Why speak at conferences and how to apply

"Prepare as best as you can, but expect everything to go wrong."

Conference speaking is one of the things I've never expected to do myself. At least not this early in my career. The thought never even crossed my mind.

I got invited to speak at my first conference and things went on from there. Now, almost a year later, I love speaking at conferences. It's a different world from being an attendee. You get to do everything other attendees do; listen to other talks, learn, and meet new people. But you also get a sneak peek behind the curtains. You get to hang out with other speakers and have an amazing opportunity of sharing your experience with others.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Who would want to listen to me? What do I have to offer that another more experienced developer cannot? Everyone is going to see that I know nothing and they'll call me an impostor. We've all been there.

Nobody knows everything. When you learn a new concept and do something practical with it, you gain experience. Experience is what matters and no one can argue your experience is wrong. Take that personal experience to your advantage and make a talk about it. You've find a cool new concept to implement navigation in SwiftUI? Talk about it! Share it with other developers.

Talk about topics that interest you; that you're passionate about. You don't have to be an expert on the topic to give a talk about it. The secret is to make others reconsider their perspective through yours. The only difference between speakers and other attendees is they have learned something well and they are willing to talk about it.

Coming up with an idea

One of my previous projects used an architectural pattern I've never heard about before. When I talked to other developers about it, no one heard of it either. So I thought it would make a perfect conference talk. I knew how the pattern worked in a large codebase and have been working with it for over a year.

Some developers like to submit talk proposals on a technical topic they want to learn more about. At the time they submit their talk, they only have a high level understanding of the topic. If you think you have enough time to learn more about it and get a decent understanding, it's a way to go. But, I wouldn't suggest this.

Try to get a better understanding of the topic you're submitting a talk proposal for. You will be more comfortable talking about it and it reduces a lot of stress before your talk. Attendees are, after all, paying to come and listen to your talk and are eager to learn from it.

The topic doesn't have to be unique either. Want to talk about an API but somebody already gave a talk about it? So what, your point of view matters too. Remember, it's all about your own perspective.

I don't think I have anything new to say, it's all covered before is only your brain trying to convince you not to do it. It's scary and inconvenient. After all, we like being comfortable. Break out of it and do it! You'll feel amazing afterwards. There's nothing like that feeling of accomplishment after you've delivered your talk.

Once you have a topic (or a few) in mind that you feel you're ready to give a talk about, find conferences that interest you and start applying.

Call For Papers

CFP or Call For Papers is a first step in the process. Conferences usually open their CFPs six to four months before the conference and give a month or two for speakers to apply.

Once you start the application process, your talk doesn't need to be ready. You might start working on your slides and practicing your talk a month or two before the conference. Or as soon as you'd like, but I don't recommend leaving it until the last minute, especially if you're not familiar with the topic. Other things may come up that you weren't expecting and you'll end up rushing and doing sloppy work. The more prepared you are for your talk - the less stressed you'll be.

Of course, no amount of preparation will reduce the stress as you're about to go on stage. Even experienced speakers with years of experience behind them get stressed before the talk. It's completely human. Remember to breathe, drink some water, and you'll do great!

Application process starts with a form and three important fields that you need to fill; talk title, talk description, and about yourself. Some of them may ask more details, but these are consistent parts of every application. Let's talk about each of them.

Talk Title

Talk title is the first thing conference attendeeds see. You want to keep it short, but descriptive enough to convey the message your talk will give.

For my iOSDevUK '22 talk about Publish framework to build static websites in Swift, I came up with the title: "Swift your personal website using Publish". In Publish, you write your website components in Swift programming language. The end result is a fast and responsive (swift) static website. I thought it would be a nice play with words.

Once you have the talk title ready, it's time to come up with the talk description.

Talk Description

Talk description should answer the following questions:

  • Why are you giving this talk?
  • What is the purpose of the talk?
  • What will the audience take away from it?

This doesn't mean the description should be a massive block of text. If there is no requirement in the CFP form, keep it around 100 - 150 words long. Nobody likes to read a wall of text. The person reading the description should be able to have answers to the above questions. The idea is to make it interesting so people want to see your talk. Especially if a conference has more tracks.

This part of application is also called an abstract, which means that your talk description should be exactly that. If you know what you want to talk about, then write specific things. But if you have an idea or are not quite sure what approach you want to take, try to write it without anything specific so you have some room to change it up later.

It's all about balance. Take some time to write a good description and ask others for feedback. Remember to run it through a spell check too, you don't want grammatical errors in there. It shows that you care and are ready to deliver an amazing talk.

One thing I like to do is take a look at how other speakers write their talk titles and descriptions to get inspiration from them. Open any conference website and find talks from previous years. You might get an idea from there.

You wrote the hardest part of application, well done! Now's the time to think about yourself.

About Yourself

It may sound simple, but I always spend so much time writing and changing the About Me part. Use this part of application to tell people a little about yourself. I've seen developers write around 100-150 words. Or you can make it as short as you'd like. I've even seen conferences asking for 200 words of text.

Mention what you do, where you're from and where you work. Add a little bit about your personal life, like hobbies or fun facts. Write anything you want to share with attendee so they get to know you. If there's no requirement, choose whether you want to write it in first or third person. I've seen different approaches on this. It's up to you.

Final thoughts

Talk title and description are what conference organizers look at when deciding whether to accept your talk proposal. Make it count! Take time to refine your idea. You have more than enough time to submit a talk proposal. I like to take notes on things I've learned and later revisit them to see if they'd make a great conference talk or a blog post.

Finally, get excited, you submitted your first talk!

Don't get discouraged if your talk doesn't get accepted. Conferences get hundreds of applications and have to make a choice what would be of most interest to all attendees. You're always welcome to submit multiple applications and apply to more than one conference.

Please feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have any questions or comments. I'd be more than happy to provide any guidance or take a look at your application and provide feedback. Remember, you have more to share about your experience than you think. Anything interesting that you've worked on is a potential topic for a conference talk.

Thank you for reading and I'm looking forward to seeing your talks!