I started 2016 with a number of ambitious goals, and I met many of them. I grew as a technologist, maintained a healthy regimen of eating and exercise, left a company to start a new chapter in my career, and enjoyed many loving relationships with family and friends. However, I want to focus this post on the goal that far exceeded my expectations: grow as a public speaker. So, inspired by Cate and Martin, I'm reflecting on my experiences as a public speaker in 2016.
I believe that great speakers are great audience members, and I was fortunate to attend two conferences (Craft in Budapest and Keep Austin Agile) as an attendee-only. As an audience member, I can learn from the presentation while also analyzing the style of the presenter. While I love being on stage, I will always "just be in the audience" for at least one conference a year. This helps me hone my craft while also learning to be a better speaker.
My first "talk" of 2016 was a Lightning Talk at OSCON in Austin. If you're not familiar with a Lightning Talk, it's a five minute talk where you present 20 slides that automatically advance. I've spoken at a lot of events for private companies as well as at many technology conferences, but I had no idea how hard it would be to do a Lightning Talk. I practiced a lot, but, during my talk, it seemed that time sped up turning five minutes into 30 seconds. Before I knew it, I was walking down the stairs thinking that I bombed. However, I received great feedback from the audience and saw some encouraging reactions on Twitter. That Lightning Talk became my Lending Privilege presentation which has become one of my signature talks.
OSCON also provided opportunities to meet other speakers. I shared a flight and an Uber with someone I met at OSCON because we both were booked to speak at the Self.conference in Detroit that same week. I was reminded that public speaking lets you build networks across companies instead of only being exposed to the experiences inside the walls of one company. This provides access to a peer group representing other companies, ideas, and cultures that are hard to explore only as an employee.
I've given many private workshops during my career, but I gave my first workshop at a conference in June. It was my Hands-On Agile Project Management workshop that I gave at the PMI Houston conference. I really enjoyed presenting the content and guiding the participants through the exercises. I don't have a lot of workshops in my portfolio, but I plan to develop at least one in 2017.
I love big audiences, and I enjoyed big events in 2016 including Pivotal's SpringOne Platform in Las Vegas, GitHub Universe in San Francisco, and StrangeLoop in St. Louis. These were all great experiences for me, and I was honored to lend my voice to those conferences. There's something powerful about being in a building with hundreds (and, in a few cases, thousands) of technologists who are all focused on advancing their careers and making the industry better. I was also reunited with other speakers who I met in previous years, and I enjoyed the opportunity to grow our friendships.
While big events are exhilarating, I was also invited to speak at smaller corporate events. I really enjoyed the intimacy of these events, and the Q&A sessions were usually longer and more personal. It seemed that people, as opposed to attending conferences hundreds of miles away among strangers, were more open to asking questions a few steps from their desks surrounded by their colleagues. I think my non-technical talks have more impact in these settings.
I was a guest on the fabulous CodeNewbie podcast hosted by Saron Yitbarek. Saron is a skilled interviewer, and I really enjoyed speaking with her. I dip into the CodeNewbie Twitter chat when I can, and I really enjoy the CodeNewbie community.
So, 2016 provided:
I have a number of big conference presentations scheduled for 2017, but I'm starting to do more corporate events. While I do well as a speaker, I have a full time job and a family so my ability to appear at events that are fixed on the calendar is limited. However, corporate events are far more flexible, and I can usually pick the dates that work for my schedule.
I'm excited to have more international destinations in my speaking schedule, and I hope to bring my family along on at least one of these trips.
I also plan to do more talks about leadership and ethics in addition to the inclusion topics I covered in 2016. I also want to do more technical talks to balance the non-technical bent of most of my presentations.
I'm very happy with how my speaking career evolved in 2016, and I look forward to the iterations that 2017 will bring!
Speaking at technology conferences can be a very rewarding experience. You get to establish yourself as an expert in your chosen field, meet people outside of your company who do what you do, and often save money since conferences usually cover the registration and travel costs for speakers. However, there is one obstacle between you and those benefits: the proposal selection process.
