Once you’re very well established as a technology conference speaker, you might start getting invited to speak, but for most speakers, this takes a long time if it happens at all. The reality is that conferences typically get many more speakers interested than they have slots, so they almost always hold an open Call for Proposals or “CFP”.
Before you can submit any CFPs though, you’ll need to find them. In this section, we’ll look at various methods for finding conferences with open calls for proposals and selecting those that are worth your time.
This post is part of an 8-part guide to speaking at technology conferences. Be sure to check out the other sections listed here.
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“It is better to submit to many conferences that you think would benefit from your talk than it is to be fixated on any particular conference (which puts all of your hopes and dreams on a single CFP).” Jaime Lopez
There are several ways that you can find out about CFPs:
1. Contact the Conference Directly
If you are focused on just a few specific conferences, you could reach out directly to each of them to express your interest in submitting. Many conferences start planning 6 months before the event, so they might be looking for CFPs early. That said, some organizers may not start working until 3 months before the event, or they might not have time to answer every email individually. In this case, you’ll end up spending a lot of time chasing them.
In most cases, it’s unnecessary to ask a conference directly when their CFP will open as they’ll probably post something about it on their website. But, it’s worth mentioning because some conferences never hold an open CFP, so you have to reach out directly.
2. Subscribe to the Conference’s Website or Newsletter
Assuming the conference holds an open CFP, they’re likely to tell as many people as they can about it in their blog or newsletter. If you’re targeting a few specific conferences, this might be the best way to ensure you don’t miss their CFPs. Be careful counting on conference newsletters too much though. Some organizers are not very good at sending them, and they may forget to publicize their CFP that way.
It will be annoying to check every conference website you’re interested in submitting to every few weeks, but it may be the only way to ensure you don’t miss a certain CFP.
3. Social Media
Twitter is probably the most popular social network for technology conferences and speakers, so you may want to start following people there. Following individual conferences will get you started, but there are a number of good accounts that tweet out about open CFPs. You can also save a few Twitter searches to accomplish this goal.
Another way to find conferences that’s worked for me is to literally search “tech cfp” on Twitter Tae’lur Alexis
4. Use a CFP Aggregator
I’m biased towards this one - that’s why I started CFP Land - but it’s also the most convenient method if you want to apply to speak at a lot of conferences. CFP Land, Confs.tech, and CallingAllPapers are the most comprehensive CFP aggregators, but there are other niche topic aggregators as well. At CFP Land, we add the perks that speakers can expect from the conference, but you could also look that information up yourself on each conference’s website.
“I love that CFP Land lists which “perks” each conference offers (travel/hotel/stipend), if any. It means I don’t have to get all the way to have my paper accepted just to realize that I’m expected to fork over a couple of grand for the privilege of presenting.” Bailey Lewis
All of these aggregators have a list of open CFPs and some of them offer a newsletter or email alerts as well. The biggest downside to a CFP aggregator is that you’re bound to miss some conferences that they aren’t aware of. I’ve collected over 1200 conference CFPs in the past two years, but every month subscribers submit dozens of new ones that I didn’t know existed.
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Deciding Which CFPs to Submit to
As you start learning more about the wide array of conferences out there, you’ll discover that there are likely more open CFPs than you have time to submit to. Every speaker must decide which conferences are worth their time, so while you may not be as picky when you’re just getting started, it’s certainly worth considering the following criteria with each CFP.
1. Topic Area
You don’t have to have a complete talk ready before you start submitting abstracts to open Calls for Proposals, but you should have some idea of what kind of topics you want to speak about. While conferences will usually look for a range of talks, you are never going to get a Ruby talk accepted to a Python conference. Plus, as Nick points out, that Python conference may not be interesting to you anyway:
“Maybe you can get your talk on web accessibility accepted at DjangoCon, but if you aren’t interested in Python, then the rest of the conference will be of minimal value to you.” Nick Heiner
Most conferences will provide information about the topics and kinds of talks they want on the CFP page, but if they don’t take a look at videos or listings of the previous year’s talks. This should give you some idea what they are looking for.
One of the first conferences I spoke at was Codemash, and while I loved the event, traveling to Sandusky, Ohio in January is not always pleasant. As you look for conferences, you may want to prioritize those in locations that would be fun to visit or where you have friends or coworkers.
I’ve actually spoken at some conferences that did not pay for my hotel because I had a friend in town I could stay with anyway. This makes it easier for the conference to support you financially, plus I got to hang out with an old college friend who lives on the other side of the country.
3. Financial Viability
Getting accepted to speak at a conference in Thailand may sound great, but if they don’t cover your flight costs, you might be paying several thousand dollars just to get there. Most conferences will list the speaker perks they offer on their website, but if not, you can email the organizers directly to ask. In my experience, about 30% of tech conferences cover travel and hotel costs for their speakers, and about 1% offer an extra stipend.
Another way to fund your speaking excursion might be to turn to your employer. Some companies offer an education budget to employees and attending a conference - even as a speaker - is certainly an educational experience. You could also make the argument that you’ll help your employer raise awareness of their product or any open job listings while you’re there. It may or may not work, but it’s worth trying.
Finally, many conferences offer other perks to speakers - whether they can cover travel or not. For example, I’ve seen conferences offer:
- Free speaker training sessions
- Airport transportation
- Speaker’s dinner
- Gift bags or cards for speakers
All these add-ons may help make speaking more financially viable, but to be honest, most new speakers will not get paid much for their speaking directly.
Not all conferences are born equal: whether you like it or not, there’s a “coolness” factor attached to each of them. Nicolas Fränkel
Whether you call it “coolness” or “reputation” or “prestige”, it’s true that not all conferences hold the same weight. Smaller, regional conferences are more like a big meetup, so speaking there may not be that difficult. On the other hand, some huge tech events are extremely competitive and aim to only accept world-class speakers. Either way, there’s no harm in applying to speak at a conference that you feel is “above your pay grade.” The only way to move up is to go for it!
“I recommend looking at videos from prior years and looking at the conference website, to see if it appears to be the work of conscientious, detail-oriented, experienced people.” Nick Heiner
While you may start by applying at smaller, newer conferences, it is a good idea to look into how the conference has been run in the past. Do they treat their speakers and attendees well? Are the organizers well-known? Do they have a good reputation? Ask around if you don’t know anyone who’s been to the event personally.
Finally, consider whether or not you want to take a risk by speaking at a first time conference. I have had good and bad experiences with new events: one had to cancel the event due to lack of interest, and the other was an awesome conference run by very professional and experienced people. Talk to the organizers and do what you can to understand their vision for the event.
5. Commitment to Diversity
Last but certainly not least, you should know whether the event has a commitment to diversity and will provide a welcoming environment for all attendees and speakers. You don’t want to be attached to an event that gets bad press for excluding people or allowing hostile behavior. Look for a code of conduct, ask the organizers about this, and take a look at their speaker lineup from previous years. I - like many speakers - believe that conferences should choose speakers that reflect the diversity of the communities they hope to serve.
Once you start to find conferences that would be a good fit for you, it’s time to write and submit your first abstract. The next section outlines some tips from experienced speakers and conference organizers about how to get your abstract accepted.