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How to speak at a tech conference

Apparently the O'Reilly conferences have hit The Koolaid Point. Complaints are coming in from all sides, most recently (and most loudly) about both the conference and the very idea of Web 2.0. (See some of the discussions here, and here.)

Some of the most vocal complaints have been about the lack of diversity in presenters, so I've asked
some conference organizers to help me come up with tips for those who'd like to speak at a for-profit tech conference. Please add your own as well, in comments or your own blog, because the more diversity we have, the greater the collective intelligence.

In no particular order:

Do NOT wait for an invitation!
One of the biggest misconceptions about most public conferences is that most speakers are invited. Wrong. Only the A-listers (keynote material) and those who've had a history of very successful, relevant talks are typically invited. The majority of tech conference presenters submit proposals, which the selection committee evaluates, and some of those proposals are accepted.
If you're expecting an invitation, forget it.

Do NOT expect to be specifically notified about the CFP (call for proposals)
Depending on the conference, the call for speaker proposals may or may not be widely publicized. The second best way to know about the proposals is to regularly check the conference website. Yes, many conferences are now using RSS for news (which would include the call for proposals), but don't count on it. The BEST way is to use the contact email on the conference site and ask when the proposal deadline is.

KNOW what the conference is about
It's not up to us to decide what the conference should be about. It's up to us to figure out how to fit our message into the conference theme. The organizers have done their best to decide what people want to learn about, and whether we agree or disagree, you won't get your proposal accepted if it doesn't fit within the framework of that particular conference. According to O'Reilly's Nat Torkington:
"Every year we take one or two "space alien" proposals that catch the eye of the committee, but the bulk of the conference, your best bet to acceptance, is to propose something that matches what we've said we want in the CFP."

Choose a good title
Nat talks about how to do this here, and says that bad titles are the most consistent mistake he finds in conference proposals.

Think like a potential paying attendee
Imagine you're thinking about shelling out over $1000 (plus expenses) to attend a conference. What would you find worth paying for? Too many people propose sessions they believe are needed, rather than the ones people will find compelling and worth the time and money. A for-profit conference needs paying attendees, and those evaluating the proposals are looking for the talks, topics, and speakers that will help drive attendance. There are other non-profit and academic conferences that can have different agendas, but those aren't the ones I'm addressing here.

Don't be coy, don't be full of marketing.
According to Nat again, "In your abstract, state your position and what you'll say about it, so that we can make an informed decision." However, the more genuinely compelling the abstract, the more likely it is to be chosen because the committee is also viewing this from a marketing perspective--they are saying, "Is this something people will find worth spending money on?" So in a way, you have to think like a marketer... an honest marketer trying to communicate with an audience who has a difficult decision to make about whether to attend this conference. You are part of that decision, and if the organizers think you help tip the balance in favor of attending, that greatly ups your chances.
Most conferences will not have a marketing person whose sole job is to go through and "sex up" the session descriptions. Most conference brochures include the description from the proposal!

Real work trumps abstract thought
"Conferences are not all about opinions or to give a personality 30 minutes to vent.", says one organizer. And Nat says, "In general, results beats ruminations. Experience is key: we prefer doers, not talkers. Every show has a few good talkers who've done well in the past and whose talk we know is good, but they are the exception and not the norm."

Answer the question: How will my talk help the attendee kick ass?
You all know the drill here. Think about what you can teach rather than what you can talk about. Someone is paying money, and unless you're famous--they aren't coming to hear you talk. They're coming to get something. If you give them valuable lessons learned that they can take back and DO something with, that's gold. If you can explain something in a way that gives them that "a-ha" moment that makes it all clear, that's gold. If you can help them be better at something, even if that's just about understanding things in a way that helps them make better choices, that's gold. They're coming to learn, not just listen... and they need to take something useful away from the session. Make that clear in your proposal!

Spend time studying conference brochures and reading each abstract
Read them until you're sick of it, and try to work out the patterns. What are the common themes?

Have a compelling bio
You do NOT necessarily need to have a speaking experience and you certainly don't need to be "known", but your bio is a part of the marketing of not just your talk but the conference as a whole. It needs to demonstrate your credibility for the topic you're proposing. Work on your bio. Let others help you. My personal pet peeve on bios? Don't EVER use phrases like "famous", "sought-after", "well-known", "renowned", "recognized", etc. Geez. If those things were true, they wouldn't need to be stated. And if they aren't true, the first person who reads the bio and thinks, "But I've never heard of that person..." cuts your credibility. Don't use your bio to say how other people feel about you... just stick to the facts, but don't be afraid to highlight the good things! If you've won awards that matter, say so.