Most conferences issue a CFP (Call for Proposals) to solicit talk ideas from the public. The CFP is usually a form that asks for things like the title of your proposal, a short abstract, your bio, and other items. You fill out the form and then submit it. But, where does it go?
For years, I had no idea what happened after I submitted a proposal because it went into a black box. I imagined that some artificial intelligence ran complex analytics on my proposal, and this Supreme Intelligence determined if it was worthy of the conference. I just waited until the AI sent an automated email that told me if my proposal was selected or rejected.
Of course, the reality is that conference proposals are reviewed by committees of humans whose job is to select the proposals for the conference. Since most conferences receive more proposals than they can host, the job of the committee is to find the best of the best and discard the rest. Most committees also move proposals on the bubble to a waitlist in case any speaker with an accepted proposal has to cancel.
I learned the true story of how proposals get selected by serving on a number of programming committees for conferences both large and small. It is a tough process of going through hundreds of proposals to find the ones that deserve a place on the conference schedule. I almost always like more proposals than I can approve so I usually have to reject a number of excellent submissions.
Conference programming committees usually view proposals through a web based tool. We see everything entered by the person who submitted the proposal and often things they didn't submit like their past submissions and the ratings given by those who attended their previously accepted proposals. These tools often use a star-based rating system that ranges from one to five stars. Giving a proposal a five star rating means that the reviewer is confident that this proposal should be included in the conference. One star usually means that it should be rejected. Anything in the middle reflects the continuum between an obviously superior proposal and an obviously fatally flawed one. Most proposals fall in the middle. To provide a diversity of opinion, most review systems average the ratings of the reviewers for a given proposal.
As I reviewed proposal after proposal, I began to see a pattern for what made a good proposal. There were certain criteria that, if they were present, made it clear how I should rate any given proposal. Since review systems often use stars to rate proposals, I came up with the acronym of STARS for these criteria. STARS stands for Subject, Type, Audience, Rigor, and Speaker(s). While conferences vary in the information they gather from speakers, every programming committee I've served on cares about these five characteristics (even if they use different words to describe them). I award roughly one star for each criterion successfully met by the proposal.
While large conferences seek a variety of topics, most events have a fixed set of subjects they want to explore. After all, if a conference provides a rich table of subjects that attendees would find interesting, then more people will buy tickets which contributes to the bottom line of the conference budget. A sign that a conference that will lose money is seeing several speakers in rooms with just a handful of attendees. One way to avoid this is to select proposals on subjects that people who read through the conference website will find relevant to their work.
I consider the subject criterion based on whether a proposal meets the spirit and theme of the conference. For tightly focused conferences, this is easy. A proposal called, "Extreme Data Analytics in Python" would not be a subject that many attendees at a Docker conference would find interesting. However, "Becoming a Container Polygot: Docker, Kubernetes, Mesos, and CoreOS" would seem much more compelling.
Being good at coming up with titles really helps evaluators determine if your proposal is on a relevant subject matter. However, in my opinion, clear beats cute. If you can't come up with a creative title for your proposal, then make sure your title at least clearly describes the subject of your proposal. You'll just have to refine your idea in the other sections of your submission.
If your proposal seems like a pitch for a product or service, then I won't think it is on a very relevant subject. Most attendees hate sitting through pitches unless they are clearly marked as being presented by vendors.
Conferences often have different types of sessions including short lightning talks, 30-45 minute sessions, hour long keynotes, and half-day or full-day workshops. It's important that your proposal has the right type. I've seen a surprising number of proposals that want to be half-day workshops but are clearly better suited for a 45 minute talk. Choose your type wisely.
Proposals must clearly detail the target audience of the session. If the proposal writer doesn't know who will come to the session, then the programming committee probably won't either. It's far better to name the titles (software engineers, DevOps engineers, Testers, Visual Designers, Directors, janitors, etc.) of the people who are in your target audience than to say that it will be attended by "everyone".
You should also clearly describe the experience level of the audiences that will get the most out of your session. Is it for a beginner, an experienced professional, or a grizzled expert? Conferences often want to provide programming for different levels of experience so clarity is essential.
