How to Get Over Your Fears and Start Speaking at Design Conferences
Speaker Ash Huang at Adobe MAX 2017.
by Linn Vizard
posted on 07-23-2018
Speaking at design conferences is a great way to connect with the community, share ideas, and develop your practice as a designer. It can help you to develop and share your unique perspective and voice, and contribute to the practice. It’s also a great way to meet people, build your profile, and make connections in the design community.
For many people that don’t have experience giving talks, it’s also a daunting prospect. Navigating the landscape of picking a topic, creating a talk, and figuring out how to get speaking slots — not to mention facing the terrifying prospect of public speaking — can seem very overwhelming (Jerry Seinfeld even has a joke about the oft-quoted survey result that people fear public speaking more than death!). The good news is that if speaking at design conferences is something that you want to try, there are ways to break this goal down into smaller steps.
Figuring out what to talk about
Much like in writing, it’s usually best to talk about what you know. Picking topics that you have first-hand experience of, feel very strongly and passionately about, and have a unique perspective on will usually lead to the best results. It’s also important to consider your audience. Think about your topic selection as a user-centered design project:
- What does your audience care about?
- What will be useful to them?
- What can they take away from your talk?
Certain conferences will have particular focus areas, or even more specific themes from year to year. For example, UX Week tends to have more wide-ranging topics and keeps the conference open to UX in general, whereas Midwest UX will focus on certain themes (in 2018 it’s “Curiosity. Collaboration. Integrity.”).
When you’re starting out, there are some tried, tested, and true approaches that can help you pick something to build your talk around. In the beginning, it’s often best to go deep and specific rather than trying to be too all-encompassing. Using a specific case study of a project you have worked on to share lessons learned can be an effective way to share insights with your audience. Finding a unique perspective that combines two of your interests can also lead to novel and interesting topics.
Finding an audience
Finding places to give your talk can sometimes feel like the catch-22 of finding your first job. You need experience, but to get that experience someone has to take a chance on you as a new speaker.
Local meetups can be a great place to get started giving talks. For example, the Interaction Design Association has local chapters around the world. Image source: IxDA.org.
Here are some approaches you can take to land your first speaking opportunity:
- Organize an informal lunch and learn at your work. This is a great way to practice your talk and get feedback.
- Pitch your topic to relevant local design and tech meetups, like IxDA. Organizers are often looking for content, and if you are flexible with dates and timing you’ll increase your chances of getting a spot.
- Offer to give a guest lecture at design programs or bootcamps in your area. Programs are increasingly interested in bringing in practitioners from industry. This can be a win-win and a great opportunity to connect with and mentor the next generation of designers.
- You can also create your own platform for your talk by organizing a meetup, recording yourself giving the talk and posting it online, or perhaps offering it as a webinar.
Getting into renowned design conferences
As you gain more confidence and practice, you may set your sights on more prominent, global stages. There are two main ways to secure speaking slots at these events: by invitation, and by applying to the conferences’ calls for speakers. Certain conferences take a curatorial approach and speaking may be by invitation only. This is often the case for the keynote spots at larger conferences. However, many conferences also hold calls for speakers in order to diversify the voices and content at their event. Keeping an eye on conference Twitter accounts, mailing lists, or checking the websites are the best ways to stay in the loop for when calls open and when the deadlines are.
CanUX’s 2018 call for speakers on its website. Keep an eye on conference websites, Twitter accounts, and mailing lists to stay in the know on when calls for speakers open. Image source: CanUX.io.
Depending on your particular focus, there may be certain conferences that match your interests more than others. New events are popping up all the time, and then there are ongoing, annual events. For graphic designers some annual options include the AIGA Design Conference and HOW Design Live. For interaction and UX-focused designers, Interaction (the Interaction Design Association’s annual conference), UX Week, and the UXPA Conference are just some of the events that are relevant. Adobe MAX is also an excellent multi-disciplinary conference, covering creativity from graphic, web, and UX design, to illustration, photography, and video.
Writing a great speaking proposal
The demand for speaking slots often far outweighs the availability. For example, in 2014, IA Summit reviewed 416 proposals with 51 available spots. In some ways it is a game of perseverance and numbers, and, not unlike applying for jobs, a certain amount of rejection is to be expected. There are some things you can do to increase your chances of being accepted as a speaker:
- Follow the conference submission rules. Make sure that you pay close attention to any requirements in the speaker submission, such as word counts, information requested, and timelines. It can be tempting to copy and paste submissions you’ve made in the past, but it’s always worth making sure you have customized your submission to the specific requirements of the conference.
- Tailor your topic and submission to the conference theme, if there is one. Conference curation teams are designing an experience for their attendees, and the more you can enable them to create that desired experience, the better.
- Use an attention-grabbing and descriptive title to sell your idea. First impressions count, and the title is often the first taste a reviewer gets of your topic. Think about your title from a user-centered perspective. Does it give the reader a sense of what they can learn from the talk? Is it intriguing? Would they be excited to go and see that talk?
- Make sure you have spelling and grammar on lockdown. Use spell-checker or get a friend to proofread your submission. Typos and errors are distracting and look unprofessional, and you want your submission to make a great impression and feel like a taste of what’s to come.
Being prepared for logistics
Both when you’re preparing submissions and after you’ve been accepted as a speaker, there are some logistical items to consider. It will make your life easier if you have these ready to go, and have put some consideration to them.
- Most speaking submissions will require a bio that describes who you are, and, hopefully, why you are the right person to give the talk. Available character counts will vary, but having some simple options ready to go and customized is a great start.
- As you make submissions you will want clarity on whom you plan on representing — for example, are you going as a representative of your employer? If so, talking to your boss or organization about their policies and requirements ahead of time is advisable.
- Headshots and photos of yourself are a must. Most conferences will require these for their website once you have been selected. Keeping a folder handy of high-resolution headshots that you like (or at least tolerate) is super helpful so that you’re not caught off-guard when the request comes.
- Compensation and payment for speaking vary widely, depending on the conference. Most conferences will at least provide a conference pass in exchange for speaking, and some will cover travel and accommodation or provide a stipend. Speaking fees are more common for invited keynotes, or for larger commercial conferences. A lot of design conferences are organized by the community and run by volunteers, but it’s always worth asking if there is a speaker budget and what the compensation structure is.
The speaking world needs you
Speaking gets easier the more you do it, and can be a very fun and rewarding experience. While it can seem daunting when starting out, taking small steps towards your goal — combined with perseverance — will get you there. Design gets better when we hear diverse voices and experiences, so consider adding yours to the mix.
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Topics: Creativity, Design
Products: Creative Cloud