Last week I encouraged a friend to give a conference talk about some tooling he had built, but was met with mild protest.
“I feel like Netflix already owns that space. I can’t give something more interesting than they can,” he replied.
The thing is, most people don’t work at Netflix or at companies with that kind of scale and resources. While I’ve marveled at some of the problems engineers at large companies like Netflix have tackled, many of their case studies have been impractical in relation to my own work.
This same friend offered me a ton of guidance when I was working on a similar project at my last job, and I knew it would be valuable to others as a conference talk, but here he was insisting it wasn’t a good idea.
I’ve talked with a lot of folks who have considered giving a conference talk but haven’t yet made the leap. This post addresses 3 of the most common justifications I hear from people and offers reasons why you’re just the person to give the next great conference talk.
1. “I don’t know what I would talk about.”
A challenge to be sure, but you absolutely have something to share. There are a few strategies you can use to settle on a topic. Once you find a conference you want to speak at1, check out their CFP2 (here are some examples). I’ve noticed more established conferences giving more guidance on what they’re looking for and often offerering help to new speakers in crafting a talk idea and proposal — take advantage of this! Submitting early can also allow conference organizers to give feedback and help you craft a better proposal before the deadline. Some conferences will even give talk suggestions!
If the CFP leaves you uninspired or undecided, there are a lot of questions you can ask yourself in order to narrow down a topic idea, like these from Eric Mann:
- What are you good at?
- What do you want to be known for?
- What do you want to learn?
For a more in depth workshop style approach, set aside 30 minutes and follow along Lucy Bain’s amazing process for generating proposal ideas with questions like:
- What’s something you work with fairly regularly and understand 80% of, but not 100%?
- What’s your hobby? What lessons are shared between your hobby and your job?
2. “I feel like I’m not the best person to talk about this.”
First, you don’t need to be an expert on a topic to give a great talk on that topic. One of my first conference talks was about Free Monads. I was not and am still not the leading authority on Free Monads or the theory that comes with understanding that abstraction. However, most talks on the subject were so advanced that no one could grasp the concept. My talk ended up being well received because I tailored it to a more beginner audience, and was able to better empathize with the people learning.
Additionally, potential speakers often underestimate their own knowledge and overestimate the knowledge of everyone else. Chances are if you learned something in the last year, at least 50% of a conference’s attendees don’t know that concept yet either.
Remember that your perspective is valuable! Don’t worry about the name recognition or size of your company if you have a lesson to share or a story to tell. The biggest contributions to a good talk are the person giving it and the way they tell their story.
3. “I’ve been considering giving a talk but it seems like a lot of work.”
Especially for a new speaker, there is going to be a significant time investment in producing a talk. This varies depending on how well you know the subject matter and what kind of talk you’re giving3.
The benefits of speaking at conferences, in my opinion, outweigh the time commitment. Speak with your employer about how they support conference speaking: will they cover expenses for travel? Will you have to take PTO to give a talk? Is it ok for you to work on your talk during work hours? When I first started speaking I didn’t set these expectations with my employer, so I spent many weekends and a good chunk of my spare time writing and rehearsing my talks. Many employers will (and should!) support conference speaking because of the positive branding and recruiting potential — I know my last company got at least a few inbound applications because of conference talks I gave. Besides, many of the skills you develop through conference speaking will also make you a better employee.
Some of the benefits I’ve enjoyed include:
Practice developing and explaining ideas to others
There’s an adage that goes “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”. Teaching is a skill, and it can be challenging to approach any subject in a way that was accessible to a wide audience. Giving a talk can help you develop clear communication, listening, empathy, and force you to really understand the subject matter at hand. In your everyday work these skills will be beneficial for leveling up new team members or communicating technical ideas to a non technical audience at your company.
Accountability for learning new things
Some people may frown on conference-driven-development, but I think it’s a great way to force yourself to learn new things! Have you been wanting to learn React? Perhaps getting a talk accepted on “React for Scala Developers” is just the motivation you need to build or master that understanding. Of course, only use this approach if you’re actually going to spend the time to learn something new.
Refined public speaking skills
“Regardless of the career you have planned, you’re bound to find yourself in situations where you’ll need to give an oral presentation.”4 For engineers, that could be pitching an idea to your team, giving a project update at the company all-hands, or speaking with clients to demonstrate how your product works. Conference audiences may seem intimidating, but it’s a great way to practice these skills when the stakes are relatively low. Multi track conferences and local meetups are a great place to start, since the audiences are usually smaller.
Name recognition in the community
This isn’t a motivation for everyone, but this benefit was very valuable to me when I was starting ScalaBridge. Because of my speaking experience in the Scala community, I had a lot of contacts that were excited to take the idea and implement it in their respective regions. This name recognition has also helped me get more speaker invitations and even job offers!
Travel to cool places
Copenhagen for Scala Days 2017
Definitely set expectations with your employer for this one. For example, if they support you speaking at conferences with the idea that it will bring in potential candidates (and most of your candidates come from the US), they may not support you flying to Croatia just to give a talk.
That being said I’ve gotten “free”5 trips to Chicago, New York, London, Rome, Copenhagen, and Lisbon out of conference speaking ✈️🎉. This alone made the investment worth it for me.
One of the best parts about speaking at conferences is that people will strike up a conversation with YOU! I always try to include something mildly controversial in my talks just for this purpose, but if you’re passionate about what you’re discussing, people will want to join in the conversation (which makes coffee breaks and conference parties far less awkward). Many conferences also have speaker dinners or events that allow you to meet a subset of attendees in a more intimate environment and I’ve met some amazing people this way.
The speaker doth protest too much
Hopefully you’re convinced that you have something to say and that the investment is worth it. There are many excellent resources for getting talks accepted and giving great conference talks, which I won’t covere here but have included links to resources for this below.
If you want someone to review a talk idea or proposal, I’m happy to be a sounding board! You can do this, you should do this, and GOOD LUCK!
- Must read newsletter https://techspeak.email
- What your conference proposal is missing
- Make better conference talks
- Lara Hogan’s Demystifying Public Speaking book and talk
Some of my favorite conference speakers:
CFP = call for proposal/papers. When a conference invites people like you to submit talks!↩
i.e. lightning talk vs 45 minute session, case study vs live coding demonstration.↩
Free is relative of course - I generally have had airfare, accomodations, and conference ticket covered, but did have to spend time developing the talk and pay for my daily expenses.↩