You have to ask to get a “yes”.

Note: This was originally posted at Ladies in Tech, April 2, 2013

The first step to speaking at a conference is to ask to speak at the conference. To some people this is self-evident. For me, it came as a surprise: when attending my first technical conference, I assumed the organizers had asked all of the speakers to be there. It made sense to me that, to be a speaker, you had to be ‘internet famous’ enough for someone to ask you to present. Otherwise, how would they find you to ask you?

At SXSW in 2008, I attended the panel “What Women Need to Succeed” with five awesome women speakers. How had they been discovered? Afterwards, I drummed up the courage to ask Stephanie Sullivan, the panel moderator. She explained you aren’t asked to speak. Rather, you have to ask to speak.

Find a conference that interests you. Find their call for proposals. Submit a talk. If you don’t submit a talk proposal, they won’t have a proposal to accept.

Really. It is that easy. I asked to speak. The first 20+ conference I applied to speak at said “yes.”

Apply first. Get permission later!

I know too many women who don’t apply to speak at conferences because they assume they won’t get the permissions or funds to attend. They worry about not having an interesting topic, not getting accepted, and not being skilled enough to talk. They assume the worst and don’t even apply.

Do not worry about any of these things and just apply. Instead of wasting mental effort convincing yourself of impending failure, put that effort into writing your proposal.

Make sure you don’t have any unchangeable conflicts before applying to speak. Other than that, don’t worry about getting all your ducks-in-a-row with costs, time, and permission until after you know you have a speaker slot. Once you’ve been accepted is the time to worry about whether you have a dog sitter.

How about your job? Wait until you’ve been accepted before telling them you are going. Remember, speaking at a conference benefits your employer. The company you work for will likely not only let you go, but may even sponsor your trip. If they require you to take vacation time, or don’t allow you to attend, take it as a sign that it is time to change jobs!

Many conferences list the perks of speaking on their Call For Proposal (CFP) page. Others make no mention of speaker perks. If they don’t list it, it doesn’t mean they don’t offer anything; you just have to ask. But don’t ask until after your talk has been accepted so potential expenses aren’t held against you in the selection process.

Remember almost anything is possible, but nothing will happen if you don’t ask.

How to submit a talk

It may take some time the first time you submit a speaking proposal. Once you’ve submitted your first proposal, you will have the material ready to apply to all other conferences.

To submit a talk, generally you need to cover some or all of the following:

  1. Headshot
    If you don’t have a headshot that you like, don’t worry. When I first started speaking, I used my avatar, which was a cartoon rendition of me. No one complained. Raffi Krikorian of Twitter never submitted a picture for Webstock in 2012; they simply used a picture of David Hasselhoff. Yes, it is better to have a headshot, but don’t let the lack of a good photograph stop you from applying to speak.
  2. Brief biography
    I found writing my biography to be a bigger challenge than writing my talk description. If you’re plagued with writer’s block (especially if caused by ‘imposter syndrome’), have your partner or co-worker do it. Or write a biography about someone you admire in your field. Then use the same adjectives to describe yourself, just change the nouns to reflect your accomplishments instead of his or hers. If that doesn’t work for you, look at the biographies of other presenters on various conference sites and compile them into a description of yourself.
  3. Talk title
    Remember, you are selling your talk. What does the target audience want to buy? Make it short, hip, and engaging, while making it obvious what you are going to cover. If you need help, ask your network, or visit @weareallawesome on Tuesday mornings (or anytime).
  4. Short, Medium, and Long description of your talk
    You may need to provide up to three descriptions of your talk. The short or “tweetable” version will be used for marketing. The medium length version is what will be posted on the conference website. This is what is used by attendees to decide whether to attend the conference, and, if they do, which session to attend. The medium length posting is a good place to include catchy marketing phrases. The lengthy detailed version describes what you are really covering in your talk — it is your way to communicate to the conference organizers all the awesome material your attendees will learn in technical rather than marketing terms.
  5. A link to a video of a previous talk
    If it’s your first time speaking, don’t let this “requirement” stop you from applying. It doesn’t need to be a catch-22. Simply omit the field or let them know that you don’t have any talks recorded. Just because there is a field in the online CFP form does not mean all the fields are actually required.

    If you want, you can include a link to your Github account, or to an article covering a similar topic, showing that you know how to explain the topic. But remember, don’t over explain yourself or make excuses. Tell them what you are capable of, not what you are lacking. The only harm in submitting an incomplete application is they might say “no.” But they may also say “yes.”

Thinking it through

When it comes to the talk title, tweetable description, medium description, and detailed description, I actually complete those in reverse order. I find explaining what I am going to talk about in great detail is easier than coming up with a catchy title.

It might help to write an outline or timeline for your talk, but keep it to yourself. Remember, you are selling your idea to the reviewers, not explaining your thought process to them.

Less can be more. Reviewers, like site users, don’t like to read. Make your description as short and to the point as possible, outlining expected attendee takeaways, thinking of it as a marketing piece, not an itinerary.

Stuck? Get inspiration from conference talks accepted the previous year.

What topics should you submit?

When I was recruiting proposals for a JavaScript conference last year, the response I received from a few women were statements like “I don’t know JavaScript well enough,” “I don’t have anything to talk about,” and “No one is interested in what I have to say.” Bullshit!

Whatever you work on is a perfect topic to suggest. Just because you think what you do is easy, that doesn’t mean that other people don’t find it challenging and want to learn how to do it. If you find it easy, you likely know it well enough to present. Do you attend sessions on topics you’ve mastered? Or do you attend sessions to learn new things? If the reviewers think it’s dull or too basic they can always say “no.” If someone knows your subject matter as well as you do, they’re unlikely to attend.

Submitting multiple proposals

Unless otherwise noted in the CFP, it is okay, and often a good idea, to submit more than one talk proposal.

Many women don’t submit multiple topics because they fear wasting the reviewers’ time. Reviewers might actually view you as both versatile and excited about presenting. And they might enjoy picking their favorite out of the few. Submitting multiple talks gives you a better chance of being accepted for at least one topic.

Be a risk taker, not a rule follower.

Getting rejected.

If your proposal is rejected, your ego may be a little hurt. Don’t take it personally. The conference proposal reviewers likely gave your talk a thumbs up or down in less than one minute. Then they moved on to review the next proposal. They may have already decided on which talks they wanted and just did the CFP for show. You don’t have to tell anyone. They’re not going to tell anyone. Just remember, they’re the ones missing out on your awesome talk!

Getting accepted!

You asked to present. They said yes. Awesome! This means they want you. They may have taken three days or three months to say yes. You can take a few days to accept. It is okay to turn them down, as well; you might have applied a while ago, plans change. They should not be adding you as a speaker to their lineup until you have confirmed that you are willing and able to speak. If they picked all four sessions you submitted, it is also okay to tell them that you only want to do one or two.

If the conference organizers wanted your talk enough to accept it, they will likely pay for your flight and hotel. Also, conference fees are generally waived for speakers. I do not speak at conferences that charge speakers to attend. You and the other speakers are what makes the conference worth the conference fees. They need you. Remember that. It is completely acceptable to ask for the financial assistance you need to make speaking at this conference possible. The worst thing that can happen is that they will say “no.”

Once the conference organizers have agreed to your terms, you can accept their invitation. Congratulations! You are now a speaker.