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Guide to speaking at tech conferences (cfpland.com)
362 points by karlhughes 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

Duplicating a comment I posted on a previous conference thread that is even more relevant here:

"... am I the only one that thinks there are... too many conferences? Sometimes it seems as if almost any new sufficiently large JS framework now has a conference. Slap the word "conf" or "con" on the end of whatever random noun you chose for your framework and boom, start sending out ticket invites and request for papers. Conferences were originally for leading experts in a particular field to share new research and present papers that were going to be published, and give people the chance to ask questions and find out more from the authors.

Conferences now feel more like a show and tell with blogpost level quality writing. Most non-academic conference talks I see could have been summarised easily in a blogpost and a few screenshots or at most a slide deck.

I recognise the networking aspect of them can be useful, but I couldn't justify spending the ticket price of some of them, to go to a conf based around one very narrow tech (unless it was a narrow but widely used and lucrative tech, and I was looking for work in that area currently)." (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21874372)

I have never been to an academic conference where I have gotten anything from the talk that I couldn't have gotten from reading the paper. The advantage to a conference is that I have easy access to the author so that I can ask questions, discuss similar ideas or even just network. Non-academic conferences serve a similar purpose. Yes, you could just read a blog post. However, if you are looking to explore ideas with people that have an interesting way of thinking, or if you want to pick someone's brains, or if you just want to network, conferences are extremely useful. There are lots of people who do normal every day practical work that I would love to talk to. There is no need for the excuse to get together to be an academic talk.

This is a fair point. But I think, and this is a large generalisation, that the answers to questions at an academic conference will be far more in-depth and interesting than those at other confs.

Not only that, but the calibre of questions asked is likely to be higher, resulting in better answers too. If the answer could be given as a comment reply on an equally banal blogpost level talk, then was the ticket price really worth the opportunity to ask the question face-to-face? I'd pay money to ask the leading expert at x university in machine learning a question. The leading "expert" in ClownJS? Not so much.

> Sometimes it seems as if almost any new sufficiently large JS framework now has a conference.

I mean - this shouldn't come as a surprise. Any sufficiently large community is going to self-organize and attempt to be self-sustaining (there's a named law about this self-perpetuation, I forget the name). I suspect your mental model of conferences infers too much decorum: there's a whole bunch of conferences for computer games, juggulos, furries, comics, "over-unity" energy, and anime. Why can't JS frameworks have thier own fandom?

"(there's a named law about this self-perpetuation, I forget the name)"

Pournelle's iron law of bureaucracy:

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.


I was particularly disappointed with re:Invent for this reason. Everything I attended could be found in blogs that had been published for years and very few "higher level" sessions that were still very trivial. Most of those weren't even discussions, just follow a lab sheet that you won't have time to finish or doesn't work at the time. I'm not sure if it was always this way, but the only people who seem to benefit at all are those in sales-oriented position. It is basically only good for meeting people and you may as well just skip all of the actual content to pursue that.

It was the first real conference I've attended (luckily not at my expense) and will likely be my last.

I worked as an AWS instructor (not for AWS directly, for one of the big technology training companies) a few years ago. Some of the other instructors had been to numerous re:invents and said that the two real reasons to go were:

* Networking with other attendees

* Getting to meet face to face with AWS employees

re:Invent has gotten very large. And AWS, to their credit, is especially good at doing session videos. I haven't attended in a few years and, if I did, it would be for reasons other than attending sessions. (And, given the size and absent specific booth/meeting responsibilities, I see little reason to go.)

That said, I attend lots of events. But it's mostly for meeting with people and absorbing the general zeitgeist. Breakouts/booths are just the window dressing.

Personally, I think the main value of community tech conferences for attendees is exposure to ideas they wouldn't ordinarily be encouraged to sit through.

Agreed. Even if you are better served taking three days off and digging into blog posts, a small project, etc, on your own, how often do you do so? Do you feel like your employer would be cool with that?

One way I've seen this done is with hackathons, but they're uncommon enough to be notable whenever an employer supports them.

