Everything You Need to Know to Speak at WordCamp

WordCamp Miami 2014

Just last weekend, I was one of the co-organizers of WordCamp Denver. (Not a lead, those people did more work. I just made a website and helped a bit with sponsors and recording videos.) It was my first time doing it, and to commemorate the occasion, I thought I’d share an invitation and recommendation that you speak at a WordCamp.

WordCamps are a great opportunity to share what you’ve learned on a bigger stage (than a local Meetup, or a group of your friends), and doing so makes already-fun WordCamps a lot more rewarding for you. So we’ll get to the process of applying to speak, and but first let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what WordCamps are and how they work. We’ll come back to the mechanics of applying and speaking at a WordCamp after.

Proof from my Fort Collins WordPress Meetup friend Lori Evans that I was at WordCamp Denver 2018. And have contributed to the Guinness World Record Sticker Ball:

WordCamp FAQs—Common Questions about these WordPress Conferences

Before we get to the issue of what it’s like to speak at WordCamp, let’s cover some of the basic of WordCamps. If you’ve not been in the WordPress community before, you’ll likely not have a clear sense of what WordCamps are or what to expect. So we’ll cover all of that and more first.

What’s a WordCamp? How’s it different than other conferences?

Before it makes sense to go into any details, we must understand what a WordCamp is. In short, it’s a volunteer-organized, low-cost technical and community conference focused on WordPress, the platform we know and love. Its low cost is something that really stands out, both in the realm of conferences generally, and in the realm of technical conferences in particular. Ticket prices average less than one-tenth that of a comparable technical conference.

In general, you’ll see mostly what you’d expect at a conference at WordCamp. You’ll see sponsors in the hallway, talks inside of larger session-rooms, and people in the hallways both between and during sessions saying hello or making business deals. The sessions themselves will typically run the gamut from those that are there to help people who just discovered WordPress three months ago, to those for making developers who’ve been doing WordPress for years better at their job. Because of that wide array of focus, you’ll always see a varied schedule of sessions at any WordCamps. There’s also high variance in WordCamp topic selection (and volume and nature of talks), because each local organizing team has its own selection committee and accepts its own speaker applicants.

Can I hear a catchy song about WordCamps?

I never thought you’d ask. In fact, you didn’t. But one of the cooler sponsor things from WordCamp Denver was this crowd-sourced video of the WordPress Wiggle. I love the WordPress Wiggle. I’m even in the video 🙃

BTW: Lori, whose tweet is above, starts the dancing 🤓

How are WordCamps so affordable?

The low-cost of WordCamps can be sustained through a mix of sponsorship money, will from WordCamp Central (the world-wide organization that coordinates and supports all WordCamps that occur anywhere), and the volunteer-only nature of the speaking and organizing. Everyone involved in making a WordCamp happen is doing it as an act of service and gratitude to the WordPress community. No one except the venue and caterers (who are rarely raving-enough WordPress fans to not want to recoup their hard costs) is paid.

Beyond the volunteer-nature of the conference, the biggest factor keeping costs down is sponsorships. The sponsors of a WordCamp (some sponsoring all WordCamps worldwide, some picking-and-choosing to support one or many) are able to cover most of the hard-costs of the conference. This means that ticket sales are mostly there to more accurately gauge attendance (people who pay nothing for the right to “attend” an event often choose not to for minor reason), and not to cover conference costs.

It is also the case that WordCamp tickets are cheaper because they’re not the most lavish conferences you’ve ever heard of. You know those conferences which build tents out in the Nevada desert after a Las Vegas conference? And they stock them with opulent food, live bands, lots of free swag, etc? You don’t get that sort of after-party at a WordCamp. Many WordCamps will have an after-party, but they’re often in the venue itself, or a nearby restaurant or event-space that was available at a reasonable price.

How are WordCamps organized?

I’ve mentioned this above a few times, so we won’t spend too-long on it. WordCamps are generally organized by local volunteers who spend 3-9 months working together before the conference to make sure everything comes together the day of.

