Mission Accomplished: Tips for Giving Your First Conference Talk

Back in January, I set a personal goal to speak at a conference before the year was done.

This was something I'd been thinking I should do for a while but the thought of making up something compelling enough to talk to people about for 40 minutes was intimidating. Reading through helped make that seem way less intimidating and last week I gave my first talk at Distill 2014.

So here's my pay-it-forward list of tips to help you, future conference speaker, make the leap.


Seriously, this is a goldmine of really practical step-by-step tips that made a huge scary task seem accomplishable. Read through it all. It helped me all the way through the process from writing my CFP to purchasing a speaker remote the week before my talk.

Stop thinking "I don't have anything to contribute"

You might have to trick yourself into believing it, but people do want to hear what you have to say. It's so easy to think otherwise because we look up to the influential people in our industry and think "they're so much smarter than me." And in a way it's true, there's always someone who knows more than you. But the wonderful corollary to that is that there's also always someone who knows less than you!

And regardless of skill level, your opinion and your unique take on something is valuable to others. So get over it - "you're your own worst critic" (as a wise high school English teacher once told me this) - and start putting yourself out there.

Start (your topic) small

If a public talk is too much sharing for you, start sharing in smaller ways first. Blogging definitely helped me get used to sharing what I know and putting myself out there. A wise conference speaker once told the crowd "Blog about a specific problem you encountered and how you solved it." That was seriously some of the best advice I'd ever gotten and it again made the task of blogging seem conquerable. Sharing feelings is hard - publishing a few code snippets you just wrote on a project is easier.

In the same vein, or if you're not keen on blogging yet, try keeping a developer lab notebook. I got this idea from fellow Distill speaker Blithe Rocher, who talked about debugging using the scientific method. Scientists keep lab notebooks to record and analyze the results of their experiments. So why not apply that to development? Treat your code like an experiment and make notes of what you did - in blog form or elsewhere. You might look back on your notebook and find you've got enough morsels of knowledge and experience in there to make a conference talk.

Start (the crowd) small

Another way to work yourself up to talking at a conference is to start with smaller audiences. I was pretty terrified of talking at a big conference (true story: I nearly threw up the morning of my talk), but I had a lot of confidence once I was up on stage thanks to my teaching experience. I got my start teaching as a volunteer instructor for Ladies Learning Code, and there's probably a similar group that runs workshops for beginners in a city near you.

Another option is to present at local meetup groups. These types of events are generally always in need of speakers and the crowds tend to be much smaller than a full day conference.

Trawl for CFPs

When you think you're ready (or even when you think you're not - c'mon, just go for it!), find a conference to speak at by looking for open Calls for Participation. Lanyrd has a sort of hidden page that lists all sorts of open CFPs. Keep in mind these often close months before the conferences happen, so plan accordingly if it's a year end goal.

You can also try contacting conference organizers directly via twitter or email - this strategy landed me a second gig this September. QuickLeft also recently launched a TechConf Monthly newsletter. Subscribe to get a monthly listing of upcoming conferences and open CFPs.

Let's talk

Hopefully this convinced some of you fence sitters to go for it and speak at a conference. But if you've got any other questions or just want an encouraging "Yeah! You got this!" send me an email or tweet.

I also provide professional coaching services on public speaking if you're looking for even more encouragement and pro-tips.

Sometimes a little nudge goes a long way.