I've found that generalist conferences attract a lot of high-level "tech brand" fluff, while very specific conferences in the tech I use can teach me novel and useful deep-in-the-weeds knowledge. Other people's production war stories can be priceless.

> that is even more relevant here

Is it really? It doesn't comment on the article or its content in any way. (The same was true the first time you posted it, when it was also top comment and received plenty of discussion.)

I'm also not a huge fan in general, but it's a distinctly good method for getting feedback when building an API or product.

Let me tell you this story: October 2019 we did something similar, but took it to the extreme: We created 8 conventions on 8 days in 8 major cities in Germany to learn more about private investors and our customers. Time-wise, almost no rational person would've invested so much time.

We talked to almost 1000 real and some prospective customers. The learnings were amazing. In the following 4 weeks, we managed to improve product and reduce churn by 3X (~24% to 6%), which is generally unheard of. It was one of the best ways ever to build up user empathy and understanding real, underlying needs as well as a ton of UX problems.

For what it's worth, radical political economy conferences (and I'm sure ones in other fields too) are more like the ideal you describe.

Although I have no interest in speaking at a tech or any conference,the sheer amount of work put in meant that I had to check it out. Good work mate.

You should really add the ability to exchange email for a downloadable PDF of the guide. And that bottom bar that slides in "20+ new CFPs every week", it won't close no matter how many times I click on x. Browser: Chrome.

Cheers, Ace.

Thanks for the heads up, and I appreciate the kind words.

I interviewed over 30 speakers myself, plus read through several dozen articles to compile this guide.

I will eventually offer a PDF download option, but I wanted to start off by putting it out there for free to the public. After I've made some revisions and improvements and it's a bit more stable I'll go the ebook route too.

Thanks again!

Look forward to reading it as it's something I do a lot of. Thanks!

I'd long since forgotten I created a gist for speaking resources, but I've added this and a few other links, and cleaned up some older broken (sigh) links:


The useful information (IMO) starts from section 3: https://www.cfpland.com/guides/speaking/how-conferences-choo...

A variant of reason #11 is that you improve your own skills by being able to teach it to others. That is why course tutors are people who have recently taken a course. The material and obstacles are fresh in their minds.

In the list of 11 reasons people speak at conferences, I can’t help but see that a good 7 of them or so are vanity related. I think this is the number 1 reason I don’t speak at conferences (and probably the number 1 reason I find conferences to be of very limited utility).

I'd fully expect "11 reasons people speak at conferences" to include a lot of reasons associated with personal benefits. (And I'd actually only count 3 of those as being vanity: the rush, promotion, and recognition.)

People sure don't speak at conferences so they can spend more time at airports and on planes.

Many do also enjoy it for altruistic reasons listed. But relatively few people are going to take on tasks that aren't also beneficial to themselves personally.

I think this is a fair critique. Many people who are drawn to public speaking probably tend toward the "vain" side of the personality spectrum.

Anecdotally, I acted in a play when I was in college. Almost every person in it was studying acting, and the level of self-absorption was overpowering at times.

All that said, speakers and topics are only a small portion of what I find valuable about attending a conference anyway. Most of the opportunity for learning and advancement comes in meeting other people you wouldn't have been able to connect with otherwise.

Whether or not it's vanity, there's an element of enjoying being in the public eye--at least in some contexts. If someone really doesn't like being publicly visible they're mostly going to self-select out of being a speaker unless they have some other compelling motivation for doing so.

Whether or not it comes naturally or it's a persona they've developed for professional reasons, most public speakers like the energy of the crowd or other audience. (Personally, I'm much more comfortable live than on video--which is a somewhat different skill.)

Thank you for creating this, I've already shared it with a few people

Wonderful work. Hopefully this will go a long way toward accomplishing my related new years resolution to speak at tech conferences :)!

Eventually ideas like this always eat theirselves. The "speaking at conference" meme is now thoroughly eaten; there's a cottage industry of bullshit around the whole thing. People do it now to advance their careers and achieve an extremely modest amount of e-fame. Most talks are pointless. It's people giving talks to give talks about helping other people give takls about giving talks for their boss's arbitrary stipulation that giving talks is a required feature for "team lead" engineers, etc..

