Fighting to Speak

I’ve only recently “broke out” into the tech speaker scene, starting mid-last year with a talk I did at MoSo Conf’s HTML5 Code Camp. Since then I’ve had some pretty good success getting gigs at local events like Regina Tech Community and Prairie Dev Con, but would really like to branch out from there. I’m finding it pretty hard – the conferences I’d be interested in are either invite only or I hear about them way too late. It kind of reminds me when I was first looking for a job out of school.

Look, it’s me presenting at Prairie Dev Con!

Not What You Know…

When I graduated, it took me about 3 months to find a job, and even then it wasn’t the job I really wanted. I ended up doing tech repair work for a local computer shop. The only reason I got that job was because I knew the guy who was quitting and he recommended me for a replacement. After I got hired there, I performed really well but still spent time looking for a software development gig. I finally got my break at iQmetrix Software – but the only reason I got in there was because I knew someone who worked at the company already.

I didn’t get an interview because of my skills or experience (CST diploma, freelance work), or my passion for development (numerous published side projects) – it was because of who I know. This is pretty common place of course, the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is well established. It really feels like getting into some of these conferences work much of the same – it’s more of a “who you know” than anything else.

Of course the people who are speaking at these conferences are qualified experts and experienced public speakers, with reputations to match. It’s hard to be too upset when you see Scott Guthrie or Glenn Block among the speakers who beat you out. From the organizer’s point of view, you need to have speakers that your attendees want to see – these people are investing good money and time to attend your conference, you want to make sure its a worthwhile investment.

But is this the way it should be? How many people are we missing out on simply because we don’t know them? It seems a little unfair that a part of someone’s professional future can be determined by their relation (or lack thereof) to someone else.

Conference Transparency

There’s one thing that I think conference organizers can do better when it comes to selecting speakers – have a transparent process. First off, have a call for speakers that’s open to anybody; ensure anyone who wants to present at your conference has a chance to submit a proposal. Once you do receive talk proposals, publicise them – let everyone see who’s submitted talks for what. This will give everyone involved the context to see what others have submitted, so they can see what the general feeling of the conference will be as well as the quality of other talks they might be “up against”.

From there you could take an extra step and put it to a public vote – let your attendees pick the talks they’d be interested in. This is a much more complicated process compared to the standard “pick what you want” procedure, but it does delegate the responsibility to the attendees – the people paying to be at your conference. Also, speakers get a much better understanding of what the audience wants out of a conference and a better understanding of why their talk might not fit.

Even without the public vote, I think making your selection process open and transparent will go a long way to help new speakers understand the type of talks that get selected as well as help them improve the quality of their submissions.

Make Yourself Known

As a new speaker, there’s a lot of things we can be doing as well. The easiest way to break into the scene is local events – look for a local BarCamp, user group, or even just start presenting in your own office. This is a great way to work out the initial jitters when doing public speaking and refine your skills.

While you’re doing those local talks, try to get someone to record you. Step 2 is to have proof of your public speaking skills – have a way that conference organizers can actually vet your ability to present on technical topics. I wish I had started doing this sooner, but I’m definitely going to do this for all future talks. When you submit your proposals, include links to the videos of your previous presentation(s). You need to let the organizers know you’re not just some random person who may or may not have presentation skills.

You can also get involved in a particular community that you’re interested in presenting about. Start answering questions on StackOverflow, in mailing lists, on website forums, let people know that you’re a reliable resource when it comes to a particular topic. When it comes time to for people to vote for your session, they can recognize your ability and know they’re going to get someone who is an authority on the topic.

Speaking at technical conferences can be a great experience, and if it’s something you’re interested in doing it’s important to realize you’ll have to do a bit of leg work to get yourself in the first few doors.