How to brainstorm conference talk topics

I often get asked how to getting started when you want to speak at conferences. I think the first step of speaking at a conference is brainstorming what you may want to submit to a conference. There are two important points to keep in mind. First, only submit something you are interested in! You’ll spend a lot of time on this talk… crafting the proposal, putting the talk together, practicing it, and more. Trust me, you’ll get tired of the topic (at least at points). If you’re starting off by thinking about what the organizers may want to see as opposed to what’s exciting and interesting to you then it’ll show in your proposal and in your talk. Second, when you’re brainstorming, don’t get wrapped up in thinking about if the topic would make a good conference talk or not. First think of ideas, and then, as you craft the abstract and details, start to determine it’s viability as a conference talk. And remember, even though someone else may have presented similar information or on a similar topic in the past, your voice and your experience are still important and unique regarding the subject of your talk.

So on to the brainstorm. I’ve run a few guided brainstorm sessions through asking a few prompts. The brainstorm takes about 30-45 minutes. You want to allow yourself time to think through each promot completely and even when you think there’s nothing left to thnk of, give yourself an extraa 30 seconds. Additionally, write down ALL ideas. Anything that comes to mind should be written down. Don’t censor yourself or start thinking about whether it would be good in a conference context. Write it down and you’ll revisit that part at the end of the brainstorming session.

Prompt 1: What are things you find REALLY interesting (regardless of your level of expertise in them)? And this doesn’t just have to be related to work or tech.

Prompt 2: What is something that you specifically have done in the past that you’ve found really interesting?

Prompt 3: What is a code pattern you’ve implemented that has made things easier for you as a developer? Is there anything that you feel like you must implement when you step in to a code base for the first time?

  • for prompt 3, you can tailor this to the type of talk you want to do. So, the above prompt is focused on technical brainstorming but if you were looking to do a talk on a soft skill, the prompt would be something like What are processes or structures you’ve implements that has made things easier for you as a manager? Is there anything that you feel like you must implement when you join a new team? and so on.

Prompt 4: What are some (popular?) blog posts you’ve read where your reaction was like, “yeah, I knew that”?

So, now you have a list of ideas. Looking at this list, which ones are you excited about? Pick a color and put a dot next to all of the ideas that sounds exciting to you.   Finally, pick 3, circle those, and noodle on those. Conference talks are difficult. Whatever you want to present on, you will probably end up presenting on half or even a quarter of that information.  

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