@Midwest 2014: The Speaker’s Perspective

It’s been a few years since I spoke at a conference. Being the nerd that I am, it was quite enjoyable to go through the proposal process. I even had a few instances of over-analyzing specific contract sections (yeah, I’m “that person”). I’m about to speak again this coming week at Social Media Week Chicago, so I thought it would be fun to discuss the process with you all if it’s unfamiliar.

Now, public speaking is obviously something I’m quite comfortable with. Blame it on my mother insisting that I, along with my brother, go up and read in church when volunteers were needed. It’s just a large conversation where you have to take the lead. I know it freaks some people out, but I get such a rush sharing my passion with a new group. I’m well beyond the point of embarrassment over my geekdom, so it’s I don’t fear judgement.

@Midwest is a very fast-moving conference, even though you preselect your sessions. There’s a good mix of speakers, attendees, staff, volunteers, etc. It’s a nice community that keeps everyone on the same playing field. What do I mean by that?

Well, I’ve been at conferences where it feels like there’s a velvet rope between the speaker and the attendee. The former being some otherworldly being we are graced to be in the presence of, if only for a few minutes. Let’s be honest: we’re all there for the same reason. We’ve gathered to swap information and tips that might help each other progress further in our respective fields. And if you looked closely, a number of us speakers were attending other sessions, be it for moral support, brainstorming more ideas or live tweeting content.

So what’s it’s like applying to speak at a conference? Ironically, not as intimidating as you’d think. The most important part is conveying your subject articulately.

The Application Process

Finding a Conference

Depending on the subject of interest to you, there are normally a myriad of conferences. The locations, size, reputation, etc. can all very. You just need to narrow down which aspect is most important to you. When in doubt, go with what you know.

I had attended @Midwest last year and knew it would be a great fit. I wasn’t a speaker and had only been to the area a few times for work-related trainings. With that being said, it was such a warm welcome and I connected well with a few speakers. It was a conference I knew that I’d want to make a regular part of my yearly routine.

I’ve wanted to speak again for years (it’s something I sincerely enjoy) and a few friends encouraged me to give it a chance. Not quite such why I was holding myself back, but I finally went ahead and took some action. After all, the worst response I could get was a “no”. And that’s no big deal.

Picking Your Subject

This is something that takes a bit of thinking because you want a balance between something you’re passionate about as well as something that matches the conference’s style. In addition to a regular group of subject areas, @Midwest has a category for fun topics, that don’t necessarily fall into the other designated choices. I know the niches I’m familiar with and have a following in, so it was just a matter of going down the list of topics I like to converse over. I treat sessions like a one-on-one discussion.

Applying

When submitting your speaker proposal, you usually have just a few things to include: a speaker bio, the session title and description, format type and target demographic. Try to write to the potential attendee and just be yourself. If your session is chosen, there are various opportunities to make changes/clarifications as needed. Remember, the conference staff want your session to go over great as well!

Getting Chosen

I won’t even go off-tangent with my emotional roller coaster in terms of waiting for a “yes” or “no” on the session. I’ll just leave it at the fact that it’s a chaotic excitement. There are many projects I’ve sat on related to this session. It was just a matter of the order everything would fall in.

Outside of doing a victory dance, contacting everyone I know and giggling uncontrollable–I was pretty mature in my reaction to the “yes” that came in my inbox. That maturity was instantly followed by grabbing one of many notebooks and sketching out a few different formats and versions of the presentation. My laptop’s bookmark folder went through the first round of filtering. The wait was over and it was time for me to solidify the proposal.

Presenting

It’s a funny thing when you’re speaking. No matter how much prep, no matter how much adrenaline there is running through your veins–you never know how it’s going to go. You can’t predict the attendee reactions, questions or overall experience. There’s always bound to be something that goes wrong. A joke that falls flat. A reference that you still managed to keep too technical.

There is no way to practice for spontaneity. And the best speakers learn not only to be all right with it–but to thrive in it.

What I so deeply enjoyed about my session is that no matter if and/or how an attendee connected with the subject–there was feedback. It took a minute or two for the questions to start, but once they did it was awesome. A few conversations continued after the session.

And as a speaker, I want to say to attendees of any kind:

  • Feedback is like candy. It’s sweet and gives a lot of energy.
  • Criticisms are as awesome as compliments.
  • Speakers and sessions are constantly evolving. Something you say or do often sparks another idea we will incorporate in the future.
  • You attended for a reason. Don’t be afraid to make sure that need was met, be it through any of the methods above.

Overall, you really just have to put yourself out there. We get so wrapped up in the exact profile that equates to the “perfect speaker”. But if you know your subject, you’re passionate about it and you aren’t afraid to make your perspective known then you are well on your way. So what if you get a “no” to a proposal? It only takes one “yes”.

And in today’s digital age, you have a variety of platforms to give yourself the “yes”.

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