Nick Heiner

@nickheiner

How and Why to Speak at Tech Conferences

Full Stack Fest 2015 in Barcelona. Photo by the conference organizers.

Over the past few years, I’ve given a number of talks at various conferences and internal company events. I am by no means the most accomplished or well-known tech speaker. However, if I had a time machine, I’d have some things to tell myself as I was first getting interested in speaking.

Before you start speaking at conferences, you should figure out why you want to. Presenting can be a lot of work, and you should make sure that you’re aiming towards what’s most fulfilling for you.

Why You Might Speak

Become Internet Famous

Some people have a bunch of Twitter followers and YouTube views, and this seems to make them happy. Building your public brand by speaking at conferences can be a way to work towards this. My untested suggestion for the “least marginal effort above your day job” plan:

  1. Get a day job working on a major and broadly used open source project (e.g. Angular, React, npm, Node). “Well hyped” may be substituted for or added to “broadly used” to strengthen the effect.
  2. Give a bunch of talks about your team’s work at the biggest-name conferences you can get accepted to. (Also blog and Stack Overflow and participate in GitHub issues.)
  3. Watch those sweet sweet Twitter followers roll in.
  4. Get the answer to “does this actually make me happy”.
  5. Quit Twitter once you realize it’s full of aggressive trolls and encourages our most superficial thoughts.

Ah, slight digression there at the end. But I’m pretty sure that’s how the plan is supposed to go.

Build a Local Community

Some people derive meaning and joy from participating in and building up their local tech community. For this, I recommend giving talks at meetups and regional conferences. (For extra credit, organize your own!) If you enjoy mentoring others, smaller events could actually be a better place to do it, because it’s easier for people to find you afterwards to ask you questions, and you may see the same people over and over again. This can also be a great way to learn more about companies in your area, or to get a leg up in your next local job search.

Promote Your Product, Company, or Self

If you run a consultancy or contracting company, speaking at conferences can be an important way to find new business. If you want to work with local clients, you should focus on local events. If you sell a product to developers, then you should speak at the largest events you can.

If your current job is not the one you’ll have until retirement, then speaking at the right conferences can bring positive attention from employers.

Get Experience Public Speaking

If you want to become a more comfortable public speaker, I’d recommend speaking at as many events as possible — I’d speak at three less-prestigious events rather than one big one. For me personally, that would do more over time to reduce anxiety around speaking.

Recruiting For Your Employer

If you seem like a smart, interesting person, then it’ll be easier to recruit people to come work with you. If your employer offers a referral bonus, then recruiting can be personally lucrative for you.

Attending a Conference

Speaking at a conference can actually be a great way to attend a conference. Your travel and expenses will usually be covered. You’ll get to wear a speaker badge all weekend, which will make people think you’re more cool and thoughtful. You’ll get access to the speaker’s dinner, which makes it easy to connect with other speakers. I’ve often found that a full dinner with a small group is a much better way to get to build connections than randomly talking to strangers for fifteen minutes during the coffee break.

Taxonomy of Conferences

  • Internal company events. This might be a presentation at a company meeting or engineering all-hands. Or maybe your company does internal lightning talk sessions. These events are a great way to get started with public speaking in a lower-pressure environment. If you’re demoing a new product that your team built, then you’ll have the friendliest imaginable audience, because everyone at your company wants what your team did to be awesome.
  • Local meetups. These tend to be very low-key. The atmosphere is very relaxed, with pizza, and a welcoming crowd for junior engineers. The audience could be quite small (<25 people). The talk probably won’t be put up on YouTube. This is another good place to get your feet wet — worst case scenario, if it goes terribly, all you’ll have wasted is a trip across town.
  • Regional conferences. Attended primarily by local audiences, regional conferences tend to be relatively simple. The talks will be recorded and put on YouTube. The event may occur in rented-out auditoriums and classrooms on a college campus.
  • Headliner conferences. These are conferences that name themselves by concatenating a major technology and a geopolitical structure, like JSConfEU. They will have the highest production values, their names will look the best on your resume, and the video they post of your talk will be viewed the most times. But they’ll also have the highest bar for speakers.

These are, of course, very broad categories, and many conferences may not fall neatly in to one.

