Submitting Your First Conference Talk
Submitting a conference talk in the tech industry can be a thrilling and nerve-wracking experience, especially if it’s your first time. The thought of presenting your ideas to a room full of experts and industry professionals can be intimidating, but also an opportunity to showcase your skills, gain recognition, and network with others in your field.
Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or just starting out, this guide will provide you with tips to help you make the most of your conference talk submission and increase your chances of being selected to speak.
Tip #1: Just do it
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. The best way to start giving talks is to just start submitting and see what happens. You don’t need to craft the perfect proposal and you don’t need to be an industry-leading subject matter expert.
Don’t let any excuse stop you. So many conferences and events are desperate for anybody who simply has the willingness to speak and a little something to share.
But if you’re still unsure, you may want to consider…
Tip #2: Start at a Meetup or User Group
If you’re not sure about your public speaking and want to start in a low-pressure environment, I would definitely recommend pitching any topics to a local meetup or user group.
As a former meetup organizer, I can tell you that they are constantly looking for willing speakers.
Meetups are also a great place to workshop a talk or topic that you are planning to present for larger audiences at a conference.
Tip #3: You don’t have to be an expert
A lot of people that I talk to feel that they need to be an expert on a topic in order to give a talk about it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While conferences and audiences love to highlight deep subject matter experts, the insight of beginners can be just as valuable.
A common tactic for conference talks is to submit a topic that you are interested in learning more about. If your talk is accepted, it gives you an excuse to learn that topic deeply — and your fresh perspective can make the topic more accessible to other beginners.
This tactic is sometimes referred to as “Conference Driven Development” 😂
Tip #4: You don’t have to be original
Choosing a topic can be difficult. There is a strong temptation to only submit original topics that the world has never seen before. Resist this urge. Your topics don’t have to be unique or novel to be valuable.
In fact, “A beginners guide to X” is probably going to have much broader appeal than “How we combined seven really specific and niche technologies to solve this one problem” — although both of those topics could be interesting!
If you’re stumped for deeper ideas, consider:
- Sharing a learning journey (see Tip #3)
- Sharing a real world case study about how you used a specific technology to solve a problem
- Diving deep on a specific topic or technology
- Doing a bake-off or round-up of comparable tools
Where to submit your talk
I am thrilled to see the resurgence in conferences that is currently underway. There is no shortage of venues in need of up-and-coming speakers.
As a starting point, I would recommend looking at smaller community-organized conferences like DevOpsDays and Code Camps. Often these conferences are hosted by a local meetup group, which makes it very easy to get connected with the organizers and ask them exactly what kind of talks they are looking for.
Don’t be afraid to submit the same talk to multiple conferences (unless the conferences disallow this, but most don’t). Here are some websites I use to find conferences:
Writing your abstract
Some conferences just require a few sentences or bullet points about your talk, while others may require a few pages of information including a detailed abstract and bio. In either case, remember to think about the abstract from the (potential) audience’s point of view.
It’s important to cover what technologies you will discuss, of course, but you also want to make sure you do a proper introduction to the use case for people who may not know the technology.
One of the most valuable talks I ever attended was about a topic I needed (debugging strategies) in a language I had never used at that point (.NET)
So really, what you want to tell your audience in your abstract is: what will they learn from attending your talk?
Making the most of your conference experience
Making the most of a conference could be a topic for an entirely new blog post, but I want to share my top two most important tips:
- Wear comfortable shoes
- Leave room for serendipity (the hallway track)
The first point should be obvious. Most of us are used to spending 10-12 hours a day on our butts. Shifting that weight to our feet for a week can be a lot.
The second point is less obvious. At my first conference I felt that I was missing out any time I wasn’t in a session. Now I know better. While the talks are amazing for revving my mental engine, the “Hallway Track” is where the best conversations and connections happen.
The only way to take advantage of this is if you leave some wiggle room in your schedule and aren’t afraid to take breaks when you need them.
This post was inspired by the discussion in the OTel End User Working Group’s session on writing CFPs to help OTel community members submit talks for the upcoming conferences, including Observability Day at KubeCon EU.
Many thanks to Reese Lee, Daniel Kim, Rynn Mancuso, Juraci Paixão Kröhling, and Adriana Villela, and the other members of that session. A lot of the ideas in this post come from the amazing people in that group and the discussions held. (If you were in that group and would like me to add your social link to this list, please let me know!)