Becoming a Tech Conference Speaker: Selecting Your Topic

Intro

There are already a ton of groups, tips, and blogs that are out there that will help you learn to become a great speaker.  This post won’t go into a lot those topics because simply Googling will you get there.  What I will be doing though is describing the process that I use to come up with my speaking ideas, created my decks, and practicing for the upcoming conferences.

I hope to give you another perspective on taking your speaking to the next level and the tips and tricks I use to get there.  This will be a multipart series on becoming a conference speaker.

Be Passionate

In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of becoming a conference speaker.    You absolutely need a topic you care about.  Without a passion for the topic, it makes it difficult to get motivated to even get started with all the other stuff you need to do to get ready for a conference.  If you are not passionate about your topic, actually completing your presentation will be nigh impossible. During your presentation, I guarantee you will sound bored. The feedback you’ll receive won’t be great because it’s almost impossible to engage your audience if you are not engaged yourself.

Selecting Your Topic

948912_ico_id_2Topic selection can be very tough.  For myself, I usually have some sort of epiphany where I suddenly have an idea.  I write that idea down and the mull over it for a couple days or weeks before I decide to move forward with it.  If you are trying to speak at a particular type of conference, then picking a topic that is important for that conference is also a must.  A talk about patient care probably won’t go over well at a tech conference.

Topics at technology conferences can be tough.  Talks about last year’s favorite JavaScript framework will have a harder time during selection than talks about the latest and greatest news from Microsoft.  I’ve suffered from this for a number of years.  A lot of the new cool stuff I was learning was behind the curve of what conference organizers were looking for; so I was never selected.  Once I figured this out, finding the right topics became easier and I started to be selected a lot more.

Fellow twitterer @CraigStuntz also had this input:

My #1 tip: Pick something you’re not already an expert in. If selected, you’re going to spend 100+ hours writing a talk. You’ll learn!

Figure Out Your Style

johnny-automatic-mens-hair-styles-circa-1900-5

I learned pretty early that I’m good at telling stories so I try to pick topics that lend themselves to fit in a story telling mode.  So I like to do a lot of lessons learned type talks or by giving information to the audience by intermixing my talking points with relevant stories that help people stay engaged.

Other people are really good at giving demonstrations.  These also provide a great way to distribute information by actively showing how to use it during the presentation.  Other styles include humor, dramatization through over emphasis etc.  All of these styles are valid but picking the one that best fits your personality is key.

Preparing Your Title And Abstract

The key to getting your topic selected for a conference is having a proper title and abstract.  There are many different conference and many different presentation selection processes.  This won’t be a sure fire way to get selected by a conference but this is what has worked for me.  It is also a great idea to share your title and abstract with your friends and colleagues and get their feedback.  It is also a great idea to review past conference sessions.  This will let you know what the organizers like to select.

The Title

The title of your of your talk should be something super catchy. It’s what will grab the reader first in a stack of possible presentations.  I typically like to write my titles with a little humor and base on some type of theme.  Here are a few examples of my most recent talks.

  • Securing Data in Motion on the High Seas
  • So You Want To Build a Mobile App
  • World War Z!  Surviving the Apocalypse

The title should be short and sweet but give the reader a taste of what your talk is about.  In the case of the first two, there are keywords that immediately tell the user what the main topic the talk is about. Everything else is just gravy and can help you setup the theme of your talk.

The Abstract

If the title is the hook, the abstract is how you reel your audience in.  The  opening line should set the stage for what the talk is really going to be about.  I like to go really campy with some of my abstracts and really swing for the fences on the theme.  Others like to mention the theme of the talk in the title but state the topics being covered matter-of-factly.  There is no right or wrong way here but you should try to tailor your abstract to the conference organizers most recent selections.

A recent abstract of mine:

This session will be a pirate themed adventure where we discuss transporting our loot (aka. data) in ways to protect it from pirates and corsairs.  Over a bottle of grog, we’ll tell stories about the merits of encryption using FTPS, HTTPS, SSL and TLS. If you’re new to privateering, you’ll get firsthand experience using certificates and setting them up on a server.  So if you’re a landlubber in the world of Internet Security, this is the talk for you.

Conclusion

TL:DR

  • Pointing-guySelect a topic you are passionate about.
  • Figure out the best speaking style for you
  • Your Title is your hook – make the best one possible
  • Your Abstract is the meat – explain what your talk is about to reel people in.
  • Review sessions from past years’ conferences.

Again, I hope to give you another perspective on taking your speaking to the next level and give you some tips and tricks I use to get there.  This will be a multipart series on becoming a conference speaker.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

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