How to break into Conference Speaking

2019-04-02

I was recently able to put on paper the process I use to create conference talks. After discussing it with several trusted advisers, I thought the community might enjoy seeing it. Naturally, this is one of many possible methods to prepare conference talks. But this one is mine, and it has given me much success.

Overall Process

I realized, after the fact, that I had created a somewhat agile process. In particular, I know I set out to iteratively refine my talks, because I assumed I wouldn't get it right on the first try. My process usually includes 2 or 3 versions of a talk before it is ready for 'prime-time' and a conference. You can see a simplified model below:

Idea -> Blog Post -> TechFriday Talk -> User Group Talk -> Conference Talk

Idea Stage

I realized that key to generating good talks is to have good ideas. But for me, I also recognized that I tend to be over-critical and prone to killing any idea that isn't fully baked... As a result, I used to think I didn't have many good ideas. As it turns out... I don't! But that doesn't mean that all the ideas I have would remain 'ungood' if they had some more time to mature.

So the first change I made was to start keeping even the half-baked ideas. I began to have pages full of these 'potential' topics. I began to keep them in Evernote, trying to save on paper. Usually I jot down enough for me to remember the spark of the idea for later. I don't need more than a couple of sentences on the topic. Sometimes I'll include a diagram if I have that much time. But the vast majority of these ideas don't.

Blog Post

As I conciously changed my filter for ideas, I needed a way to refine them. I realized that I could use my blog as a platform to develop my ideas further. To fill out a blog post, I had to invest a bit more time in the topic. By spending the extra hour or so, I found that my blog posts always improved on the original thought.

Moreover, I found that the post analytics offered insight on topics I could develop further. Some of my more reflective posts, gathered more attention than I anticipated. They are in the queue for development as a result. Yet I wish to caution the reader here. I do not recommend developing a topic further, just because it gathered public attention. That is a useful metric but I want to consider your interest in the topic as well.

I have found that my best talks are the one which I care deeply about. My 'Demystifying the Whiteboard Interview' talk is such a one. The topic came from my genuine enjoyment of the practice. and I desired to help those entering our industry. I found that I cared deeply, and that passion came out during the talk. It remains my highest rated, and more frequently given talk. If you have the choice between a popular, but less passionate topic and a less popular, but passionate topic: choose the passionate one!

TechFriday Talk

Improving hosts a TechFriday every other Friday throughout the year. Improver's give their talks to help educate other Improvers. Every time I give a talk there I find the audience engaged, and they are never afraid to give feedback. That is critical for this stage of talk development! You need real people's thoughts on the execution of your talk, as well as the content itself to refine it. You can consider a talk at this stage to be version 0. Initial Release. Or Beta-testing.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not giving my fellow Improver's garbage to 'test' for me. Instead, I choose to give my ideas to them first, because I trust them. I know that I will receive actionable feedback. They are a 'safe' group to present to. It is especially important to have a safe group to present this version of the talk to!

I recognize that not everyone has access to such an opportunity. You could start a Lunch'n'Learn at your company, or some similar practice. In the case that you cannot, then find a small group of trusted friends who'd be willing to go over the talk with you. Invite them to lunch, or grab a coffee. The goal is to ask for feedback, so keep that in mind when picking the people you share this version of the talk with.

User Group Talk

Or, you could opt to go straight to a User Group. If you choose to, then I'd encourage you to find one with an active audience and who gives good feedback. I've found that the North Houston .NET UserGroup is excellent at this. I even modeled my own feedback form on theirs!

Now don't worry about finding a User Group too much. From my experience, they are constantly looking for speakers! Just be sure to match your topic to the group. I tend to favor topics which are broadly applicable. That way I can help people regardless of the tech stack, and sometimes across professions! But I have found this to be a two-edged sword. There are times when a User Group will not accept this kind of talk. When it happens, don't worry too much.

It may take some time to find a group ready to hear your talk. When it comes time to give your talk, breathe and relax. Your career isn't riding on this, and the people gathered to hear you are interested to hear what you have to say. If the group doesn't request feedback for you, have your own feedback form ready.

Every time I give a talk, I tend to tweak the content a bit. It can be anything from dropping whole sections, to fixing the spelling and grammar. Other times, I may recast the whole presentation to better suit the group I am presenting too. But I always make it a point to gather feedback after every talk, and applying it soon there after. As a result, several of my talks have 2 or 3 variations.

Prime-Time : Conference Talks

Alright! You've got an idea you're passionate about. You've iteratively refined it every time you've given it so far, and you feel ready to take it to a conference. Congratulations! By now you should be confident with the material, and comfortable with the presentation. The first step to take is of course to find a conference. You can find these in a variety of ways. You could search for a 'Call for Speakers', or you could look up particular conferences like THATConference. I have noticed that many conferecnes use a tool called 'Sessionize' , so you could search for them in that way too.

My first conference was a local one called TechFest. One of the nice things about local conferences is that you don't have to travel much. Not all conferences can pay for Speaker's travel or accommodations. Thus, I found the reduced travel load to be very desirable. Moreover, starting with a local conference means you can gain a wider introduction to your own area. You get the chance to network with others in your field. This can create new opportunities, speaking and otherwise.

For my part, I usually have a special 'conference' variation of my talks. I find that conference are more mixed than User Groups, so I tailor my content for a wider spectrum. The conference speaking block is usually different than the one I have for a User group. I find myself adding a little content more often than cutting it.

There you have it. My process for taking a back-of-the-napkin idea to a full-blown conference talk. Capture every idea, and then refine them in a blog post. Elaborate on the blog post to form a first draft talk, and get feedback! Forge your initial draft in the fires of the feedback to strengthen it as you find more audiences. Finally, once you feel ready and comfortable with the material; take the plunge.