How to become a conference speaker. A personal story.
Nov 17, 2020
2020 should have been my year of speaking at several international conferences and meeting people from different countries and cultures who are interested in the same topics as I am: Testing and DevOps.
Of course, we all know how Covid-19 has changed our world this year. All of this traveling and meeting people during a drink were transformed into virtual events and meeting people in online virtual bars and on virtual parties. These were fun too and very interesting for sure, but to be honest, I prefer the real deal.
You might be wondering whether I am writing this blogpost in order to brag about myself or promote myself for the conferences of next year. Well, guess what, that is not the case. Of course, I am vain and yes, I do want to speak on other conferences next year, but the aim of this blog post is to show you how you can also become a conference speaker.
When I ask people why they don’t submit their stories for a conference, I usually get answers like:
I never have any great ideas.
My project is not interesting for anybody else. Why would I talk about it?
Nobody is interested in listening to me.
How can I come up with a great idea?
How can I transform an idea into a presentation that rocks?
These are all b****** answers; most people do have interesting things to tell, they just don’t know how to get started!
I hope the eight steps below can help you in getting closer to presenting at a conference.
Step 1: Believe in yourself!
In my personal opinion, the most important thing to remember is that everyone who is now considered as a known conference speaker (not including myself in this list) once started as a new voice that thought that his or her ideas were not that interesting!
If you do not believe in yourself and your message, why would your audience do so? It’s important to go for your story and idea for the full 100%!
Step 2: Determine why you want to speak at a conference
You need to figure out what your goal or objective is:
Are you going to present because you are passionate about a specific topic in your field of expertise?
Are you going to bring a project story, so others can learn from it?
Do you want to inspire people and make them think about what you said?
Will it be a hands-on lab session about a tool or technique?
Do you want to sparkle discussions and debates on your topic?
Once you have made up your mind and decided upon what you want to talk about, there comes the hard work…
Step 3: Write an abstract
First, you will need to write an abstract for the conference. This is the most crucial phase, as this document will be used to decide whether you earn a spot on the conference agenda or not. Just remember that the congress committee receives a few hundred/thousands of submissions and cannot allow all of them. Most congresses get like ten times (or even more) the number of abstracts compared to the number of slots that are available.
A lot of people underestimate the importance and effort it takes to write a good abstract. Here are some tips and tricks, here’s some advice that I use when creating my abstracts.
Create a great headline This is the first thing the selection board and attendees will see. This is like THE most important part of your abstract. Try to find something that resonates with the conference topic of that year. Something that rings a bell in most people’s head or something that attracts their curiosity. It needs to say: “Hey, this is interesting stuff, join my session!”
Read the submission form In the submission form, the conference is clearly indicating what kind of topics they are looking for and which questions you need to answer when submitting. If you neglect these or do not pay enough attention here, you might as well not submit anything.
Look at the key message of the conference Try to come up with a headline and topic that relates closely to the theme of the conference. Be creative and try some ideas with your family or colleagues. Try to link your talk to something non-IT related (tv shows, music, funny associations, etc.)
Figure out the kind of audience you want to attract The audience is your master, they will eventually decide if they will join your talk and they will score you at the end. Think about what kind of audience you want (techy, novice, generalists, academic, etc.) to present to. Make sure your abstract and headline are targeting those.
Look at the topics of the previous years The topics of the previous years will give you a good idea on how to write a successful abstract and what kind of topics they are interested in. Watching reruns of talks may also give you some good ideas for a presentation of your own.
Spelling and grammar This is such a simple thing, but often forgotten and very important though. No, we are not all native English speakers (neither am I). However, we all have a spell-checker, colleagues and family to review our abstract, the internet to help us translate things, etc. When reading more than 20 abstracts as a reviewing committee member, there is nothing more repellent than an abstract full of spelling and grammar mistakes. This makes the reader feel as if the abstract was written in 5 minutes and the writer is not interested in delivering quality.
Step 4: Hope for the best and never give up
Once you have submitted your abstract, the long waiting period starts. I usually use this time to write an outline for my talk. In my case, I often change the outline a few times for the same talk, so this long waiting period is needed in order to get everything 100% right for me.
Then you get this stressful mail with a subject line that starts with “Speaker Applicant …….”. This mail can result in two things:
Utter joy and stress for being selected
If you are not selected, do not despair and think about the number of abstracts they received. Always ask the organizers for feedback on your abstract and use this to improve your abstract. Never start a discussion that they are wrong. Submit your abstract for other conferences.
If you are selected, enjoy the moment, as it tastes better than anything else does.
Step 5: Create your presentation
Now the real work starts; the creation of your presentation.
The way you do this is like a personal preference. I know that my modus operandi is different from the one of my colleagues.
So just for the sake of it, here is my preferred way of working:
Create the outline of your talk
Structure it into a flow that makes sense
Write down a detailed voiceover
Divide the story into slides
Define a visual theme
Search for matching visuals
Step 6: Dry run, dry run, dry run, dry run
Once you have your talk, try it out for yourself. Make sure that you have a good flow and that the message you want to bring makes sense. This is a highly repetitive task that needs to be done quite often (in my case I even rehearse in my car, in front of the mirror, under the shower, in my head when going to sleep,…).
Once you believe the story, slides and talk are 90% ready, it is time for a dry run with some colleagues. Make sure that these colleagues will be honest and will provide you with their genuine feedback (even if it is negative). Be open to their feedback and adapt your talk.
Do not get frustrated, if you receive some negative feedback or feel like you need to recreate your presentation from scratch. The remarks I got from my colleagues Wim and Jo when I did the first dry run of my talk “DevOps: Test Alone” were so overwhelming that I decided to go back to the drawing board. Now I consider myself very lucky for all their remarks, as this resulted in my presentation being selected as one of the best at Eurostar 2019!
Step 7: Present and enjoy
Then the big day is there! The moment that you have been waiting for and the reason why you have been working so hard the past months: the day of your presentation at your first conference ever. Remember why you decided to hand in an abstract in the first place and bring your story with passion and enthusiasm. Remember to stay calm, do not stress if you make a mistake and do not be afraid of the audience. They are there because they are interested in your story.
And most importantly, enjoy every minute of it!
Step 8: Repeat and improve
The week after you did your talk it is time to improve your current talk, submit it for other conferences and start figuring out a new talk or workshop.
In my case the next presentation will be in December, when we will host CTG's virtual moveIT conference “Testing Transformed”, in which we will do a rerun of some of CTG’s award winning presentations:
Strategic Agile Thinking (Michaël Pilaeten)
When Manual Tests “Smell” – Hidden Problems and Patterns (Wim Decoutere)
Is Survival of the Fittest Only for the Fastest? (Wim Demey)
DevOps : Test Alone (Bjorn Boisschot)
Forget Quality! (Michaël Pilaeten)
I hope this blogpost convinced you that submitting an abstract for a conference is something that is feasible for everyone, so what are you waiting for? If this post helped you in your journey to become a conference speaker, just spread the word, so it can help others.