Lessons Learned Speaking at Conferences

This post was originally published on Medium in August 2018. I've rewritten it to include stuff I've learned since, and discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic affects it all.

If memory serves, the first conference I ever attended was an FITC event in Toronto, back in 2014. I remember being super curious about how speaking at tech conferences worked; it felt pretty veiled and mystical to me 🔮

A couple years later, I got my first opportunity to speak: I did a brief lightning talk at React Europe in 2017. Apparently it stuck, because this is something I do a few times a year now.

In this article, I'm going to break down the process, to help offer an inside look at how the whole process works. I'll also share my perspective on what the benefits and drawbacks are, and what effect COVID-19 has.

As an example, I'll be speaking about my 2018 React Rally conference talk, “Explorable Explanations with React”.

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1. Coming up with an idea 💡

The first step to any conference talk is figuring out what you want to talk about!

There are a lot of ways to approach this. My personal strategy is to find stuff at the intersection of the following Venn diagram:

In my case, I was really passionate about explorable explanations.  An explorable explanation, sometimes just called an explorable, is a project that mixes elements of data visualization, journalism, education, and video games to create interactive learning experiences. They allow people to understand complex things in less time through playing and experimenting.

Some great examples of explorable explanations:

I decided in late 2017 that I wanted to build my own explorable about how waveforms work. It’s a subject I studied formally a decade ago, and thought could really benefit from being taught in an interactive way.

After several months of work, the project was launched: Let’s Learn About Waveforms.

The response to this project was overwhelming. I got so many deeply-personal thankful emails, from audio students, to people who had struggled learning it on their own, to teachers and college professors who are using this tool to explain audio or physics concepts in class.

It made me realize that there is a strong need for this kind of content. React developers already have many of the skills needed to produce these kinds of experiences, so why aren’t more of us doing it?

A conference talk seemed like a great way to spread this message, and get folks excited about building their own explorables.

More broadly, I’m fascinated by interesting intersections between disparate things. I’d love to see creative coding represented more at programming conferences, for example!

Another category of “things we aren’t hearing more about” are things that our users need that developers tend to neglect: stuff like accessibility, localization/internationalization, performance.

If you're struggling to come up with talk ideas, it can be really helpful to focus on the things you're passionate about. We tend to assume that everybody knows everything that we do, but that's often not true for the things we're passionate about.

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2. Finding a Conference 👀

Once you have an idea for a talk, you’ll want to find a conference to submit it to!

A great resource for finding conferences is CSS Tricks also has a great list of conferences.

Finally, you can find specific conferences by topic; if you work with React.js, for example, you can check the React conferences list to find suitable conferences.

Not all talks will work for all conferences, so you should spend the time to get a sense of what a conference’s “feel” is. Conferences usually share recordings of talks from previous years, so you can watch last years' talks and see if your talk is suitable.

Additionally, there may be restrictions associated with travel. Being Canadian, I’m fortunate enough that I can travel to most countries in the world without a lot of hassle, but this is not universally true.

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3. Submitting a proposal 📑

Community-run conferences generally have a few invited speakers, but the majority of the lineup will come from a process known as CFP — “Call for Proposals”. This is an open submissions process where anybody can submit proposals for giving a talk.

While every conference has their own submission guidelines, there are some common trends:

  • A conference will accept proposals for several weeks/months, typically a few months before the conference. This gives you plenty of time to work on your talk, if it’s accepted.
  • There is a “CFP season” in the spring, when a large amount of conferences open up for submissions. Don’t worry if you miss the season, though — there are conferences year-round, so there are always conferences looking for proposals.
  • You’ll often need to provide a short public-facing blurb, as well as a more detailed outline that the conference organizers will use to help them decide.

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Conference-Driven Development.

A widely-known secret is that most of the time, conference speakers only have a vague idea about their talk when they submit their proposals. Especially for technical talks, it’s common to submit a proposal for a rough hypothesis, and to figure out the technicalities after it’s accepted.

Perhaps most famously, Dan Abramov applied to speak at React Europe 2015 by pitching a new take on Flux that supported hot-reloading and time-traveling. This solution eventually became Redux, although he hadn’t actually gotten it working when his proposal was accepted!

Be warned, though, that this isn’t always the best idea. In addition to the added stress of having a hard deadline, you might kill your enthusiasm for the subject by overworking yourself:

While there is value in having experienced speakers deliver talks, nobody wants to see the exact same faces, year after year. Because of that, there's still opportunity to break in!

Additionally, many conferences will have an initial “blind round”. This means that proposals are evaluated purely by the submission itself, and nothing is known about the proposal’s author. Prioritize conferences with this kind of process in place.

