Why You, Too, Should Speak at a Conference

Why You, Too, Should Speak at a Conference

Written by Grace Kwan


Original post published here. Learn more about the author, Grace Kwan

A few months ago, I gave my first conference talk. If you’d told me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. Me? A speaker? But I haven’t got anything interesting to say!

…Or so I thought. A year ago, I was happily hacking away on my projects at Button when we hired badass data engineer Jiaqi Liu. In Jiaqi, I was lucky to find both a great friend and an outstanding mentor. When I mentioned how impressed I was by her speaking cred, she offered to show me the ropes. A few months and many applications later, I gave my first talk: How to Bring a Design Language to Life, at Women Who Code CONNECT 2018.

Shoutout to Chiu-Ki Chan for the beautiful sketchnotes!

In retrospect, speaking in front of a room of strangers wasn’t as scary as I thought. What’s more, the positive reception blew me away. After the talk, my inbox was full of messages from attendees expressing their enthusiasm for the talk. Some wanted to learn more about building UI components, whereas others sought advice on becoming a UX engineer. Still others simply wanted to express their appreciation for what they had learned, a made me grateful to be part of such a supportive community.

All in all, speaking was a rewarding experience that I’d like for more engineers early in their career to have, especially fellow underrepresented minorities. However, navigating the application process can be daunting. To that end, I’ll share a few reasons why it’s worth your time, followed by pointers on how to break into the conference circuit.

Why Should I Bother?

There’s no way around it–giving a talk is a lot of work. That said, there are many great reasons to invest that effort. Here are just a few:

  • Give back to the community. No matter what you’re noodling on at your desk, chances are, others have struggled with the same thing. That doesn’t mean that your topic isn’t unique or novel–on the contrary, it’s a great reason to help others avoid making the same mistakes! This is especially true if most conference lineups don’t include very many people who look like you. By sharing your perspective, you help the wider technical community achieve a more representative narrative.
  • Bolster your brand. Regardless of what you speak about, you’re establishing yourself as someone with expertise in that space. This can open up great opportunities down the line, from other speaking opportunities to that dream job you’ve always had in the back of your mind. Sharpening up your public speaking skills never hurts, either.
  • And your company’s, too! Speaking helps your company establish itself as a thought leader, which has incredible payoffs on the recruiting front. Here at Button, many members of our mobile team applied after seeing one of our engineering managers speak at Android meetups and conferences. For this reason, many companies offer resources such as speaker preparation and travel compensation. If yours doesn’t, make the case to your manager. Recruiting is a big expense for companies, which makes for a compelling argument.

How Do I Get Started?

You don’t need to lead a giant team or flaunt thousands of Twitter followers to speak at a conference. Some conferences are invitation-only, but many offer a Call for Proposals (CFP), in which the general public is invited to submit a talk for consideration. Here’s how you can take advantage of that opportunity.

  • Brainstorm a handful of topics. Have you found a project so fascinating that before you know it, hours have flown by? Have you come up with a clever solution to a tricky problem? Is there a particular pattern or technology you’ve found useful? The topic doesn’t have to be novel to be valuable–no one has watched every talk on the internet–but it should be something you’re excited and confident speaking about. It doesn’t have to be technical in nature, either; many conferences have sessions on topics such as giving feedback, negotiation, and (meta alert!) public speaking.
  • Find some suitable conferences. Now that you have a few ideas, look for some conferences relevant to your topics. If you’re passionate about a particular technology or are part of an underrepresented group, joining a local community is a great way to find out about relevant opportunities. For instance, Women Who Code sends a great newsletter that highlights upcoming CFPs and ticket giveaways. PaperCall also has an extensive list of technical events, with the option to filter to open CFPs only. If you’re nervous about jumping into a conference right away, local meetups are a great way to get speaking practice in a friendly environment. More and more events are giving special consideration to first-time speakers, so look for them as a way to get your foot in the door.
  • Craft a relevant proposal. Most CFPs ask for a title, personal bio, and abstract. However, each conference has its own focus and personality, so much as you’d tailor your résumé for a particular job description, you should tailor your proposal to fit each event. Talks from previous years of the same conference can be a great way to learn what topics the organizers look for. For instance, a talk on data visualization might focus on design principles at a UX conference, or on the implementation at a JavaScript meetup. Regardless of the event, make sure to start early, and don’t hesitate to reach out to the organizers with questions–in some cases, they’ll even give you feedback on your proposal. Once you’ve submitted, don’t be discouraged if your first few proposals aren’t selected; finding the right fit takes time, but it’s worth it!

Ready to Speak?

Do you feel inspired to share your ideas with the world? I hope so! Next time, I’ll share some advice on preparing and giving a talk. In the meantime, if you have questions, additional tips, or would like to share the topics you came up with, please leave a comment!

I’ll close with an obligatory plug: If you’d like to work at an NYC startup that cares deeply about its employees’ growth, Button is hiring!