Technology conference speakers come from a wide range of backgrounds, experience levels, and interests. At CFP Land, we highlight different speakers every week in our Speaker’s Story blog posts.
Laura is currently the Chief Product Officer at Modern Teacher, an edtech startup based in Chicago, IL. She was recently featured as a “Woman on Top in Tech” by Asian Entrepreneur magazine, and has been involved in public speaking for many years. In this interview, we cover how she got into speaking at tech conferences, her advice for new speakers, and some of the ways speaking has benefited her professionally.
How did you get into public speaking?
I’ve become a more active speaker at technical conferences just in the last year. Over the past several years, I would speak here and there, generally after being invited by someone involved with the event. But last year I was looking into conferences I might want to attend for women in tech, and I saw a CFP on the website for one of them. I thought, “Oh, maybe instead of just attending these conferences, I could speak at them,” and I was right!
I wish I had realized sooner that you don’t always have to be personally invited to speak at events. Now that I’m aware of the CFP process, I’m speaking regularly at conferences across the country.
What do you like about speaking at conferences? Has it benefited your career?
I think conferences can be such a fun way to meet people, whether you’re speaking or not. But I have to admit, being a speaker has its perks. There are dinners, networking events, sometimes lounges specifically for the speakers, which build an immediate sense of community. I’ve been blown away by some of the other speakers I’ve met in these settings.
Speaking also establishes your authority in your subject area, and it gives you the chance to genuinely help people learn something new. This teaching aspect is especially important to me, given my background in the education space.
Do you remember your first conference talk? How did it go?
Being in EdTech, I’ve always spoken at events for teachers, which was a natural progression from being in the classroom and participating in or leading professional development sessions. But my first speaking engagement that was for more of a technical and business-oriented audience was on a panel of EdTech entrepreneurs at Chicago’s tech incubator and hub, 1871. One of the organizers had seen me giving a product demo and asked for me to join the event, perhaps to help them avoid the dreaded all-male panel (or “manel”).
And again, this experience corrected some misconceptions I had about public speaking. I used to think all panelists must be exceptional at coming up with off-the-cuff responses to tricky questions on the spot, and maybe some of them are, but that’s definitely not the norm.
In my experience at the 1871’s event, the panelists were all given the questions ahead of time so we could prepare, and I was asked if I’d be comfortable kicking the panel off by responding to the first question. I didn’t need to worry about coming up with responses in the moment, because I was prepped ahead of time, which made the experience a lot less intimidating. And the format of a panel — being seated, one in a row of several speakers — creates a more casual vibe as well. I’d definitely recommend panels as a gateway experience for anyone who is considering branching out into public speaking.
How many conferences have you applied to and spoken at?
I’ve spoken at about 10 conferences to date, and I currently have 4 more scheduled in the coming months. I don’t keep count on how many I’ve applied to, but it’s been a lot! I definitely don’t get accepted to every event — I don’t think anyone does. But I’ve very much enjoyed the conferences I’ve been a part of, and I’m looking forward to the ones ahead.
Do you have a pre-talk routine?
I try to access the room some time before my session to make sure the AV setup is good to go, but apart from that, I’m usually attending someone else’s session right up until it’s time for mine to start!
I know not everyone’s schedules allow them to spend the full day at the event, but I think it’s a shame when speakers come in just for their session and then leave. I make it a point to support and learn from the other speakers when I’m at a conference, so my session is usually one of many that I participate in throughout the day.
What advice do you have for new speakers?
My biggest piece of advice is to just go for it!
I’m involved in a lot of online communities, and I’ll see people posting in Slack, asking if they should respond to a CFP they’re interested in. My response is always yes. Why not? It doesn’t take much to respond to a CFP. You don’t have to have a whole session ready to go. You just need an idea and an abstract.
Think of something you’ve been successful at professionally, and then think of what advice you’d give to others on that topic. Can you come up with 5–10 tips to make your audience better at X? A coding language, a new tool, even a soft skill? Then you’ve got enough to respond to a CFP.
There are a lot of resources on writing strong CFP submissions, so I’d recommend doing a little research in that area, but don’t be intimidated, especially if you’re a member of an underrepresented group. Conferences need more representation of diversity and inclusion. Go for it!
Are there any other speakers who have inspired you?
One that comes to mind is Jennifer Wesley at Google, who gave the opening remarks at the Women Techmakers Summit in Chicago for International Women’s Day recently. She stands out to me because she was able to get personal on stage, and in doing so, she established that the summit was a safe space for women. By being willing to be a little vulnerable with her personal story, she set the tone for the whole day.
Jennifer Wesley at TEDxParker speaking about women in STEM
Where can readers find more about you?
If you’re a tech conference speaker, email [email protected] to tell your story. 💌