Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan
From speaking to coworkers at your company to speaking to strangers at another company, from speaking to a dozen people at a meetup to speaking to a hundred—or a thousand—at a conference, the right venue (or venues!) exists for you. I promise. Some may feel high-stakes, others low.
Let’s look at three public speaking venues to help you find your fit: educational lunches, meetups, and conferences.
A typical “brown-bag lunch” or “lunch and learn” is a meeting among coworkers, in which someone teaches a topic or skill. I love doing these mini events—they tend to be less formal and are more approachable (food helps). I also enjoy the smaller crowd and the opportunity to workshop a future talk in a trusted group.
Educational lunches (or meetings) aren’t limited to your company; plenty of organizations bring in outside speakers. If you want to try out a more anonymous crowd (say, in prep for a conference), or you’d like some perspectives from a different company culture or process, reach out! See if you know someone who works there, who could put you in touch with the appropriate person. Ask if they’d like to host you for an hour to share your knowledge and answer questions.
The logistics of a lunch and learn can be a little tricky. Unlike conferences or meetups, these talks might not have a dedicated event organizer, so it’s much more on you to coordinate what you need. Etsy product design lead Karyn Campbell, who routinely invites prominent designers to talk to Etsy’s design team, cautions, “Oftentimes casual environments like meeting rooms aren’t set up for other purposes.” Plan ahead if you’ll need to adjust seating or address A/V issues. (You might face a few technical bumps anyway—and it’s okay! I’ve found it’s helpful to field a variety of tech issues, as now I can enter pretty much any event setup and feel confident I’ll work through it.)
If reveling in logistics is not your idea of a good time, look to those outside companies. If they host speakers often, they probably have a sense of their technical and timing requirements; ask them to confirm what you should bring. You’ll likely need your own remote, handouts, or other auxiliary equipment.
A meetup is akin to a smaller conference event, with a larger emphasis on networking and social time. Meetups are as diverse in style as conferences; some are very formal, others are low-key. Some meetups have a lone talk or no talks scheduled; others have a list of rotating speakers.
A meetup is an excellent way to grow your public speaking skills. For one, you’ll have a mix of new and familiar faces in the room. It’s also a great venue if your talk has a super-specific focus, as meetups tend to center on niches like “Android development” or “women in tech.” Your audience will have a range of skill sets and experiences within that world—an ideal crowd to help you further develop and refine your ideas. (As a bonus: meetups are great for networking if you’re hoping to find a new collaborator or gig, or recruit someone for your team!)
Meetups have a lot of positives, but the emphasis on networking time and the inclusion of alcohol can make it harder for some folks to participate. How do you know if a meetup is a good fit? Go see for yourself, and speak with other attendees (and know you can leave early if you don’t feel comfortable). If you like the vibe, chat with the organizers about their goals, measures of success, and any pitching process.
Conferences are the site of flop sweats, triumphs, and a check off the bucket list—what many people picture first when someone says “public speaking.”
These events are put on by an organizer or group of organizers whose job is to find funding, attract attendees, craft a speaker lineup, organize audio and visual support, find a venue, and much more. In addition, the same or another group of people may vet proposals for talks.
You may have heard about single-track or multi-track conference types. A single-track event takes place in one room, where all attendees gather and hear all of the speakers in order. Everyone sees the same talks, so audience members don’t have to spend energy choosing which ones to see or finding the correct room, and they have a more communal experience. A multi-track event has multiple rooms or spaces for concurrent talks. Attendees pick which talks they’d like to see, so they might be better prepared for learning (and more enthusiastic) about your particular topic.
In the next sections, I’ll walk through what goes on behind the scenes at most conferences so that, armed with facts, we can decrease some of the unknowns around public speaking at this kind of event. Keep in mind it’s tough to say whether you’ll encounter any particular trait of a conference because they’re all run so differently. But by illustrating the spectrum of conferences, I hope to help you figure out which aspects might feel like the right comfort zone for you.
On your journey to landing your dream conference, let’s start with a visualization. Think about your future talk: who do you picture in the audience?
Be as detailed as possible. What kinds of jobs do they have? Do they work in the same industry, like higher education or government—or do they have similar roles, like designers or developers? Do they belong to any professional groups? What blogs or magazines do they read? Who do they follow on Twitter? What meetups or conferences are they excited about?
Thinking about your ideal audience—and their interests—is one way to pinpoint your ideal speaking venue.
Further your research by asking your friends, coworkers, or other people in your target demographic about their real-life experiences. Can they think of a conference, meetup, or other venue where they enjoyed learning? Even better, can they recall an event where they enjoyed speaking?
Gather more inspiration from the site Lanyrd, which amasses lists of events and their history, including location, topics, and past speakers. You might also try the newsletter Technically Speaking, which collects conferences currently soliciting proposals for new talks (also known as a CFP, or Call for Proposals). As you document your list of potential places to speak, note whether they have a CFP or other submissions process. If they have a proposal deadline, put a reminder on your calendar to submit!
Once you have your list, start narrowing the field. Here are a few questions I ask myself to see if an event would be a good fit.
