Speaking Easy, Part 2: You Can Do It!

This is Part 2 of a series of blog posts on volunteering to mentor speakers at testing (and other) conferences for Speak Easy. Part 1 is here.

In case you didn’t get it in the title…

You Can Do It!

You, yes you!

Ryan wants you to speak
Ryan wants you to speak

Really, you can. Hopefully not much more than about 220 days a year, you go to work and do a job. While you are doing your work, you are collecting experiences, researching and implementing methods, getting practice, and breathing in the how and why of what you do. You are accumulating hands-on knowledge every day, and improving at your craft. You know a thing or two about a thing or two, and the world might benefit from you sharing it.

You might look at who speaks at a conference, and think that you don’t match up for some reason. In terms of presentation skills, that might or might not be true at first, but you should never assume that you have less expertise in your subject matter. Many of these speakers have less experience than you at the things you work on. They may have seen more contexts, but they don’t know yours as well as you do. We need fewer blowhards describing the wildly successful implementation of processes they’ve spent talking to managers on the periphery of for a few days, and more sharing by practitioners of techniques and reporting on experiences.

You might not have an obvious subject in mind to talk about when you decide that you want to try speaking. That’s OK. Read conference programs, attend conferences, talk with peers, do some research – you can find something that will spark you. You only need a rough draft of a couple paragraphs of abstract to get started with research and asking for feedback. You don’t have to go all the way through with submitting – you can wait until next year or try a different conference.

Plus, you have these factors working for you in how conferences select speakers:

  1. There are usually not that many submissions. Often, conferences are scrambling to fill the number of speaking slots they have. When you see experienced speakers doubling and tripling up on track sessions, or you see a conference repeatedly publicizing approaching deadlines, you have evidence of this.
  2. There are submissions that are well, not as good as others. The obvious corollary to there not being many submissions is that there are not many abstracts being turned away. Near the end, what gets accepted is helped by the need to pad out a schedule.
  3. Submissions are just summaries. Professional authors will tell you that the best way to sell a book is “on spec”: a sample chapter, and some description of what the book is about. They don’t have to write the whole book until they’ve sold it. Conference presentations work the same way. More on conference submissions later.

hey-you-can-do-itNet-Net: Your proposal doesn’t have to compete with the most compelling submissions from the most experienced speakers. It only has to compete with the last set of submissions that are accepted, or an experienced speaker’s third session.

This all varies, of course, usually down to the track level for conferences that try to maintain subject lines over their conference days. I’ve been turned down for conferences I really wanted to speak at. I’ve also been asked to submit for conferences I had not heard of before I was asked, presumably because they saw my name on other conference programs.

Reviewers and conference staff want to program the best conference they can for attendees, and want great content. New blood is necessary to keep conferences vital and interesting. The old boys network is sort of a thing, but not as prevalent as you might think. Conferences want to have high energy, and that tends to come from people who are still doing the work, not just talking about the work. Killer ideas matter much more than good slides and patter.

So, study what other conference session descriptions looks like, then write three to five compelling paragraphs about what you want to talk about, tailoring it to the format of what you see for previous conferences. Here’s the “STARry” larger test conference programs to look at, here is STPCon, and here are some CAST conferencesall linked in a row. Maybe Let’s Test? If you are interested in writing a paper too, you could look at PNSQC. There are dozens more conferences, all around the world, and I apologize to the volunteers that keep all of these conferences running for not including every one. There are people who maintain links for the various software testing conferences, and you can use those to see more. There are many hundreds of presentations every year, and most will need to be replaced next year. Why not you?

Work in a local document – you don’t want to compose in someone’s web form and then lose it, or have to remember what you sent in later. Plus, if you are not accepted, you may want to propose again to a different conference. Casually embedded idea: you might be able to find an experienced speaker and ask if you can co-propose with them.

Get feedback, polish it, make sure you’re happy before you submit, but remember that you only need to summarize your main points at this stage. You’ll have months between an accepted abstract and a completed talk, and you almost always can revise your abstract for the program, before the conference.

In terms of asking for help directly from the conference, I think it can be a good idea, with some qualifiers. As a reviewer, I don’t mind giving feedback on drafts when it asked for well ahead of deadlines, and I don’t mind coming up with a couple of provocative questions to help sharpen an abstract. I have also been in situations where I felt like I was being politicked for special consideration more than any genuine desire for feedback, and didn’t care for that. People will respond positively to honest seekers.

Maybe you get accepted, maybe you don’t. It hurts a little to get rejected in any context, but it’s going to be OK. Save your abstract, look for opportunities to do more with it (Meetups, etc), and dust it off when the next conference comes along. There are any number of reasons why your talk might be fine, but just not fit for that specific conference. It could be overlapping with someone else’s proposal, or there might be too many talks for that one track. You might not have missed it by much. Sometimes you can get feedback on why, but I’d recommend giving it a few days to cool off before you ask. Just don’t give up!

The responsibility of the reviewers to the conference and its attendees is to select the best content possible, but that is multi-dimensional. A diverse set of subjects, approaches, and experiences creates the richest program. Programs drive attendance, and momentum between conferences depends on successful conferences that people enjoy attending.

schneideryou-can-do-itIt’s hard work and it takes practice to become a good speaker. I couldn’t tell you anything about becoming a great one. But the opportunities to try are not so hard to come by, and you probably have something to talk about.

If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. It’s not for everyone.

Just don’t decide there isn’t room for you – there is plenty, please come on in. We need you, and we’re really hoping to hear from you soon. How can I help?

In the next post, I will talk about how I develop conference presentations.

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