That's pretty cynical, but I'll admit there's some truth to it.

I take the optimist's view of it though: speaking is a good way to advance your career, but with so many new people getting into software development it's also a great way to teach others. Even if you can watch the video online, conferences allow you to actually meet and ask questions of others who know things you don't.

It's hard to replicate these interactions online.

It’s a goal of mine to speak at a conference so that I can have a photograph of myself speaking at a conference for my LinkedIn profile.

I have some pics from VentureBeat while winning a contest there. :)

I assume you're being sarcastic. But, if not, that's a pretty bad reason.

I've been pretty critical with some other comments on this thread but I actually agree that naked self-promotion is not a good reason to give a conference talk.

It's actually a great reason if you're optimising for the amount of money you make in a career in big business. Which is entirely the point of this thread.

If that's your only motivation, I'm guessing you're not going to do a great job. There are exceptions of course.

Although there are many people out there who do good jobs based only on their love of what they are doing I believe this number is dwarfed by the number of people doing good jobs for money.

I bet the number of people doing bad jobs based only on their lover of what they are doing is also dwarfed by the number of people doing bad jobs for money, but it would be nice to see stats on these things.

Still, since I only do jobs for money almost everyone I've ever interacted with that was doing a job good or bad was also doing it for money. I suppose the parent comment might do pretty good dependent on how well they are actually motivated by money and their skills.

There's a vast gulf between being motivated only by money and being motivated only by love of what you're doing. I enjoy my work, including speaking, most of the time. But if someone weren't paying me to do it I would be--at a minimum--much much more selective about what I took on.

sure I like programming also, but I realized some years ago when I got my first really big consultant paycheck that a lot of the stuff I used to hate about working just flew out the window.

What's with the anger?

If it's something you don't want to do, don't. There are plenty of people who get a lot of value out of the interactions and maybe part of the "boss's arbitrary stipulation" is that there is value to the company through promoting technologies/etc. at events.

I get that a lot of people are cynical about conferences. And I sometimes am one of them. But a lot of people and organizations find them worthwhile.

I see the glut of bad talks (GP mentioned talks about talking about talking) as crowding out other, more valuable talks.

I’m not angry and don’t know if GP is, but it’s certainly worth pointing out and discouraging, if possible.

For me, it’s not that the talks aren’t valuable to some people. That’s neat. And the talk certainly helps the talker and their boss. I think it’s that the marginal value is low.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a talk about giving talks at any tech conference I've ever attended. Personally, that sort of meta-topic doesn't sound like something I'd be inclined to pick as a conference organizer.

Certainly individuals will disagree about conference content. I know I've gotten evaluations that were simultaneously "too in-depth" and "too high-level" for the same talk!

Conference organizers are usually trying to choose talks that appeal to a range of people--both in depth and in topic area. Furthermore, they're usually not familiar with every speaker so some sessions that sound interesting--but aren't or are just poorly delivered--slip in.

And conference organizers just screw up too. Maybe they give undue weight to choosing something a bit random from someone they know. At the same time, many conferences these days are trying to encourage first-time speakers so it's not always the usual suspects. And, at some level, that means taking the good with the bad.

Speaking at conferences is a strong urge in the dev community. Some do it because they want to improve their public speaking skills or to prove something to themselves ('I can be as outgoing as the marketing guy next door, har har'). Or to improve their market value.

In my early days, I had also this urge but it's wrong. The whole post is wrong. Ask yourself WHY you want to speak at tech conferences. What's the aim of your speech? Most of the times and most people don't have an answer.

You want to have nice Google SERPs on your name?


To increase your personal market value?

You think one speech is enough?

Not at all. You need so much more. A topic, more than your vim config or some Github repo which got five stars. You need achievements, first. You need a damn story, a sharp profile. Then go out and hold 10 talks/year, shotgun Google's video search with your talks. I promise you, once you have a good story, public speaking is easy, it feels like talking. But if you don't have anything to tell you sound like the odd & boring AWS sales guy who wants to sell some new overpriced AWS service and paid for the speaking slot.

