Originally published here:
Recently someone asked me about how to become a conference speaker. I have spoken at conferences, and also served on programme committees, so I hope these thoughts are helpful to you in your quest to speak. Additionally, I been giving feedback to people whose submissions did not make it onto the EuroSTAR programme this year and who asked for feedback, and seen some common themes, including that with over 400 people applying for around 60 speaking places, and an excellent field of submission, many great submissions did not make it to the conference programme… not being selected doesn’t necessarily mean you did a bad submission.
Why speak at a conference?
My first question to you: Why would you want to speak at a conference? It is after all time consuming, stressful, and unlikely to be in the obvious mainstream of your job. Here are some reasons I speak:
- to improve how I communicate about my subject – a skill for work.
- to learn my subject: to give the talk, I’ll have to learn more, check facts, build my story.
- to give back to my industry and educate others, by sharing challenges overcome.
- for the fun of performing: it’s scary and fun, and a chance to play in public…
So, you want to speak at a conference… what to do? I’m assuming you have a story to tell, one you think is worth other people hearing? If you have not got a story to tell, there is no point speaking…
Don’t wait to be asked…
There are two ways to get a speaking place at a conference: you get invited, or you apply via a “call for submissions” (cfs) or “call for papers” (cfp). However famous you are, you might not get invited, so, if you want to speak at a conference, don’t wait to be invited. Instead, apply to speak. Your submission will be reviewed, and you will be accepted, or rejected. Don’t worry if you are rejected, it has happened to all of us – many times in my case. Conferences often have many more applications than they have speaking places. So review, and try again…
Choose your conference…
First job: decide which conferences you want to speak at, look at their websites to see what dates they run on and what style of submission they want. Look very carefully at any guidelines, themes, and style sheets they suggest. Also look at the websites for previous editions of the conference to see if there is a “house style” the conference favours. Also think about whether you can get to the conference if selected – travel visas, availability, dates and costs – can you go if you are selected, and how will you fund it? Some organisations will support you because they want representation at the conference. Some conferences provide funding towards travel and accommodation. When you are applying look at the balance of benefits and costs. Each of us will have a different view about what we want to do, what cost/benefit we need to make it worthwhile.
Investigate what information the cfp requires
Look at the session options offered carefully. Think about what they want for different types of session. Typically the minimum you will be asked for along with contact details is:
- A title
- An abstract
- Your biography
You may be asked for a paper to explain your idea. You may be asked for key learning points, takeaways, what type of session this is, what type of audience it is aimed at, your speaking experience, evidence in the form of supporting documents, videos… it all depends on the conference.
What helps your submission succeed?
Factors that will help your submission for many industry conferences include:
- telling a really good story – something compelling, coherent, concise, and which flows from the title, into the abstract and through to any takeaways.
- focusing on your experiences of your projects – things where you are demonstrating your involvement, challenges you have faced and overcome, mistakes you have made and learnt from – rather than using your abstract to regurgitate theory.
- having a new perspective to offer, something that has not been offered at this conference before.
If you don’t have speaking experience, think about getting mentoring – within your local/national industry communities, within your organisation, or via the conferences. You could look at SpeakingEasy for example ( https://speaking-easy.com/ ). Also look for opportunities to speak at local meet ups and national conferences before going for the larger international conferences. It’s likely that fewer people will apply and this increases your chances of being selected.
Conferences will often have themes that change year to year. Many conferences in addition are looking for speakers and sessions that increase the diversity of ideas and people, improve inclusiveness, are engaging, participative and interactive, allowing the audience to not just listen but also take part.
- Have your own compelling story
- About something unique, transformational
- About overcoming challenges
- Provide evidence!
- Keep it coherent, well focused
- Keep it clean…
- Ask for help!
- Get it reviewed
- Get it proof read
- Speak at smaller events first…
- Ask for feedback
What to avoid
Don’t just send the same abstract to different conferences – they each want something different. Don’t send the same abstract several times to the same conference for different session types – it just annoys the programme committee. Don’t send an excessive number of submissions – it is better to have one really well thought out abstract.
- Forget to spellcheck
- Forget to tell your story
- Present no evidence
- Use bad language
- Assume we know who you are
- Ignore the conference style
- Forget to ask for time off…
- Expect to get in … necessarily
Here are some useful other blogs and links…
Rob Lambert’s “Blazingly simple guide…”: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blazingly-simple-guide-submitting-conferences-rob-lambert/
Steve Watkins’ “How to prepare…” https://stevethedoc.wordpress.com/2019/05/20/how-to-prepare-your-first-conference-talk-1-getting-started/
and give it a go – you won’t get in unless you try!
We also asked Isabel this question: Why should testers attend testing conferences?
..conferences are fun, but they are not just fun. Here are some reasons to go to conferences which benefit you and your employer/team:
- To learn new ideas, new knowledge
- To gain new skills at a tutorial or workshop
- To meet industry experts
- To meet colleagues
- To share experiences
- To present your own experiences
- To showcase progress that your company has made
- To meet vendors of tools and services so you can shortlist ones to approach after the conference
- To try out consultants and trainers at their workshops and tutorials
- To practice your skills and improve them
- To practice presenting your own ideas to other people
- To find out new directions for your profession, future predictions
- To make friends with other practitioners – lifelong friends that you are also happy to work with and recommend
All of these benefit you personally in your professional growth. They also benefit your employer and your team, because you will return with ideas you can implement in your work, and contacts you can recommend for projects and teams.
Although it is possible to learn through reading, attending online events, taking virtual courses and in face to face training courses, in each of those you’ll have an experience limited by the medium for the interaction or by the number of people involved. When you meet people at conferences you’ll have a chance to hear many experiences and viewpoints, challenge your own and other people’s preconceptions of what your role does/could involve, make human connections, all in a way that is really only possible face to face.
I always find conferences really hard work, but really valuable – and they are as valuable as the effort I put in.
It is worth going with a plan – what sessions do you really want to hear? What subjects do you want to investigate? Who do you want to meet? And make that happen. Make sure you don’t just go to sessions to listen, but also take part in workshops, discussions, lab sessions, community activities. Give as well as take. Make sure you allow some “down time” when you are just chatting with friends you’ve made at this conference. Do attend a social event or two! The technical and managerial conversations continue there.
Above all, be thinking about the messages you are going to take back to your team and organization. Finish the conference with a plan of action, and an “in 1 minute” overview of the main benefits. That will help you think about the conference as an opportunity to learn and benefit rather than as time off…
Isabel Evans Bio
Independent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans has more than thirty years of IT experience in the financial, communications, and software sectors. Her work focuses on quality management, software testing and user experience (UX), She encourages IT teams and customers to work together via flexible processes designed and tailored by the teams that use them. As well as her consultancy and project work, she is currently researching into the UX of testing tools for the tester, as a part-time, mature, postgraduate student at the University of Malta. Isabel authored Achieving Software Quality Through Teamwork and chapters in Agile Testing: How to Succeed in an eXtreme Testing Environment; The Testing Practitioner; and Foundations of Software Testing. A popular speaker and story-teller at software conferences worldwide, Isabel is a Chartered IT Professional and Fellow of the British Computer Society and has been a member of software industry improvement working groups for over 20 years. In November 2017, she was presented with the EuroSTAR Testing Excellence Award for services to the industry. She has a website: www.isabelevans.uk. She has two blogs: https://isabelevansconsultancy.wordpress.com/ and https://isabelevanswriting.wordpress.com/. Her linked in page is at https://www.linkedin.com/in/isabelevans/. She tweets occasionally as @IsabelE_Test.