Speaking at a conference has always been one of my career goals for a few reasons. After attending many events and learning from others, I want to give back to the tech/design communities. This goal challenges my notion that I’ll never be able to do it, and pushes me to do something scary. Finally, I admit that I get a sense of accomplishment after every speaking opportunity, and the adrenaline rush is slightly addictive!
Setting a goal to speak at one conference in 2017
In 2016, I started speaking in meetups internationally, but I’ve never spoken at conferences. So in the beginning of 2017, I set a goal to speak at ONE conference by the end of the year.
By mid-2017, I haven’t done anything to achieve my goals and I didn’t submit any proposals. What sparked me to work towards my goal was being invited to submit a talk to EuroIA 2017 by its co-chair on Twitter, and then failing to prepare a proposal before the deadline. I was very disappointed that I missed the chance to speak in Europe’s leading IA&UX conference, so I decided to make a plan and make sure I will achieve my goals.
Coming up with a talk topic
I began searching and following design and tech conferences and marking when CFP (Call For Papers) are due. I also brainstorm the topics for my talks.
I reviewed the past 12 months of my career and looked for common themes in my work or the type of work I did. I worked remotely for the past year, so how to do design and user research remotely came to mind first. For the past few years, I’ve been working in the travel industry, so I wanted to share my thoughts and experience like attending Hack Horizon and how to disrupt the travel industry. My third talk topic was cross-cultural UX. I gave this talk at a meetup before. After getting plenty of positive feedback from the audience and Medium readers, I decided to make it into a conference talk.
Formatting talk descriptions
I studied many conference talk descriptions and I noticed a pattern in how talk descriptions are formatted:
- The problem, the current state and/or raising a question
- Answering my own question or introducing a new idea or method
- Key takeaways or talk outline in bullet points
I adapted this format and formed some of my talk descriptions. For example, this is the description for my remote UX talk:
The remote work movement is a growing global phenomenon. We see more and more people ditching their offices and fixed work schedules, for a lifestyle that lets them work from anywhere on the map. The real question is, how can UX practitioners do so, when our work is mostly around team and client communication, gathering businesses’ and users’ needs?
With 6 years of remote work experience, Jenny will share:
- Her habits, tools, and processes to working remotely as a location independent UX Designer
- How to overcome the main issues around doing UX and user research remotely
- Compare and contrast on-site v.s. remote user research methods and tools
- Tips and advice to ensure a smooth collaboration with clients and team members and deliver projects successfully
This format makes it easy for the viewer to understand what they will take away from your talk and why they should attend.
“Hacking” the CFP
Conferences organizers who will read my proposals are the users in the CFP process. I decided to do a little user research to understand what organizers’ needs are. I talked to a few conference organizers and asked them how they decide on speakers, what they look for in speakers and submissions. Charis, the organizer of Webconf Asia, told me that she prefers speakers who communicate well and have charisma. She values seeing a video of how the speaker talks, even if the video was recorded from her/his kitchen.
I had been frustrated and shying away from submitting talks because my meetup talks were never recorded. Charis helped me realize that the quality of the recording doesn’t matter, as long as it shows the person’s speaking skills.
What I decided to do in lieu of a talk recording was to record an important part of my talk in front of the computer using Zoom. I recorded a piece of my talk as if I was speaking to an audience in a webinar. The snippet was about 12 minutes long, meant to show how I would talk in a conference.
Keeping close to CFP deadlines
I followed a few design conferences on Twitter and subscribed to Technically Speaking and Neon Moiré. Both are newsletters with info of tech/design conferences and CFP. When I see an interesting conference that I would like to attend and speak at, I create a reminder in my calendar with the CFP deadline.
Submitting talk proposals
When you submit a talk, keep in mind that every conference has a different focus, theme, and audience. As much as possible, you should make sure to customize the content for each conference. For example, since WebCamp and Codemotion are both developer-focused, instead of “designers will learn”, I used “developers and designers will learn” to state that the talk is not only for designers.
