Start Small

I’ve had the privilege of speaking at several professional conferences over the course of my career in user experience. I love it. And I do it because I get a lot out of it: the ability to share my work with colleagues, to force myself to think about how a project fits into a bigger picture, to let people learn from my experiences and mistakes, to be better at public speaking, to travel to places I might not have taken the opportunity to visit otherwise, to give myself an excuse to actually attend the conference, and to provide my boss with an excuse to send me.

But my first presenting experiences weren’t at large professional conferences. They were at local conferences and chapter meetings. When people who haven’t presented before ask me how to get started, I encourage them to do what I did: start small.

How do you get to speak at a conference?

It’s simple. Either you ask to speak, or they ask you to speak. Larger professional conferences are going to be completely curated, open to submissions, or a mix of the two. The curated conferences invite speakers who have previously spoken or written on a topic of interest that fits with the conference’s stated theme. The trick here is that you’re not likely to be asked to present at a curated conference unless you’ve presented your work elsewhere, you’ve written about a topic they’re interested in, or the curators know you and your work.

Open conferences send out a call for participation that anyone can apply to. Just write up your presentation proposal and submit it. Your submission will probably be reviewed by several volunteer reviewers who will provide you with feedback and give the conference organizer a thumbs up or down on your talk. Some conferences may employ a “blind” review process, where the submitter’s name is not associated with the submission. The idea with a blind review is that the reviewers are judging a proposal solely on the merit of the submission, not due to the reputation of the submitter or her employer.

For larger curated or open conferences, you are likely competing with dozens or even hundreds of people for a limited number of slots. But by seeking out smaller venues to present at you may have a better chance of landing a slot. Not only will you have a chance to refine your presentation topic, you have a chance to build your resume, your confidence, and get your name out. By making connections with attendees and conference organizers, you may have a better chance of getting accepted at other, larger conferences later.

How to speak at local events

One of my first speaking experiences was at the one-day local conference held by the Washington DC chapter of the Usability Professionals Association (UPA, now UxPA). I found out about it through a call-for-participation they emailed to members. The submission process was similar to the organization’s national conference, in that it required writing up a description of my talk, who I thought it would appeal to, what attendees should expect to learn, how I would involve the audience in my presentation, what my talk’s AV requirements were and my bio. Since there were only two conference tracks running simultaneously, my talk overlapped with one other presentation. Lots of conferences run three to five tracks, so getting people to show up to yours can be somewhat of a challenge. Fortunately, the room was packed, the attendees appeared to be really engaged, and there was a lively question-and-answer session at the end. Several people approached me to ask more questions after my session was over, which is always a good sign. It was a very satisfying initial attempt at public speaking.

Conferences aren’t the only opportunity for presenting to a roomful of your colleagues. Many professional organizations hold chapter meetings on a regular basis, and they’re always looking for interesting topics to share with their members. The groups I’ve been involved with—like PhillyCHI, the local ACM chapter—make an effort to add new voices to their mix of presenters. Here are some steps you can take to let them know you’re interested in speaking:

  • Attend the chapter meetings
  • Get to know the chapter officers
  • Propose a talk that you think their members would benefit from

And then there are bar camps. At these “unconferences,” you go to the venue, propose a topic by putting it on the schedule and see who shows up to hear you. Many bar camps actually encourage you not to bring a slide deck; the point is for you to simply share what you know with people who want to learn. You may be presenting to a room of three people—that’s happened to me—and that’s okay. It gives you a chance to try out your material with an audience in an informal setting and get immediate feedback.

Don’t get discouraged

The barrier to entry can be high for a first-time presenter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. You don’t have to start your speaking experience in front of 500 people at SXSW. Try smaller local venues to get your feet wet, work on your presentation, and build your confidence.

To discover professional events and conferences, check out sites like Find UX Events, the Interaction Design Foundation’s calendar of conferences and Lanyrd. Not all of them have open calls for participation, and for many of them the due dates for submission have already passed. But these sites may give you ideas about where to propose a talk in the future.

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