Sunday, August 2, 2015

On being and becoming a speaker at conferences

People and conversations drive the themes I think about, and this weekend people at Agile Coach Camp USA drove my thoughts to being and becoming a speaker at conferences.

This is my year of international conferences, and during this year a goal that I've working towards has become clear to me: I want to do what it takes to deliver keynotes at relevant international testing conferences. So I'm always on a bit of a lookout for ideas and tips on that process.

For the track of keynoting, I learned one relevant piece of information. I talked to a lady who is also doing her first keynotes this year. We talked and saw similarity in where we are: I too do a few keynotes, but there's higher-status conferences to work towards to still. She gave me a datapoint on something I suspected based on earlier discussions: to  become a keynote, you need to put yourself out there. Volunteer, make yourself available, help the organisers know you. Don't just wait for them to find you.

Most of the points that I picked up today are about working up your way to the speakers track. I wanted to share a few points on that which really resonated with me.

So, you want to be a speaker. What should you do?

Do local talks and get a video of what you do
Practice speaking. Best practice for speaking is speaking. Deliver the same talk. Deliver different talks. Invite feedback from your smaller audiences to help  you grow. When you're ready for bigger arenas, make sure to get a video of your signature talk - the best of what you are and do. The big conferences look for great speakers with great stories, but they cannot know you. You need to show who you are in addition to writing a great abstract.

Do lightning talks. 
Agile 2015 (and Agile Testing Days 2015) takes submissions for lightning talks, but there's often room for emergent talks. Just go talk to the track chair and see if you could squeeze in your five minutes. Share something you are excited about and listen to the feedback. Build from there.

Prepare to be rejected
When you suggest your talk, there will be rejections. Your relevant title does not guarantee a speaking spot in the big competed conferences. Nor does a good solid proposal. Sometimes what you had is just not right for that time. But if you submit to many places, there's a variety of needs.

Find a unique angle to present on
Conferences often get a bunch of talk suggestion on the most popular topics. For you to stand out in the crowd, choose something that is relevant but not the clearest mainstream. Work with your niche. What makes you unique to learn from? Do a few different suggestions if you are comfortable with very different topics. My advise as conference organiser and regular reviewer is though to submit at most three and to make sure the three are not the same message in different packages. That just lowers the odds of being selected.

Write a blog and let smaller conferences find you
Keep yourself visible by blogging, and write about stuff you are passionate about. Some people had experiences on being invited to talk on user groups and conferences based on interesting stuff they were sharing in their blogs.

Get help in reviewing your abstracts
Ask your friends to read your abstract and tell you what your message is. Improve so that they get the right message. Iterate to a next friend.
Also, find one of the services that help you find a mentor for getting your abstract in shape. If you are new to speaking and in the area of testing, go for Speak Easy. The mentors there are free and brilliant. And I am one of them.

When accepted, ask why
On your track of becoming a regular speaker, you will get accepted. When that happens, contact the organisers and ask why. That is a powerful way of learning for future. The answers on acceptance are more direct and honest than ones on rejections.

The three stages of being a speaker

Speaking has been my route to learn so much. I still feel that while I teach and share, I do all of this to learn, to find my community and peers. My inspiration and power to deliver great results at work is in my peers - people with interests similar enough to engage in interesting conversations that energise me.

The advise above is particularly good is you are new to speaking for the audiences you are targeting. I find that there are (at least) three stages on the speaker track.

Stage 1: Being a speaker
You've tried it. You've deliver talk. You are a speaker. Your audience may vary. Your audience may be limited. But you are doing it.

I feel I stayed in this stage for years. I delivered my first public talk in local conference in 2001. Since then, I've delivered probably about a hundred talks (or more). I talked in conferences in Finland, and in companies around Finland. My first international conference was 2005, EuroSTAR. First ever I submitted to, and first ever I got accepted for. So my personal experience is not to prepare for rejections. I've had only a few rejections, mostly because I have not submitted. I've waited to be invited.

Stage 2: Being a speaker growing your influence
You deliver talks and enough people know you so that you get accepted more easily. You do track talks mostly. Deliver consistently. Your have found the audiences that know you just enough to prefer you.

I feel this is the stage I'm in now. I submitted more talks in the last year than I have done in my previous career. And I got accepted to all but one I submitted to, EuroSTAR 2014. For most conferences I submitted to, I would give two-three options, knowing that there's usually perspectives to complement the program to a balanced whole.

Stage 3: Being a default speaker
You are the person often invited. So often you get to look at your calendar and say you cannot be there since someone else booked you first. You're one of the names that come up when thinking of keynotes.

This is where I want to be. But I'm not in a rush. I thoroughly enjoy speaking and meeting people through speaking. To get here, I feel I should write a book. So, better get to writing the book in process: a paired book on pair programming. I'll practice with that.