The way one becomes a Lady Speaker is by speaking. That’s pretty obvious. But how to do you get someone to give you a stage and a microphone and an audience? That’s what this post will partially cover. Specifically, how do you submit a talk proposal?
Find decent conferences
There are lots of places you can find conferences. My three main sources are the @callbackwomen twitter account, the Technically Speaking newsletter, and Papercall.io. I also hear about conferences just generally on twitter.
Conference proposals are some amount of time before the conference, it depends on a bunch of variables. For example, the CfP (Call for Proposals) for LISA 17 just went out (mid-January), and the conference is the start of November. 3-6 months is a more typical window.
In addition to finding out what conferences are soliciting speakers, you need to find out if it’s a conference you want to speak at. My criteria are:
- Has a good Code of Conduct
- Has not mishandled a Code of Conduct violation in the last 3 years, that I know of
- Understands I am providing value and deserve value in return
- Is not promoting scary values
Let’s unpack those.
Good Code of Conduct
There have been a lot of things written on Codes of Conduct, and I don’t want to rehash years of debate. I heavily favor codes of conduct that are derived from the Geek Feminism model, but almost anything will work as long as it bans specific bad behavior, does not require (but allows) legal intervention, does not make victims do confrontation, and has actionable and specific enforcement clauses. Basically, my ideal code of conduct allows someone to make a private complaint to the conference and the conference will listen to the victim about how they want it handled, but also have a plan for dealing with a known set of bad behaviors.
Did you heckle a speaker? The conference will give you a warning once, then kick you out. That sort of thing. Having a set of unacceptable actions means that you don’t get people saying “I just said she would be even hotter wearing only a lanyard! It was a compliment! How is that not “being excellent to each other?”. Almost everyone has had corporate harassment training at some point, so people do actually know what they are and aren’t allowed to do in professional settings.
Mishandling CoC violations
Before you apply to a conference, google them. See if there is any recent uproar about them having a known-predatory speaker and not doing anything, or if they made a panel on women in technology out of all men, or if people of color are warning each other away from the conference. Sometimes you will find out that a conference screwed up and then fixed it, like Nodevember did this year by disinviting a speaker. But if they screwed up and didn’t fix it or didn’t apologize, it’s probably not a safe conference, no matter what the CoC says.
The first year I did conference speaking, I did it on my own dime. The second year, I got paid a couple times, but nothing like what I needed to cover expenses. The third year (this year), I only applied to conferences that said they covered speaker expenses. I had sufficient videos and experience that I was not an unknown quantity, and also, I could not afford to speak the way I wanted on my own money.
I wrote about this more in Don’t ask me to work for free, a reprise. But basically, a conference’s value derives from speakers. A speaker invests extremely heavily in researching, writing, and rehearsing a talk, and then in lost work time to give it and attend the conference. Conferences shouldn’t charge a speaker to attend. If it’s at all feasible, conferences should at least cover travel and lodging. I apply to a few conferences that charge speakers, but they also heavily subsidize anyone who doesn’t have an employer. The only thing more insulting than a conference charging me for giving away my intellectual property is a conference offering me a DISCOUNT on the registration fees. That tells me they know I’m providing value, but it’s not worth THAT MUCH.
I don’t attend conferences that I think are problematic because of their values. I don’t go to Grace Hopper because they make a lot of money off women but don’t really do a lot to nurture women’s work, especially women of color. I don’t attend conferences that are about exploiting labor. I wouldn’t, for instance, attend a conference focused on defeating ad-blockers. Your values are your own, but I’ll tell you from experience that if you show up at a conference where you are already angry at the premise, the experience you have will be stressful.
Promise them something useful
I’ve been on talk selection committees, so I have a fair idea of how it goes. The first thing that happens is there is an elimination of the obviously not-useful talks. These are usually vendor-tools talks, talks that are not the right technology, or talks that are described by a single sentence and a speaker bio that says, “You know I’m awesome!”.
What I want to see is a novel idea (it doesn’t have to be brand new), that will serve my conference attendees, and let them walk away thinking something new or interesting or making a connection they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Your CfP needs to have a value-proposition. A lot of the submission forms now explicitly ask for that, which makes it easier.
I also want to know that you understand who the target audience of my conference is. If you’re submitting to a security conference, a Password-Keeper 101 talk is not going to be relevant. If you’re submitting something that seems odd in the context of the audience, you’ll need to justify it. For example, I’m a technical writer who speaks at a lot of developer/coder/devops conferences. What do I know about that? I have to explain that to even make it past the first level.
Once all the easy choices are made, the selection committee will get down to the rest of the talks — they would like to accept almost all of these, but time and space are remarkably fixed, so instead they talk about whether you have experience, whether this group of proposals covers the same idea, and if so which is the best one. They weigh the advantanges of fresh voices agains known winners, and the disadvantages of anxious speakers against same-old-same-old. And yeah, they talk about money, and whether they should select someone local or someone who has to be paid to come in. People advocate for speakers they know, or recuse themselves from deciding on speakers they know. Hopefully, someone looks at the overall balance of the speakers and tries to make sure it isn’t like this.