Dig online and see what attendees have said. If this is the event’s first year, scope out the organizers. Audience enthusiasm is a terrific sign, of course, but even better, see if people were inspired to take what speakers shared and change how they worked or thought about about a topic. You’ll get a sense of what the audience responds to. If you know any past speakers, reach out and ask them how it went: what the audience was like, how the event was run, and whether they’d recommend it to other speakers.
Is the event loosely organized with a more casual feel, or is it highly structured with a more formal schedule? Or a mix?
This will help you figure out the level of work involved on your end (including how much preparation you’ll want to do) and give you an idea of how much support the organizers can offer you—which might be important if you have specific logistics needs for travel, compensation, accessibility, food, etc., or if you want early feedback on your presentation. For example, !!Con, a conference for programmers, helps speakers develop their talks. Maggie Zhou, a past !!Con organizer, told me:
[Event organizers] desperately want the conference to go well, and so are totally willing to help you the speaker in whatever way you need. So ask for help if you need it. For !!Con, we listened to people’s talks ahead of time on video and in person, and talked people through expectations and setup, and would’ve been willing to do much more than that!
While !!Con’s collaborative approach might not always be available, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Coaching a speaker through giving their first talk benefits both the speaker and the conference, as it’ll result in a better talk and a better experience for the audience.
Introducing and supporting new speakers to the circuit brings a more diverse array of voices and perspectives to our industry. Which leads us to the next question.
Look at the speaker bios of past lineups. Some conferences have been intentional about ensuring their speaker lineup is diverse, such as inviting people from underrepresented communities or using a CFP system that anonymizes submissions.
Consider safety concerns too. Look for conferences with a Code of Conduct, which outlines expectations for participants’ behavior, resources to reach out to if anyone has concerns, and consequences for those who break the code. These guidelines have gained traction in our industry to help prevent harassment: racist, sexist, ableist, trans- or homophobic, or otherwise intolerant language; online hate mobs; threats of violence; sexual assault.
Codes of Conduct should provide clear rules for behavior and guidelines for their enforcement. Event organizers may emphasize to speakers that their content should adhere to the code; in addition, check that organizers have trained staff in the specific processes for handling inappropriate behavior and harassment at the conference or a related event. Seek out conferences that articulate the importance of safety for their speakers and attendees.
Conferences encourage a range of interaction with the audience and other speakers in the course of the event. I’ve seen organizers:
Maybe structured social events (like happy hours) boost your spirits, or maybe you prefer solo downtime. Maybe both hold true. See how a conference might complement (or drain) your energy levels, so you can better plan. In recent years, conferences have offered activities that don’t revolve around alcohol (like walking tours), and carved out quiet rooms for attendees and speakers. Some events have a separate speakers’ lounge, so speakers can prepare or connect with one another in a quieter space. I also like to head for the “hallway track,” informal places where attendees chat with one another about past sessions, follow-up questions, or their own company practices. I’ve found these conversations to be as valuable as the conference talks themselves.
Consider concerns external to the conference too. For instance, I spoke to Juan Pablo Buriticá, who organizes a number of conferences in Colombia, on the importance of researching an event that takes place in another country:
Culturally, you may have plenty of differences on what to expect outside of the US. This may also have a bigger impact in underrepresented communities for several reasons. For example, I know of a speaker who decided to opt out of a conference due to a State Department assessment on the state of LGBT rights in Latin America.
Take the time to understand cultural expectations. You might register with your consulate if you’re headed abroad. Buriticá also suggests talking to event organizers or your employer (if possible) about safety and security while traveling.
You have two routes to speaking at an event: submitting a proposal or being invited. When you’re starting out, or if you’re switching gears to a new topic, you’ll likely embark on the submissions track. Let's get excited about filling out some forms!
Each conference has its set of questions about your talk content, format, and you, the speaker. Organizers use this information to figure out if you and your talk suit their event and audience. For example, a typical O’Reilly conference might ask for:
Once the submissions are in, organizers cull them and decide what shape the conference should take, based on industry trends and key takeaways for the audience. Some conference organizers read all of the submissions themselves; others arrange panels to gain more diverse perspectives. As they consider contenders, organizers put themselves in their audience’s shoes: what does that audience want to hear?
That’s a question you should keep in mind as you create your pitch. Sarah Mei does a fantastic job exploring the sales aspects of writing a proposal in her article “What Your Conference Proposal Is Missing”:
People don’t go to talks for the content. People go to talks because they think they’ll become more badass. So help them out with that! Make it easy for them to imagine their newfound superpowers, and they’ll match your level of excitement.
For more on writing proposals, hop to the Resources section. But let’s back up and return to you. Have you ever looked at a CFP form for your dream event—the one that always has the best lineup and most fun participants—and chosen not to submit? If you said yes, you’re in good company. Maybe you share some of the fears people noted in my public speaking survey:
Don’t take yourself out of the running before the people organizing the event have had a chance to look at your proposal. It’s literally their job to find talk topics that will be relevant and enticing to their audience; you can help their cause—and yours—by choosing conferences whose audience and focus lines up with yours.
