Finding Your Voice

Aug 15, 2014

this article was initially published with the March edition of php[architect] magazine. I want to thank them that they allowed me to published the post here on my blog, too!

It’s (mostly) always the same story: I’m trying to convince some of my friends to finally submit a talk to a conference Call for Papers (CfP), and the answer is always: “Yeah, I would love to…but I have no idea what I should talk about.” It’s time to get over your reservations and find your voice.

Step 1: Finding Your Topic

Since I have been hearing this so often, I want to share some of my thoughts on finding a topic and becoming the best speaker to present on it at any conference.

I started speaking at conferences almost two years ago. Since then, I’ve been to a lot of conferences. I was very lucky because my CTO back then was an experienced speaker already. He gave me a bunch of good advice and helped me to find my very first topic. Today, I am going to pass this advice on to you.

Share the Story of What You Are Doing

I assume you are getting your monthly paycheck for a reason, which means you are actually adding value to your company’s goals. Are you programming new features? Great - go talk about that. How about sharing: ‘How we evaluate which features are worth being implemented’? Are you fixing a lot of bugs? That is also a great topic to talk about. How about: ‘The top five ways to drill down and find EVERY bug’? You may even be doing a bunch of other stuff besides programming - proper project management, prototyping, or technical evaluations - and these are also great things to talk about.

This brings me to my next point.

Share the Story You Are Absolutely Passionate About

Very often after giving a talk, what I hear is that I’m so passionate about the things I’m talking about. The reason for this is dead simple. I am enthusiastic about the things I’m talking about. You should be too. Don’t just pick a topic that’s worth sharing. Pick a topic where you really feel like it’s an amazing thing - it’s the one tool, best practice, or workflow that you can’t live without anymore!

That being said, there is one last thing you really should know about finding talk topics:

Even Though You Know It, Not Everyone Else Knows It

That’s really the biggest takeaway of this whole article. To be able to talk about a topic, you should really feel comfortable with it - whatever it might be. We all know that it usually takes at least a couple of months - or even longer, possibly a year - to dig into something well enough to feel comfortable with it. Which brings us to the actual problem: As soon as you know a topic well enough to be able to speak about it, you feel like the topic is so easy that you expect everyone to already know about it.

YOU ARE WRONG! You should feel special for knowing that thing. Ask your peers if they would be curious to see a talk about that topic.

Step 2: The Abstract

Now that you have a rough idea for a topic, it is time to write a nifty abstract for your idea. Let me tell you my little secret about abstracts: Be as specific as you have to, but try to be as least specific as you can. I usually write my abstract without knowing how my story will look in the end. By keeping it a bit vague, you are preserving the chance to change bigger and smaller details while crafting the talk.

If you’d like to get an idea of how other speakers are writing their abstracts, there is a pretty obvious way that most people forget about. When you are reading through a conference program, you are just reading a collection of abstracts (and ones that were successful at that). I only know of a very few number of conferences where they ask speakers to write an extra paragraph, separate from their proposal, for the program, so just read through a bunch of programs from your favorite conferences. This way, you can get an idea of what the best writing style would be.

You are almost there, but there one last thing to do.

Step 3: Name the Talk!

As we all know, there are just a handful of unsolved problems in Computer Science, and besides printing and dual screen solutions, it’s naming things. This, unfortunately, also applies to finding a name for your conference talk. At this step, it’s a lot about your creativity. Try to make the audience curious, but don’t make false promises. Try to tell them what they can expect and what kind of level your talk will be at…and pack all this information into about 40 to 60 characters. Good luck!

You’re Done

I hope this made the process of how to get your paper into a CfP a bit more clear and also encourages you to share what you already know. People speaking at conferences aren’t super heroes or super brains. The only difference is that they have realized that they have something to share, and now, you have too!