/ CONFERENCE, TIPS

Advices for junior conference speakers

Some years ago, I started my journey on the conference circuit. I did that on my own, in my free time. Without mentorship on how to do that, and with my gut feeling as the only guidance, I made plenty of mistakes…​ and I still regularly do. However, I now have a couple of hard-earned experience years behind me.

Note that conferences are IMHO just a subset of public speaking in general. Meetups are another form, with a different set of constraints and challenges. However, I believe conferences are what offer the greatest challenges for junior speakers.

In this post, I’d like to offer some advices that might be of interest if you want to start your own journey and have no available mentor. Please don’t consider them as rules, but they just happened to work for me.

Stacking the chances in your favor

You’ve been considering submitting for a long time, and you’ve finally decided to do it. Here’s what you can do to improve your chances.

Start small

You might already be a famous speaker, but chances are you’re not. While some conferences do anonymize submissions, most of them don’t. Don’t think about it in a negative way: even community-led conferences need at least to break even - and commercial conferences want to make money. Famous speakers will tend to attract money, in the form of more/better sponsors and more attendees.

To increase your chances of being selected, I’d suggest to first build up your reputation. You don’t need to be world-famous, just to have people having heard of you already. User groups are a great opportunity for that because the money factor stated above doesn’t apply.

User groups are actively searching for speakers, because you have one superpower that not many people have: you’re willing to step on the stage, and have attention focused on you.

The right conference

On a related note, not all conferences are born equal: whether you like it or not, there’s a "coolness" factor attached to each of them. This is shown in how fast tickets are sold. Some do sell the whole number of tickets in less than an hour, while some are never sold out! Hence, the next step in starting small is to first select the conferences that will appreciate your contributions the most.

The appropriate type

Another tip is to choose one’s type carefully. Everybody wants to reuse one’s existing talk, so that the 45 minutes' track is usually the most crowded. On the other hand, workshops require a lot of preparation time that not every speaker has. You can improve your chances of being accepted by submitting such a workshop.

Note that designing a proper workshop requires a lot of time and preparation: it’s akin to a half-a-day training. Don’t underestimate the task!

The proper talk

Read the conference and CfP website carefully. It generally provides a lot of hints regarding what the conference expects in terms of contributions. Adjust your submission to those guidelines to improve your chances.

Also, it doesn’t hurt to check previous versions of the conference: it’s a treasure trove for what the conference expects in terms of contribution.

Finally, for some conferences, the committee responsible for the choice is openly displayed. While it requires more than a bit of work, you might want to search for their specific interests. That will probably give you a lot of additional data to base your submission on.

Don’t be afraid of multiple talks, but not too many either

Most conferences allow multiple talks. Even though you might not have more than one ready, this is a fantastic opportunity to increase your chances.

Let the probabilities stack in your favor: each submission adds to your chances. However, don’t overdo it: I limit myself to 4 talks, 5 for very selective conferences where I do want to get selected.

More than that and it might brodcast the signal that you will commit to talk about anything to get in. This is probably not true.

Submit early

Most conferences have a very strict process: they open the Call for Papers, then wait for the due date. After that, the committee checks all submissions - and there might be many, and selects the best fit. The reasoning is that only by having all submissions can you achieve a degree of fairness regarding the ranking.

The more I submit, the less I’m convinced by this approach. When you need to grade hundreds of selections, there are bound to be oversights, omissions, and/or mistakes.

On the other hand, some conferences may accept submissions as early as possible. This stream-based approach has a few advantages:

  • There’s no big submissions' pile at the end of the CfP. Every submission can be evaluated calmly and quietly when it’s received. No rush.
  • Since talks/speakers are selected much earlier, the conference can advertise them earlier as well. This is a great incentive for people to actually buy tickets. And if tickets are sold out early, there’s a slight chance organizers can be creative to somehow manage to increase the conference’s size.
  • For speakers and organizers alike, that means it’s possible to plan ahead. It’s very uncomfortable for me when I have to plan my trip just one month before an event, because the selection process took ages. I believe it’s also not great for conferences when speakers cancel, because they submitted to multiple conferences, and one was slightly faster to confirm.

Conferences in general publicly display their approach. Submitting to a conference of the "streaming" type early do increase your chances.

A little note on rejection

Despite all your best efforts, more often than not, you’ll receive the dreaded email about your talk not being selected. While this is obviously not the expected outcome, this is part of the game!

Every speaker, even professional ones, faces rejection. Think about it: if you submit 4 talks, you might have at most 2 of them accepted. Hence, the best acceptance/submission is 50%, while the average is more around 20%-30%.

It’s like for pull requests: just as you’re not your code, you’re not your submissions. Accept probabilities are not in your favor, and face rejection with the same maturity.

Congrats, you’ve been accepted!

