How to Speak at Conferences

career conference talk Tips
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There are now hundreds of conferences around the world that are always on the lookout for new presentations. In this article, I summarise what I have learned as a regular speaker.

Disclaimer

This blog post is based on my presentation of the same name. I have submitted this presentation to many conferences and - ironically - it has almost always been rejected. So I decided to put the whole thing into a blog post so this content is not lost. Because I think there are still too few resources for new speakers available online - and there is a definite need for new and more diverse voices in tech conferences!

Also, please be sure that this is not about bragging. It’s a sharing of personal experiences and strategies that have worked for me personally.

Take this with a grain of salt and remember: what works for me may not work for you.

Making the Decision to Speak

The decision to speak at a conference can be triggered by various factors. Perhaps you enjoy teaching, want to finally face your fear of public speaking, or have the feeling of “if x can do it, I could do it, too”. Maybe you want to attend conferences for free which is also a legitimate reason.

Speaking at conferences can provide numerous benefits such as gaining experience, brand exposure (both of your company and your personal one), deep learning of a topic, and connecting with other speakers. However, it also comes with its disadvantages like preparation time, travel time, planning overhead, mental stress, and stage fright.

For me, it was worth it and the pros more than outweighed the cons!

Finding and Choosing Conferences

Speaking possibilities can be found in various ways, for example through announcements from conferences themselves through newsletters, messages from other speakers on social media, or specialised conference list websites and newsletters (like testingconferences.org). When choosing a conference, consider the overall topic/audience, location (if it is happening in person), conference format/tracks, scale and size, and code of conduct.

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testingconferences.org

Be wary of “pay to speak” conferences where you pay for travel and accommodation. While it can be good for brand exposure, be aware that you have to spend your own money to attend!

Call for Papers/Proposals

When finding a topic for your talk, check the conference overall theme. You can consider your personal career, things you work with, different perspectives, and in general think about talks you would like to see.

Don’t overestimate your audience when thinking about topics! I have seen great talks not being submitted because the potential speakers said "I am scared the audience already knows everything about this. Don't let this thought hold you back!

By the way, you can submit multiple talks! It might sound obvious but you don't have to settle just for one topic.

Abstract

Your abstract should not be too short or too long, have a catchy title and be easy to understand. It should provide a short explanation of the why, and point out the goal of your talk. Most conferences require you to include three to five key learnings or takeaways for attendees.

These should start with phrases like

  • Understand how…
  • See the benefits of…
  • Realize why…

Some conferences require a full outline of the talk, sometimes even including estimated times for each section, but fortunately, this is not that common.

Submitting Your Talk

Talks and their abstracts are usually submitted through an online form (e.g., Google, Microsoft, Airtable), conference-specific platforms (e.g., cfp.trendig.com), or open conference platforms (e.g., PaperCall.io, EasyChair.org).

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papercall.io

Documentation

Keep a submission list with the conference name & website, when and where, submitted topic, available time, submit date & platform, status & next steps. This helps a lot to organise and keep track of your submissions and to follow up on them later.

Also, all data you need over and over again for submissions like your author description with previous experience, biography (preferably already written in first and third person format), video links of former talks you have given, social media links, and a photo URL pointing to a high quality picture of you.

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Documentation of conference paper submissions

Your talk description should ideally include the type (talk, workshop), the estimated difficulty (beginner, advanced, pro), your preferred target audience, any prerequisites your listeners should take care about, the abstract, and the key takeaways.

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Author information

Review Phase

Your proposal will be typically reviewed by a program committee consisting of a few specially selected people, often experts in the covered areas of the conference. They might have multiple feedback rounds so you can get the chance to tweak your proposal based on the feedback you get.

Some conferences also have community driven reviews in which everyone can review abstracts and leave comments. These comments are often anonymous and the given feedback can potentially be less meaningful.

Result Phase

In the end, your proposal is accepted or turned down.

If your proposal is rejected, it could be because the abstract was not good enough, too generic, did not fit the conference theme, or the conference preferred either very new or very experienced speakers. Diversity is also a factor, and rightfully so!

Remember, it is nothing personal! If you incorporate the feedback and you truly believe in your idea, try it with a refined submission again next time!

If your proposal is accepted, nothing is written in stone yet until you confirm your conference participation.

Only then it’s time to get scared, excited and get to work!

Travel Arrangements

Depending on the conference, booking hotels, flights and rides can be done by the conference committee itself or a 3rd party company that the conference organisers commissions. Often times, it will be on you to book your travel and later send your bills to the conference for reimbursement. Please make sure to stay within the given conference budget. Also, it is often the case that costs are only reimbursed after the conference, so be prepared to pay in advance.

Check if you need a visa or specific forms and make sure your travel documents are up-to-date.

Creating Your Slide Deck

When designing your slides, you should stick to conference guidelines and theme. If they need PowerPoint, use it. And if they require their own presentation template, you should also use that, too, even if it may require extra work to change your existing presentation.

Remember, less is more. If possible, you should not have more than three bullet points on a slide and leave a lot of room for images. It is equally important to keep your layout consistent. For this, you can also create your own personal presentation theme that fits your style.

Another important point, especially when presenting as a representative for a company, is check slides for corporate and legal requirements. It can be very frustrating if the presentation that you worked on so hard needs to be reworked later because of that.

If your presentation contains any media, e.g. videos, these should ideally be embedded in the presentation and not loaded from external sources. In general, you should not trust that there will be a reliable internet connection at the presentation space - so have the presentation on your local laptop's hard drive for safety.

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Example slide with camera view
Bonus tip: Leave some room for a camera view on your slides if possible (in case of an online conference).

Rehearsing Your Presentation

Decide who you want to show your slides to and whether you want to rehearse in front of people. Personally, I do not practice in front of people but prefer to do that on my own. Practice pacing, timing and opening and closing sentences. It is a matter of personal style, but I never use any cue cards but speak freely. This is usually why my presentations have a lot of slides. These give me a nice framework to work from.

When presenting, you should not rely on the presenter view being available for you. So when rehearsing, it is a good idea to do it using the full screen slide view of your presentation tool.

Presentation Day

If you tend to get nervous easily, I would recommend not watching the previous presentation. In any case, you should show up in the room you present at at least 15 minutes before your turn. This is required to prepare everything, set up the laptop, check the clicker, and fit your headset.

Please be aware that the conference staff is under a lot of stress already, so you should make it as easy on them as possible.

Be inclusive in your language, try to adapt your language to the audience, avoid gender-specific greetings (e.g. "Hello guys"), and please don’t swear.

After Your Presentation

Directly after the presentation, there is usually some time reserved for questions from the audience. The best thing here is trying to relax and give short and concise answers. Also, don't be afraid to say that you don't know an answer - this is much better than stumbling around.

If people in the audience don't have a microphone to make everyone hear the question, it is a good idea to repeat the question for everyone before answering. Otherwise, your answers might not make sense to people who did not hear the question in the first place.

After The Conference

Directly after the conference you can work on settling the travel cost refunds. Is is always good to add a thank you message to the organisers when doing that.

Many conferences collect feedback on talks. This is usually available on the conference platforms. Also, it can be a good idea to rewatch the recording of your talk to learn from your mistakes and improve your presentation skills on that.

The coolest thing is that you now have a tried and tested presentation which you can reuse. This will increase your arsenal of topics, giving you more opportunities to speak at other conferences in the future.

Finally, take a moment to congratulate yourself! You've done it! You've spoken at a conference!

Celebrate your achievement! 🎉

P.S.: If you are interested in my personal talks and appearances, please take a look at my events page!

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