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Tips on how to get accepted as a speaker at a PHP conference

Dear Reader,

I sit here this morning working on my sixth PHP conference (ZendCon 06, 07, 08, DPC 09, tekx and now ZendCon 10) I have to sit back and reflect on how lucky I am. I get paid to help select the sessions that developers from around the world will sit in and learn in. It is truly humbling when I think about it.

One of the few downsides to planning a conference though is that any given Call for Papers usually generates a nine to one ratio of proposals to speaking slots. Do the math and you will see that for every one person I get to make happy, eight more think I am a total douche, or worse. I call the email’s “Dear John’s” because “rejection letters” seems so ugly. No matter what you call them though, it is never a happy time.

I’ve sent out thousands of Dear John’s in the past 5 years. Most people simply sigh and move on. Occasionally David Coallier will rip on my for habitually rejecting him at every conference. (It’s not on purpose dude, I swear!) However, my favorite response is one I usually only get once per conference. Every now and then, someone will write me and ask “Ok, so how do I better my chances of being selected?” They really want to speak and want to know what it takes.

The selection committee has a responsibility to pick the topics and speakers that they know will give the attendees the highest return on their training dollar. That is why you see a lot of the same speakers at each big conference. Most of us know Derick Rethans, Sebastian Bergmann, Lorna Jane Mitchell, Nate Abele and Keith Casey. We know the types of talk they deliver but most importantly, we know that if they pitch a session they know their material.

So how does a new speaker break into the national level? Here is the advice I give each speaker that asks me after getting a Dear John, usually accompanied by specific advice on why their specific session was rejected if possible.

  1. Blog on your topic. Blog it a lot. Blog it until people think of you when they think of your topic.
  2. Start speaking at your local user group. Be willing to drive to the next city and speak at their’s also. User Groups are a great way to practice new material and user group leaders talk to each other. it won’t take long for you to gain a reputation.
  3. Get accepted at a regional conference. As insinuated above, selection committees don’t like to take a chance on an unknown unless the content is very compelling. The way to overcome that is not to be an unknown. Get accepted at a few regional conferences and make sure they are using for feedback. I can’t count the number of times I’ve referenced a speaker’s profile in the last two years to read the comments. (Consider it your speaker’s resume)
  4. Record your talks and put them on your web site. If nobody else will record them for you, do it yourself. Most cameras and even phones have 30-45 minutes of record time. Set one up in the corner and record yourself. Jeremy Brown has an excellent example of this on his presentations page. (And if you are into Zend Framework watch his “Zend Framework…without Inhaling” video. it’s worth the 45 minute investment.)
  5. When you submit to a national conference, in the “Additional notes” section, give me links to all of this. Yes it is true, most proposals get between 10 and 30 seconds. However, if yours catches the eye of the committee, don’t make them dig to find out who you are or if you are any good. Give them this info up front.

There, that is my advice to speakers who receive Dear John letters. If you want it bad enough, go get it, don’t just shrug and give up. Trust me, we want you to be a part of conferences, big and small.

Until next time,
I <3 |<


2 thoughts on “Tips on how to get accepted as a speaker at a PHP conference

  1. And realize that even once you get a couple acceptance letters, you’ll still get more rejection letters. And the ratio drifts back and forth pretty quickly.

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