It happened finally, you’ve received the congratulations email telling you’ve been accepted! Let’s give the attendees the best possible experience.

Logistics

Depending on the nature of the presentation, it might have specific requirements to plan for in advance:

Wifi

If your presentation requires network access, it’s your responsibility to make sure the Wifi will be good enough on-site. For that, I usually ask if there will be a Wifi network dedicated for speakers: I don’t have confidence in a shared one.

Barring that, tethering from your phone might be enough. In that case, check if the cost is bearable - my provider is particularly generous regarding data, even in other countries.

Otherwise, a fallback is definitely in order. For example, a demo could be recorded. Or for command-line applications, Asciinema is a tool I just stumbled upon recently (but I never used it so far).

Adapters

I’m particularly aware of this point, because when I changed from my old MacBook to the new one, I had to buy a new set of adapters. You can manage the input e.g. USB vs. USB-C, but need to inquire about the output e.g. VGA vs. HDMI. Check that the conference can provide the correct adapter, or buy one.

Display is not the only point to take into account. If you’re travelling in other countries, power plugs need to be taken care of as well. European countries are mostly compatible with one another, but watch out if you’re or come to talk to Northern America or UK.

Clicker

I’ve done multiple talks without a clicker. If your talk is mostly demo-based, I don’t think it’s even necessary. But I noticed that I show slides, I tend to walk around a lot. In that case, it’s not great to be tied to the computer, having to go back to it to advance to the next slide.

Also, most clickers have a pointer, which is a huge asset when one wants to single out a dedicated area on the screen.

Microphone

Though all conferences worth their salt do have microphones, few have only handheld ones. If you’re doing a live demo, you should try to find out as early as possible if you’re in the later case: it’s quite hard to put the microphone in such a way that it’s comfortable to both type and speak at the same time. Reach out to the organizers for a collar microphone, or a placeholder that can hold the handheld in a natural position.

Recently, I didn’t follow this advice, and a volunteer had to hold the microphone for me for the duration of the talk. That’s awkward for everyone.

The cover slide

Some conferences might require you to use one of their themed covers' slide. This is their game, so I’d recommend to abide by it. A bit harder is when you need to use a whole template: while it’s nice to comply with such requests, I don’t thinks it benefits anyone. Because it requires to re-do the entire slide deck, I generally push back - the cover slide is enough IMHO.

However, even when re-using slides from the same talk I already presented, I always create a copy and set the conference logo on the cover slide. The people behind the conference have put a lot of effort into the organization, it’s only fair play to promote their brand by doing so. Plus, they generally provide logos, so it’s a no-brainer.

The last slide

You last slides should contain relevant reference informations such as:

  • The Github repo(s) used in the presentation, if any
  • Articles that the presentation is based on
  • Articles that allow to go further
    I’d recommend the usage of a link shortener for the above
  • Your blog
  • Your Twitter account

The last slide will be the one displayed during the traditional Q&A: that allows enough time for interested attendees to take a photo, for future references.

Less is not more

When you are stressed, you’ll probably talk faster than intended, and even skip some parts of your talk. Hence, you should plan for that, and plan for more content than the expected talk duration.

Worst case, you won’t be able to go through all the content, and that is fine. Just make sure it feels natural, and skip to the last slide, while keeping time for questions.

On stage

The time has come, you start soon. Here are some advices to help you in that regard.

Glass of water

Most conferences will offer you some kind of beverage for speakers before their talk, generally water. If not, you should prepare for it yourself. Talking during a long time will probably dry your mouth, and you’ll be happy to have to drink something.

As an added benefit, in the case you have a blank during the presentation, you can always take a sip, which might give you a chance to gather your thoughts and get back on track.

Manage the human part

You can gladly skip that part if reading about basic human biology makes you uncomfortable.

Closely related to the previous point, I need to mention the "out" part of drinking. I noticed that with age, my bladder has become smaller - this is sadly a constant among ageing males. As a precaution, and to avoid having to leave the stage mid-talk, I always go empty my bladder just before the talk.

On a related note, avoid any spicy food - or too much alcohol - the day before your talk. And if in a foreign country, I’d also avoid any new food and new drinks.

Come early

I always come early to the stage - when I can, in order to get enough time to prepare my place. That includes:

  • Preparing my glass of water - if necessary,
  • Finding the power plug,
  • Checking the display actually works,
  • Wiring my remote control,
  • Finding someone who can help me in case something is not right,
  • etc.

My point is: the stage become your place during your talk. You should make it as you intend it to be so that you feel comfortable, and you can focus solely on the talk.

Relax

If you’re not used to big audience,

Looking at your audience?

I’ve been in meetups as small as 10 persons, but the biggest ones are hardly bigger than 50. With 50 people, it’s still possible to look at nearly everyone in the room, trying to engage them with your gaze.

