new to the dev world?  Tell us old fogeys what it’s like for you, and why it might be different for others, since we’ve forgotten and everything has changed.

Lastly, find conferences to say it at, and apply.  I maintain the CfP list for Toptal’s Speakers Network (the people who have finished the Speakers Academy I mentioned above), so I tend to find these earlier than most people.

What’s a CfP, you ask?  It originally stood for “Call for Papers”, since most professional conferences consisted of people standing at a lectern and drily reading their research papers, sometimes with slides or other visual aids but not usually.  These papers were often published in the conference’s physical book of “proceedings”.  Many still do that, but it’s BOOOORING, so at least in our line of work we mix it up with some slides and such.  So now it often stands for “Call for Presentations”, and some conferences use CfS or “Call for Speakers”, and many other terms.  In any case, it is something the conference publishes, that tells you what kind of talks they’re looking for, and when, where, and how to apply.  If you’re lucky they also tell you what perks they will give you if selected.  They usually consist of a form on a web page, which might be on the conference’s own site, or a third party that provides ways to manage forms such as Google Docs, Airtable, WuFoo, TypeForm, and so on, or a third party that specializes in CfP management, such as PaperCall, Sessionize, Submittable, and many more.

So how do you find these CfPs?  PaperCall has a listable and searchable directory of the ones there.  (Sessionize deliberately doesn’t, due to spam.)  There are web sites and Twitter feeds devoted to telling people about CfPs.  Conferences you’ve been to (to attend or to speak) usually keep your email address, and tell you about their CfPs.  You might get to know other speakers, who might tell you about ones they hear about.  Sometimes it’s just dumb luck, especially for conferences that don’t get the word out very well.

Crafting a “pitch” in response to a CfP is an art form all its own, which is getting a bit too detailed for this post.  Even after you learn that art well, though, you will probably get rejected by most conferences you apply to.  Even after you become a big name on the speaker circuit, to the point where conferences you’ve never heard of will invite you to speak without even submitting a pitch (I haven’t gotten anywhere near there yet, but know some who have), you will still be rejected by some.  As in so much of life, you must learn to handle rejection.  If you ask them politely for feedback about how you can improve the pitch and/or your speech concept in the first place, both to make it more attractive in general and to them specifically, you can learn quite a lot.  Even with an absolutely perfect pitch, though, conferences usually have several times more submissions than they have speaking slots.

You can save yourself a lot of work if you first narrow down what kind of conferences you want to speak at, by such criteria as topic (of course), location (including whether it’s online or not), talk length, conference length, what perks they give you, and anything else you can find out.

In sort of a “meta” twist, one of the talks I have been preparing is about . . . how to break into conference speaking, and why you might want to.  :-)