In my previous post I told you how COVID pretty much destroyed all of my 2020 goals, and how I had exactly the same goals for 2021. One of the bigger ones was speaking at an international conference, so I set my sights there.
Throughout 15 years in the industry I had never dared to speak at a conference, but lately I felt like I had some interesting perspectives to share, and that I could give back to the community by teaching a bit of what I learned from it, which is pretty much everything I know about web dev, as I'm mostly "self taught" (quite a misleading term, as most things I know I took from other great teachers)
I had 5 talks in mind, all of them halfway written, and I've sent dozens of proposals to various conferences, with most of them being rejected and the few accepted last year being cancelled due to COVID.
Funny enough, I dared to send 4 proposals to this year's Web Directions Hover, one of the most amazing conferences about CSS. I really, really wanted to be there. So imagine my surprise when the mail finally came in.
It was about 9PM local time in Argentina (a much more decent time in Australia, where the conference organizers are), and I was almost asleep as I had had a really long day, including a 20Km (12.5 miles) walk and an hypocaloric diet in my effort to get rid of all those additional Kgs that lockdown has left me with.
The title simply read "Your recent Hover CSS conference proposal". Or something like that, I didn't had my glasses on, so reading the mobile screen was not easy. "uh, yet another generic rejection mail", I though. But this wasn't a rejection mail. Amongst other things, it read "We'd be really interested in having you deliver "Neurodiversity (and why you hate CSS)"", which was definitely the one talk I really, really wanted to deliver.
So I jumped out of bed, ran to the PC and double checked. I was living a dream. That's when I read the sender and it said John Allsopp, the conference organizer and an outstanding dev that really marked the early days of my career. Receiving his praise for all the submissions and having him select the one I held closest to my heart was unbelievable. But it was real.
I tried to play it cool and professional as I confirmed the talk and sent some emails back and forth. I promised myself I'd try not to fanboy too hard as I saw the speakers I'd be "sharing the stage" with. But seriously, OMG, I'll be sharing the stage with the likes of Rachel Andrew, Miriam Suzanne and Heydon Pickering, as well as upcoming stars (and pretty much friends) such as Ahmad Shadeed. Really. Look. That's my face right next to Miriam!!
In the following weeks, news only kept getting better. I was confirmed to speak at CSS Conf Colombia, an event I was looking forward to ever since it was announced two years back, presenting my talk "CSS Mythical Creatures and how to get them". I also got invited to speak at TechFairLive, presenting "Modern CSS Solutions to classic CSS problems", and while my submission for Figma's Clarity conf got rejected, an exchange of follow-up mails got my talk "Accessibility for the Invisible" scheduled for their livestreams instead.
Anyway, I'm speaking about myself too much, but this post is not really about me. It's about you. I've been wanting to speak at a conference for far too long and it took me a long, long time to dare. But I'm sure everyone has something interesting to say, so if you're in the same situation, I'm here to tell you: Go for it! You got this!
Here's my best advice on how to land some speaking opportunities:
Start with your local community
While some conferences explicitly welcome first-timers, most organizers will ask for a video of your previous talks to check your abilities as a speaker.
The good thing about it is that said video doesn't have to be from a big conference. A simple recording from a local meetup will do. So if you have literally zero experience, that's a great place to start. Whatever tech you're passionate about, I can guarantee there is some local / online meetup that will take you in as a speaker, and that's a great first step, as you'd probably find it far easier to speak in front of 20 coworkers than doing so with a big audience.
So start small, then aim for the sky.
Turn your radar on
There are two main ways to get speaking opportunities. Most conferences will run a Call for Proposals (CFP) months in advance to scout for speakers and talk ideas. This is your opportunity to sell your talk.
Luckily there are services such as SeeCFP and CFPLand that will alert of (most) open CFPs for your keywords.
Sometimes the CFPs alerts are handled by the CFP platforms themselves, such as Sessionize and PaperCall
If you're interested in speaking at conferences, you'll probably need to use one of those systems, so I'd suggest signing up to all of the above and taking the time to customize the keywords and preferences.
Pay attention to the conference requirements and their style, and write a killer sell
Once you find a CFP that fits your target audience, take a moment to really understand what the organizers are looking for. They'd normally list their topics, tracks, or preferences. Some prefer strictly technical stuff, some would probably look for personal stories.
Maybe you can adapt your talk to better suit the conference. Maybe you have a couple different ideas in mind, feel free to send any that fits the target audience.