Some tips:

  • It can be easier to book a lightning talk than a full-length talk. Many conferences won’t cover travel expenses for short lightning talks, though. Frustratingly, this means that this option may not be available to folks without “professional development” budgets from work, or enough disposable income to afford the plane and hotel.
  • It’s often very easy to book a speaking gig at a local meetup (lots of meetups struggle to find speakers, and so there often isn’t any sort of approval process, you just email the organizers). This is great, because it gives you a recording of you speaking, which can make a huge difference when it comes to getting your talk accepted!
  • Some conferences have a "blind" evaluation. This means that talks are filtered based on the merit of the idea, not based on who the speaker is or how much speaking experience they have. Prioritize conferences with policies like this!
  • Don’t be afraid of asking for help! Having an experienced conference speaker edit your proposal can be really valuable.

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Try not to get discouraged.

The sad reality is that conferences receive far more submissions than they have slots for. Many conferences can only accept 5% of submissions (or less).

You will get rejection emails. I think I’ve been profoundly lucky, and I still get rejected ~75% of the time.

If you have a talk you really want to give, don’t let a string of rejections stop you from giving it. Record it yourself at home, and share it on Twitter. Let me know if you do, I’ll gladly share it out!

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4. Building your talk 🛠

After much hard work sunk into crafting your proposal, the stars align and your talk is accepted by a conference! 🎉🎇

If you’re anything like me, you’ll experience a few moments of jubilation, before a horrifying realization settles in: shoot, I actually need to give this talk.

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Iteration and Feedback.

My first draft is almost always bad. After sinking dozens of hours into getting a coherent talk together, you might realize that the whole thing stinks. It can be really discouraging.

I've found that it's necessary to get a bit of distance. Take a couple days away from it, and then come back with a fresh perspective. You'll likely immediately see a bunch of solutions to the problems that had been nagging at you.

For example, I changed the entire structure of my React Rally talk when I realized that the order made no sense (I was starting with the most complex bit of code, instead of working up to it). It was a lot of work, done only a few days before the conference, but the talk was so much better because of it.

Feedback is also extremely important. Find someone you trust to give you honest criticism. They’ll spot problems you hadn’t noticed, and offer encouragement for stuff you’re on the fence about.

You can also give a “practice run” of the talk at a local meetup. It’s not always clear which parts of your presentation will prompt a reaction, and there’s nothing more awkward than having an audience laugh when you weren’t trying to make a joke. Get this out of the way when the audience is tiny!

For my React Europe talk earlier this year, I gave the same talk at a local meetup about a month beforehand, and then grilled everyone who came to talk to me afterwards. The feedback I heard most was that there was too much code in the middle, too much detail in side-pieces that weren’t super germane. I started inserting the "✂️️" emoji in places where it wasn’t beneficial to go through the code line-by-line, and it meant I was able to fit much-needed high-level stuff in the talk.

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Learning about presenting.

While I work on my talks, I take frequent breaks to watch other conference talks.

For example, in my React Europe talk, I decided to rearrange the slides so that the introduction card (“My name is Josh and today I’d like to talk about…”) only shows up 5 minutes into the talk, after seeing what a nice effect it had in Gary Bernhardt’s The Birth and Death of JavaScript.

Some other resources I found very helpful:

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5. Attending the Conference 🎟

After months of work spent building your talk, whether you’re ready or not, the conference arrives. As a speaker, your conference-going experience will be different in a few ways.

Please note: this section was written in 2018, and I haven't updated it to reflect the current COVID-19 situation. I think it's still interesting, so I've left it in, but it is not super relevant at this specific moment in history.

Being a speaker comes with perks. For example, many conferences have a “speaker dinner” the night beforehand. This is a great opportunity to meet and chat with the other speakers.

Another speaker perk is that there is often a “speaker’s lounge”, a quiet side-room that only speakers can pop into.

Initially, this idea was a little unsettling to me; one of the great things about going to conferences is being able to chat with the speakers, and if they’re all off in their own space, that doesn’t work as easily!

After a couple conferences, though, I realized that speakers don’t tend to spend much time in the lounges. Mostly it’s just to give speakers a quiet place to work on their talk, or catch a moment of silence and solitude. As an introvert, I very much appreciated having a quiet spot to sit on my laptop from time to time.

Finally, the organizers typically give attendees a “speaker gift”. A collection of swag and personalized items, as a token of appreciation. At React Rally this year, here’s what we got:

A set of swag including a T-shirt, a hoodie, socks, and a personalized notebook

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Busy and Stressed.

Depending on how prepared you are, you may still be trying to squeeze in some last-minute tweaks to your talk. At React Rally this year, I was still practicing my talk in the final hours, to the point that I was worried I was going to lose my voice!

The common wisdom is that you shouldn't make last-minute tweaks to your talk, and there are a few strong points in its favor:

  • You might accidentally break a live demo! Last-minute tweaks increase the likelihood that something will go wrong.
  • It's worth actually watching the talks before yours so that you can ad-lib based on them
  • You might be making things worse, since you're too stressed / sleep-deprived to tell whether a change is good or not.

Nowadays, after years of practice, I do sometimes dip in and make tweaks at the last minute. But I wouldn't recommend it.

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6. Delivering your talk 🗣

Most people have a healthy fear of public speaking.