If you’re still a little unsure or plain stuck, get a second pair of eyes on your draft! Ask a colleague or friend to give feedback on questions like “Would this topic be helpful for this event’s audience?” or “Is this the right level of depth for a proposal?”
Once you’re on the speaking circuit, you begin to get invited a lot more to give talks, rather than submitting a proposal through the normal channels.
I've received invites via Twitter direct messages, out-of-the-blue emails, and connections from trusted friends. Some invites include lots of information about the conference and what they hope I'll bring to it. Sometimes they include a list of other speakers who’ve confirmed their talks, as a way to convince me that I want to be on that roster.
An invite doesn’t automatically mean you’re in; some organizers extend invitations to submit an idea, while others ask you to give a particular kind of talk—which you might not want to do! Feel free to see if they would be interested in a different take.
For instance, as I’ve done a lot of web performance talks, organizers often invite me to present the same talk at their event. Some places will ask me to change the length of the talk (I can tell you it’s rough to cram a 90-minute workshop into a 30-minute lecture!), and others ask for completely new material.
As ever, ask questions in turn. Event organizers want and need you to succeed—get their perspective before you submit your pitch. I’ll check if they’d prefer a 101-level topic or more depth; or I’ll see if they have any subject gaps in their lineup they’d like me to cover. Recently, I spoke at a conference that attracts more designers, so I refocused my performance talk to include design considerations on site speed. You want to go for something that feels good to present and is equally as fulfilling for your audience to hear.
You won’t get invitations to every conference you want—and it’s okay. Keep submitting, whether it’s through a CFP or your network. The more practice you get with sending proposals, the more you can learn from the process and event organizers about what makes a winning pitch. Follow up with any rejections (we all get them!) to find out what wasn’t quite the right fit, and see if that feedback applies to your next submission. Maybe it’s as simple as “We already had three proposals on the same topic,” or as helpful as “This wasn’t the right technical depth for our audience.” Learning and iterating is the key to each step toward the stage.
Excellent, you’re in! The event organizers have given you an enthusiastic thumbs up, and you’re ready to commit.
Compensation and arrangements vary wildly, and it’s hard to get figures. Some conferences pay speakers an honorarium or flat fee. Some events cover travel and/or lodging; this coverage could top out at a certain dollar amount or vary depending on distance or other needs like childcare. Other conferences may simply cover the cost of your ticket to the conference itself.
When I was getting started, I asked events to cover travel and lodging, but I rarely received other compensation. Because I had a full-time, salaried job and didn’t need to take vacation days to speak at the conference, this setup worked for me. I didn’t know I could ask for a speaker fee, let alone negotiate other kinds of compensation like a per diem or upgraded flights. I was a rookie, but I’ve negotiated a lot more since.
I encourage you to ask to be adequately compensated for your time and hard work in giving audiences a good experience. What do you need to be able to speak at the event? You always have the option of talking to an organizer, and you can negotiate travel or childcare or more conference tickets. As you calculate your speaker fee, consider the real time it takes to create a talk—and factor in related expenses: any vacation days you’ll need to take, meals during your trip, passport or visa fees, pet care, even new clothing.
One terrific place to start researching your compensation options is Who Pays Speakers?, an anonymous survey that collects and shares information on speakers’ compensation and event experiences. Another great resource is developer Jenn Lukas’s take on calculating speaking fees, which breaks down ways to translate the work of creating and giving a talk into numbers.
Negotiating compensation, especially as a newer speaker, can feel acutely uncomfortable. But remember, you’re doing a job! Ask yourself what kind of compensation would make the experience worthwhile.
Does the event have a contract? If they don’t, consider drawing one. Typically a contract includes information on logistics, deliverables and deadlines, and compensation. Sally Jenkinson has shared her standard speaking contract online. She includes relevant details like a short bio for marketing materials, the name of her talk, and an agreement to be photographed.
Before you sign on the dotted line (after a thorough read-through), ask the organizers a few questions to ensure this opportunity is the right fit for you:
And remember, just because an event has accepted your proposal, it doesn’t mean you must say yes. As you move into specifics, you might decide the event doesn’t align with your values, what you want to share with the audience, or what you want to get out of giving a talk. Don’t hesitate to decline; I promise, it won’t have a bearing on whether you’re invited to other events in the future.
Gather as much information as you can from the organizers. More specific logistics like the technical setup, flow of the day, and what they need from you will shape how you create your talk—so ask away.
Try questions like these:
Put together a conference profile with the answers to these questions. For example, developer Anna Debenham collects notes on each event she’s spoken at, including contact info, packing lists, itinerary, etc. She also adds a photo of the inside of the venue, so she has a sense of the space before she arrives. See her template to start your own.
Conference profiles are tremendously helpful if you’re speaking at more than one event. Plus, you’ll have a place to document your experience at the event and what you learned afterward. Better yet, you can share it with other speakers who come and ask you for help finding a venue.
Congratulations! You’ve found your topic and your venue—it’s time to start writing!