Choosing a Conference

All conferences are not created equal. If you’re able to have some discretion in where you speak, you should put effort into finding a good conference for you. Factors to consider include:

  1. What is the topic of the conference? Maybe you can get your talk on web accessibility accepted at DjangoCon, but if you aren’t interested in Python, then the rest of the conference will be of minimal value to you. Look at previous years’ schedules. After you are done speaking, will you want to attend other sessions? Some conferences will be perfectly good but may not have sessions that interest you, either because they’re a technology you’re not interested in, or because they’re aimed at a skill level that’s not useful to you. If you are recruiting for your company, and you only need senior engineers, then a conference with content aimed at a junior audience will not be as useful. Or if you need Ruby developers, then a Python conference will not be ideal.
  2. Does the conference look well-run? Some conferences are run better than others. As a largely uncompensated speaker, a major value you’re getting for your time is looking good in front of the community. If the conference is not well-run, it may detract from that goal. If the conference organizers mangle your bio in the printed programs, or have flaky A/V setups, it can make you look bad. To assess this, I recommend looking at videos from prior years and looking at the conference website, to see if it appears to be the work of conscientious, detail-oriented, experienced people.
  3. What are the production values of the conference? If you are speaking because you want to look good on the internet, then different conferences will have different effects on that goal. You will look much cooler on a professional stage than you will in a law school classroom that’s empty for the weekend. (I’m not saying that this should be everyone’s only goal, or that you can’t have a good conference session in a classroom.)
  4. How will you get to the conference? If the event is within a day trip of where you live, attending is low-cost. If you’re travelling internationally, you should be sure it’s worthwhile to you. Also, if you’re going to combine the conference trip with vacation, I highly recommend doing the vacation after the conference, so you’re not stressed about your talk the whole time.
  5. Where is the conference? You may choose to go to a conference on the basis of wanting a free trip to a city. This is a fine reason, but you may not get what you’re looking for if the conference is at a convention center surrounded by strip-malls 45 minutes away from the city center. Between all the conference activities, you may not have time to actually enjoy the city you wanted to visit, unless you extended your trip.
  6. Is the conference single- or multi-track? Some conferences have only a single talk happening at once, whereas others give attendees multiple options. Single-track conferences can be nice because you’re guaranteed the maximum audience size. However, it also means that there may be people in the audience who don’t care about your talk. With a multi-track conference, the people who do attend your talk will be more interested in what you have to say. But this also brings anxiety or disappointment when not as many people choose your talk as you’d like, and you have to give your talk to an awkwardly small crowd. A multi-track conference also may have pressure for you to promote your talk against the other talks you’re competing against. It’s fair to ask the conference organizers what the ratio of attendees to talks is. Conference organizers want there to be an interesting talk for everyone, so they may be incentivized to spread attendees relatively thinly by scheduling many simultaneous talks. You should also figure out what room you’ll be speaking in — are you in the keynote slot, or in a tiny side-room? Will your talk be recorded? Some conferences only record certain tracks.

Getting Accepted and Giving The Talk

There’s already a lot of advice on this:

I’ll just add a few thoughts.

Many conferences have acceptance rates of 10% or less. To increase your odds, submit more talks to each conference, and submit to many conferences. NB: it basically does not work to have “safety” and “reach” conferences, as if you’re applying for college, because offers will come in on a rolling basis, and you won’t have time to see everywhere you got in before you accept. Instead, I’d recommend a strategy of applying for the best conferences you think you could possibly get accepted at, and then slowly lower your bar if you’re not getting accepted.

The most biggest conferences may have selection processes that favor experienced speakers, since they don’t want to risk a 50-minute time slot on an unknown quantity. If you are just getting started, it will be easier to target smaller scale events to establish a record of successful talks.

If you get accepted to give multiple talks at one conference, congratulations! However, be sure that you have enough energy to give to talks in close proximity to one another. And, even if you have plenty of time to prepare both talks, just practicing enough to have two 50-minute sessions fresh and ready to go on the same day can lead to burnout before you even arrive at the conference. These effects are exacerbated if you’re giving both the talks for the first time, so you need to practice more.

If the conference has any particular notes on how they’d like to see the CFP formatted, or details they’d like, be sure to pay close attention. Failure to attend to details and follow directions is an easy way for CFP graders to cull your submission from an overcrowded pool.

What Can You Talk About?

