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Relicans Summer Camp Week 4: Public Speaking Week

🏕 Challenge: Apply to speak at a conference.

You've made it to Week 4! We're talking about public speaking but a lot of our thoughts on generating ideas and developing habits apply to all the other topics we've covered in this series, particularly the Week 3 writing challenge.

CFP: Call for Proposals (or Papers). A request for potential speakers to express interest in participating in a specific conference by outlining the talk(s) they'd like to give at that event

Finding a conference

The sheer number of tech conferences can get overwhelming. It takes time to develop your own criteria for choosing which ones to apply to.

Determine your conference values

As you're looking for events to speak at, decide how you'll choose which ones to devote your time and energy towards. What's most important to you in a conference? Are there any policies or characteristics that would raise a red flag? Here are some points to consider:

  • Does the event have a code of conduct? Does it include contact information? Does it explain how to report an incident? Are there anonymous reporting options?
  • Who has spoken in the past? If any speakers have already been announced, are there any known abusers in the current lineup?
  • Are any of the organizers part of marginalized communities?
  • If the event is in-person, how accessible is the venue? Have the organizers provided that information?
  • How are speakers being compensated?
  • Is the event run by a community? A company?

Exercise: Write down your personal speaker rider. For now, it can be a short, private list of preferences. Check out Tatiana Mac's speaker rider as a particularly thorough example.

The lines you draw here may be different depending on the conference. Maybe you're willing to speak for free for small, community events. Perhaps your expectations around the ethnic diversity of organizers depend on the country in which the conference is based. That's completely up to you!

Compensation might also go beyond getting paid with money. If you're unwilling or unable to take money for speaking at an event, think about what other "rewards" might be useful to you. A conference team might buy you the equipment you need to record your talk for them or list your company as a sponsor, to name a few.

Finding new events

Tools like CFP Land will give you a starting point if you're not sure where to look. It's convenient but remember that not every conference will post a CFP to every (or any) aggregator.

CFP Land home page shows upcoming conference CFPs in chronological order

An aggregator will also allow you to filter your results so that it's easier to find events better suited to your needs and interests.

CFP Land has filters for category, region, and conference start date

If you're using something like PaperCall, you can also save your abstracts and resubmit the same talks to multiple conferences on the platform. That'll be useful when we discuss tracking your talks later on!

Seek recommendations

If you know folks who are already speaking at conferences, ask them for recommendations! A speaker is likely to give you a more detailed (and potentially less biased) view of what's it's like to be a speaker at a given event than that event's CFP.

Put yourself out there

You can also take the straightforward route and present yourself as a potential speaker in public. This is often done on Twitter or LinkedIn. You'll find it easier to focus your efforts if you have some idea of what you'd like to talk about.

DrRosieW tweets: I'm looking to speak at more UX/design/product/tech events/conferences. My specialty is behaviour change in health, but I can also speak about Research Ops (esp. consent & data management) and research on sensitive topics. If that's of interest to your audience, please get in touch!

You also don't need to start with a conference. Reach out to meetups or do lightning talks.

Brainstorming talk ideas

This may be influenced by the conferences you're interested in and vice versa! Whichever comes first, coming up with the idea for your talk or settling on a conference to apply to, a brainstorming session can help you loosen up enough to produce an interesting topic.

Remember, you don't need to be an expert in the thing you're going to talk about. Most people aren't! You're sharing your take on your chosen topic. That's something absolutely no one else can do as well as you can.

The writing tips from last week hold true! We'll repost the list of questions to ask yourself here for anyone who hasn't worked through the previous challenges:

  • What do you already know?
  • What have you learned recently?
  • What's something you wish you knew when you got started (with a specific project, tool, tech in general, etc.)?
  • What do you want to learn more about? Why?
  • What problems have you solved? How did you do it?
  • What questions do you have?
  • Do you have any content you can reuse, like a video or stream?
    • Hint, if you joined the video, open source, or writing challenges, you can reuse that!

Writing the abstract

An abstract is like your conference talk pitch. It's a brief synopsis of what you'll talk about meant to convince participants to come and watch the talk itself. Writing a tight, persuasive abstract about a relevant topic will give you the best chance of having your talk accepted.

This means you don't need to write the whole talk before submitting a proposal! That's potentially a ton of wasted effort if the talk doesn't get picked up by a conference. Unless you're willing to convert your talk into a video or otherwise release the content in some form besides a conference talk, focus on the abstract first.

Outline your plan

You may find it helpful to start with a bulleted list of points. If you do, hang onto this list because some organizers will ask for just such an outline in their CFP! Draw some takeaways from your outline to give attendees an idea of what they'll learn from you.

Keep it brief

When we say an abstract is meant to be brief, we mean it! When your talk proposal is one of hundreds or thousands, you need to hook your reader quickly. Resist the temptation to add fluff. See if you can get your idea across within five sentences.