It's also important to describe the takeaways that will be provided to the audience when they leave your session. This should be more than just "knowledge". Effective sessions provide attendees with actions they can immediately apply to their jobs when they return to work.
Some CFPs only want a short abstract, but most also want detailed descriptions and notes. Make sure that your proposal has a complete description of the content that will be presented during the session. I love it when proposals include a detailed outline of the session including the time allocated to each agenda item. This is like gold.
If your session requires a technical setup for attendees, then clearly describe that, too. State if they need to bring a laptop and the software (including versions) they need to install before showing up to your session. If you're providing anything via portable storage or networked machines, describe that as well.
A good way to understand the level of rigor needed for successful proposals is to look at the conference site from previous years. Some sites only show the abstracts for accepted talks, but many provide the full description. This is a great way to understand the expected level of detail.
Of course, speakers are the show so they should be qualified to speak on the subject of the proposal and able to present in an engaging way. The two main ways that evaluators can judge speakers are their bio and videos of them in action.
There are many online resources for writing effective bios, but they should at least state what you do and where you have worked. Just like proposal titles, clear beats cute. It's fine to work a little humor into your bio, but you should focus on facts.
Of course, just like resumes, bios often fail to reflect the true capabilities of a person. So, videos are extremely useful for determining how the people who will run the session come across to audiences. Don't worry about the quality of the video. Most evaluators care more about the content of the video and how well you present it. I strongly believe that presentation videos should be included even if the CFP does not explicitly ask for one.
If your proposal includes multiple speakers, then you should includes bios and videos of each speaker. Most proposals provide bios of all speakers, but many try to just include videos of the best speakers in the group (or, the most well known ones).
The STARS criteria provide two main benefits: consistency and balance.
Once the initial excitement about having the honor of influencing the programming for a conference you love wears off, it can be a slog to go through several hundred proposals. The STARS criteria keep me honest by providing a consistent way to evaluate proposals whether I'm starting the first one in my set or are on proposal #171.
The STARS criteria also provide a balanced way to evaluate proposals. If you're a popular speaker who sloppily submits a proposal that is not relevant to the conference, should be a 40-minute talk instead of a 4-hour workshop for your ego, and lacks sufficient detail for the committee to recommend, then your submission will suffer under STARS. On the other hand, if you're new to the speaking circuit, but you've put together a thoughtful proposal that is on a highly relevant subject matter, targeted to a core audience of the conference, and clearly explains what that audience will gain from attending your session? The STARS system will reward you for your diligence.
I’ve publicly spoken at tech events since 2009, and 2016 has been a banner year for me. I’ve had opportunities to speak from Los Angeles to Boston, from Detroit to Austin, and as far away as South Africa and Colombia. It has been immensely gratifying to have so many opportunities to share my ideas and passions with large audiences.
As I have continued on my public speaking journey, I have realized that there people have different ranks the speaker circuit. Each one experiences different audiences, outcomes, and opportunities for advancement.
Of course, the higher ranks often do the work of the lower ranks, but there is a clear.line of progression from level to level.
Here are the ranks as I currently understand them: Private Panelist, Sergeant Session, Captain Keynote, and Colonel Chair.
This speaker is often asked to be on a panel with other speakers to discuss some topic within the realm of their expertise. Private Panelists don’t have to stand on their own because there are other speakers on stage.
Private Panelists are often able to give solo presentations at meetups or small gatherings, and this is a good way to expand their network. As they refine their delivery and develop a reputation for being a good speaker, they can start moving toward the next level.
Private Panelists rarely receive compensation for their talks, and must pay out-of-pocket for any speaking opportunities outside of their local area.
Obtaining a collection of videos displaying their talks is another good practice for speakers at this level. While these videos should be as well produced as possible, the content is more important than high production values.
Once Private Panelists hone their speaking skills, they are well positioned to submit to conference Call For Papers (CFPs). By writing strong abstracts and providing links to videos of their talks, Panelists will begin to receive invitations to speak at conference sessions. However, the number of rejected submissions may dwarf the number of accepted ones so submitting a high volume of ideas is critical. Private Panelists would do well to use resources like Technically Speaking, The Weekly CFP, and Callback Women to find high quality conferences.
