Monday, January 26, 2015

Submitting to conferences, take two

I have a confession to make: since I posted that I don't submit talks to conferences last autumn, I've submitted more talks than ever before. I've also been invited to do talks more, without submitting.

Not only have I submitted talks, I also volunteered with Speak Easy ( to mentor other people submitting to conferences.

I still feel very much divided on this. If I am hesitant in submitting, how can I advice others to do so?

Why I'm hesitant to submit to conferences?  

Reason 1: Speaking gets expensive. Really expensive. Find someone who pays for it.

Many conferences don't pay for travel expenses. Some employers don't find it in their interest to pay for conference travel when conferences don't pay for it. Some employers don't pay for the time at conference either. As self-employed, the time away at the conference is also time away from paid work. This all totals to the fact sometimes speaking gets to be expensive.

I personally work for a product company that has no interest in promoting anything to the testing (or software) community. They don't have extensive needs of recruiting within the software professionals. The work we do, the testing we so is interesting and we have a lot to share - I have a lot to share. But my employer does not pay my travel. They don't pay for my time at the conference. If (when) I want to do it, I just take time of - unpaid vacation. Personally, I compensate by doing training/consulting on the side. But everyone does not have that option.

I'm a big believer in getting paid to speak or at least not paying to speak. I dislike the current culture of conference organizing (I'm a conference organizer with the bad habit myself!) where you, as speaker, pay for your travel and hotel to speak, and work hard to conferences close to me to paying expenses and later paying honorarium to all speakers. I believe that would significantly improve content, and that not paying is one of the main reasons we sometimes have hard time finding speakers - diverse as in people who have so much other work that they don't do the talks for promotion purposes only.

The reason why I started submitting again after promising not to, is that I want to find work in US, California to be exact - for personal reasons. And it seems that I will be doing that in a role of a consultant. This changes my stance on submitting. I need to pay to be visible. Speaking in conferences has direct value to me: promotion. I still believe great contents without promoting is the best promotion, so it does not change what I deliver. But it changes the fact that I need to submit even if it gets expensive.

I feel this financial divide already shows in quality of current conferences. Many of those consultants who have a lot of gigs coming in steadily without promotion won't take unpaid time away from their gigs. And those who have no promotional needs don't share their best stories because they would have to pay for telling the stuff everyone would love to hear.
When choosing a conference to submit to, submit to one that pays for travel. 
Usually that lowers the bar for your employer to let you be at conference as working hours. First time speakers are not always the highest promotional value for the consultancies and thus the finances will be an issue.  Luckily, there's exceptions to that rule around.
Reason 2: They say they want women to speak and I'm already out there as a speaker. How about doing some homework? 

Call for submission is a great way to find out what people would suggest to talk about. It is also a great way to make people put in a lot of effort in preparing a talk without their personal payback on getting to deliver that talk.

I've delivered talks in conferences, user groups and the like since 2001, tens of them every year. In Finland, I get invited - a lot. Mostly I don't need to submit. Some conferences make it their principle of not inviting, and sometimes I leave it equally to be a principle of letting them be without me. Sometimes I submit, like I did for Scan Agile, because there just is a message that the conference needs to hear from me. They should know to ask for one. But they don't. Sometimes they know to ask, like BTD Conference and I go without submitting.

I prefer to work on tailoring my talk with the conference organizers, knowing I can deliver great contents, over sending proposals where the feedback is Selected / Not selected. I prefer to be invited. It makes me feel like someone did their homework. Someone recognized where to find good people. Best conferences I've been to I have ended up this way, instead of responding to a call for submissions.

I can easily list a hundred women who could deliver great talks on testing. I regularly do that - not only for women  but great people in general - for Finnish conferences. We get great talks because we invite people. People feel appreciated when invited. And many people I have invited ask me to coach them on their message and delivery, a service I'm happy to provide to build even better contents.

If diversity (as in women) is something you look for, how about making sure you can name enough people to choose from instead of asking for the effort of submitting passively? You could specifically invite people to submit. That already might be something that would lead me to submit when I wasn't planning to. It's nice if people realize you exist instead of just waiting for you to push yourself to their view.

