This year I was honored by the organizers of Semtech and Zendcon to be on their advisory board.
I always love reading pre & post-conference articles by board members, so it’s only right to blog when it’s my turn.
This will serve as a pre AND post mortem, as Semtech has passed and Zendcon is upcoming.
For those who don’t know what an advisory board is, conference organizers get loads of proposals and need help deciding who should speak. So they ask others in the industry to provide some feedback. It was quite a learning experience.
Speakers don’t like to get rejected. Understandable. Watching the process on this end… from proposal to acceptance/rejection being played out on Twitter, I think it’d make a great TheOatmeal or XKCD.
e.g., you see a proposal littered with spelling mistakes…insane comments….on a talk that’s been proposed by 5 other people. It gets unanimous rejection votes. Then the speaker takes the case to twitter, and fans who haven’t even seen the proposal discuss the stupidity of the conference in rejecting it. It’s hilarious!
When you look at the comments on Twitter, you’d think these choices are a no-brainer. In fact, and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to provide actual numbers so I won’t, there are FAR more proposals than spots. FAR more. Good talks WILL get rejected. And it will break our hearts.
So don’t expect to get into any one conference. Or at least not in a particular year. But if you’re determined to become a conference speaker, there are plenty of things you can do. You WILL succeed if determined. You may have to work hard on it, but you can get there. Read on.
Professionalism and Courtesy
I’m amazed at the arrogance of some submitters. You’ll get an “important” person who doesn’t fill out the basic info. Just a one-liner, thinking their reputation will let them in.
Unfortunately, often it does. And I tend to vote that way more than others, because the goal is to put on the best show for the attendees, not to “punish” arrogant assholes. If you got speaking chops, we owe it to the audience to let you speak…
That said, if there’s a tough choice between two great speakers, guess who will get the nod? Or if there are two rooms, one “better” than the other…do you think arrogance will help curry favor?
As an aside, and I hate even mentioning this, the lack of common courtesy by many in our field is appalling. I have been disappointed over and over again after putting people together with jobs and gigs, how often folks don’t even say “Thank you.”
I’ve had several instances where I had to find out from the client (consulting) or the company (full-time) that they hired a referral!
If you’re a shitty person, don’t worry. Pretending to be “courteous” won’t turn you into a nice person. But it is a smart career and life move. So please, try to fool us! Thank you.
Getting your talk accepted
If you want to get accepted at a talk, let me tell you what will help sway the board. Particularly if you’re not that well known.
First, take the fill out form seriously. Keep in mind that there’s not a lot of money to be made in conference software. Therefore, it’s usually built in-house. So even if the form isn’t that great, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to fill it out fully or put a lot of thought into how you present your proposal.
Think about it. If you can’t give the board a compelling reason to pick you, why would we expect that you’d be able to give a great talk? Honestly, it’s *shocking* how poorly people are filling out these forms.
Second, have you honed your speaking skills? Don’t expect to start out at a major conference. That’s a horrible place to practice your talk. Approach your local meetup organizer and ask if you can speak. You can do that right now in fact. If you’re going to be in the LA area, drop me a line. gmail is joedevon. Or ping me on http://twitter.com/joedevon. If I don’t /(co||run)/ a meetup related to your field, chances are I’ll be able to refer you to someone who does.
Even if we think a speaker is mediocre, you’ll usually get at least one chance to prove it.
How to turn an otherwise rejection-worthy talk into an approval?
There are several major things you can do to get a yes. Whet our appetite! Chances are, if we’re reviewing proposals, we know the field pretty well. We’ve heard most of the well-known speakers. We’ve heard podcasts on most topics. Other than the contacts, why do even attend conferences? To learn something new of course.
So ideally, come up with something new! Invent something (more on that below). But if you can’t do that, at least provide us with something different. Pick a difficult topic and learn it inside out. Give us the nitty gritty details we might not otherwise know.
It’s not enough that it’s in your talk. We need to know this somehow! Give us your slide deck!
I’ll give you a simple example. Memcached. I’ve heard quite a few talks covering the topic. The then-DBA of Facebook was my first one. In fact, that was one of the first talks I ever organized. Another speaker is Ben Ramsey. How can you compete with that?
Along comes Ilia Alshanetsky. Here’s slides on his latest version of the Memcached talk. He teaches you about the benefits of the igbinary…which wasn’t that well-known when he started talking about it. And if you use Memcached & don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to a previous Zendcon talk of his. It was excellent! And a perfect illustration of how to compete in a crowded marketplace.
I only mention this particular case because it was before I was on the advisory board and yet is an example of a talk that excites me. For work, I live in caching layers all day long. It’s not every day you can teach your techops guy a new trick ;) Thanks Ilia ;)
Share your unique experience
So you aren’t the DBA of Facebook. Fair enough. But I’m sure if you’re at the stage that you’re ready to speak, you have some unique experience. Focus on that. What did you learn because of what you’re working on that can help teach others?
Can’t come up with something? It’s very easy. What problem frustrated the heck out of you? How did you solve it? You probably aren’t the only one with that problem. If you can’t remember a previous problem, just remember the next time you’re frustrated, can it be a good topic for a talk once you solve this?
You a consultant? Share your secrets. The chances that you’ll lose business to competition by doing so are VERY low. But the likelihood of getting business as a result of a well-received talk? VERY high.
Come up with something new
Come up with a brand new topic. If an established speaker is cornering the market on “widget” talks, invent a new field where you are the only speaker! That will establish you as the go to gal. We all like to learn new things.
For a good example of this, check out Tim Wright, AKA @csskarma’s blog. He likes to go where no one else has gone. This opens the door to him to get talks accepted as well as articles in major e-journals.
I remember a recent talk he did on getting dropdowns on touch devices working right. He came up with original stuff by reading Safari docs that few people have. It was painful. But when he reached the a-ha moment, I’m sure he felt it was worth it.
Being somewhere new gives you lots of room to breathe. And shine.
Joind.in, Meetup, Slideshare, Twitter
Lanyrd and Google+ are good too.
We are active on all these sites. Make sure you’ve got a healthy profile on each. Joind.in is helpful to know how your talks have been rated. Slideshare lets us look at your history. If you have tons of presos, you probably don’t suck.
Not being on Twitter doesn’t mean you’re a bad speaker. But boy do speakers in particular have a lot to gain from the “open-faced” social networks. IOW, twitter, G+. Facebook is more for friends…
If you’re “working it”, and have 100,000 followers on Twitter…. and you tend to promote the conferences you speak at, don’t you think this might influence the organizers a bit? Maybe not.
Maybe the jury takes it to heart when a judge instructs them not to let the fact that *a man’s daughter was raped* influence their verdict on his murder of said rapist.
I’ll tell you this. It couldn’t hurt.
I hope I’ve given you a few ideas on what attitude you should have in life if you want to succeed. Wait, did I just say life? Yes… because having a winning attitude will help you get a new talk, a new job, a new wife, a new life.
So be professional. Be courteous. Take your lumps with grace. Appreciate opportunities you’ve been given. And if you aren’t at the top of your field, create a new one!
I should really blog about my Semtech experiences. Man oh man, it was something else. Especially the Birds of a Feather.