Conferences I submitted to in 2017:
- Rise HK: no response
- WebCamp Zagreb: accepted
- Codemotion Berlin: accepted
- Codemotion Milan: not accepted (talks were mostly technical)
- Talk UX: not accepted, but received panelist opportunity
- Productized: not accepted
In October, I spoke at 4 conferences around the world. Basically, I was at a different conference every week:
- HackConf, Sofia (~1000 people)
- WebCamp, Zagreb (~800 people) [Read the feedback]
- Codemotion, Berlin (~500 people)
- Talk UX, Taipei (~450 people)
I had a blast speaking at and participating in all conferences. I’m also humbled by being in the same lineup as many amazing, well-known speakers.
Preparing for the talks and travel while working FT was definitely not an easy job. But when I learned that my talk is accepted, or when I get feedback from a conference organizer like below, or when someone in the audience told me my talk was the best one in the conference, it makes all the hard work worth it!
Reflect on this, it was insane to me that I went from having no conference speaking experience in the beginning of 2017 to speaking at 4 conferences by the end of October. I enjoyed meeting passionate conference organizers and I’m truly thankful for every speaking opportunity.
If you are interested in the recorded talks, I will share via Twitter when they’re available, so do follow me here.
Advice for speaking in conferences
So how did I overachieve my public speaking goal? By:
- Being committed to my goal and actually submitting proposals
- “Hacking” the speaking video
- Tailoring my presentations to the audience
- Contributing to the Toptal community
- Getting myself out there
I learned a lot when I was preparing talk proposals, so here is some advice for people who want to start speaking in conferences:
Submit your proposal way in advance of the deadline
CFP open months in advance of the conference. Make sure to follow the conferences you are interested in on social media or newsletter so you will know when CFP open. Very rarely can you submit a talk just one month before the conference. Take WebCamp Zagreb for example, the CFP was open at least 6 months before the event and closed 3 months before the event.
Here’s a great post on why you shouldn’t send proposals at the last minute by WebCamp Zagreb.
To be honest, I submitted my proposal to WebCamp the same day as the deadline, so I’m guilty of this too! Fortunately, my talk was accepted. If you can, I highly recommend you to submit your proposals early.
Customize your proposal
Each CFP form have different questions and you should allow time to customize your talk description to fit each CFP form. For example, I had to create a 140-character elevator pitch for WebCamp Zagreb, which was “Want your product to dominate the world? Here several case studies will show why you need more than translations to break into new markets.”
So allow extra time to answer unique questions for each CFP form. It’s not a copy-and-paste job for all CFP!
Speak at meetups
Don’t shy away from speaking at meetups. I found speaking at meetups helpful because the crowd is smaller, between 30 to 60 people. Speaking at various meetups and giving workshops around the world improved my public speaking skills and made me more comfortable with public speaking. Finally, this helps you gain experience to show conference organizers that you have experience speaking in public.
Get feedback on your talk
Speaking in meetups also helps you get feedback easier than from a large conference audience. The first time I gave a talk at AmsterdamUX, I was super nervous because the room was packed, and I didn’t know how the audience will react. Will they laugh at my jokes? Are the examples relatable?
After my presentation, I asked a friend who was in the audience and the meetup organizer for feedback. I learned that my content was great, yet, my posture and how I answered the audience’s questions were lacking confidence. So I set a goal to improve my body language and answer the audience’s questions with confidence.
You will be scared, but do it anyway!
I too, was very nervous when I pressed the ‘Apply’ button. I can think of so many reasons why I’ll suck or not be accepted. I’m an introvert, English is not my first language, I’m not good at writing, etc. So if I can do it, you can do it too!
When your first talk is accepted, it feels quite rewarding. Of course, more hard work is required after your talk is accepted. Planning the conference talk and delivering it with confidence is also part of the journey of conference speaking.
I’d love to write an article on how to prepare and deliver a conference talk. If you are interested to read it, let me know in the comments or reach out with questions.
Good luck and let me know if my tips worked for you, via Twitter @jennyshen or in the comments.