Prior speaking experience is GOOD
This doesn't necessarily go into your bio, but is part of your proposal, so that the organizers know you've at least done this before. So gain experience somewhere. Call up local user groups and find someone willing to let you do a presentation. It's also great practice... if you're new to public speaking and you bomb at the big conference, you're not likely to be asked back, and word will get around. If user groups aren't an option, there are always other oganizations looking for speakers. Even if the thing you speak on is quite unrelated to what you're proposing for the big conference. The local business association might want a simple intro to blogging, while your conference proposal is on creating blogging software, but speaking is speaking and you cannot practice too much.

ATTEND conferences
This is by far the best strategy for getting a talk accepted. The more you know what works and what doesn't, the better you'll be at both proposing and especially delivering the talk. However, many of us can't afford the conferences which is precisely why we want to land a speaker slot--Free Pass! Still, I have a hard time listening to complaints about the lack of diversity from people who aren't motivated enough to find a way to attend a professional conference. There are always clever ways to get into a conference if one wants it badly enough... (as a master at finagling entry to conferences, and being a conference junkie myself, I'll do a whole separate post on that some day).

Make multiple submissions
Don't just propose one talk. If you're capable of speaking on several topics, or even the same topic from multiple perspectives or levels of detail, create several proposals! It's just like any other contest--more submissions can increase your chances.

Don't give up, and whatever you do--do NOT take it personally if your proposal isn't accepted
It's tempting to think your proposal wasn't accepted because:

A) I'm not one of the A-listers
Look down the list of speakers. Most conferences will be filled with people you've never heard of, but we tend to focus on the same names we see over and over. Forget about them--we're talking about the regular tracks which represent the reason most people are attending--to LEARN.

B) I'm [insert your favorite: female/non-white/too old/too young/unknown/not Web 2.0-ish]
There's been a LOT of complaining about the lack of women at the conferences, and lot of finger pointing at the conference organizers for having an all-male committe that clearly favored the male proposals. WRONG! From O'Reilly, for instance, these are the stats for the last ETech:
"We received 223 proposals, 15 of them from women, for 6% of the total. Of the women who submitted proposals, 46% were selected; for men, the acceptance rate was 32%."
In other words, women were MORE likely to have etheir proposals accepted than men. The lack of diversity in conferences -- at least the O'Reilly conferences -- is because they do NOT get enough proposals from non-white,non-male speakers.

When I worked at Sun, every year we'd all be submitting multiple proposals. I have submitted 16 proposals to speak at JavaOne over the last six years. Just one was accepted. My hit ratio is pretty low, but it's like photography--you need to take a LOT of pictures to get a good one.

And just because you see another proposal accepted on the same topic does not mean they slighted you in favor of that person. It might be as simple as the other one came in first, or that person had a better speaking track record, or that the committee flipped a coin given that they could only run one session on that topic.

Ask for help!
Write the organizers and ask for tips, and sometimes you'll get them. But more importantly, ask your peers, especially those who are in the target audience for the session. Have them help answer the question, "What would make you want to attend this... so much so that you'd spend money?" If you have a blog, ask your readers for help.
Obvious, yes. But too rarely done.

Have fun : )
And be sure and let me know if you land a speaking slot. As I said, I'm a conference junkie (as many as a dozen a year -- Game Developer Conference, MacWorld, JavaOne, ETech, OSCON, Training, SIGGRAPH, etc.) and I'd love to have a reason to go to another.

Posted by Kathy on October 6, 2005 | Permalink


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Great post! I love to read an article that has common-sense practical application like this one. Really, so many posts are fluff out there today, but I'm digging this one (at digg.com).

You really can't complain because women or non-whites are not a larger percentage of the speakers; it's truly not an industry bias. In my own experience (anecdotal), the fact that I am a female games/tech writer actually makes me more sought-after because the industry seems to look for ways to quash that white-male-only perception.

Posted by: Robyn | Oct 7, 2005 2:08:22 PM

A great post! I find that it applies to more than just tech conferences... it could apply just as easily to trying to get onto the schedule to teach an Adult Education Course at a community college (which I am) as well as other types of conferences. For example, Toastmasters has member conferences twice a year in my area and I just submitted to be a speaker (and was rejected... for both submissions).
Thanks for the encouragement to keep on plugging and improving my "pitch" !
I'm sure it will work eventually !
Dave Wheeler
Founder, NoteWordy.com
Blog: www.theshot92.blogspot.com

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Oct 7, 2005 2:40:23 PM

Wonderful post, Kathy. I'd just like to add one piece of advice: Once your proposal is accepted, please, please, please read Conference Presentation Judo (http://perl.plover.com/yak/presentation/) before firing up PowerPoint.

