How to start speaking (in tech conferences)

Karen Cohen
4 min readJan 19, 2016


I’ve been running into too many smart, interesting and opinionated people who want to start speaking but are unsure where to start. At some point I noticed I was repeating myself so I decided I’d write down what I have to say in hopes that it could be helpful to people outside of my immediate social circle.

Just like no one has life “all figured out”, no speaker has it “all figured out”. It takes work.

A basic checklist:

  1. Decide on a topic
  2. Write an abstract
  3. Get your speaker information in order (bio, picture)
  4. Find conferences with open CFP (call for papers / proposals)
  5. Submit CFPs
  6. Follow through and prepare your full talk
  7. Show up and give an awesome talk


Here are a few questions I like to ask in order to jump-start my topic picking process:

  • What was a hunch that you had that turned out to be correct? Is there research that backs it up or occurrences of others following the same pattern? Can you explain where your idea came from?
  • Same for a hunch that turned out to be incorrect. What led you to that notion? What was the story behind it? What lessons did you learn from the process?
  • Is there a tool / library / service that you built or use that makes your life significantly easier? Can it be applied for solving other problems?
  • Describe the source and solution for a few bugs that you encountered recently.
  • Is there a principle from another discipline that you feel can be applied in your field? (I read a post about an MVP for airlines which I thought was pretty nifty)
  • Are you frustrated at work? What would it take to make you happy? What would have to change and why? Happy at work? What exactly makes you happy?
  • Lastly, is there a buzzword that you’d like to understand? Run a benchmark or try out a new product / service to help people learn about this new technology.

Now, I know what you’re going to say (because that’s what I used to say), you’re going to say that you have nothing new to add, that < topic > is simply common sense. Well..

“Common sense is not so common.”

– Voltaire, A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary

What makes sense to you will not necessarily make sense to someone else and vice versa. Get over that feeling.

Submitting a CFP

Most conferences require the following:

  • A short bio (make it short and quirky)
  • Title and abstract of the talk. The abstract is where you “sell” your talk to conference organizers and attendees of the conference.
  • Define the talk format (workshop / lightning talk / 20min / 40min / etc)
  • Define the target audience (junior engineers / intermediate / product managers / any / …)

This is a very basic list. Some conferences may ask you for more information.

What has worked best for me is sharing a Google Doc of my submission with a few of my friends and have them make suggestions and comments.

Conferences are constantly looking for fresh speakers. Some even offer workshops or personal assistance (props to APIStrat, ScotlandJS, JSConf). There is no shortage of people wanting to help.

Finding places to speak

This is a question that comes up often. Here are a few Twitter accounts I follow to find open Call For Proposals:

If you’re interested in a specific conference, you should follow their account. Most conferences have accounts of their own YouGottaLoveFrontEnd, APIStrat, StatsCraft, ELAConf, and Signal to name a few.

I also use Lanyrd to find conferences I may have missed on Twitter, and for tracking my speaker history.

Content and delivery

  • I like to start with the “Why”. Why did you choose this topic? What makes it interesting (for you and for others)?
  • Continue with a basic outline of what you want to say. Start thinking about what your key take-aways are.
  • Define the problem / ecosystem / thing before talking about it. Make sure everyone is on the same page and will be able to follow.
  • Search for (and reference) existing work. What has been done before? Use the information your find to either summarize it (and add your point of view) or combine a few approaches to arrive at a conclusion.
  • Adjust your talk according to who your target audience will be. Your talk may have to change depending on the demographics of the conference. Some conferences share their demographics, with others it’s fairly straight forward, and with some you simply have to either make assumptions or ask.
  • Tell a story. Make it interesting, add some drama, excitement and humor. Make your story relatable. Add Add memes, gifs and pop culture.

Show up and be awesome

Everyone wants you to give an awesome talk. No one comes to (and pays for!) conferences hoping that speakers will suck or give uninteresting talks.

Do your thing, even if your thing is weird.

The thing about tech conferences is that they’re full of tech people. We’re weird people. We like weird things. You’ve been on the internet, right? You won’t surprise anyone if you act like you normally do. Not only that, you’ll be more at ease not having to act like someone you’re not, you’ll probably even be more relatable (not to mention memorable).

You have something to say. I’m sure of it.

Need more convincing? Check out and How I Got Into Conference Speaking.

Originally published at on January 19, 2016.



Karen Cohen

Product + Architecture + Management + Code | I help systems and people work better together |