The size of the organizing team, and the time-commitment they give is largely at their collective discretion. I would guess that a few WordCamps have been organized by 1-3 heroically inspired people. I think the norm is and should be a team of 5-15 people, all collaborating to make each one’s task pretty light. We had nearly a dozen organizers for WordCamp Denver, and it kept the commitment pretty reasonable for most of us.

Why should I attend a WordCamp?

You should attend WordCamps for the same reason you’d attend any other conference. To me the benefits are generally:

  • You’ll learn things. Whether you’re looking to learn about SEO, theme development, or how e-commerce works, there’s likely to be at least one talk relevant particularly to your interest at WordCamp. Beyond that you’ll also be surrounded by people (going to and from those talk) who have talents and abilities you can learn from and take advantage of (in a nice way).
  • You’ll meet people. I touched on this above, but to me the big benefit of conferences is simply the convening of like-minded people. It’s nice that there are talks, (and we’ll get to reasons to give them soon) but the people all there to celebrate WordPress is just as important. I’ve met some great people at WordCamps, made real friends from them as well.
  • You’ll probably be offered free food and swag. If the above two aren’t enough, there is also the hard-money-for-hard-good parts of this equation. It’s pretty easy that in free conference coffee, lunch (and other food that may be offered), your attendance gift, and free sponsor swag, you’d pay for the about $20 (US) ticket cost very quickly in simply comparing what you’d pay elsewhere for similar items.

What’s it like to attend a WordCamp?

WordCamps vary a lot because different organizers offer slightly different conference styles. In general, most WordCamps are (at least) run on Saturday of the weekend they choose to run. Some WordCamps (Miami, Europe, and US all come to mind for me), are essentially two-or-more day events, with events running throughout. Others are more low-key and just happen for six-hours on Saturday.

To get detailed, here’s what WordCamp Denver was like for me this year. To start, I had only one thing on Friday:

  • 7-9:30pm — Speaker, Sponsor, and Organizer dinner at a nice restaurant. Obviously, if you’re not in one of these categories, you typically aren’t invited. But it’s meeting, chatting, catching up, while having some paid-for food and drink.

Rough outline of Saturday:

  • 8-9am — Arrival, and organizer scrambling. This is something I mostly missed in the past, but for me (and volunteers) this year I was there early and part of the scramble to get everyone situated (sponsors, welcome tables, attendees, etc) before the official conference kickoff.
  • 9-1pm — Typical conference events: talks being given. Talks being skipped in favor of continuing a conversation with a WordCamp friend I’ve not seen in years. Conversations cut short because I really want to get to specific session.
  • 1pm-2pm — Lunch, offered free to all attendees. Grabbing food and milling around the space outside the venue chatting, eating, or resting your brain.
  • 2-5:30pm — Typical conference again — watching talks or talking with people.
  • 7-10pm — Official after party right after the event at a nearby bar called “Fermenteria”

Sunday:

  • 8-9am — Similar to Saturday, a volunteer-and-organizer getting prepared rushing about and hanging out.
  • 9am-noon — WordCamp Denver Workshops. We offered attendees secondary tickets to come to small-group workshops for three-hours of focused training. I didn’t take part, but would have if I’d not been an organizer.
  • 12:30-3pm — Organizer recap lunch. We, as organizers, were treated to food and a debrief about how the conference went so we can do better next year.

As mentioned, it’s likely that the timeline of your WordCamp is slightly different from this. Some I’ve attended offer a breakfast on Sunday and not a dinner on Friday for speakers and sponsors. Some conferences have a full-conference day on Sunday. A “Contributor Day” to help people work on WordPress is common, although WordCamp Denver didn’t do one. Some WordCamps even have events for all attendees on Friday. But I this timeline is typical-enough of the roughly-dozen WordCamps I’ve attended.

More Info on How to Speak at a WordCamp

Do WordCamp speakers get paid?

