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The Fundamentals of Speaking at Technology Conferences

If you’ve ever attended a tech conference — or any industry conference, for that matter — you probably have vivid memories of just one or two talks. The others most likely faded into the background along with the boozy cocktail hours and buzzy panel discussions.

A great conference presentation doesn’t have to be a keynote; it just has to help the audience solve a problem or connect with a story. And that means anyone can deliver one — yes, even you.

While being given the stage is a possibility for all who are savvy enough to apply, the process of being chosen as a speaker — and following through with a successful presentation — is nuanced. There are some things about conference speaking you can only learn from doing it.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak at many technology conferences, and I’m about to save you the time and effort it would take to figure out how to find the right events, increase your odds of being selected as a speaker, and own the stage.

I joined Software Engineering Radio host Felienne to summarize my best advice on this very topic on Episode 403 of the podcast.

While I hope you listen to the whole thing, I also wanted to share some highlights from our conversation here. Enjoy!

Is Conference Speaking Right for You?

The reasons developers choose to vie for speaking opportunities at a tech conference are individual, but they tend to fall into a few common categories.

  1. Many devs discover they need a new skillset upon moving into a management position. Leadership is about understanding the bigger ideas in your industry and being able to convey them clearly to an audience. For learning these lessons, the stage is the perfect classroom.
  2. While most speakers have a day job, there are people in Developer Relations (DevRels) who present at industry events full-time. 
  3. Others have an agenda to promote their open-source work or a side hustle.

For me, speaking was about improving my general communication skills and getting regular practice at distilling and organizing information.

Get clear about your “why” before jumping into the speaker application process.

Speaker Selection 101

Resources vary based on the funding and popularity of the conference, so they might feature anywhere from a few to a hundred speakers or more.

A small number of conferences hand-pick speakers, but the majority open a Call for Proposals (CFP) several months before the event is set to take place. 

The organizers will share some general topic categories they’re looking to highlight and ask that prospective speakers submit a title, abstract, and any documents that might clarify or support their topic.

Applications could be subjected to a voting system or reviewed by a committee.

What conference organizers look for:

  • A blend of talk topics. You could be one of many who’ve submitted similar ideas. So you can aim to be unique, but ultimately it’s tough to predict whether your proposed topic will overlap with others.
  • Speakers with a good professional reputation. It helps to have some speaking experience under your belt, even if it’s at small events like boot camps. If you’re still pretty green, you can bulk up your resume by contributing to open-source projects.
  • Topic-based qualifications. Many event organizers want to end up with a diverse group of speakers who bring a range of experience to the specific branch of the field they’ll be talking about.

How to improve your chances of getting selected as a speaker:

  • Take a unique angle on an existing topic. Helping attendees see things differently always makes for a notable talk.
  • Reach out to previous speakers. Some of the best resources are people who’ve presented at the same event for which you want to be selected. It could also be possible to reach out to the conference organizers, but there’s a slim chance you’ll hear back from these popular industry leaders.

The ultimate deciding factor may be out of your hands. That’s why it’s helpful to apply to multiple conferences that fit well with your expertise.

Finding the Right Tech Conference

It can take some digging to discover events you’ll have a chance of being approved for. A great place to start is on sites like CFP Land, where you’ll find listings for up to 500 tech conferences every year. 

Here are some things to look for in narrowing down CFP listings (in priority order):

  1. Relevant topic: This is your first priority because the best match will be a conference that fits well with your interests and skills. A good topic fit will make you more excited about presenting and could up your chances of being selected.
  2. Geographic location: Many conferences help speakers with travel costs, but you’ll want to evaluate the logistics of being able to attend.
  3. Financial viability: Can you afford to take the time off if your application is approved? If the conference doesn’t cover your accommodations, where will you stay?

When you become a bit more experienced, you may also start considering the reputation of the conference.

Aim to Resonate: How To Pick a Topic

The process of honing in on a topic can be a long one, but it’s worth dedicating significant effort to coming up with the one that will impact your audience the most.

Try these approaches to zero in on your perfect topic:

  • Think about big ideas you’ve worked on over the past few years. The things you do every day at work may not seem thrilling to you, but others could find them fascinating. Note: If you choose to talk about something you’ve done professionally, you may have to clear the speaking engagement with your boss or legal department.
  • Get your abstract ready. Before you respond to CFPs and start creating slides, see if you can describe what your talk will do. Give it an exciting title. Perhaps create several abstracts and see which one you like best, or run them by a colleague.
  • Give your talk at a local meetup to gauge response. If you have an opportunity to grab members of your target audience, this is the best way to judge how sound — and engaging — your idea is.