And be aware that public talks don't necessarily improve your market value. One so-so talk on Youtube about your vim config at some third-class conference is worse than nothing. Besides, most tech conference are third-class created by some greedy local meetup tycoon rebranding his useless meetups. The best is that the meetup tycoon gets free content, YOU on stage, on Youtube, for a crappy conference he sold tickets for 500 bucks. He doesn't care if the entire world makes fun of your speech about your vim config.

I remember one guy who did music with hard-coded JS decades ago, not impressive, maybe a bit interesting. This guy was on several speaking gigs with always the same topic, his stupid JS music. After the third time I saw him, I started to hate him, I swore to never hire this person. Remember, speaking can backfire if you don't have a topic.

I've another guy: Jared, he wrote amazing Formik, a great lib. His talks though are so-so, promoting his company (I think it's just a shell for him freelancing) too much and yeah not on par with his repo. When seeing his talks on a shabby meetup, my first thought was, better fix your repo's issues instead of doing this self-promotion. Again: it backfired and didn't improve his market value. Rather the opposite, before I thought Formik, Jared, the king. Once I saw the speaches, OMG, Jared got jarring.

I rather prefer a cozy Youtube video on a living room couch on Svelte like from the Youtuber Harry Wolff (highly recommended!!! => [1]). Good speakers like Harry are entertainers, they understand to be authentic without even trying and it's hard to deconstruct what they do right.

So, public speaking skills are overrated. It's enough to be able to moderate a meeting/standup for 10-50 people. To do proper speaking, you need to do it frequently, you need to understand entertainment, you need to get deeply into story telling, how to plot narratives, sometimes you need script writers, media trainers and you MUST be in shape, no need to look like James Bond but getting on keto few weeks before sounds like a plan.

If you still think you should be a public speaker, test if you have the basics for being a good entertainer. Do internal presentation at your company, bigger ones where you invite multiple departments, do Youtube videos, screen recordings. Test how people react on your voice, on your appearance, your jokes, If you see positive signals or slight growth, continue.

Otherwise just don't. Public speaking is a profession and imagine a public speaker who wants to pair-program with you in C++. I mean why not? If you can hold a speech he should be able to write some kernel code.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPVQ3M9b6CY

I'm an occasional lurker here but I created this account because of this comment as it represents what is so annoying about this community sometimes.

What exactly are you aiming to achieve with this comment? Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

> In my early days, I had also this urge but it's wrong. The whole post is wrong. Ask yourself WHY you want to speak at tech conferences. What's the aim of your speech? Most of the times and most people don't have an answer.

Who are you to say it's wrong? Even if people are doing it for the wrong reasons, the fact that they are doing it means that this post is relevant to them. To call the post "wrong" is so arrogant and adds nothing to the contribution. All it does is give you a useless delusion of grandeur that makes you think you know better than this author, or those that find value in the post.

> - To increase your personal market value? You think one speech is enough? Not at all. You need so much more. A topic, more than your vim config or some Github repo which got five stars. You need achievements, first. You need a damn story, a sharp profile. Then go out and hold 10 talks/year, shotgun Google's video search with your talks.

This makes no sense. If you're still advocating for eventually going to give talks, why did you start off by calling this post wrong when it gives advice to people that want to speak?

> And be aware that public talks don't necessarily improve your market value. One so-so talk on Youtube about your vim config at some third-class conference is worse than nothing. Besides, most tech conference are third-class.

This sounds like a personal problem for you. And no, one so-so talk on Youtube about your vim config at some third-class conference isn't necessarily worse than nothing

> Public speaking skills are overrated. It's enough to be able to moderate a meeting/standup for 10-50 people. To do proper speaking, you need to do it frequently, you need to understand entertainment, sometimes you need script writers, media trainers, etc.

If you're moderating a meeting with 10-50 people, good public speaking skills will go a long way into making the meeting worthwhile for the attendees.

