Becoming a conference speaker

Conference talks are a great way to expand your knowledge and get fresh ideas. The agile community has come up with some great events. They are a great way to meet like minded people and connect with the community. But how do you get from a conference attendee to becoming an active speaker? I will outline my personal approach to hold my first talk at a conference.

Find your niche topic

Find topics which you are passionate about, have experience with and solve a shared issue.

Depending on your role in your organisation, your experience and your team you might have already developed a unique perspective on things. I work in a double role as technical product owner and software engineer. Being part of various Scrum teams for over 7 years has certainly formed my opinions on many topics.

Inspect any recurring thought about your work. Find topics which:

  • You are passionate about
  • You have experience with
  • Deal with issues that others have too
Image from FCIT

Some of these topics for me are how component teams can still adopt a vision or how teams can share ownership of their product just to name a few. Once you found your niche topic make the effort and collect your thoughts around this idea for a while. Putting my thoughts into words helps me order them and filtering the noise out. If you can’t write a concise blog post about your idea chances are it’s not fully thought out yet.

Find conferences

Once you find a niche which matches your passions, skills and experience it’s time to prepare for the actual speaking.

Have a look for quality conferences which are open for new speakers. It’s important to look for conferences which clearly have a space for your topic and level for experience.

While you might get lucky and start your speaking career at a big conference on a random topic, those chances are really small. It’s better to focus your effort and research fitting speaking opportunities. This will help target your talk proposal much better. Remember that this is an opportunity for you. But not necessarily a financial one. Many conferences do not even cover speaker’s accommodation or travel cost which is perfectly fine. That’s why I am focusing on conferences in Europe. Some of the conferences which are on my list:

Write your talk proposal

When you start writing your talk proposal it’s easy to just zoom in on all the details you want to cover. But remember you want to speak about something which is also interesting for someone else. Try to build that interest by illustrating the problem you discovered and how you solved it. Or write about the lessons you learnt with a failed experiment. Inspire people to try new things, help them with the Why and How!

Inspire people. Do not talk about how amazing your product or organisation is.

My first talk proposal is about my team’s struggle with story points and our #noEstimates experiment. which is a common problem in agile teams. Over the last years there has been wide interest in the #noEstimates debate. By experimenting and reflecting on our new approach we gained valuable insights which I am passionate to share.

Tell an interesting story

It’s not just about the content but just as much as to how you present it. There are many ways how you can improve as a speaker. Here are a few tips:

  • Practice your pacing. Whenever you slow down you give your words more importance and speed up for more capturing, exciting parts.
  • Make them laugh. With a joke you can disrupt the monotony and fill the room with more liveliness.
  • Tell a story. Story telling is a well studied approach to engage your audience. We humans just love a good story!
  • Practice makes perfect. Get comfortable to practice your talk until you really feel it. It’s a good idea to rehearse your talk in front of other people as soon as you can. You can already present your talk within your organisation and small user groups even before it is 100% complete. This way it will be much easier to incorporate feedback.

What not to talk about

There are also topics which are not widely accepted on conferences. Be sure to stay away from those:

  • Talking about something specific to your organisation. Unless you’re Google or Uber nobody is really interested in that.
  • Talking about your awesome product. We get it. It’s hard to gain traction and you’re palmate about it. But when we pay for tickets to an event where we want to learn something, we’re not receptive for your sales pitch.

Throw yourself in at the deep end

If you are really passionate about your topic and you have a story which is interesting for others just take the leap and submit your proposal. Getting declined is the likeliest outcome, even more so for a first time speaker. I don’t expect to become a successful conference speaker overnight and neither should you. Instead I am happy to share my ideas in smaller gatherings such as user groups until one of my proposals will be accepted.

Like with so many other things in life perseverance will eventually pay out. See you on stage!