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Getting on to the international conference circuit

Speaking at international conferences is more than a job for many tech enthusiasts and evangelists – it’s a passion and a way of life! Here are some top tips from some of the best speakers there are, including London Java Community (LJC) associates Martijn Verburg, Trisha Gee and Daniel Bryant.

Competition is keen, so how can you give yourself the best chance of succeeding?

  • Try and introduce yourself to conference organisers, influencers and people who sit on programme committees when you meet them at other conferences/events.
  • Develop your public profile through writing articles, blogging and taking every speaking opportunity you can, to help to build your brand (and credentials).
  • Make your abstract snappy: conference organisers can often spend as much time looking at these as they do CVs (i.e. not long!) so you have to capture their attention and stand out from the rest.
  • Choose a title that clearly says what the talk is about, or your audience figures might suffer.

Daniel says:

“I tried to be clever with my title at last year’s JavaOne and didn’t get a very big audience. Several people came up to me at the end and said it was great talk, but they nearly didn’t come along because they weren’t initially sure what it was about… d’oh!” Trisha also had some advice on this point: “Remember that most conference attendees will *only* read the title (usually in a massive timetable of events). They’ll only read the abstract if they were interested to begin with.  Ramming keywords into your title may feel awkward and obvious, but it works – people turned up in droves to my ‘AngularJS/HTML5/Java/Groovy/MongoDB all together’ talk. Some idea of level is also useful – e.g. ‘Intro to…’ or ‘Advanced…’”

  • Once you get a presentation accepted, adding a bit of ‘uniqueness’ and humour to a presentation goes a long way in helping people remember you. For example, Daniel tells us; “… the hand-drawn monsters in one of Trisha’s design talks really stuck in my brain.” And if people remember (and talk about) your presentation, it is more likely your next abstract will be accepted…

The next big question is – Which are the best conferences to speak at? Initially as a new speaker to the circuit you may not be accepted by the most prestigious conferences, and you are also likely to have to pay your own travel and accommodation. This means location will be key to most people. Even so, there are so many conferences out there it’s hard to know where to start. Trisha is happy to share the following list of her personal favourites, and added some comments. She says: “I talk about costs a lot because you need to care about them: if you’re doing it on your own money and time, which many presenters starting out are, then obviously you care. If you’re doing it on your company’s money, you need to be able to justify cost vs benefit.”

  • JavaOne, San Francisco   “… because it’s THE conference. But you’ll probably have to make a name for yourself before you’ll be accepted. And it’s EXPENSIVE to get to. But it’s the best conference to network.”
  • Devoxx UK  “Local, time and money-wise costs very little, more likely to get in as the organisers will know many of the active LJC members, and if they don’t you can easily introduce yourself at an event. Also, if you don’t get accepted you could probably ask for feedback on what you could do to improve your abstract.”
  • Devoxx Belgium  “Biggest Java conference in Europe. Cheap to get to, hotels are OK price-wise, although other costs while you’re out there are almost London-standard. But it’s worth it because the talks are videoed, your reach is bigger than just the attendees, and I’ve found it a pretty safe conference to practice in as you get decent, honest feedback. Lots of JUG leaders/members there, great place to network.”
  • Voxxed conferences   “Not something I’ve done, but they look interesting, especially for kicking off a speaking career.”
  • QCon  /GOTO  – “QCon is more aimed at big corporate businesses, GOTO is more aimed at techies. There are similar organisers for both and I really like these conferences because it’s not Just Java – there’s usability, other languages, Agile, and loads of interesting stuff. To get in to QCon you really could do with knowing the organisers (Top Tip – I’m an organiser for QCon London!), and having at least one video of you doing a decent job at presenting. GOTO is a more open CFP (QCon London has a CFP but it tends to be done by invitation). GOTO/QCon will cover most, if not all, of your travel costs, and will cover your accommodation. For getting started, I highly recommend GOTOs, the costs are very low to the speaker, the talks are usually videoed, so you can use them to get more presentations, and it’s a different network to the Java community. From London, it’s very easy to get to most of the GOTO locations.”
  • Open Source Convention (OSCON)  is a different network again to the Java/GOTO conference people. “I like OSCON, and they do cover your costs if you’re not a professional evangelist (I think you have to ask them though), but it’s a looooong flight, and I found it a bit of a lonely conference as I didn’t know many people there.”

Trish added the following advice:

“If you are going to fly somewhere for work or a conference, reach out to the local JUG (or other user group, there are DevOps groups, MongoDB groups, general tech groups) and offer to give your presentation to them. Not only is this fantastic practice, but you meet new people. JUG talks are waaay more friendly than scary conferences, and you get loads of good feedback.”

A final, possibly surprising, point is that it is perfectly acceptable to deliver more or less the same presentation at every conference you speak at. Martijn and Trisha both tell us that they usually prepare one talk for a conference season, and then adapt/evolve it through each presentation and for each audience. This means that you can send more or less the same abstract to all the conferences you are hoping to speak at.

Thanks to all contributors to this post, quoted and not-quoted.

Has all this got you interested in the conference circuit, but left you thinking about your lack of public speaking experience? Don’t forget that the LJC offers a fantastic opportunity to try out material and get started through giving lightning talks at the beginning of a meetup.

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