So you want to speak at a conference...

Alright so, you've decided you want to try your hand at speaking at a conference. That decision alone is exhilarating... and terrifying. But where do you start? If you don't have a mentor (yet) who has some experience with conference speaking it can be really daunting to think about how to break into the conference speaking circuit, but it isn't as hard as you think (in my experience, with testing conferences)! In this blog post I'll go into details about how (and where) to get started up to the application process, I'll cover actually speaking in a follow up!

Shoutout to Shannon Draper for inspiring me to write this after a long winded conversation (in a small town in Colombia) about speaking at conferences
Disclaimer: I am not an expert, this is simply my advice based on my experiences!

So where do I start? Pick a topic! 

     The ideal starting place for speaking at a conference, is to have a topic in mind. It's great to want to speak at conferences but the best talks are always on subjects that the presenter is passionate about. So figure out what it is that you want to share with the community. Is it a technical topic? Is it a non-technical topic? This is important. Remember, not every conference talk has to be a technical talk! It's also great to share knowledge and experiences that transcend the technical side of an organization and can help people on a higher level as well.
     Once you've got your topic it's time to start figuring out what you want to say about that topic. This is where you want to look at what do you want people to get out of your presentation. What things do you want people to learn or take away from it to bring back to their own organizations? This is where you'll be thinking about key takeaways, but also some of the content you'll want to be covering.
     The trick here is that most topics people choose could cover a very wide range of subtopics. Take automation for example. It's easy to start with the topic of automation but you need to drill down into what it is about automation you want to discuss. Is it some tips and tricks for implementing automation where there was none before? Is it how automation can benefit an org? Is it about how too much automation isn't always a good thing? As you can see there's a lot of different pathways you can go down when you start out with a broad topic. And that is OK! The key is to use the second step, determining your takeaways and learnings, to narrow down that scope into a more easily managed chunk.


     So you've determined what your general topic is, you've determined some of the things you want attendees to take away from your talk, time to define your new scope. Continuing on with that theme I started of the general topic being Automation, let's say I decided the things I want attendees to be able to take away from my talk are;
  • To have a better understanding of what automation is,
  • to be more comfortable with automation,
  • have confidence in questioning automation in their own organization
     My scope has been narrowed down to automation, from a less technical perspective. What this narrow scope also allows you to do is determine your target audience. It's important to know who you're aiming to have attending your session as well as knowing what you want to talk about. For my example it seems like I'm trying to target people who are less familiar with automation, with the goal of increasing their understanding and comfort levels with it. So now I've gone from having a general automation topic, I've figured out what I want to share, and now I can narrow down my scope to "automation for beginners". Now I can start on  my proposal! 
     This is - in my opinion - the hardest part. You have to sell your talk in just a few short paragraphs. Every speaker I have ever met writes their proposals differently, so don't stress out if yours doesn't seem like everyone else's. There are a few important things you want to make sure you include in your proposal.
     For myself, I tend to write out 3 parts of my proposals; elevator pitch, main proposal, key takeaways. I write these 3 things out because I tend to apply to conferences that need 1, 2, or all 3 of these things so it's handy to have them ready to go before I start applying. Let's start on the main proposal.

Main Proposal

     For your main proposal you'll want to limit it to a maximum of 3 paragraphs. The proposal needs to be able to catch people's attention quickly, and get them interested fast. I've seen proposals for a 2 hour work shop that were only 1 paragraph long and I was already hooked. It also depends on your topic, and your style though how long it will be. 
     I tend to look at proposal similarly to essays to a degree; start with a hook. You'll want to catch the readers attention right away to keep them reading. Let's see, for my hypothetical proposal here I may start with something like "What the heck is automation and why will people not shut up about it?". It's blunt, to the point and it poses a question that my target audience has likely found themselves asking. 
     From here you'll want to give a bit of background on your plan for the talk. I'd want to move from here into discussing things relating to my target audience (I'd likely want to call out that many people have found themselves lost in a world of automation), talk about the things I will be discussing (Join me to learn a little bit more about automation and how it fits into your world), and finally the things I want them to be able to take away from the talk (By the end of this talk you'll have a better understanding of what exactly automation is, how it relates to you, and ways you can get involved in automation in your organization (hint: it doesn't always have to be by writing it!)).
     Alright, so for the heck of it I'm going to write out a quick proposal on my hypothetical topic here:

     What the heck is automation and why will people not shut up about it? If you've been in a situation where automation was thrust upon you, or your team, you may have some reservations about it. You may still be trying to figure out what exactly 'automation' is and how it's going to impact you and your job.
     Join me as I discuss automation from a beginners standpoint. We'll discuss what automation is, all the different things it can encompass, how it effects you and your organization, and ways to get you more comfortable using it in your daily work.Let's get a better understanding of what automation is, get comfortable with and get involved (hint: getting involved doesn't always need to be by writing it!). 
    So that's a very basic, rough proposal that I could have come up with for my hypothetical topic. Hopefully it will give others an idea of how to get started. Now for the elevator pitch.