I have no relation to the author of this post, but it's jarring seeing comments like that throw away nuance and kindness, and let out arrogant statements all under the guise of intellectualism.


Honestly, that seems like an overstatement. The same could be said for anything finding its way onto the internet that doesn't represent you at your current best. Maybe if you're a really bad speaker/writer/etc. and, for whatever reason, think you will never get better you should be cautious about doing anything that will expose you online. But I'd suggest simply improving might be a better approach.

In the case of speaking specifically, if you don't start off giving maybe so-so talks at a Meetup, you're probably never going to get better.

ADDED: To your example. So if your first C++ code doesn't hit it out of the park, you should just give up?

Why are you aggressive? I am just saying public speaking is a core asset of a slightly different career path. You can follow this and there're many career opportunities, especially in tech marketing/dev evangelizing but it's a different path than being an engineer, coding all day or a managing engineer heading devs in the right direction.

Holding good speeches is hard work and takes time. Writing good code, sketching solid abstractions is hard work and takes time as well. Focus on one. And if your code/repo/whatever got 100K stars on Github, then of course hold a speech, it will be easy because everybody want just to see THAT guy. It's complex and this notion, everybody should hold speeches yes, but a guide to speaking at tech conferences? IDK.

If people like public speaking and want to center the career around it, great. But then they need to commit, to do it frequently and of course they start small. But it doesn't make sense to do a recorded talk at a conference if you don't have any experience and do it only once. Like the speaker who writes a 10-liner C++, for what?? Who shall hire that C++ coding speaker? Oh wait, he could moderate a tech conference, because he wrote 10 lines C++... or maybe not.

I don't think I was being aggressive. To the degree I was, it's because I do think--as an industry--we should encourage people who don't consider themselves part of the established elite to put themselves out in public.

And I know tons of people who do public speaking where it isn't a career path or even (really) their primary day job--a number of whom are quite good about it.

Of course, if you have nothing to talk about you shouldn't give a talk. But I wouldn't discourage anyone who has something they want to share--even if it's unrelated to their day-to-day work or it's potentially trivial. It's frankly the job of the conference organizers to decide whether it's potentially relevant and interesting to attendees.

anyone who has something they want to share != speaking at tech conferences

Long term lurker as well, but your comment comes off in bad faith. When you decide to try and break apart each point piece by piece to address, instead of his whole argument as a whole, it signals that you're only trying to argue for arguement's sake. Please don't do this, because it ruins the vibe.[0]

In one enormous post, you have managed to tip-toe the line of civility with passive aggression, but also outright hostility "so arrogant," that it comes into question whether or not the GP's comment was directed at your specific demogrpahic: people that do things because they feel they want to, and not because they have thought it through.

Perhaps you should ask yourself the same question: "What exactly are you aiming to achieve with this comment?"

From an onlooker's perspective, it comes off as needlessly aggressive, but without clear motive. One could say the only purpose of your comment was to express that aggression, and not to spur interesting or novel dicussion.

In that likely case, you are posting in bad faith, and as you said "sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all."

[0] I've been around message boards since usenet. This behavior isn't new, and neither is it appreciated.

If your assessment is that my comment was to express aggression, that would be correct. I thought about what I was trying to achieve and I felt that I didn't owe the OP any grace, since he failed to extend grace to the author of the post. My goal was to express how I felt about the OP's comment as directly as I could, so they could perhaps consider it the next time they want to make another comment like that. Whether or not being less aggressive would make my point more useful is a separate discussion, but at the time of writing the comment, I opted for a bit of aggression.

And FYI, I've not spoken at any conference and I have no interest in speaking at one, so I don't think the comment was directed at my demographic, I just found it to be distasteful.

I thank you for expressing self-awareness and civility in your reply.

Emotions are what make us human. Complex expressions of neural impulses that manifest as many different feelings which move us to action. However, like any other impulse, the understanding of and their proper utilization, always brings greater utility to one's life.

We can all agree that unbridled emotional expression -- that is the actions those emotions move us to do -- can become harmful by their unchecked nature. We can also all agree that emotions have a purpose, and to repress them is not the best of decisions.

