There is a very obvious barrier to presenting at a conference, and it is the one that is usually thrown in my face when I first suggest getting on the conference circuit:
I don’t know what conferences I could present at.
This statement is usually butted up against it corollary:
I’m not qualified/good enough/experienced enough to speak at my industry’s conferences.
The first excuse is one of ignorance, which is a terrible reason to never speak at conferences. It is remarkably easy to find conferences with a bit of internet searching. The second excuse is one of authority. It’s easy to consider all the hottentots that show up at your profession’s or industry’s conferences and then assume that they would have nothing to learn from you.
We’ll deal with excuse #2 first: to get on the conference circuit, you need to realize two things:
1) You have some kind of knowledge or ability that others in your field do not, regardless of your position. No one is an expert in everything. No one has “done it all.” The people who rise to the upper ranks of their field understand this, and they attend conference sessions to fill gaps in their own knowledge or ideas base. Don’t assume you don’t have an idea, or an application, or a story that would interest the CEO from the company across the street. Really good managers understand that people ranked under them have knowledge they don’t, and those managers seek to learn from those people. Really good employees understand that their experience and knowledge has value, and seek to share it with those above and below them in the industry hierarchy.
2) You don’t have to present at conference specifically related to your field of work. Maybe you have valuable knowledge that can be applied to other industries. Maybe your work as a front-line process engineer would be hugely interesting to the people attending a conference targeted at managers in the oil industry. Maybe your work as an early childhood educator can be applied at conference for public librarians. Maybe your knowledge of viral internet marketing would be of interest to the registered dieticians at a health conference. Hell, maybe there’s a conference out there specifically for enthusiasts of wool carding and knitting, and you want to share your tips for dyeing wool and yarn. My first presentations weren’t even remotely related to my professional work – I spoke at comiccon-type geek conferences about sci-fi and fantasy pop culture. It was a great way to get my feet wet, and I still look for similar opportunities.
The lesson is remarkably cliche: think outside the box. Or more accurately, think outside your box. Whatever protective walls you’ve constructed around yourself need to come down. You have so much to contribute in so many different areas. Start creating lists of what you know, what you enjoy, and what you like babbling to your friends and colleagues about. You’ll discover oodles of ideas and thoughts you can, should, and need to share with others.
Now with that in mind, let’s look at excuse #1: I don’t know of any conferences.
I’ve got three words for you: look it up.
You are reading this blog post online. You have access to an internet search engine. Start looking for conferences.
To give yourself some framework for the search, think of the most important factors regarding choosing a conference. For most people, the main factors is the physical location of the conference and its audience.
Physical location is usually relevant because most of us have limited funds with which to attend conferences. While speakers often don’t have to pay registration fees for the conference itself (though not always), travel costs quickly mount up. If you are paying out of your own pocket or will only receive limited funding from your employer, location can be a pretty big deciding factor. When I’m looking for new audiences or speaking opportunities, I usually assume I’m responsible for all costs and restrict my search to places that I can get to cheaply. So, I’ll often start with searches like this:
Edmonton conference 2013
Alberta conference 2013
This will show me what conferences have taken place in my city and province in the past year. Once I know what conferences have happened in these locations, I can start looking at whether or not they would be a good fit for my skillset and when/where they’ll be happening again in the future.
If you know your target audience (managers, engineers, women, pet owners, knitters), you can search for conferences according to interest and not industry. This matters because it will allow you to look for conferences outside your industry but still related to your area of knowledge. You’ll get a more targeted list of conferences than if you just look up conferences according to location. So if I thought that I could give a really great talk to business people or educators about public speaking skills, I could look up:
These searches can turn up conferences located on the other side of the globe. This isn’t a problem if your travel budget is unlimited, but if you aren’t working with bags of money, add in some geographic indicators to your search:
Education conference Alberta
Education conference Canada
Based on these types of searches, geographic and interest, you should come up with a fair number of results. Take some time and look through those results. Make a cup of tea, cosy up to your computer, and start clicking on any search engine hit that seems even remotely relevant or interesting and ask yourself the following question:
Can I come up with something to share or say that would interest these people?
All you are doing right now is hunting for ideas. Don’t limit yourself by worrying about whether the ideas are good or bad or whether you have the “right” to speak at such a conference. Jot down any and every idea for conference talks that come to mind. Explore the conference websites, check out past schedules, see what other people have presented about. Have fun with it. Excuse #2 is invalid, and you are currently working past Excuse #1.
Next up: creating your pitch
It is remarkably easy to get out of a solid groove. The groove you lost may have been one centred around a good habit you had, or one for a skill you built up and were maintaining. Either way, we can break out of these with surprising rapidity, losing the characteristic we worked so hard to establish.
You have probably heard the expression “it’s like riding a bike.” Have you ever climbed back on a bike after a long hiatus from riding? I have. It was hilarious and dreadful at the same time. I wobbled back and forth, found the breaks touchy and unnerving, and couldn’t make the sort of confident, sharp turns I remembered doing as a teen. Granted, it only took a few minutes to get most of my old riding skills back, but sharp turns eluded me for a good day or two…or three.*
Speaking, writing, making good conversation, interpreting messages – these are skills that are effortless when we’re in our groove and damned difficult when we aren’t. We often take our ability to make conversation or write a good blog post for granted, but neither of these things are easy. The longer we wait to resume those activities, say by hosting a dinner party with friends from different social circles, the harder and more intimidating it becomes and the more we avoid it.
I was recently jarred out of my blogging groove by some business regarding a family-owned company that my husband and I were involved with. The situation completely sucked away all my reserves of mental and emotional energy. Despite the fact that this commotion had very positive effects for my own family, it was still exhausting. I cut myself some slack for a couple of weeks while my husband and I worked our backsides off dealing with the problem. Sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack. But the slack got away from me; I went from giving myself some time for a mental vacation to making excuses not to blog or even go online to falling back on the worst excuse of all: “I’ve got nothing to say.” Last night I was whining about it to my husband. He said I needed to clean up my office (which became a disaster over the past month) and then sit down and post something. Anything.
He was right.
If a groove is worth developing, it is worth maintaining. It’s harder to re-establish one than it is to simply keep it going. I continued giving lectures and professional workshops during my maternity leave so that I could maintain my skills as a speaker and instructor. I’m posting this naval-gazing drivel because it is better that I get off my backside and put out one whiny, self-indulgent, “reflective” piece and then get on to making good stuff than it is to sit around and wait for perfection.
If you have lost your groove, don’t expect to produce perfect work while you are getting back into it. It isn’t easy to watch yourself produce crap where you once produced shiny gems. But you need to do it. So put on a noseplug, clean your office, and produce some crap so that you can get back into the habit of producing gems.**
*My anxiousness about falling and getting some nasty abrasions fuelled the slow return of the making-sharp-turns ability. I can be spectacularly clumsy and have picked out an unreasonable amount of gravel from my knees.
**For the record, this post is going to embarrass the hell out of me shortly after I hit the “publish” button. But I’m hitting that button anyway because it is important that I do. The Groove demands it.