Elevator Pitch

    Now for the elevator pitch. This is arguably much harder than the actual proposal. Most proposal submissions don't have a character limit, elevator pitches do. So what is an elevator pitch? The idea is that it is a pitch of your proposal so short it could be done in an elevator ride between floors. One of my favourite conferences requires you to have an elevator pitch of 250 characters (thanks CAST!). This is a really short version of your main proposal so it's generally a lot easier to write after that is done. 
    Here is an elevator pitch for the proposal above:
What the heck is automation and why will people not shut up about it? Join me as we dive into what automation is, how it impacts you and your org, and work on ways to get more comfortable using it in our daily work! 
    216 characters. As you can see, 250 characters is really not a lot to work with. But it can be really cool to make sure you're certain of your topic, because if you aren't this part gets hard as you try to decide what you're really trying to sell people on.

    So we've gone through the main proposal, and the elevator pitch. The key takeaways section is easy; it's the goals you defined earlier! Mine are bullet pointed above. You'll also likely find you've used these in your proposal and your elevator pitch. So what's left? The title.


    How do you pick a title for your talk? To be honest, I hate this part. I'm not creative enough to come up with some catchy title for the talk. That when people look at the program for the conference they go 'Oh that looks so cool!'. My biggest advice here is just go with what feels right to you. Get a title that will catch eyes if possible but don't stress too hard. The content is what really matters in the end. 
    For the heck of it let's try and come up with a title for my little proposal here....
What's Automation?

    Ok, well now that, that is all over! For most of my proposals I generally write, and rewrite these a few times. It's ok to not get it right the first time. Just keep working on it until you're happy, and until it showcases what you want it to. Once you're happy with what you've got to show the world, it's time to find somewhere to show it off!


    It may seem like the application is the easy part of this whole process, but not necessarily. There are a few things you'll want to look at for conferences you're planning to apply to. 


    Make sure that the conference you're applying to has the right audience for your topic. For example, one of my talks is highly applicable to the entire spectrum of tech roles, but another is very specific to testers. I would want to make sure that my target audience will be attending the conference in question and in enough volume to get a good potential turn out. Additionally, it can be really nice to have familiar faces in the crowd the first time you present... or you may want to present to total strangers (I did). Either way, audience is something you should think about when making your decision.


    Where is the conference? For your first talk it may be nice to have it close to home if you're a little more introverted. It could also be cool to apply to conferences in new places to check them out, just make sure you're aware of the next point in this list as well.


    You'll hear people speak about 'Pay to Speak' conferences a lot once you get into that community. Pay to Speak conferences are generally defined as conferences that do not offer travel compensation to speakers. Personally, I cannot afford to apply to Pay to Speak conferences. I always check the conference reimbursement policy to make sure I can afford to travel and speak wherever I apply. A lot of conferences generally offer a certain amount in travel reimbursement, maybe a few nights at the conference hotel, and almost always give you a pass to the speaking portion of the conference. Just make sure you're aware of what you're signing up for financially when you apply. 

First Time Speaker Slots

    More and more conferences are now adding in specific slots for first time speakers. This is to allow new people to break into the conference speaking circuit and to bring in some awesome new ideas and views. If you see a conference that does have first time speaker slots don't be afraid to reach out to figure out how you can apply, or indicate, that you're applying for one of those slots. 

The waiting

    Once you've picked your conference, follow their application procedures, cross your fingers, and let the waiting begin! Don't forget, there are always a limited number of slots available at conferences, so don't get too bummed out if you get rejected a few times. Use the feedback given to improve your proposal and keep trying. 


    So to recap the main points (in my opinion) of getting started with conference speaking:
  • Pick your general topic
  • Decide what you want people to learn/takeaway from your talk
  • Narrow down your topic
  • Write the proposal
    • Main proposal
    • Elevator Pitch
    • Title
  • Figure out where to apply
  • Apply!
    Good luck to anyone applying to conferences for the first time and I would love to hear your feedback on how it goes for you! :) 


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