Then perhaps there is a useful middle ground. Call it, "emotion, but in moderation." That by stepping back and analyzing our emotions, what caused them to appear, and why we feel the way we feel, we can in-turn make better, more productice decisions.

What flowers from this post, is of no concern of mine, but I felt moved to plant these seeds.

> Otherwise just don't. Public speaking is a profession and imagine a public speaker who wants to pair-program with you in C++. I mean why not? If you can hold a speech he should be able to write some kernel code.

I hereby make a standing offer to work with any professional public speaker to pair with them to write kernel code. Like public speaking, it's a learnable (and teachable) skill, and if you're interested in it, nobody should stand in your way and say it's not worth your time or that it's pointless.

(You, meanwhile, should put a name to your comment so that we can swear never to hire you. You're a 0.1x engineer: your presence on a team will demotivate other people in the organization.)

Are you ok?

Seriously are you ok and fulfilled in your life?

I know some "normies" get on our nerves Like "Jared" but the thing is: Jared is nice, has some friends and more people want to be around him so his chances of happiness are greater.

I really wish you expose your work on Hackernews you seem a very good and intelligent (did not mean wise).

Please show your skills and work it may improve your market rate or even maybe people can contact you and exchange information.

I am looking forward to your contributions.

This is incredibly negative. You could make the same comment about any public form of communication. Speeches, articles, heck even a Twitter post.

This is an absolutely destructive viewpoint in particular for all those brilliant people who do interesting stuff but never think they are ready to share their story just because they are no Jimmy Fallon. Being bad at things in the beginning is part of every journey.

That was my initial reaction as well. Basically, never be a first-time speaker because you might not be perfect, at which point you might as well get out of the field.

I'm sure I'd cringe to see early talks I gave at events. (To say nothing of more recent ones that just didn't come together as I intended. Or, heck, even IMO good ones that aren't as good as awesome speakers give.)

hnbreak 9 months ago [flagged]

> I'm sure I'd cringe to see early talks I gave at events.

Maybe that's the reason you are not making 500k/yr because those videos are still out.

Would you please stop taking this or any other HN thread further into flamewar? That's not what we're after here.


I'm an obstinate lurker of HN, but I felt moved to create an account to address your post -- and another's.

It was a breath of fresh air to read your experiences, and the way you decided to put into writing what your intuition had surmised from said experiences. I read forums religiously to keep my own worldview fresh and to stave off the natural human inclination to bring myself into a homeostatic perception bubble.

Uncannily, one of the most common things I've found is the exact type of person you've described: one that doesn't think about what value their post will bring to others, but only to post for posting's sake. You and your post are an exceptional delight, and I thank you for sharing.

The world -- and by extension the internet, a microcosm of said world -- is overrun with wishy-washy expression that only appears to express a lot, but when stripped of all it's fat, manages to express nothing at all (f.e speaking a lot, but saying little).

As an addendum, my apologies for coming off in the same manner as the subject of your ire. Appearances are important, after all.

The problem with this is you'll end up with just TED talks. Very entertaining soundbites by super-professional speakers. But the guy with all the technical knowledge who works on code all the time doesn't speak because he's not Tony Robbins. That'd be a shame.

Are there many talks about a single person's vim config? That seems like a poor topic to me, and I'm not sure how many people would consider it a good idea.

It just a lazy analogy for many useless talks. Btw, I LOVE talking about my vim config in a small setting like a 10 person meetup just because I LOVE vim and like to be with like-minded people. But I'd never do a public speech on it because it's no achievement and more important: my vim config is not my identity (maybe a bit ;)

These threads always bring out the jealous introverts getting mad at more outgoing people that are able to speak in public.

Guys you can do it too, really. It's not that hard.

Introverts can be, and often are, very outgoing. They just find it exhausting and need time alone afterwards to recharge.

I have an evergreen recommendation that anyone who wants to understand want introvert, extravert, and ambivert really mean should read Quiet by Susan Cains.

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