I’m by no means an expert and would say I’m only really at the start of my “career” as a regular conference speaker. I’ve spoken at a handful of big events, including Dot York last October and The Lead Developer London in June 2019.
When starting out, I did a lot of googling for conference speaking advice, but found a lot of the articles were targeted at established or high-profile speakers. I decided to put together my own set of tips for people who are in a similar position to me and perhaps thinking about speaking for the first time, or looking to progress from small events to larger platforms.
Pitch an original or compelling idea
If you’re making a submission to a very popular call for papers/speakers, the likelihood is that there will be people pitching very similar topics to yours in a general sense.
In order to catch the organiser’s attention you need to make sure that your talk proposal has a USP that sets you apart from the other submissions. This USP needs to be compelling and ideally original.
If you have a story, experience or point of view that is unique to you — make sure you highlight that clearly in your application. Think about what you can bring to the table that can not be replicated by someone else — that might be an unusual career history, experience in a particular company or vertical, or a story about how you have overcome an unusual challenge.
Begin by looking for shorter speaking slots
This is how I started with speaking at conferences and I think it’s a really good route into becoming a regular speaker. Whilst conference organisers want to bring new stories and faces to their events, they also need to know people can deliver a compelling and engaging talk, which is hard to judge if you don’t have a track record with public speaking.
Many conferences offer small slots to less experienced speakers for this reason. Firstly, it’s less daunting for people with less experience to go up and speak for 5 minutes as opposed to 30, secondly if the talk doesn’t go as well, it’s not a huge chunk out of the delegates day.
I started off with a 5 minute slot at UpFront in Manchester way back in 2017 and have built things up from there. (On a side note, also look out for conferences which offer first time speaker programmes. This is how I got into UpFront).
Practice a lot, but not too much
My personal opinion is that you can tell when a talk is over-practiced — it takes on a slightly robotic feel and just doesn’t feel as authentic.
Whilst I’d never recommend just turning up and delivering something off the cuff (unless you know for a fact that works for you), there is a point where practicing will deliver diminishing returns.
I usually stop when I can remember the outline of my talk in the order I want to cover each point, even if the exact delivery differs on each run through.
Get feedback from multiple sources whilst writing your talk
It is (hopefully) very unlikely that you will have a homogenous audience on the day of your talk.
In reality, you will be speaking to a diverse range of people from a spectrum of backgrounds, each with a different set of experiences and opinions. A particular point or story that resonates with one person, may not resonate with another.
I would argue that your job as a speaker is to try and connect with as many people as possible through your narrative, however this can be hard to judge if you’re relying on your own judgement or the feedback of a few people. As they say, you do not equal your user (or audience).
To counterbalance this, try and get feedback on an initial outline of your talk from as many people as possible. Ask them what worked/or didn’t work for them and why — from this you will be able to gauge whether your talk has that wide-reaching impact.
It’s also useful to get feedback on the finished talk as you're practicing, if only to understand if you’re talking to quickly or not enunciating properly.