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How I Apply to Conferences: FAQs

November 17, 2022

Context

These are common questions and my answers for my How I Apply to Conferences article. It goes over my process for determining what to submit to CFPs and how to fill out descriptions.

FAQs

Let me know if you have any other questions to add!

Can you still go to a conference that rejected your CFP submission?

Absolutely! Many conferences will give discounts as thanks for submitting.

Do you need to go to conferences to be a good developer?

Absolutely not. Many developers don’t.

Conferences can be great for learning and networking, but they’re not for everyone. If you don’t want to spend a day in a conference center with a bunch of strangers, that’s completely reasonable.

Do you need to be active on Twitter to speak at conferences?

No, but it’s very helpful. There are a lot of developer communities and discussions on Twitter and many conference organizers are active there. I’ve made countless invaluable personal connections and tech discoveries by using Twitter daily. I’d certainly recommend sticking at Twitter if you’re up for it.

That being said, social media comes with a cost. It takes time to actively work on engaging with others, responding to tweets, checking your timeline, etc. And seeing the constant cycle of extreme takes, angry negativity, and general human stupidity that is the internet can be emotionally draining. Some experienced speakers choose not to be active on social media, or even to not have accounts at all.

Do what’s right for you.

How can I find out about conferences?

I subscribe to as many newsletters, Twitter accounts, and automated services as possible. That includes:

If you use Twitter, you might consider making a Twitter List containing conferences you think you might be a speaker fit for. Mine is Josh Conference Matches.

Got another service to add to the list? Please let me know over email, Mastodon, or Twitter!

Do you need to be an expert on a subject to give a talk on it?

No. No!

If only the top experts on subjects gave talks on those subjects, most conferences wouldn’t be able to find speakers!

The only familiarity level you need for a subject is what your talk will cover plus a few common questions you expect people will ask.

For example, you don’t need to deeply understand a UI library’s rendering internals or the backing of its architectural decisions when giving a talk on getting started with it. But do know FAQs such as how it works with data fetching, CSS-in-JS, and other important integrations.

How do you know whether to submit to a conference?

If you’re unsure, just submit. You never know what the conference organizers will want to branch out to.

Nobody will be irritated or offended by your submission (as long as you do the due diligence mentioned in How I Apply to Conferences).

Remember: not all talks have to be technical. I’ve seen fantastic talks at frontend conferences from junior and not-frontend developers on topics such as mentorship and teamwork.

If you’re still unsure, you can always ask the conference organizers. Or reach out to me; I’m happy to encourage you!

I don’t think I know enough about anything to give a talk. How do I find a topic?

Wrong. You absolutely do know enough to give a talk on something. See Do you need to be an expert on a subject to give a talk on it?

If you’re really struggling to think of things, I’d suggest keeping a journal at work of the main lessons you learn. I guarantee you’ll have at least a half dozen items within a month.

You also don’t need to give a talk on a technical topic. I’ve seen great talks with titles like My First 30 Days as a Software Developer or How Not to Onboard Engineers that barely touched on code at all. In fact, engineers who have never given a talk and/or are relatively junior are often better for talks about those subjects, as they’re more recently familiar!

How do I make my submission stand out?

The most important thing is to write a good submission. That really will make it stand out beyond most of the other submissions. A well written, detailed submission will almost always win over a sloppy one.

Adding personality to it might be good too: alliteration or a pun are my go-to delighters.

It also doesn’t hurt to have some online presence in the topic, like a blog post or open source library. But that’s certainly not necessary, and sometimes won’t be a factor at all.

Much of the process is randomized: how the CFP reviewers are feeling that day; what topics they decide they want; what’s gone viral in the last month. Just keep submitting! 💪

What do CFP reviewers look for in submissions?

That’s very dependent on the conference and reviewer. Most reviewers I’ve talked look for qualities something like:

  • Does the topic at least partially match the conference?
  • Do the proposed topic & details seem of interest to the target audience(s)?
  • Does the proposal have at least the level of detail asked for?
  • Does the proposal flow well with other proposals being accepted?
    • This one is roughly impossible to predict as an applicant, so don’t worry about it!

I’m planning on writing follow-up posts on more conference topics, including how I review CFP submissions. Please let me know over email, Mastodon, or Twitter if there’s anything you’d like to see answered!

I have anxiety. Can I speak at conferences?

Hey, me too! Anxiety pals!

Plenty of conference speakers have anxiety and/or plenty of other variations of being human. I can’t answer that question for you specifically though. We’re all different.

By the way, I recommend everybody get a therapist if they can. Even if you don’t think you need it. Even if you think your body and mind are already perfect (which, frankly, is a sign that you likely need therapy…). A good therapist can be shockingly helpful for many personal issues, including but not limited to: fear of drawing attention to yourself, self-doubt, and social anxiety.

I’m giving my first talk soon and I’m nervous. What do I do?

You got your first talk accepted! Congrats, that’s great! Give yourself a pat on the back. 😊

Everybody gets nervous before their first talk. It’s a natural part of the process.

If you can, try giving a preview presentation of the talk to people you trust, such as coworkers, family, and friends. Rehearse it ahead of time as much as you think is helpful, then stop rehearsing it the day before the conference and go do something that takes your mind off it. I especially recommend something mentally and/or physically engaging, such as exercise, a particularly engrossing book, going out with a close friend or three, or an old favorite video game.

Plan something fun for after the talk to treat yourself.