As Private Panelists successfully speak at more conferences, they will begin to be sought out by more conference organizers to fill session slots in their schedules. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that results in the promotion from Private Panelist to Sergeant Session. Eventually, Sergeant Sessions are invited to speak at more events than they apply to themselves. A seasoned Sergeant Session will have to decline a number of speaking opportunities each year.
A Sergeant Session can sometimes earn money through honorariums. However, when speaking outside of their home country, these speakers often have to be careful when going through airports. Custom agents can sometimes be harsh when they perceive that a foreigner is coming into the country to earn income.
Another way for a Sergeant Session to monetize speaking is by conducting workshops. Many conferences share workshop revenue with the people who conduct them, and this can become a significant source of revenue.
As Sergeant Sessions advance, they become known to more conference organizers. They also learn more about the complexities of conducting conferences.
Conferences often look among Sergeant Sessions to find keynote speakers. Keynote speakers often give the opening and/or closing talks at conferences. Since keynotes are meant to set the tone of the conference day or end it on a high note, experienced speakers are desired.
When a Sergeant Session is first promoted to Captain Keynote, she usually gets assigned the closing keynote. Closing keynotes are important, but they are less risky than opening keynotes. There is also less pressure from the audience.
As Captain Keynotes advance, they start getting invited to give more opening keynotes. However, the pyramid structure of conferences becomes more obvious. There are a lot of Private Panelists forming the base, a smaller number of Sergeant Sessions in the middle, and an even smaller number of Captain Keynotes towards the top. This means that competition for keynote slots is very competitive. Organizers usually want well known speakers in the keynote position so it can be difficult to find space if you’re a new face. However, speakers who develop a reputation for giving great talks will find many opportunities to open or close the day at conferences.
At the top of the public speaking stand the Colonel Chairs. These are the people who have been to dozens of tech conferences and have often helped organize and run them. The role of the Colonel Chair is to select speakers for the conference, plan the agenda, enforce the code of conduct (or, good behavior if a formal code of conduct isn’t in place), and make sure the conference is a success.
There is an immense amount of stress being a Colonel Chair because the responsibilities are substantial. Many hours of work are required before the conference, and Colonel Chairs often have to maintain a constant presence while the conference is being conducted. There are also post-conference responsibilities. However, conferences usually offer fairly good compensation for Colonel Chairs, and they can gain a lot of respect in the industry if the events they run are successful.
There are the four ranks of public speaking. No matter your rank, you can find people less experienced than you to help and mentors who have been more successful than you to teach you their ways. In any case, enjoy the journey of being a speaker!
I started speaking at technology conferences in 2009 when I gave a talk at Podcamp Houston 2009 about "Restoring Tech Cred to Houston" (http://www.slideshare.net/anjuan/podcamp-houston-v2). This helped me realize that, in addition to my career in technology, I could speak about topics that I'm passionate about: social media, leadership, design, and diversity.