Posted by: Ken Dyck | Oct 7, 2005 6:19:07 PM


Would you like to come talk at EclipseCon. We'd love to have you. I'm serious too :-)

Ian Skerrett
Director of Marketing
Eclipse Foundation

Posted by: Ian Skerrett | Oct 7, 2005 6:49:25 PM

Kathy, I sure wish you would have also discussed some of the issues raised, instead of focusing on the fact that of course the problem is with women--if we just tried harder, none of this problem would occur. It's all marketing.

Though as we can see, it does get some women invitations to speak.

How many women invited to speak at Web 2.0? How many women invited to attend Foo Camp? How many times does O'Reilly and most of the webloggers from the O'Reilly site reference women webloggers, even when women write about the topics they're discussing?

What happens is that the same small group of women --women who don't rock the boat by the way--get invited. Again and again. What does this say?

But good for you, you got an invite to speak.

Posted by: Shelley | Oct 7, 2005 7:04:33 PM

Another tip - volunteer to be part of a committee for a not-for-profit tech conference, and spend some time reviewing proposals. The good ones really do jump out - learn what makes them good.

Posted by: Donna Maurer | Oct 7, 2005 8:12:21 PM

Thanks for the comments everyone... Ken, *excellent* advice on the presentation judo, and Donna -- I hadn't thought of that before, and it's a great idea.

Shelley: this post is simply a contribution to *one* small piece of the issue, and is in no way an attempt to be "The Complete Discussion". But this is one area where I find a lot of misconceptions--like the meme that says O'Reilly doesn't have more women presenters *because the committee making the selections is all (or mostly) male* or that Tim says a conference should have only 10% women (geez... how did THAT get so distorted out of context?) These are simply not true, but the more that these misconceptions are propogated, the less likely it is that women *will* submit proposals. I certainly wouldn't if I thought that.

And Foo Camp is not relevant to this discussion because it is NOT a conference--it was most definitely Tim's *party*. A free, invite-only campout on the property that Tim owns. Have we reached the point where we start dictating who people can invite to their own party, simply because they are a leader in the tech world? The bloggers made waaaaaay too much of who was and was not invited.

I'm not going to place blame *anywhere*. Sorry Shelley, but while you've definitely raised my awareness on the issue, and caused me to see this lack of diversity as a lot more important than I did before, I don't agree that this is about placing blame. I'd rather focus on offering suggestions for things that don't require waiting for (or being depending on) changes that might be outside our direct control. Maybe I'm just not that patient. But as I said, I'm only focused on one piece of this, and that's why it's great that there are others such as yourself focused on *other* pieces.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Oct 7, 2005 9:58:06 PM

I totally agree with everything you say. I also have some additional thoughts on how people (both men and women) can manage to get their talks accepted:


Posted by: Adam Trachtenberg | Oct 8, 2005 12:35:55 AM

There is always good thinks to learn about holing a speech.
I do hold lectures in many different countries and for me the difference in cultures in how the audience response is really interesting and full of new things to learn. In the US it is easiest to get feedback.

Posted by: Stefan Engeseth | Oct 8, 2005 4:25:09 AM

What a terrifically timed post! I've got two conference presentations coming up (at non-profit/educational conferences, which I hope excuses my cutesy titles and theoretical approach). So now I'm reading about presenting instead of writing my presentation... I'm sure that makes sense somehow.

I don't think you can overestimate the importance of attending, and organizing, events. You need to see what's successful, and what goes down in flames, and think about what you can contribute. And it never hurts if the other organizers know you...

Posted by: Joe | Oct 8, 2005 1:42:42 PM

thanks for this post!

Posted by: nchenga | Oct 14, 2005 12:39:23 PM

Bert Decker has a series of tapes on public speaking entitled "Creating a Powerful Presence." Decker has received several awards from the National Speaker Association.

One of the helpful tips Decker gives on preparing for a talk is getting to know the audience's DNA. DNA stands for Demographics, Needs / Interests and Attitudes. I've used the DNA guideline to prepare several kinds of presentations for strictly business, purely technical and combined audiences. I've also used the DNA guidelines as a reason to contact conference coordinators, to emphasize that I want their conference to succeed by presenting what their audiences want.

It's also worth noting that sometimes one may have to turn down a speaking opportunity if the chemistry revealed by the DNA just isn't right. One can then suggest an alternate colleague.

Posted by: Glenn Mandelkern | Oct 25, 2005 11:18:12 AM

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