I was Audio/Visual (A/V) Chair for the Toastmasters District 29 Spring Conference in 2015. This is me watching some great speakers from the A/V booth during a brief lull in our support activities. Photo by the incomparable Edmond Joe. It’s one of my favorites and far and away the best picture that he took at the event. I’ve been meaning to post it for ages.
I got to see alt-rock band Collective Soul in Atlanta for free last night. They’re a nationally known band, with seven mainstream rock #1 hits. Even better, they proved that they’re a great live band, making the most out of their capability to interact with the audience in a small venue.
Where was this? Well, there’s a longer story attached to this concert extravaganza. In my day job, I’m a web architect for a government contractor. In fact, I even blog on career-related technical subjects at KeenerTech.com. One of the big conferences that my company exhibits at is the GFIRST Cyber Security Conference hosted by the Department of Homeland Security.
I was in Atlanta because I was speaking at this conference. One of the big sponsors of the conference was RSA, the company that makes those ubiquitous ID tokens used by many government organizations and security-conscious firms. The tokens provide 6-digit auto-generated numbers that change every 30 seconds, and can be leveraged to provide additional security beyond just a simple login-with-password scheme.
RSA desperately wants the goodwill of said organizations, so it throws lavish parties at conferences that are heavily attended by potential customers. This is particularly true given that they had a severe security breach about a year or so ago.
Their August 22nd party was held at the Hard Rock Cafe in Atlanta, GA, which they rented out in its entirety. The event was open to all attendees of the GFIRST 2012 Conference. It was, indeed, an event to remember.
They had all the food you could possibly eat, from salads to juicy slices of beef carved right off a full roast. They had all the beer you could drink, from 6:00 PM to almost 1:30 AM (even though the party was supposed to end at 11:00 PM).
They had rock music. They had dancing. They had a photographer there to take your picture with different (amusing) props.
And let’s not forget the live concert with Collective Soul. I got to see them play from roughly 10 feet away. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. Rock on, RSA!
I just attended the 2012 Toastmasters District 29 Conference, which occurred on Friday evening and all day on Saturday. It was held at the Westfields Marriot in Chantilly, VA, which was nicely accessible. Since it was my first Toastmasters conference, and many other people in my club, the Ashburn Toastmasters Club, have also never been to one, I decided to write an after-action report to convey what the conference was like.
The Friday evening keynote was by Geoffrey Abbott, a former Chief Technology Officer of the Coast Guard. The focus of his talk was on the benefits of encouraging innovation from the middle. He described how organizations could be more effective by empowering the people closest to critical problems to make innovative decisions.
One of his most effective examples was a heart-wrenching story from the Coast Guard’s Katrina mission. He described how helicopters delivered rescue divers to remote flooded areas to help find and rescue flood survivors. With limited fuel, however, the helicopters would sometimes have to leave the diver in place while they flew off to refuel.
In one instance, a helicopter left a rescue diver on the roof of a flooded house. Upon returning, the helicopter crew found the rescue diver to be extremely agitated and upset. The water was almost to the crown of the house’s roof. A family had been trapped in the attic, and had drowned because the diver had no way to get to them. He simply couldn’t get through the roof.
Upon returning to base, the helicopter crew acquired, on their own initiative and at their own expense, every fire axe they could find and equipped their helicopter and others with them. Following their lead, numerous other Coast Guard helicopter crews, as well as crews from other military services, did the same thing. This was an example of innovation from the middle.
Needless to say, it was an interesting, inspiring and often riveting talk.
Friday also featured the culmination of the Evaluation Contest, as well as the debut of a new event for team debates. With the Evaluation Contest, a model speaker presents a short talk. The contestants are then sequestered in another room, while one by one, the contestants return to provide a 2 to 3-minute evaluation of the speaker’s talk. A team of judges then decides which contestant was most effective in coaching the speaker.
Next, the debate pitted two 5-man teams against each other, and featured prepared speeches from both sides, counter speeches from both sides and one-on-one cross examinations. Unique and very interesting. Clearly a lot of work on both sides, but it looked like it definitely exercised some speaking skills that aren’t normally exercised in Toastmasters. Expect to see more of this in the future. The guy behind the event, Isaiah McPeak from Leesburg, has been asked to rewrite the Toastmasters manual on debates.
Saturday’s morning keynote was from former Redskin (and Pittsburgh Steeler) Antwaan Randall El. He gave an inspirational talk about the power of giving. He spoke about how writing a check for a charity was a fine thing, but noted how much better you’d feel if you actually spent some time and effort physically helping your favorite charity. You too could make a change in someone’s life. It was so inspirational that he got a standing ovation from the crowd. It also turns out that he’s in Toastmasters himself, and attends a club in Leesburg. How cool is that?