I continued to give internal technical talks at client sites in my professional career about topics including project management and Agile software development. I earned a spot at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin for the first time in March 2010 when my co-panelist and I discussed "How Social Media Can Destroy Your Business Model": http://www.slideshare.net/anjuan/how-social-media-can-destroy-your-business-model-final
I have spoken at South By Southwest Interactive three additional times:
• "Star Trek UX|UI Rules for Phones, Tablets, and TVs", http://www.sxsw.com/interactive/news/2014/2014-sxsw-interactive-session-spotlight-star-trek-uxui-rules-phones-tablets, SXSWi 2014, Co-Panelist
• "Race: Know When to Hold It and When to Fold It", http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP13715, Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jR12rGLHiqc, Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LojoCRRkrY, SXSWi 2012, Panelist
• "What Comic Books Can Teach Mobile Application Designers", http://lanyrd.com/2011/sxsw/scqyc/, SXSWi 2011, Solo Panelist
I've also spoken at other technology related conferences:
• "Debugging Diversity", https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDAnWK--PT8, codeconf 2015 (http://codeconf.com/), Speaker
• "The State of Black Social Media", Black Social Media Summit 2013 (http://bloggingwhilebrown.com/black-social-media-summit/), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn02khvE0ZE, Panelist
• "Three Careers Strategies for Minorities in Business ", https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIu2--YvzJ0, Texas A&M Mays Business School, Diversity Weekend 2012 (http://mays.tamu.edu/full-time-mba/opportunities-to-learn-more/diversity-leadership-forum-weekend/), Presenter
I have an MBA and have also given several business related talks including:
• "Effective Negotiating", http://www.slideshare.net/anjuan/effective-negotiating, Speaker Series 2013, Sam Houston State University, Presenter and Panelist
• "Hitting the Public Speaking Circuit for Fun and Profit", Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFF6s7-aYLc, Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZLM-WJCPOE, Blogging While Brown 2011, Speaker
One of my key goals in 2016 is to speak at more technology conferences. I want to continue to speak about design and diversity, but I also want to speak more about Agile development and leadership since most of my talks in those areas have been behind corporate walls. I also want to have more of my talks recorded since I have very few videos of my presentations.
A friend recently asked me this question about becoming a hired speaker:
@anjuan: Where did you start with presenting yourself as a hired speaker? Organizations? Inner network? Free engagements then started to charge? Was it a massive email saying you were available? #seriousinquiry
Here's my answer:
• You’ll probably have to speak for free before you can speak for a fee. Start hitting up local meetups and bar camps and volunteer to speak. You won’t get money for these talks, but you will get extremely valuable experience speaking in front of crowds and honing your public speaking skills. Make sure you connect with your audience before, during, and after your talk. Post your speaker slides, notes and pictures to social media.
• As you get more experience, apply to speak at conferences. Ideally, you will have several talks that align with a conference track. Again, start local and branch out to your greater metro area. You will probably have to drive to these conferences and pay for your expenses. Continue to connect with people and project your content via social media. I think that creating a newsletter that people can subscribe to is a great strategy. Email marketing is very powerful.
• In time, you’ll find conferences that offer to cover your expenses when they accept your talk. However, even if not offered, you should *always* ask to have your travel (flight and hotel) expenses covered. Of course, your registration expenses will be covered as a speaker. Some conferences offer an honorarium, but that is fairly rare.
• You will eventually reach a crossroads. You can seek speaking gigs that offer more money, but that requires full dedication to life as a public speaker. While I know people who are full time public speakers, it is a life of constant travel and all the complications of life lived out of a suitcase. Or, you can enjoy a set number of speaking gigs that let you travel around the world and talk about your passions. You’re not making enough money to support yourself, but you are getting some nice air miles, hotel points, speaker gifts, and cool relationships.
I’ve chosen to take the path of a handful of speaking gigs each year that require me to keep my day job but allow me to get in front of audiences around the country and share my ideas. This path supports my current professional and personal goals while gratifying my love of performing on stage.
It has been my honor to serve on the Advisory Board for multiple conducts of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival. It is always a very rewarding experience to take part in shaping such a huge technology conference.
As an Advisory Board member, I'm responsible for evaluating 200 panel proposals, and I always see so many amazing ideas! However, I'm only able to vote for a small percentage (i.e., about 30) of these submissions so I know firsthand how hard it is to get an idea accepted into Interactive. Having gotten four panel proposals successfully accepted in previous years, I know how to create a winning proposal. However, evaluating proposals gave me newfound insights.
Here is my advice, as a speaker and an Advisory Board member, for creating a SXSW PanelPicker proposal with a maximum chance of being selected for acceptance by the conference.
Create a catchy Title that is focused and specific. Combine ideas to express them in new ways. "What Captain Picard Taught Me about Public Speaking" is better than "Rock Your Next Speech!". Also, be careful about using current events in your title because those events may be obsolete by the time March comes around.