(Sure, I can always deliver the prepared talk elsewhere. I actually do, for rehearsal purposes. And it it would not make sense to send 50+ people from Finland to UK / Belgium / USA just to hear the latest and greatest I can also deliver to my local community. When Finns travel, I love the idea that they get to hear from those they can't hear from locally.)

Speak Easy, why did I join?

With the two points above, I'm still cautionary on submitting to conferences. Speak Easy promotes talking at CAST2015 as of now, and is particularly seeking for women, and I would not submit myself, so I feel a bit odd promoting the idea that you should. However, I think you should.

1. CAST is an experience worth experiencing

I've spoken at CAST once, and participated it once before I delivered a talk there. CAST is fun. The open-season style of discussions makes the sessions special, in-depth and high energy. It has been a great place to meet people. 

2. Great conferences deserve great contents

Everyone of us has great contents, practical and relevant experiences to share, things that help others forward. Great conferences are a good place to bring out the best of contents there is. There's messages we repeat, with different ways of telling the story bound to one's practical experiences. There's new messages we should hear, based on the different experiences we have.

Context-driven leaves open an endless selection of contexts. We should share how we do things in different contexts, to learn how what our options are, to become better at what we do.

I believe the world is full of great stories waiting to be heard. I know from experience working with great people delivering wonderful content in Finland, that many people don't recognize that their personal, hands-on experiences are just the kind of content that we'd like to see. Many people dismiss their experiences as nothing special.

Conferences like CAST cannot go around the world personally inviting people to submit. But with programs like Speak Easy, there's people like me who can go and ask some people personally to submit.

3. There is work to do in changing the dynamics, meanwhile we need to meet and mingle to talk about this.

I volunteered for Speak Easy because people will need support finding the thing they should talk about, and can use support in preparing their presentations. I've received help, still continuously receive help and would be happy to give back in return.

But the main dynamic that I would like to see changed is financial. I'd like to see work on raising funds on supporting travel costs for diverse speakers - not women, but people from companies that cannot afford to pay for the travel even if people would be willing to share their great contents. This is something particularly dear to me in Finland, something I already had written as one form of action for a testing non-profit we started in 2014 (Software Testing Finland, specializing in context-driven / skilled testing). I see Speak Easy as an opportunity to collaborate in long run in changing this too.

While I'd love to be already able to offer a "scholarship" for people who travel to CAST from Finland, I will need more work on the financing before that is possible. But I will get there. Finland first.

We need to meet and talk about changes we like to see. We need to talk about what is actually stopping us from submitting to conferences, and how we can help in the community. Being in a conference is a great chance for these talks.

Get ready to submit and take mentoring from Speak Easy?
There's plenty of organizations that have reasons to promote their existence by paying their employees to speak at conferences, yet those organizations have same people submitting. I'd like to encourage new voices where the financial framework already would support it.

There's people who are willing to invest financially into their career and visibility, but feel they could use help in getting their message out. I really like the concept of finding your voice with Speak Easy - helping you discover what you could share that is extraordinary. And then following through preparations to practice of delivery.
Speak Easy can help when you're interested in talking. And talking in conferences opens discussions that lead to professional growth I believe would otherwise would not be possible. If you won't go to CAST 2015, use Speak Easy to do a talk in your local user group. Use Speak Easy to do a talk in a conference that pays for travel. Use it for the conference you have always wanted to attend, to lower the bar of your company sending you there or paying for the time you are there. Get out there and share. Everyone of us has great experiences that will benefit the others when well delivered.

A personal note to end this with

Before I started public speaking, I was horrified of public speaking. I believe that the decision I made to actively work on my fears on public speaking have been the best investment I have made on my career. The transformation from someone who would faint at introducing herself to an audience to someone who gets energy from addressing a crowd of 500 people is almost unbelievable. But, it is what I've been through. I got help. I practiced a lot. I still practice a lot. But most importantly, I decided that was a change I wanted to see happen. I wanted to face my fears - and I did.

Speak Easy is a great idea for making finding the help you need easier, all you need to do is say that you want help. How about asking for help today?