Choose a topic you care about and don’t mind spending hours diving into, because that’s what you’ll be doing when you’re preparing to speak. 

When you’re all in, the audience will be able to feel it.

You Were Chosen as a Speaker: What To Do Post-Acceptance

Once you get word that your abstract has been accepted, it’s time to start the real preparations.

Decide on a Format

There are lots of options for how to structure a talk. Format needs to be your first big decision after hearing the good news. 

Here are a few common conference talk formats:

  1. The novel solution to a common problem: A lot of us in software encounter the same issues over and over. Conferences are some of the best places to put our heads together and problem-solve. If you’ve successfully overcome something other developers struggle with, your talk could showcase a unique way of approaching a frequent frustration.
  2. The hero’s journey: This is a classic storytelling trajectory. You can put the developer’s spin on this by telling the story of yourself as a happy developer doing your job, then reaching a low point, and finally emerging victorious after tackling a big roadblock.
  3. The tech-heavy deep dive: Somewhat the opposite of the novel solution, this format focuses on a novel problem. You might choose to zoom in on the nitty-gritty of a project.
  4. The live demo: The riskiest of all the formats, a live demo is only appropriate in certain cases. I do not recommend trying a live demo if you’re a first-time speaker.

No matter which format you choose, be sure it aligns with your topic and does what your abstract promised. You don’t want to mis-sell potential audience members who’ve chosen to attend your talk because of what they read in the conference program.

Design Your Slides

The visuals you use can make or break your outcome. If there isn’t much to see, your audience could tune out. If they’re too busy, you risk distracting them from the important stuff you’re saying. 

Follow these best practices for designing effective slides:

  • Use aesthetically pleasing text. Don’t overload your slides with words. The ones you do include should be written in a large, legible font.
  • Consider reasonable pacing when you decide on a number of slides. A good rule of thumb is to plan to spend roughly one minute on each slide. (Test this out!)
  • Include accessible elements. Think about how big the screen will be in the presentation room and use a color contrast that’s easy on the eyes.
  • Don’t forget the pre- and post-talk slides. Create a cover slide for people to look at while they wait and a final slide that prompts people for questions or displays your contact details.

Practice Really Does Make Perfect

Getting your slides in order is just the beginning. You won’t truly feel prepared unless you’ve put it all together — more than once.

Emulate Great Dev Speakers

There are tech conference talks all over YouTube. Watching other speakers with a critical eye will help you catch details you could incorporate into your own presenting style.

Here are two I recommend checking out:

  • Sandi Metz at Laracon - Watch this Ruby on Rails expert discuss the personal challenges she faced trying to categorize code smells. Note her natural conversational tone and limited use of text.
  • Nickolas Means at The Lead Dev - See how to turn a complex process into an interesting story. Nickolas reveals the lesson behind the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor incident.

Practice at Local Events

The conference stage shouldn’t be the first place you give your talk. 

I’ve found the best way to get ready for a speaking engagement is to practice in front of other developers — ideally people you trust. Host a lunch-and-learn, hit up colleagues, or search for a meetup in your area.

Can’t find any opportunities to practice with a real audience? Book an empty conference room at your office and deliver your presentation from start to finish until you feel comfortable.

Tips for the Day of Your Talk

  • Memorize your opening line. This is classic advice that a lot of speakers will tell you. If you feel a bit frozen when you first get up on stage, having a prescribed way to begin gets the talk rolling.
  • Try not to read from your slides. If it works logistically, you could plan to have your presenter notes show up on your screen.
  • Use the entire stage and pay attention to your body language. If you’re unsure how to do this, rehearse on video and watch how you carry yourself.
  • Experiment with audience participation or humor — if you’re brave. These are more advanced (i.e., risky) elements that are easier to add in once you’ve been a speaker for a while.

I have no doubt speaking at a tech conference will help you grow. It can even help you create new content for your business. I encourage you to try it out and follow my tips to make it easier than it was for me in the beginning. 

Keep in mind that, despite your careful preparation, things might go wrong. But you’ll learn from them and become more and more poised over time. 

You’ll find your speaking groove if you stay true to your instincts and don’t try to be someone else on stage.

Bonus tip: To get more of your speaking engagement, you can even turn your conference talks into technical blog posts.

Check out my comprehensive guide to speaking at tech conferences for more detailed advice about landing and nailing these opportunities.

Karl Hughes

By Karl Hughes

Karl is a former startup CTO and the founder of Draft.dev. He writes about technical blogging and content management.