Video and Slides
As of this writing, you can attach two videos (one hosted on YouTube and the other hosted on Vimeo) to your PanelPicker entry. Make sure you attach well produced videos that match the context of your idea. Ideally, the video should feature the speaker (if a solo panel) or several of the panel members (if a dual or panel presentation) listed under the Speakers section. It's even better if the video shows the speaker(s) talking about the topic of the panel.
One benefit of including a video from Vimeo is that you can replace the video later. This is important because once you submit your PanelPicker proposal it is locked by the system. However, if you include a Vimeo video, you can update the video with new information or if you simply want to include a better produced video.
You can include two links in your proposal under the Additional Supporting Materials section. Make sure these are links to pages you control. That way, you can modify these pages after you submit your proposal which locks it in the system. This is key if you want to provide updated information like breaking news or even additional videos.
The best links are to pages that feature the idea being proposed as well as the speakers. I don't recommend just putting links to the companies where one or more speakers work. For example, don't just say that a speaker works for Google and include a link to Google.com. Link to a sub-page at Google.com that lists the speaker. You can label the link Google.com but have the actual URL point to their sub-page. If such a page isn't available, then it's better to link to the "About Me" (or similar) page on their personal website.
It is also a good idea to create links to slides that explain your idea. Sites like SlideShare and Speaker Deck are often used.
Also, if you add a link to a video, then the PanelPicker interface will display that video in a player. So, you can include four videos in your SXSW proposal: two in the part of the form explicitly reserved for videos and two as links.
Write a focused Description (specific is better than general). This is especially important for a panel discussion because it can be difficult for multiple people to address a topic with the appropriate amount of depth if it's too broad.
Make sure you include interesting questions in the Question section. I've seen a lot of proposals that simply restate the title or what's in the description of the proposal. In fact, use the Questions Answered space to introduce a topic you'll cover in your presentation and then frame it in the form of a question.
Don't neglect your tags. They can help evaluators understand the positioning of your panel with a deeper level of granularity than the track information may allow.
Grammar and spell check your proposal. Multiple times. By multiple people.
Two Final General Points
1. Fewer speakers are better than a gang of panelists.
2. Advanced topics are better than beginner topics.
I occasionally review websites for how usable they are on the UserTesting.com site. I enjoy user interface design, and UserTesting.com also pays for each site you review. It's a nice way to fund my Starbucks habit. :)
My feedback about how to be an effective user tester was recently posted on the site's blog. You can find it here.
I've reprinted my advice below:
Stop using filler words. Filler words are phrases like “ummm” and “you know” that we often use to insert into our speaking to avoid gaps of silence. The best way to remove them is to realize that silence is fine! While it may seem like an eternity in your head, taking one or two seconds to organize your thoughts will be almost unnoticeable to the people listening to your recording.
One reason I wanted to offer advice on using filler words is that I constantly work to remove them from my everyday speech. Even great public speakers occasionally use filler words in personal conversations. I see filler words as lazy mental shortcuts that we use to avoid silence and gather our thoughts. As I said in my blurb above, it's ok to have a little silence!
On a related note, I enjoy doing interviews because they give me a chance to hear my recorded voice. While I personally think my recorded voice sounds strange, I listen to recordings of my interviews to see how I'm doing with filler words. I used to use "you know" a lot, and I've worked to stop doing that. However, I now see that I'm using "right" as a filler word when I speak. For example, I need to stop using right, right? That is pretty irritating, right? You get my point, right?
It takes work to stop using filler words, but it's worth the effort. This is especially important for those of us who are public speakers, but it's also important for everyday conversation.
I enjoy public speaking, and I have been fortunate to have many opportunities to speak on a variety of topics. A friend reached out to me for advice about giving her first talk. Here was my response:
Thanks for reaching out. First, I want to say how proud I am that you are speaking about technology, especially when it comes to getting more women in technology. The only way to have true innovation in technology is to bring diversity of thought to the industry.
I have a few quick tips that have worked well for me in public speaking:
Here's a video of a friend of mine named Adria Richards giving a TEDx talk about women building careers with code. I think she did a great job of using visual images in her talk, and she laid it out well.
I hope that helps. If you need more information, please feel free to reach out. I know you'll do great!