Remarkably, most people tell me that I don’t seem nervous in my talk! This is wild, because I’m very nervous. Maybe the trick is just learning how to not seem nervous? Admittedly, it has gotten much better over the years; I'm still nervous, but it's way more manageable now.

One trick I used for years was to rehearse enough that I could give the talk in my sleep. I never had a script, because I wanted to sound authentic. Instead I like to practice enough that I hit all the same points consistently, but the exact phrasing used varies from talk to talk.

The downside to this is that you will forget to mention things. In every talk I’ve given, I forget to say a handful of things I wanted to.

Time also passes ridiculously fast on a stage. 30 minutes can go by in an instant. Before you know it, people are clapping, and you’re done!

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Is it worth it?

Conference talks are a tremendous amount of work. For my React Europe 2018 talk, I estimate that I spent over 150 hours on the talk; it consumed my mornings and weekends for a couple months.

Assuming you make the median US software engineering salary of $104,000 a year, and put 150 hours of work into the talk, you’ve spent $7500 worth of your time getting it ready.

In addition, preparing a talk is a bumpy ride. There’s a bunch of stress along the way, a bunch of nights and weekends where you really don’t feel like working on it but do anyway, moments of crisis where you think your talk won’t work or isn’t interesting.

For all of that, conference talks tend to reach a surprisingly small audience. Most conference talks will be seen by a few hundred people live, and maybe another 1000 through the recording. Most of my blog posts get more views than that, and they take way less time to produce.

So on its face, the math doesn’t look favourable. Why spend so much time and energy on a conference presentation?

In my opinion, there are a few things that balance the scales:

  • While relatively few people will see a conference talk, it can be a very impactful way to deliver a message. A well-crafted talk can inspire and motivate someone far more effectively than a tweet or blog post! For example, CodeSandbox was created by Ives Van Hoorne after attending React Europe, and he credits the conference with making him determined to build it!
  • You get to hang out with the other speakers. In many cases, these are the authors of the tools you use every day, or people whose work has inspired you for years.
  • It’s a tremendous way to make new friends who share your interests. After a conference talk, expect tons of folks to come up and ask pertinent follow-ups, or share some of the interesting things they’ve been doing.
  • Speaking at a conference makes people think that you’re a Real Expert™. It lends authority to what you’re saying. It can help you in your career for years to come.
  • It’s an . It’s a memory that you’ll have for the rest of your life, a Youtube video you’ll be able to watch when you're older. It’s a heck of a thing!

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An update in 2020

I originally published this blog post in mid-2018. It's 2 years later, and I thought I'd include some additional things I've learned in the interim.

  • Don't overcommit yourself. I've found that the sweet spot for me is to prepare 1 conference talk a year, and maybe present it 2-4 times. I will never prepare multiple conference talks a year again, it takes too much time.
  • "Re-use" content across multiple mediums. That conference talk you created would probably make an excellent blog post or tutorial! You've already done the work of researching and preparing and creating demos; there's more juice to be squeezed out of that orange!
  • Research the conferences before applying to them. Do they have a track record of shady practices? Are they doing work to ensure that the speaker lineup is diverse? In a very real way, the speakers represent the conference. Make sure it's an organization you feel comfortable representing.

Aside from those points, my overall viewpoint hasn't changed much. Conference talks are a ton of work, but they're also very rewarding. I'd encourage anybody who is interested in it to give it a shot!

Many things in our lives have changed because of Coronavirus/COVID-19, and conferences are no exception.

Some conferences have been postponed. Others have been canceled outright. But many have transitioned to being virtual/remote, instead of in-person.

It's been a few weeks, and we've seen a few conferences attempt the transition to online. So far, things seem to be running relatively well:

  • React Summit peaked around 4.2k live concurrent viewers, more than double the live + in-room crowd from last year.
  • MagnoliaJS received about 2700 total viewers, with about 400 at peak. For comparison, the conference had about 200 attendees the prior year.
  • Women of React saw 12.5k live viewers, with likely many more to come once the recordings are published (this conferences was amazing).

The move to online conferences appears to have increased the number of people who see each talk.

Anecdotally, I've been invited to speak at more conferences since lockdowns started, and I've heard from other conference speakers who have heard the same. I suspect that fewer established conference speakers are willing to put in the work of preparing a conference talk without the typical perks of being able to travel.

I'd also imagine that giving a talk remotely can be less stressful than giving one in-person, on a stage in front of hundreds of people. I know that some conferences even support pre-recording your talk, so that you can engage with the audience in live Q&A.

All of these factors put together suggest to me that if you're interested in becoming a conference speaker, you don't have to suspend those goals until the current pandemic has passed. Spring-time is CFP season, and conferences have adapted to the new reality.

It's worth repeating that these are turbulent times, and many folks will not want to spend their time preparing and delivering a conference talk. That is 100% OK. But for some, this is a welcome distraction, and I'm glad to see that the option continues to exists.

Hope you're all doing well and staying home! ✌🏻

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Last Updated:
May 6th, 2020