If you’re looking for something to talk about, here are a few broad categories of talks I’ve seen be accepted:

  • Deep dive on a specialty like accessibility, security, or performance. You can also do a “X for Y” framing, like “Usability for Developers”.
  • Science projects. These talks focus on something that’s cool but that not many engineers get to work with on a day to day basis. I’ve given a talk like this about procedural content generation, for instance.
  • Introduction to a new technology or trend. When ES6 was new, for instance, you’d see a bunch of talks explaining how it worked. If you are a person driving this new technology, you’ll get much more attention for your talk. For instance, if you’re deeply involved in the React community, you’ll have a great deal of credibility to talk about new developments in that ecosystem.
  • Propose a solution to a common problem. For instance, when a new framework becomes popular, there’s often a variety of opinions about the best way to do automated testing for code that uses it. Even if your solution isn’t the best, it can become a standard if you’re the first with a conference video. 😃

A frequent strategy is to write a CFP response for talks you haven’t created yet. You’ll get the acceptance months ahead of time, which will give you plenty of time to actually make the talk. I’ve done this for five different talks. Each time, there’s a terrifying period of time between when the talk is accepted and when I actually produce enough content to prove that it’ll work. But that terror has never actually been well founded! 😃

Another important consideration: how big is the delta between your current knowledge and what you’re speaking on? When I did my procedural content generation talk, I did a fair amount of research into the relevant computer science techniques, and made a demo to illustrate the application of the concepts. This took a ton of time. By contrast, with my accessibility talk, I was just talking about the work I’d done for my regular job, and I didn’t need to make a new demo to have something to show. That talk was easier to prepare.

When I first started speaking, I leaned on the talks where I’d have to do more learning to present, because I was more junior in my career and didn’t have as much I could speak on. Now that I’ve seen a few more things, I’m able to produce talks that are closer to my day-job experience.

The Money Angle

The economics of the conference scene are funny if you look at them the right way. Companies may pay a great deal of money for their employees to attend a conference, with flight costs, meal per diems, conference tickets, and time not spent working. The employee can learn a lot from the speakers, but all the talks and presentation materials will generally be made available for free online. The real added value for being in person is the chance to network with other participants, and to recruit for the company. But honestly, what’s the split on people who are actually recruiting for the company that sent them, versus using the conference as a way to look for new jobs? I think the right way to view some conferences is not as an endeavor with a direct ROI for the company, but as a perk for employees. The perk angle becomes more clear when the conference is held in inconvenient but beautiful locations, like an island in Florida, and has an entire track on NodeJS submarines. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, to be clear!

The economics of the speaker side are also interesting. Most speakers do not receive compensation for speaking, aside from a free conference ticket. Some conferences will reimburse travel expenses, although most will happily allow the speaker’s employer to pay instead. If you accept an offer to speak, you should be clear that you’re getting value from the exchange. Aside from possible travel coverage, you’ll also get intangible benefits like public visibility, another line item on your resume, and whatever inherent joy you take in watching people listen to you talk for an hour 😃. Is that worth it to you?

I would roughly estimate that I could spent 40 hours preparing and practicing a single talk. If a conference pays $600 in travel + meals + swag expenses for me to speak, then that works out to $15/hour, which is $30,000 per year. By some estimates, you could make a higher hourly rate and be way less stressed out as a Lyft driver. Speaking at a conference is not all about the money, but you should be clear to yourself what other benefits you’re getting that make it worthwhile for you.

Some conferences are for-profit. Others make little to no money for the organizers, and are largely a labor of love for the community. Some for-profit conferences will masquerade as the latter. Make sure you know what the conference is and if you’re comfortable with it before you accept. Is someone offering you a speaking slot essentially asking you to provide free content for their for-profit event? If so, are you ok with that? (It’s ok if you are. You should just know what it is.)

Speaking of travel reimbursement, reach an agreement with the organizers on what level of reimbursement they’ll provide before you accept their offer. This is more important with international travel. You may have an offer to speak in Paris, for instance, but the organizers may only be willing to pay for a flight itinerary that’s so painful that you’d rather not do it. Figure this out ahead of time, before making a commitment and starting to prepare the talk.

Conclusion

People should attend conferences that are a good fit for their goals. However, my advice to be savvy about finding that good fit isn’t a broader suggestion that conferences are wastes of time. When people attend and speak at the conferences that are right for them, it can be an amazing experience providing new insights for work and lasting connections with the community.

If you enjoyed this, please clap it so others may find it. Thanks for reading!

Thanks to Dylan Greene for reading drafts of this.

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