No! Their conference ticket is covered, and they’re invited to a meal, most often dinner. But they aren’t reimbursed for travel expenses, if they have any. And they’re heavily discouraged (basically barred) from selling from the stage. So you will not be pitched by them on a revolutionary new page builder or whatever. They can casually mention tools, including their own, but that’s a bird of a different color.

Why should I speak at a WordCamp? What benefits do you get from speaking at WordCamp?

The obvious question, if you’re not paid to do it, is why you’d speak at a WordCamp. There are a whole host of reasons, including:

  • Speakers are micro-celebrities. It feels cool to have an invite to a speaker-only event. It’s also a nice conversation starter for most people to go “I liked your talk, here’s what I learned…” or similar.
  • Sharing from the stage is fun. It’s gratifying (even if it’s also terrifying) to most people to have offered some advice and wisdom to the world. What’s more, the questions and comments after your talk can often make you smarter about the topic you present.
  • It’s generally considered prestigious. That is, it makes you look good to have spoken at a conference. Being a WordCamp speaker can go on your resume, and help you win prospective clients. Obviously it’s not super important, but it helps a bit.

How much time Does It usually take to give a WordCamp talk?

This is a great and complicated question. I’ve spoken at lots of conference, both WordCamps and more general PHP and programming ones. I’d say that I’ve never spent less than three hours preparing to (re)give a talk. And I’ve never spent more than 30 hours preparing for and giving a talk. Between those to numbers is a lot of variance.

Here’s the rough breakdown of where my time goes on a new talk:

  • 1 hour — Brainstorming ideas, drafting the summary and title(s), and applying to speak at the conference. After this comes the waiting for the talk to be accepted…
  • 1-4 Hours — If accepted, next I spend some time planning for the talk. This is coordinating travel and other logistics if necessary. It also includes my creating the list of tasks I’ll need to complete to give a successful talk.
  • 3-10 Hours — Doing research, thinking, and making the final “can rehearse this” slide-deck for a given talk. I still alter slides after this, but this is time spent to get to the point of “I can try to present this talk now, confident I’ve got most of my knowledge, and have slides to talk-along with for at least half of the necessary length.”
  • 3-10 hours — Rehearsing and tweaking the talk to make it flow better and feel natural to me. Especially for 45-50 minute talks (the most common conference length), each rehearsal takes about an hour, so this means I run most talks at least twice before giving them, and sometimes up to ten time.
  • 1-2 hours — Giving the talk at the conference. It’s closer to two hours, because I often need breaks before and after presenting to mentally get excited, and then settle down from giving a talk, even if the room had only 10 people in it.
carl alexander

Carl Alexander of the no-repeat policy

All told, that comes to an estimate of 9 to 27 hours on a new talk. I’ve just emphasized new a second time. That’s because the way you can really get more benefit (and give a better talk) is to reuse a talk. When I’m re-giving a talk for the second, third, or fifth time, it’s a slightly different and shorter preparation. Then it’s mostly the rehearsing the talk and reflowing slides steps I keep. The others (except for doing the talk) are quicker or completely unnecessary.

I’ve met some people who insist on giving a new talk at every conference they speak at (Carl comes to mind). While I think there’s something admirable about that, I also think it raises the time cost of doing so a lot.

I don’t think I have anything to say…

One of the most common objections to speaking that I hear and want to make sure I explicitly challenge is the assertion that “I have nothing valuable to say.” It is definitely the case that when you’re learning WordPress development for the first time, you have nothing useful to tell people who’ve been doing it for years about how to do that better.

But, as a human being you’ve got a wealth of other experiences. Because WordCamps are particularly wide-ranging conferences, anything that’s a little relevant to it can and should be offered to the “call for papers” application process. Got experience with the “career” or “soft” side of the life of a website builder? Talk about it! People often get more from those talks than they do from ones about a particular API and its weird quirks. That said, if you feel like you know all about a particular API and its weird quirks, making that useful to a big audience is also a worthy challenge and can be a great talk.

(If you want more ammo on this topic-seeking task, check out Step 1 below 🤓)

Why did my talk proposal get turned down? Because it was bad, right?

