This is a great picture that came to me, sans copyright information, as the background for an email advertising a conference completely and totally unrelated to space in any way. So it’s mine now, although I’d love to know who actually created the picture. I used Adobe Photoshop to remove the stupid advertising content, and here’s the undecorated picture.
I see this as maybe the observation area of a large space station in Earth orbit, with the full-length windows and the high ceiling. Clearly a station that has a need to impress people; maybe there’s a lot of tourism. The picture conveys that “big” feeling that you often get from places like airports, train stations, etc. Maybe it’s the terminus of a space elevator.
I’ve been part of a team running a technical conference called RubyNation for the past five years. It’s been a successful conference all five years, both in terms of profitability and its reception by conference attendees. This wasn’t entirely an accident. We worked hard to make sure we had high-quality speakers with the kind of content that would be attractive to our intended audience, as well as making sure other conference aspects were solid, e.g. – venue, food, equipment, etc.
This experience has given me some insight into what it takes for an individual to secure a speaking engagement at a conference. In this article, I’ll provide tips on how you can making your speaking proposal more attractive to conference planners, thereby increasing your odds of getting accepted as a speaker.
Practical Tips to Help You Get Accepted
Your Proposal Needs to Be Solid: If you can’t write a couple of paragraphs with good grammar and without typos, you probably can’t do a good 40-minute talk either. Look at it this way. A speaking proposal consists of a title and an abstract. The abstract consists of a couple of paragraphs describing your talk. If you can’t even put together a good abstract, you’re a chowderhead and nobody’s going to want to listen to you.
You’ve Only Got a Limited Time: If we look at your proposal and it sounds like an abstract for a week-long class, you’re not getting in. A conference talk has a set time limit, usually between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ve seen proposals where the individual listed so many topics that they were going to cover in the time period that nobody looking at the proposal thought it was even remotely feasible.
Past Speaking Engagements Help: If we’ve seen you speak somewhere before, and you were good, we’ll look favorably on a proposal. You do understand that the conference organizers actually go to local user groups (in our Washington DC area) and other conferences, right? If any of us have seen you do a good talk, even a Lightning Talk, it’ll come up when we’re evaluating proposals. The poster child for this is Bryan Lyles, a speaker from Baltimore, who gave a Lightning Talk at RubyNation 2008 that was just absolutely hilarious.
As it turns out, two of our speakers fell through at that same conference. The first we knew about before the conference, and we had already engaged our backup speaker to fill the slot. But the second speaker bailed out immediately before the conference, and we needed a replacement. That replacement turned out to be Bryan Lyles, who had a talk on testing already prepared.
Be Ready: If you have a talk prepared, opportunities to give it can pop up out of the woodwork. As Bryan Lyles found out, he had a talk ready and we had a need at RubyNation 2008, so he got to speak. Have something good prepared, even if it’s only a Lightning Talk. Likewise at RubyNation 2009, one of our speakers got ill right before the conference, so Dave Bock, an experienced speaker, filled in with a talk he’d previously given at another conference.
You’re Probably Not As Famous As You Think You Are: Some people expect us to simply accept their proposal because they’re obviously brilliant and we’d be fools not to accept them. These are the ones who demand to know why THEY have been denied a speaking opportunity when we turn them down. Look, folks, we don’t get that kind of attitude from Chad Fowler, Dave Thomas, Rich Kilmer or others of similar stature in the Ruby community, and these people are draws. People come to conferences specifically to see them. You might be a brilliant Rubyist, but A) we can’t see your halo from where we are, B) that doesn’t mean we’ve heard of you, and C) that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good speaker. Attitude doesn’t get you in. Deal with it.
Give Us a Choice If You Can: If you have only one idea for a talk, and we don’t like it, then you’re not speaking. Heck, even if you have a good idea for a talk, it might get rejected. For example, you might have prepared an excellent talk on Cucumber (an automated software testing tool), but if one of the primary Cucumber creators has also submitted a proposal for a similar talk, well, we’re probably accepting his talk because he’s an authority and you’re not. If you have a couple talks ready, then let us know what they are. Maybe we’ll like one of the other ones better, or it might fit a need in our schedule. At RubyNation 2010, we deliberately arranged a second-day track with four talks in a row on NoSQL databases, a hot technology at the time.
Don’t Be Too Narrow: After a while, a lot of proposals that organizers receive begin to sound similar. “Similar” means that you’re competing with others in that same topic space. Don’t be afraid to venture off into virgin territory. You might even consider proposing something on a tangent, like a JQuery talk at a Ruby conference. The most popular talk at RubyNation 2010, as rated by attendees at SpeakerRate.com, was Jeff Casimir’s “How to Teach Anything to Anybody, Even Your Dev Team.” It was a talk about educational strategies, had nothing directly to do with the Ruby programming language or even software development, and was probably the most “off the beaten path” topic we’d ever scheduled.
You’ll have a much better chance of getting your speaking proposal accepted at a conference if you take these practical tips into account when crafting your next proposal. Good luck!
This appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. I didn’t create the list, but I thought it was both interesting and inspiring, so I decided to re-post it here. Enjoy!