When you’re getting ready to start the talk, breathe deeply and calmly. You’ve done everything you can. Everybody knows public speaking can be nerve-wracking. Nobody whose opinion is worth anything will judge you harshly on your first few talks.

You got this! 👏

Is it ok to repeat talk submissions?

Absolutely, unless the conference explicitly states they prefer not (which is rare). Giving a talk multiple times allows you to iterate on it and give a better talk each time. Most developers don’t go to very many conferences per year, so the chances that they’ll see you give the same talk twice are very small.

Especially if you’ve got a talk you’re excited about but haven’t given yet, it’s fine to submit it to multiple conferences. Don’t limit your chances of giving that great talk by only having one submission with it pending at a time.

My proposal was accepted, but I have to back out for personal reasons. What do I do?

Talk to the organizers as soon as possible, and give them as much information as you feel comfortable sharing. They will understand. Personal situations happen, and it’s not their place to try to force you to do their event.

(if anybody does, please let me know so I don’t waste my time applying to their conferences!)

Messages like the following are inoffensive and reasonable:

Hi {organizer},

I’m so sorry, something in my personal life came up and I can’t speak at {conference} anymore.

Thanks again for choosing me and giving me this opportunity. I hope we can make this happen another time.

-{you}

If you have the energy and time, consider personalizing the message to how you’ve talked with the organizers in the past.

My proposal was accepted, but I learned of something the conference does that makes me uncomfortable. What do I do?

Depends on the severity of the misdeed. If it’s something you’d feel comfortable talking to the organizers about, I strongly recommend reaching out to them directly to raise your misgivings. Oftentimes the organizer will appreciate you talking to them and will work hard to make it right.

Messages like the following are inoffensive and reasonable:

Hi {organizer},

I recently learned about {misdeed}. This is concerning to me because {reasons}.

But, I want to hear your side of the story. Am I missing anything?

Thanks! -{you}

If the bad deed is really bad, though, it’s absolutely fine to back out. You don’t want to help an event that violates your own moral code.

Messages like the following are inoffensive and reasonable:

Hi {organizer},

I recently learned about {misdeed}. This is concerning to me because {reasons}.

I don’t feel comfortable speaking at a conference that {description}, and must back out.

Best, {you}.

If you got accepted at this one event, you can get accepted at some other one later on. Don’t feel obligated to stay with a bad group.

Should I make a speaker rider?

I have a speaker rider, which is a declaration of the things I need in order to speak at an event. That speaker rider consists only of must-haves that I think every event should do:

  • Accessibility: Be accessible, whether in-person and/or online
  • Accommodations: Pay for travel expenses and my ticket
  • Code of Conduct: Have a real one and enforce it
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Be at least ~30% not-white-cisgender-male speakers

You don’t need to have a speaker rider yourself. I imagine my being a little more restrictive than many may hurt my chances for some conferences.

But, if you become a somewhat known name in your industry niche, I’d urge you to consider having one. The more speakers require points such as accessibility, the more pressure conferences will feel to do the right thing.

What are the best conference talks you’ve seen?

I’ve seen so many amazing ones! “Best” is so subjective of a term. My answer would be different each different month I try to give it.

What are your favorite conference talks you’ve seen?

Three great talks that have been top-of-mind for me (and also have publicly available videos) recently are:

But, again, that’s informed in large part by what I’ve been separately thinking about lately. I’ve seen plenty of other equally great talks - including from the same conferences as those three! I’d highly recommend going through those conferences’ playlists on YouTube to see which talks you like the most.

What are the best talks you’ve given?

Hard to say. Different topics and styles work better for different people. I’m also always trying to improve as a speaker, so this answer will probably select from within the last few I’ve given.

As of November 2022, I think my overall best two talks were my two most recent ones:

  1. TypeScript Static Analysis Hidden Gems, given at All Things Open 2022
  2. Lessons Learned from Refactors and Rearchitectures, given at LeadDev Berlin 2022

Unfortunately neither of those talks have videos available online yet. They should be available by March 2023.

Update March 2023: one is now!

What are your favorite talks you’ve given?

This is again subjective and might change each time you ask. I do prefer in-person talks for the audience energy and more engaging physical presence.

  1. Binary Arithmetic in the TypeScript Type System: TSConf 2019: my first in-person conference talk (!), about my favorite programming language (!!), about a wacky use case of its type system (!!!)
  2. From Takedown to TypeScript: A Retro Game Engine Story: CascadiaJS 2021: a personal story about my first big web project, how to sustainably grow projects, and barriers to entry (sorry about the sound quality!)
  3. WebXR Karaoke: React Brussels 2022: A talk I’ve been working on for a while, which combines live karaoke, a 3d multiplayer demo, and enthusing about the future of code

For a while my favorite talks were on wacky subjects, like bending TypeScript’s type system into weird shapes. I’ve recently also been enjoying talks on communications and team processes.

Closing Thoughts

Thanks for reading! 💖

Got any more FAQs you’d like to see here? Please let me know over email, Mastodon, or Twitter!

Thanks

Much appreciation to Ali Nehzat, Julie Jones, and Sylvana Santos for advice and feedback in writing this post, and Carter Rabasa for enthusiasm and moral support. Y’all rock! 🙌

Josh GoldbergHi, I'm Josh! I'm a full time independent open source developer. I work on projects in the TypeScript ecosystem such as typescript-eslint and TypeStat. This is my blog about JavaScript, TypeScript, and open source web development.
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