Saturday’s luncheon speaker was Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer. He described, at great length, how various information technologies are being used to provide a more transparent government that is increasing responsive and accountable to citizens. I believe his talk was supposed to be about 10 minutes long rather than the 50-minute extravaganza that he pulled out of his hat. Unless you were an IT professional like me, much of the talk went right over the heads of most of the audience. As a speaker, the moral here is that you should know your audience.
Saturday also featured breakout educational sessions on various topics. I attended one on effective storytelling and another one on how to get published in today’s market. Both were by recognized industry experts in the field. There were several other topics available as well.
Next up, Toastmasters business. Awards and election stuff. Lovely Lall is our new Division D Governor, replacing Edmond Joe. Mo Hamilton is our new District 29 Governor, replacing Shue Bartholomew. Mo becomes the second governor for District 29 since we split off (like an amoeba) from the overly large District 27 a year ago.
[For those who aren’t aware of this, our Ashburn Toastmasters Club is one of 5 in Area 45, which is part of Division D. There are 5 divisions within District 29. Our district is part of Region 7]
The day culminated with the District-level International speech contest. Five top-notch contestants presented some excellent speeches, with the winner going to represent our district at the annual Toastmasters International Conference in Florida.
I had a lot of fun at the event, met a lot of fellow Toastmasters and picked up some great speaking tips from people who were more practiced at public speaking than myself.
It was a lot of fun, and, at $95 including Saturday’s lunch, I thought it was remarkably cheap (particularly compared to what events in the IT field typically cost).
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!
I’ve been a co-founder of two successful and profitable conferences, RubyNation and DevIgnition, now heading into their 6th and 2nd years respectively. Both are technical conferences; the first is focused on the Ruby programming language while the second is focused on emerging technologies. Thanks to this experience, I’ve learned a more than a little bit about running conferences. In this article, I’m going to pull aside the veil and reveal some organizer secrets for scheduling talks at conferences.
Conference speaker schedules are all about balance. According to Jim Freeze, the chief organizer of the highly successful Lone Star Ruby Conference, “There’s enough technical content at a typical conference to make people’s eyes glaze over. You’ve got to balance that with entertainment.”
Frankly, even the most hardcore techies can only take so many in-depth technical dives into the internals of the Ruby interpreter before they reach saturation point. Even more importantly, you’ll have a mix of attendees, of different technical levels and with differing interests. A conference schedule has to provide all of the attendees with a variety of choices.
Starting with RubyNation 2010, we expanded to a grand total of 29 speaking slots (28 scheduled speakers plus a slot for Lightning Talks). This covered a two-day period with two tracks of talks, except for keynotes which were single-track. We were able to offer attendees lots of choices.
As organizers, we make a deliberate effort to balance technical content with entertainment. Deep-dive technical talks need to be spread out to avoid attendee overload, often preceded or followed by more entertaining talks, i.e. – typically a more general topic presented by a polished performer. As an example, at RubyNation 2010 and 2011, Jeff Casimir, who runs his own technical education business, functioned admirably in this role.
We’ve tried to provide a venue where attendees can see some of their community’s top celebrities, but also where some of the local and/or lesser-known folks can have a chance to shine. While we hand-pick some speakers, we also pick a lot of speakers through our Call for Papers.
There are also some topics you just have to cover, e.g. – a Ruby conference has to have at least one talk about software testing (it’s like an unwritten rule). A conference about writing has to have the obligatory talk about where ideas come from.
With 29 slots, and a dual-track format, we also feel that we can venture into territories that might be a little off the beaten path for other Ruby conferences. Primarily, this is because we feel there are tangential topics to Ruby that might reasonably be of interest to attendees, such as agile development techniques, tools like JQuery, new technologies like NoSQL databases, etc.
As Neil Ford once said, we are not just Ruby developers, we are polyglot developers. The typical Ruby developer has to be conversant in a number of technologies in order to be truly effective.
Two recent examples of talks that were well off the beaten path are Jeff Casimir’s 2010 talk “How to Teach Anything to Anybody, Even Your Dev Team,” and my own 2011 talk, “Creating Killer Business Models.” The first was a talk on educational principles and the second was a big-picture business talk. Both were extremely well received.
Additionally, we deliberately try to combat a trend where many Ruby conferences have a significant number of overlapping speakers. It’s hard to be uniquely valuable when you share most of the same speakers as another conference, and most of them are giving the same talks.
How did this all pay off for us? RubyNation 2010 was our most highly-rated conference ever…until RubyNation 2011 came along and was even higher-rated. Our strategies have grown RubyNation from a 135 attendees in 2008 to 216 attendees in 2011.
Editorial Note: (March 23, 2012) — And 250 people in 2012.