Test it out

Share your abstract with at least one person who is familiar with your topic and one person who isn't. It might be scary to share this unfinished work but try to choose people you can trust to give honest feedback. The abstract should, as much as possible, get them excited about your presentation. Apply any feedback you get and then repeat the process.

Get a Headshot

Your headshot doesn't need to be fancy. It doesn't even need to be a photo of you (though some organizers prefer photos over illustrations). Any clear image of your face should do, but some organizers will request that the image be square.

It's a good idea to keep this image handy, along with your bio, so you don't have to go looking for it whenever you want to apply to speak somewhere.

Craft Your Bio

For some folks, this is the hardest part of all: writing about yourself! If you don't already have a biography, you'll need one for practically every event you'll ever speak at. You can start small, with just the bare facts, and add flair when you're feeling more confident. Think of the following like a mini-worksheet and fill in the brackets.

[your name] is a [your title] at [your company]. [your pronoun] [has/have] a particular interest in [your professional interest(s)]. Ask them about [your go-to fun fact]!

That's enough to get you going! If you want to dig a little deeper and come up with a more original bio, you can construct one using this technique Angie Jones shared at Write/Speak/Code 2019:

Exercise: Write down ten accomplishments, five technical things you could teach, and five "shiny trinkets" (special or unique things about you). Combine these to form a more personal bio.

Scott Berkun also has some great tips on how to write a good bio.

Apply to Speak

Read the CFP, and then read it again. You do not want to have your wonderful proposal rejected because you didn't follow the CFP directions. A common mistake that can cause your proposal to be rejected is including personally identifiable information when submitting it to an anonymized CFP.

Look at the timeline and note when the CFP opens, when it closes, when you can expect a response, when you would need to turn in any deliverables, and when you would need to travel/speak.

Some organizers will wait until after the closing deadline has passed before they begin reviewing and selecting talks, but not all. Some conferences will review proposals as soon as they're submitted, and immediately accept or decline. Get your proposal in early, you don't want to be rejected because they have already accepted a talk on your topic.

General timeline:

  • CFP opens 12-6 months in advance
  • CFP is rolling or 1-2 months
  • Accepted speakers notified 2-4 weeks after CFP close
  • Accepted speakers may decline, so rejections are usually sent later
    • You should know whether or not you're speaking at least two months prior to the event but maybe as little as a few weeks!

Be concise!

The selection committee are normally volunteers often working in their free time. They may have hundreds of proposals to read, make sure your proposal—especially your abstract—is succinct and snappy.

You can add more detailed information in your proposal description but really focus on getting your abstract and title right. These are your hooks, they are what attendees will see in the schedule, but they're also the first thing a member of the selection committee will see too, and with hundreds of proposals to grade if you do not capture their attention with your title and abstract they may not even review the rest of your proposal.

Ask for feedback

If there is something about the CFP process you are unsure of, do not be afraid to contact the conference and ask. Also, some conferences may run workshops or provide reviews and feedback on your proposal before you submit it.

Apply multiple times (with limits)

Applying to conferences can be a bit of a numbers game. Even with an amazing proposal, you may not be selected. This is not a reflection on you or on your proposal, it could be any number of reasons; they have already accepted a talk on your topic, they have a particular theme for the conference which your talk does not fit into, they simply do not have enough slots in the schedule to accept every talk they want to.

To maximize your chances of success, you can submit multiple proposals to the same conference. But do so respectfully! Ensure that each of your proposals are relevant to the conference. Ask yourself if you were only going to submit one proposal, would you still be happy to submit that proposal? Remember the selection committee are likely volunteers and very busy, so respect their time. You want them on your side!

Some conferences might have restrictions on the number of talks you can propose to a single CFP. As always, read the CFP rules carefully first.

You can also submit to multiple conferences, even if the conferences are going to be at the same or similar time. Just remember, if you are selected to speak at a conference, to withdraw your proposals from any other conferences happening at the same time.

Tracking your talks

Keep track of your talk ideas, abstracts, slides, and notes! You might not get each and every one accepted, but being able to reference everything you've come up with at a glance can help you build stronger talks in the future.

Try collecting everything you've created in a single "Speaking" folder somewhere it'll be easy for you to locate later. You can keep adding to that folder for as long as it works for you. Some people will also use a tool like Notion or Trello to keep track of current proposals.

Share completed talks

You can display things like slides and recordings on your website, on GitHub, or on platforms built for the purpose like Notist. These serve as a kind of portfolio. In the future, organizers will be able to see a list of the fabulous talks you've already given whenever they're looking for a new speaker to invite to their event!

Aaron Bassett's presentations on Notist


You have something to say that's worth sharing with an audience! Take your time, ask for help when you need it, and start applying. It'll get easier and faster over time.

Consider getting started by applying to CodeLand Recess! This is a great way to focus all the lessons you've learned over the course of the Relicans Summer Camp into a bite-sized video that will be shared with the CodeNewbie community.

Also, share your work. We want to see what you create! Be sure to include the #RelicansSummerCamp tag on your post so we can find it easily and award you your camp badge!

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