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:

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:

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:

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.

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