I’m not trying to shame this one conference, but hopefully conference runners are trying to find a speaker lineup that looks more like this:
If you want to be a speaker at a conference, it’s going to take hard work from you to pitch, write, and deliver a talk. And it’s going to take good luck, because there are a lot more talks than slots. And it’s going to help quite a lot if the talk selection committee isn’t using some pre-established vision of what a conference speaker looks like.
Make hard choices
If you get accepted to a conference, that is SO GREAT.
When I get an acceptance email, before I write back and confirm, I double-check (or ask the first time) about what the plan is for speaker expenses and fees. Like I said, I don’t have an enterprise behind me, so I try not to donate my time for free very often.
If they can’t pay you, and you can’t afford it, you have to decline.
If you have already accepted something else in that slot, you have to decline.
If it’s across your kid’s birthday party, you better negotiate to bring home a really amazing souvenier.
Sometimes, even when everything seems like it will be great, you get hurt and have to write the conference organizer at the last minute and say you can’t come (Sorry, @seagl!)
The key is to tell the conference what is going on as soon as humanly possible. Because the thing they’re going to do is pull up the next speaker who was regretfully turned down and ask them if they can fill in. The longer you delay because you feel bad about saying no, the less time you’re giving the next person to be able to say yes.
There’s also some stuff in here about making sure you have some time to work and see your family and eat food that you make yourself, but that’s Lady Conference Speaker 301, and I’m still at 201 myself.
I could write pages and pages on how to write and deliver a talk, but the important things are these:
- Show up prepared and practiced
- Respect the work of the audience and organizers
- Stick to your time limit
- Work the hallway track
Prepared and practiced
This is not a term paper. You can’t write it the night before. You need to have said this thing out loud in front of an audience at least twice. Once so you can figure out what you’re trying to actually say, and once for timing. I usually practice my talks 5 times for a new talk, and 1-2 times if it’s a talk I’ve given before and revised. You are commanding the attention of, say, 50 people. For a technical audience, let’s say that they are worth $50/hr. You need to respect that for this moment, this half hour, you are worth AT LEAST $1250 in attention. How much work would you have to do to feel prepared to earn $2500/hr? Do that much prep work.
Respect the work of audience and organizers
It’s hard to sit in a conference chair all day and learn things. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. Even on days I’m not speaking, when I’m through with conference sessions, my brain is full, my legs ache, and I just want to take a nap. The audience is paying attention to you, even if they are also thinking about how what you’re saying relates to their job, and worrying about their accumulating email. The audience deserves your respect.
The organizers, whew. If you’ve never organized an event with hundreds of people, I’m telling you, it’s eye-opening. There’s all this trivia to deal with, everything from making sure the t-shirts arrive, to making sure people don’t get in without badges, to taking care of speakers who are having technical problems. Someone has to make sure the catering sets up right, while simultaneously reminding everyone of the code of conduct and answering the hotel’s question about when the tables can be set up. Odds are, the organizers won’t get to hear your talk, because they won’t get to hear anyone’s talk. They’re too busy making it happen for us. Do what you can to make their lives easier by communicating with them clearly and succinctly.
Stick to your time limit
It is a jerk move to exceed your time limit. The audience needs those 5-15 minutes to get to the next talk, possibly with a bio-break on the way. The next speaker wants to get in and set up and make sure the mic is ok. The organizers are praying the schedule doesn’t go awry in one of their rooms.
I know myself well enough to know that my talks inflate when I get in front of an audience. There’s just something that happens when I have people reacting that makes me go longer. So I always time my talks to run 5 minutes short of the limit, and I assign someone to wave frantically at me at 10 and 5 minutes before the limit. Some people talk faster in front of an audience, but an audience will always forgive you for going 5 minutes short, but not 5 minutes long.
Work the hallway track
After you give a talk, a funny thing will happen. For the rest of the conference, people will recognize you. They’ll stop you in the hall and say they liked your talk. Don’t argue with them, although that is the natural instinct of many of us who were raised to be “modest” and “not brag”. Just say, “thank you” if you’re on your way to something else.
If you have time, you will make this person’s day by stopping to talk with them about your content.
- How will it apply to your work?
- Was there anything especially meaningful?
- Do you wish I had included something further? I did lots of research that didn’t make it into the talk.
- What would you want added if you could hear this again?
These questions are a combination of engaging them in talking about their reaction, and figuring out how you can do it even better the next time.
Also, when people give me compliments on my talk, I tally them up at the end of the day and email the tally to myself, because sometimes I need to open that kind of email. “22 people stopped me to compliment my talk today” has a way of kicking Imposter Syndrome in the ass.
NOTE: At no point are you required to talk to someone who is being insulting, argumentative, or creepy. Giving a talk is not the same as giving up your right to ignore people.
I believe in you. You are going to go out there and make us proud! And you’re going to do it by talking about things that you want to understand, or want other people to understand. I hope you can find a good mentor in your community, but if you can’t, reach out and find one online. Some conferences even offer explicit new-speaker mentoring, which is great!
O'Reilly Software Architecture/Velocity
The Lead Developer London