Most conferences will ask you to sell your talk in 2 paragraphs, which can be hard to do. After all, we have 25-30 minutes in our head, yet we have to summarize it in just a few seconds of reading for the organizer to evaluate.
A nice formula I like to follow is one line each of what's the problem we're trying to solve, how we fix it, and how that makes our lives easier. But really, I only have a base script for each talk sell, which I personalize for each conference, and I think that's the better way to go.
Writing a killer "elevator pitch" will greatly increase your chances of being selected. Oh, and watch your grammar there, the organizers are sorting through hundreds of proposals which is a lot of work, so take your time to show some effort and respect.
Networking is key
The other way to get speaking opportunities, and what usually makes 50 - 75% of the final lineups, is getting an invitation from the organizers themselves. Obviously this won't do for your breakthrough talk, but it doesn't require you to be a "big name" in the speaking world either. Conference organizers are also conference attendees, so if your talk is great and you engage in networking in a true, human way, you're likely to leave the conference with an invitation for your next.
You can probably land some invitations from your regular, daily networking at whatever social networks you run, from the community, and from your company. So if you're interested in speaking, dare and add the "speaker" title to your LinkedIn / Twitter bio.
Having so many leads, proposals and different submission platforms can get messy in a hurry, so make sure to stay organized. Add your speaking commitments to your calendar, and make sure to have a table to help you stay organized with your submissions.
Some fields I'd recommend:
- Conference Name, which I normally link to their website.
- Talk Name, specially if you have multiple submissions to the same CFP.
- Date CFP closes.
- Conference date.
- Location: Online / country.
- Platform: whether it was a direct message lead, Sessionize, Papercall, Google Forms or any other type.
- Perks: Some conferences will pay their speakers, cover their travel and hotel, some will send you cool stuff, some will help you get ahold of a better camera or microphone, etc.
- Status and lastmod: I use this field to keep track of how far into the process we are. I start from "not sent yet", to "pending", to "confirmed / rejected". I like to color-code the row as well and keep the confirmed at the top, then the pending, unsent, and finally the rejected. Speaking of which...
Don't be discouraged by rejections
Everyone has something interesting to say, but a conference can only fit a certain number of speakers. Most conferences receive a gazillion proposals they have to filter through to find just a handful that better suits them. And I mean it. It's fairly common to see 400 - 800 submissions for a conference that can only fit 10 talks at most. So yeah, chances of your talk being rejected are far greater than those of being accepted.
It can be hard to deal with so many automated rejection emails and the red rows in your table piling up, but always keep in mind that all speakers go through the same. Keep insisting, try to build the bridges with networking, maybe have a friend or two check your sell. I had 20+ CFP rejections (usually submit 2 to 4 talks to each conference) before landing my first one, and as far as I can tell, I've been lucky compared to others.
Always follow up!
Most organizers will send you an email with the result of your proposal. But even if you get a rejection, be nice and reply. Thank them for their time, show interest on the conference, ask for some feedback to improve your proposal, etc. Yup, replying to what's obviously an automated, bulk mail can feel weird, but there's people on the other side that are working really hard.
Most of your replies will probably never be read, but I've had organizers coming back to me months later (after the conference ended) to provide much appreciated feedback, and as I mentioned before, even had one rejected talk turned into a livestream.
Seriously, go for it!
I sincerely believe everyone has something interesting to share, but most of us simply don't dare. My friend Matias was in the same position as me, so I encouraged him insistently over months, helped him improve his proposals, sent him every relevant CFP I saw, and insisted with the Palpatine's Dew It meme pretty much daily. He's now scheduled to speak at TechFair and ReactJS case study festival, news that I received with such a joy as if I was being selected myself.
I'm sure many of the awesome devs in this amazing community may be playing around with the idea, so I hope you find these tips useful and finally dare to send your proposals! Let me know if I can help in any way!
Oh, and since we've been talking networking, feel free to follow me at my twitter, and of course it's needless to say I'd love to see you at any of my talks. Some are free, some are paid but well worth it. Web Directions Hover even adjust the price to your country's salaries, and you can use coupon code facundosentme for 20% off ;) I promise, I really, really have some mind-blowing stuff to say there, and the lineup is out of this world! See you there!
Top comments (3)
I'm currently building out my first talk that I plan to run to some local meetups with, so this post's timing is very serendipitous for me! Nice writeup!
Thanks Noah! Feel free to reach out if I can help in any way :)
What are you gonna be speaking about?
I'm going to be speaking about blockchain technology, and giving a lesson on how a blockchain works by building a blockchain using go!