Doing, speaking and (not) being an internet celebrity

I agree with some of what Zach Inglis says in his post, Working on a few things in your bedroom, doesn’t make you an expert! I started to reply on Twitter then realized that I would write 40 Tweets to say what would be better written up as a post. I have definitely seen a rise in people for whom “being invited to speak at conferences” seems to be the main aim. It reminds me of the occasional young person I talk to who wants to be famous, not famous for doing something, just famous.

However, our industry is very broad and varied. There is also a real variety in terms of the type of speaking people do and that conference organizers and audiences want to see. I don’t think you necessarily have to be “an expert” to be a good and interesting speaker, and to have things to share. I do think however that if you have limited experience, and we all have limited experience in one area or another, you need to be careful not to sound as if you are preaching to everyone from that place. It’s unlikely to go down well.

Internet celebrities

We can get this one out of the way to start with. I am assuming when people talk about “famous” people in our industry they are referring to the people we might call thought leaders. Typically to be in that position you are going to have had a long experience in the industry, even if you are not at the coalface every day at this point your experience is valuable assuming you haven’t become completely out of touch. These few celebrities tend to talk about big picture stuff because they have the years of experience to do that well. They get speaking gigs because of who they are and people want to meet them so they are a good name to have on a conference schedule as a keynote.

Look at the line up of most conferences and you will see one, maybe two people who fall into this category. It’s not for the likes of most of us, however that leaves a lot of speaking slots for us less exalted folk.

The rest of us

For most of us, speaking engagements are a chance to share what we do. We work on interesting things and then talk about them. Do we need to have vast, industry-wide experience to be able to speak about a subject? I don’t believe so. The trick is to make sure it is clear the context you do speak from. We also need to pitch to the right conferences. If you are essentially an industry newcomer then you probably won’t be on the radar of the biggest conferences. Fear not, smaller conferences are plentiful, great fun to speak at and often looking for speakers so you just need to come up with a good idea and pitch it.

Teaching practical skills

One way to get experience in speaking to a crowd is at conferences that want practical demonstrations or tutorial style sessions. If you know some interesting CSS techniques or are a WordPress theming wizard, creating a tutorial style session where audience members learn something practical, is a good place to start. If you can teach a useful skill then it really doesn’t matter if you have been working in the business for one year or ten. A talk I have done many times now and update to keep it fresh every few months is my talk on CSS Selectors – no thought leadership there, just a rundown of what the selectors are and how to use them. Practical and useful.

There is always someone who wants to know what you know and the trick here is finding events that want that kind of session and pitching it to them.

Sharing your experience

Some of the most interesting talks I have seen have just been someone just describing the process of launching something, or talking about how they got into the industry. Even if you are fresh out of college you may well have some experiences to share that us older folk would love to hear about. What exactly is being taught to students who want to get into this industry? What was it like working as an intern for an agency? When we bring things back to our experience, and speak from where we are, we all have interesting things to share. Once again, you just need to look for the conferences where those sessions fit.

Best practice and advice

It is this area where I think people can stray into the realm of giving advice from within a limited context, no matter how long they have been in the industry. If your experience is mainly working as a freelancer on small sites then your advice is valuable to other people working in a similar context, however it may be useless when applied to a large team within an organization. If you have always worked in large teams then it is very difficult to advise tiny companies of one and two people how best to work. If you are speaking on subjects of best practice then ensure that you explain the context in which you have experience first, explain it when pitching your idea to the organizers, in the description of your talk on the website if possible and mention it in the intro to your talk.

I tend to do a quick introduction explaining what in my background is relevant in terms of the talk I am giving, and where my personal experience lies. I find that opens up conversations. Sometimes after my talk someone from a totally different background may point out where things differ for them. As I’ve explained where I come from they don’t feel as if I have rubbished their experience and so I get to benefit from hearing how things work for them – and sometimes even weave that into a future presentation of the material.

Stop thinking “I want to do more speaking” and talk or write about what you want to share

Saying “I want to do more speaking” or “why is no-one inviting me to speak?” is, I think, the wrong approach if you want to actively get more invites or proposals accepted. It does sound like a bit like “I want to be famous”. Tell organizers what you want to share. Unless you are one of the aforementioned thought leaders it is unlikely that your name alone will get you an invite. Write up your ideas and pitch them, tell conference organizers why you are a great person to talk about that subject at their conference. If you are still getting no responses then perhaps you need to revise the idea or pitch to other conferences where it is more suited.

If you are doing interesting work then it is pretty likely that things will come up most weeks that could be the basis of an interesting talk. I keep a list of “talk/writing ideas” where I can stick ideas that pop into my head as I am working. That then acts as a reminder of things I might want to write an article or blog post about, and some of those then turn into a presentation idea.

Don’t sit about waiting for an invite

Once you have an idea pitch it to people who are organizing conferences. Many conferences ask for speaker submissions, and those that don’t are generally very happy if you get in touch with an idea. They might say no, for all kinds of reasons, but sometimes they will say yes. It is worth looking out for conferences that have a new faces track, or sessions of shorter talks, as they are more likely to accept an unknown speaker.

This is where Zeldman’s advice quoted in the article that prompted this post is valuable. If you have a personal site and write about the things you want to share this will help your speaking career in two ways. Firstly, people may well see your posts and ask you to speak based on them. Things that I have written are the main way that I get conference invites. Secondly, you can refer to your writing when pitching to an organizer. Even if you don’t have a speaking track record if you can show that you have well thought through arguments on a certain subject, or great tutorials, that gives them confidence that you can create a good talk.

Ultimately it all comes down to doing interesting things and talking about them. Not to become some kind of internet celebrity, but because in the sharing we – speaker and audience – get to discover and debate other opinions and ideas. That, to me, is the real value of doing this.


Rick Hurst September 4, 2012 Reply

Great post Rachel – I particularly agree about talking at smaller, niche meetups and groups, and this shouldn’t be seen as just a stepping stone to speaking at well-known web conferences. Over the last decade i’ve spoken at numerous small events – Bristol Skillswap, Javascript meetups, BarCamps and other niche technology-specific groups and conferences and found it to be fun and satisfying. It’s helped me learn more about the subjects i’m talking about, as the smaller events have more fluid conversation and audience participation. It also means that I get more out the event, because people want to talk afterwards, so there are none of those awkward “so what do you do?” type conversations you can have at bigger conferences. I’m not looking to talk at bigger conferences – partly because i’m not sure what I can offer at a more “generic” web conference, my strengths are in technical-focused sessions, but also because I enjoy the smaller, more informal gatherings.

Kieran Masterton September 4, 2012 Reply

Fantastic post Rachel, I would echo a lot of what Rick has said.

While I would in no way consider myself a speaker I have given guest lecturers at my University and the occasion workshop. I’ve never spoken about “the web” as such but have dabbled in subjects relating to technology’s application in the business of film distribution.

I’ve found that speaking has been enormously helpful in engaging with other people interested in such a niche topic and starting conversations that I previously would never have had. I think, as you say, there’s far too much focus on speaking in order to be famous for being famous rather than seeing speaking as a means by which to develop personally.

Thanks for posting this, great insight.


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