Getting Talks Selected

It's a very busy conference season in and around the PHP Community, seems like it wasn't that long ago True North wrapped up and already we've got Benelux, Midwest, Laracon, Lone Star, Tek and DPC around the corner (probably more that I'm missing too). These conferences are such a blessing to those who are able to attend, the speakers know their stuff and are very open to sharing and talking outside of their sessions. But you're a smart cookie too! You've got ideas and thoughts and knowledge that other people would like to have, so how do you get in on this? I'm going to tell you how I got into it, your mileage may vary, but hopefully it helps.

It's like the lotto

Ok, so it's not like the lotto in the sense that the selections are based on randomly selected numbers, but it is like the lotto in the sense that you can't win if you don't buy a ticket. Ignoring the fact that the lotto is essentially a poor tax, you aren't going to get selected to speak at any conference if you don't submit a proposal. The chances of an organizer randomly asking someone who's never given a technical presentation at a conference to do a keynote or something is rare. Don't count on your charm or good looks to get you a keynote slot, submit some talks.

But what do I talk about?

Well, if I could answer that question I'd be speaking all the time. I mean obviously you want to speak about something you know about, you want speak on a topic you find interesting. There's a misconception that all these talks have to been given from a level of complete mastery. Technical conferences are filled with people with diverse skill sets, for every master there are at least 3 novices. Don't let the fact that you don't know every single detail about your topic prevent you from proposing a talk. If the idea pops into your head and you feel like you can get 45-60 minutes of content out it, go to town. Submit more than 1 idea, it will increase your odds of being selected. Seriously, it's science.

How do I write an abstract?

Why are you giving the talk? What are you hoping to convey with the content you are hoping to share? People go to talks to learn about things that will solve their problems or make their lives easier, so if you aren't selling some form of that, it's going to be tough. So in your abstracts you need to figure out the problem you are trying to solve. If for example you want to talk about writing tests, the problem is that you have no idea what your code is doing. That's good that's problem! You also give some detail on the things that are going to help solve the problem, "we're going to talk about x,y,z", so what tools are we going to use to fix the problem. Lastly, show how those tools are used to fix the problem and detail what the solution does for them. "You'll notice the number of phone calls at 2am decrease once you actually know what your code is doing!" Problem, tools, solution, benefits - that's what people want. Don't be afraid to describe your talk, you are selling this to the people that decide your speaking fate!

But I've never spoke before

Well you should fix that, getting accepted to speak at BigMegaYourLanguageCon is an awesome achievement...again there are tons of insanely smart and driven people in this industry. So if you've never spoke at a conference before (which is everyone at some point), starting producing content. You should have a blog and write on it about the things you are learning. Get engaged in social media. Twitter is an excellent source for learning, sharing, promoting and performance art - get to know people, talk to them. People knowing you for the awesome content you provide will lead to them wanting to see you speak on the topic. Lastly, speak somewhere before BigMegaYourLanguageCon, go to another conference and give an unconf talk, find a local user group, go on vacation and find a user group where you are vacationing (your spouse won't mind). Do something to get in font of people and present, make sure you really want to do it before BMYLC selects your talk. Produce, speak and put yourself out there a bit...that's it.

This sounds like work

Bingo, there's no magical elixir that will land you speaking gigs at cool conferences. Everyone that speaks, from the seasoned pro to the up and comer, has worked extremely hard to not only put the talks together; but acquire all the knowledge necessary to give the talk in the first place. These steps are how I got started, I started this blog and got a catchy (and factual) name and wrote on it a lot. I was fortunate to be able to go a few conferences. I gave an Uncon talk at True North 2013 after not having my talks selected. I gave an Uncon talk at SunshinePHP, I spoke at LKPUG (Lake/Kenosha PHP User Group), I gave presentations at work and I kept trying. Getting the rejection emails is a rite of passage, it's an opportunity to improve your approach and your abstracts and an opportunity to learn more things before the next Cfp opens. It's hard work, but if you really want to do it; it's worth the work and the rejection.

Really though

Conference organizers are in a position where they take people's money with the promise of providing them engaging content. If the content wasn't engaging people wouldn't go to the conference, so being an unknown isn't really beneficial to being selected. That's the goal of every organizer, to put on a great conference. Some of these conferences get 400+ submissions, the more they know about you the deeper they can look at your proposal. So, hopefully you weren't thinking this was going to be ground breaking; but hopefully it helps you break things down into steps. I've been involved with the PHP community for almost 2 years and I wanted to speak after the first conference I attended. There's no shortcut, it takes time and energy. It takes putting your content out there and being vulnerable. Learn from your mistakes, improve your understanding and work really freaking hard. Easy right?


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