After that, it becomes much harder. I’d suggest focusing only on a few, in different parts of the room. To accomodate such audience size, the room is so large that people won’t notice if you look at them, or 2 rows below anyway.

Also, there always is a handful of people who are nodding or smiling during your talk. Try to focus on them specifically, as this brings you positive reinforcement, and help you stay "in the zone". You can always handle attendees who seem to disagree during Q&A.

If there are spotlights, chances are they might blind you. In that case, don’t try to focus at all, but do try to gaze where the audience is, even if you don’t perceive them.

Q&A

The talk has been delivered, there’s time for some questions.

Planning for questions

Unless specifically ordered not to, you should always plan for some time at the end of the talk for questions. While people can watch a video of your talk online, or read your related posts, questions are a powerful way to interact with your audience. Moreover, some questions may also help you gain some insights into the subject of your talk.

I personally think it’s better to shorten one’s talk in order to receive questions, than to deliver everything and have no time for them. However, note that is very dependent on conference country’s culture.

Rephrasing the questions

Conferences that record talks will advise you to rephrase questions, so that they will be audible on the recording. Even if the talk is actually not recorded, there’s a chance there are no microphones for attendees. In that case, you’re not only rephrasing for the recording, but for the whole audience.

Additionally, rephrasing using your own words is a useful communication technique: it lets you check that you actually understood the question correctly.

Using the space to your advantage

Don’t hesitate to go down the stage and close the distance, even if the conference provides microphones for attendees. Getting closer let attendees know they have your complete undivided attention.

Don’t lose time on some questions

This is your speaking slot, and questions are part of the talk. While it happens rarely, some questions might not be that relevant, an attendee might be a bit antagonistic, or so eager he takes all the time, etc. In that case, it’s perfectly acceptable to cut the questions short: just politely - but firmly - tell the attendee to come after the talk, and invite others to ask further questions.

Stay around

Just because the allocated time slot has been passed doesn’t mean you’re done. You should stay in the room for a little while, to allow people who had no time to ask their questions - or those who were to shy - to come to talk with you. Just be considerate to the next speaker and remove your stuff so he can start preparing his set: nothing is worse than a speaker that continues monopolizing the stage after his allotted timeframe.

If your talk started a discussion, that’s great! Invite those who are interested to go out of the room, find an appropriate place and continue the discussion.

The cultural gap

After some experience speaking in different countries, I’ve come to realize there’s a significant cultural gap between countries.

Some jokes that send the whole audience to laughter in some countries could likely be considered inappropriate - or even offensive - in others. If you’re not sure whether a specific comment/joke is appropriate for your audience, just don’t try.

But it goes much further: in some countries, the audience doesn’t react to your jokes at all. Likewise, they don’t ask questions, and they don’t tweet about your talk, and hardly give feedback.

While frustrating, it is as it is. You may try to invite the audience to interact with you, but don’t try to strong arm it. Just accept it, don’t take the lack of interaction as a personal offense, and go on.

Ask for feedback, not grades

Some conferences like to offer a grading system. While this gives a nice warm feeling inside if one comes out on top, it’s not actionable. The most important bit are the comments: that will help you improve the next performance of the talk.

If the conference doesn’t propose a feedback form for attendees, you can propose one e.g. Twitter. Sometimes, incentives make it easier for the audience to take part.

And afterwards…​

The talk is done, you might consider it’s time for some relief. However, your tasks are not finished yet.

Publish your slides

After the talk, it’s very important to publish the link to your slides. There are several ways to do that:

  • If using PowerPoint, or Keynote, a straightforward solution is to share the presentation through any file sharing software e.g Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.
  • However, this requires the user to have the correct software installed. To improve portability, one needs share the document through a dedicated website instead e.g. SlideShare or Speaker Deck.
  • Last but not least, the simplest solution is to use Google Slides. Since those are directly accessible through browsers, this is a no-brainer. Plus you can tweak the content at any time of your choosing, should you need to do so.

Whatever path you choose, you need to make people aware of them. I use Twitter for that, as I have no Facebook account - and don’t want to.

The main issue comes from finding the right hashtag for the tweet. Either use the one provided by the conference, or their Twitter handle (or both).

Re-use!

Just after the talk, take some time to analyze how your presentation went. It’s not about saying it was shit, or that it was the best ever, but about what and how you could improve. If you know people who attended your talk and who you trust, ask for their feedback. Even without that, you probably have impressions on what went well, and what went less well: write them down now. This is a great time to get ideas for the next time, when the conference submission virus hits you again!

Conclusion

Please remember that those are very subjective tips based on my experience: I know they work for me, they might not work for you.

Even though this is a much longer post than I expected, I expect to have miss some points on the subject of conference submission. I’ll be happy to read your own in the comments!

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel is a Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Currently working for Hazelcast. Also double as a teacher in universities and higher education schools, a trainer and triples as a book author.

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