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So you want to be a public speaker

This year I set a goal to do more public speaking at conferences. I’m no stranger to speaking in public, my first career was as a teacher, I’ve worked in sales, and have spoken at numerous corporate and customer conferences. I’ve submitted a couple Call for Papers (CFPs) in the past but was rejected and honestly was a little discouraged.

They had rejected my talk because I worked for a vendor. The conference did not want sales pitches. Nowhere in my description did I refer to a company product or the company name, but it was assumed I was unable to speak about a general topic without pitching a product.

It was even more discouraging when I saw somebody else give a topic very similar to what I had proposed.

I decided to give conference speaking another chance. I reached out to some seasoned public speakers for feedback and advice and set a goal to give four talks this year. Here’s the approach I followed.

Sponsored Talks

My company sponsors a lot of events, sometimes as part of the sponsorship package comes a speaking slot. These can range from 5 to 40 minutes. I spoke with a coworker that manages our events and expressed my willingness to deliver talks. Via this process I secured a 20-minute presentation, and two 5-minute talks.

Lesson learned: The audience sometimes tunes out during “sponsored” talks as people often use them as a sales pitch. Don’t! The best compliment I received after one of the talks was:

“You used the time to teach us not to sell to us.”

Responding to my first Call for Papers (CFP)

After attending Seattle DevOps Days in 2016 I was inspired to attempt an Ignite style talk in 2017. If you’re not familiar with the format it is a 5-minute talk, using 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.

I was given advice to find a topic you are passionate about and apply your own perspective to it. That’s exactly what I did. When the 2017 CFP opened, I submitted a talk on applying DevOps principles to parenting. I thought a regional event may have fewer submissions than a national event and increase my chances of the talk being accepted. It was! You can check out the video here or read a related blog if videos aren’t your thing.

Lesson learned: Ignites are hard. I made it extra hard by talking about a very personal and emotion-filled subject — my son. I found myself getting choked up half way through, and it threw me off. Nerves + emotional topics don’t mix well.

Building on the momentum

By the end of April, I had delivered two talks and had talks scheduled in May and June. I would hit my goal halfway through the year. I’m an over-achiever, so I started looking at conferences in the later half of the year.

Once again I found inspiration for a talk at DevOpsDays Seattle and other ideas were brewing. I researched events in the later half of the year and submitted proposals to eight conferences. I’ve heard people say that only 10% of proposals will be accepted (I don’t know where this stat came from, maybe I made it up), so I didn’t get my hopes up.

A 30 minute talk for DevOpsDays Portland was accepted as well as two others which can’t be made public at the moment. Two talks were rejected. I’m still waiting to hear back from three others.

Lesson learned: Don’t believe the rule that only a small percentage of talks are accepted. If the remaining three talks I submitted are accepted I will have a very busy schedule this fall.

Tips on submitting CFPs

  • Look at previous years agendas and watch videos if available to see the types of talks that are typically accepted.
  • If the conference holds open office hours or offers the ability to submit early to get feedback do it. The feedback from this can be the difference between a talk being accepted or rejected.
  • Be willing to start with lightening talks — these often don’t get as many submissions and can increase your chance of getting accepted.
  • Frame your proposal in terms of the take aways or what people will learn from the session. Focus on the conclusion and not the introduction.

Public speaking is hard and scary, including the first step of submitting a proposal. The fear of rejection can be difficult. Don’t let the fear stop you. Find a conference and start working on a proposal today.

In the next blog I’ll discuss the process I follow to create a talk once it has been accepted.