If you’ve never spoken at a conference before, it can be super intimidating to think about pitching to speak or run a workshop. It’s hard to know what to write in your proposal, how to go about putting your presentation together or even whether you have something worth sharing. (Spoiler alert for that last one: everyone has some knowledge or experience that the rest of us could learn from.)

I spoke to some of our community’s consistently top rated speakers to find out how they put together a presentation and what advice they have to offer.  If you’re not sure about how to get started, this series of guides should help you out.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a long-time member of the Support Driven community and will be the workshop coordinator at the upcoming Europe Expo. You can find me in the Slack group as @lisahhhhh – I’m usually lurking even if I don’t seem to be online. You can also reach out to me via Twitter at @gentlethorns, where right now I’m mostly talking about video games, books and how depressing I find the winter months.

This particular guide is about how to put together your pitch: how much do you need to know about the final version of the talk when you write your pitch, what should you include and what exactly is the Expo team looking for?

The first time I gave a talk, at Supconf Seattle in 2017, I was terrified. No, really, if you watch the recording of it, you’ll see me mention to the audience that my hands are shaking. I was speaking to friendly faces, though: some of them people that I’d already built relationships with through the community. In Support Driven, we love finding and encouraging new speakers. I don’t think there’s a less intimidating or more supportive group of people to speak to than the customer support community and I was overwhelmed by the help I received in putting my talk together and the response from those who attended.

If you’re nervous about attending a conference because you’re not great at talking to strangers, speaking is actually a really good choice. It might seem counterintuitive if you’re a bit shy, but it’ll give people a reason to start conversations with you and offer you a safe topic to talk about. Whenever I give a talk, I always have lots of people I’ve never met before come up and ask questions about a topic I’m clearly interested in – because I just spoke about it!

So, how do you get onto that stage?

Everyone I asked about this agreed that they didn’t have their talk written or fully realised when pitching it, so please don’t worry too much about that at this stage. If there’s something you’d love to talk about but you’re not quite sure how you’ll approach it, you’ve got some time to clarify that.

When speaking about her pitch to speak at the Portland Support Driven Expo, Irenka Carney said: “I had a general idea of the themes and values I wanted included in my talk but that was all.” She’s not alone in this, my original notes for my pitch at the same event were “something about technical skills.” I refined this a little further to write the pitch (which I’ve shared below) but I didn’t go into a lot of depth.

Working in support, you probably do a lot of troubleshooting. If you’d like to take your technical skills a bit deeper but don’t know where to start, this talk is for you. I’m not on the Geckoboard development team but I know how to poke around in our code base, send data to our API, automate tasks within Google Sheets with Apps Script and use Chrome’s developer tools to troubleshoot an issue. I’ll take you through some of the ways you can use a bit of coding knowledge to level up your game and show you that it’s not as scary as you think.

Here is a one sentence description that I included with the pitch on what the audience could expect to get out of the session:

Resources for learning new technical skills and ideas on how to apply them to their work

Although you don’t need to have your talk written, you do want to give the people who read your pitch an idea of the specific value it’s going to bring, the lessons you have learned and the experience you intend to draw on. For example, Irenka’s talk was all about prioritising your wellness as part of your career and professional development goals but she had a specific approach in mind:

I knew I wanted to give people action items they could use to apply in their own lives. I also knew I was going to use my own experiences to illustrate this theme, I just didn’t know what the specific narrative would be.

If you already have a clearer idea of what you’d like to cover, you might want to briefly outline what you’ll cover at this point or make some notes, like Nykki Yeager:

I know the big themes, and I draw up a light outline before I pitch. I may not have every last detail figured out, but it’s important to me to know there’s enough substance to justify giving a presentation.

If you aren’t sure what to propose for a talk or can’t think of any ideas, make sure to take a look at Andrea’s great post full of ideas. Read through and see whether there’s anything you have some great experience with or that you feel your team does particularly well.

What happens once we receive your pitch?

The pitches will be reviewed by a team of people and they’ll be looking for some particular things, including attention to details such as spelling and grammar. I would always recommend writing your pitch in something like Evernote, Word, Pages or your personal note taking app of choice and copying it into the form once you’re happy with it. This will help you avoid common pitfalls and also make it easier to run the proposal past someone else if you’d like to do that before you hit that submit button.
For the Europe Expo, here are some questions that we’ll be keeping in mind as we read through your pitches:
  1. Is there something the presenter is trying to teach?
  2. Is there a clear takeaway?
  3. Does the pitch seem organized?
  4. Is the pitch focused?
Make sure that you also use inclusive language. It’s worth reading Help Scout’s post about why this is important and checking through this Glossary of Ableist Phrases
While you don’t need to know everything, a good pitch should have an idea of the topic you’d like to cover, some thoughts on why it’ll be valuable to the community and a few key takeaways that you’d expect the audience to leave with once the talk or workshop is over.
Make sure that you’re not skipping over where your talk can bring value, like in this example of what not to do from Hashicorp’s Kate Taggart:


Pitch submission checklist:

  • Description of the talk/workshop theme
  • Why this is valuable to the Support Driven community
  • Some mention of why you’re a good choice to talk about this
  • What attendees will learn
  • Inclusive language
  • Correct spelling and grammar

The pitching deadline for the Support Driven Expo Europe is December 10th. We can’t wait to hear what you have to teach us!
The SD Expo Europe 2019: Apply To Speak blog post provides all the details for applying—including expectations, what you’ll get as a speaker, and how to apply. Or head to the application right away!

Do you still have questions about pitching? Join us in the #event-sd-expo-europe or #speaking channels in the Support Driven Slack. If you’re not a member of the Slack yet, join here.
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