You wish I’d let you off that easy.

Talk proposals get turned down (or “rejected” if you insist) for lots of reasons, most often because they just weren’t a good fit for the conference. This can be for many reasons, one of the most commons is that there was already a similar talk on the agenda, and it was better than yours in some way. But “better than yours” is actually a complex matrix that includes whether the speaker is already giving another talk, whether the summary is more attractive, the speaker’s biography is judged as more relevant to their talk, and so much more.

It’s easy to see a “talk rejection” as a repudiation of you as a person. It is never that. When you can see past your ego and recognize all the factors that make up a talk getting turned down, you’ll sleep better, and you’ll find it easier to write better talk proposals and give better talks.

I’m sure I don’t want to speak. How else can I make WordCamps succeed?

A last question about WordCamps is how to get involved. If you don’t want to speak at them, you can help make them awesome simply by being an interested, engaged, and friendly attendee. Being nice to speakers, to fellow attendees, to volunteers, and the venue’s cleaning crew are all services you can offer.

If you’ve got more time and energy to give, you can volunteer. Mostly “WordCamp volunteers” are differentiated from “WordCamp Organizers” by the duration of their involvement. A volunteer (most ‘Camps solicit for them a month or two before their event) offers to do things like pass out badges, mind cameras or doors, or anything else for part or all of the duration of WordCamp. In exchange, they get into the WordCamp for free.

Finally, you can become involved in organizing a WordCamp. For most people, that’d mean getting involved in an already-running WordCamp. That’s a great way to learn some of the ins-and-outs of running events, without having to do it all yourself.

If you’re in an area not currently served by a WordCamp, the ultimate level of involvement would be to start one. Hopefully, you’d be able to tap into the community that attends your local WordPress Meetup, but how organizing those works is a totally-other (and completely worthy) topic I may cover at some future time.

How to Become a WordCamp Speaker

Step 1. Come up with WordCamp Talk Ideas

In many ways, the hardest part of giving a WordCamp talk (or any talk anywhere) is coming up with the right thing to talk about. A lot of what determines whether a conference talk is selected, or enjoyed, is about what it chooses to cover. A good topic is genuinely yours, is relevant to the community you’re presenting it to, and will help them do something differently afterwards. Those things are hard to find for most people.

Here are some questions to help you start to think of topics that’d be helpful for you to share:

  • What are you really excited about?
  • What are you currently working on learning?
  • What do you know that other people would benefit from knowing?
  • What do you do abnormally well? Why?
  • What are people talking about right now? Do you have an interesting insight on it?

With the answers to those under your belt, you’ll hopefully have some ideas. (If, like me, your eyes kind of glazed past those bullet points, I really think they’re great talk-provokers and would encourage you to write down your answers.) From those ideas, you’ll want to start to think of what, particularly, you’ll give to people who attend your talk. I don’t mean a physical thing. What knowledge, motivation, or wisdom will that have after hearing you speak?

Step 2. Nail the Application to Speak at a WordCamp

The process of applying to speak at a WordCamp, if you’re already done Step 1, is mostly a matter of finding and completing a web form on the site for the WordCamp you’d like to speak at. The easiest way to know that your local WordCamp’s call for submissions (sometimes called a CFP or “call for papers”) is open is to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Most WordCamps I’ve applied to speak at have used a Google Form. Generally, it’s a pretty simple ten-ish question proposal submission. Most of the forms will be simple and clear “Your Name”, “Your Talk Title.” the hard ones are often your bio, your talk summary/synopsis, and some will have a “Notes about this talk” section. Just fill each out honestly, and to the best of your ability. But some quick tips on applying:

  • Remember that this is all the selection committee will see. Some selection committees will ignore names in an effort to remove bias. Many others simply won’t recognize yours. As such, if you want to be selected, make sure to proofread your application and include all relevant details and requested fields.
  • Offering many talks is permitted and encouraged. Some people forget or choose not to, but if you’re really looking to speak you need to do work to get selected. One of the easiest thing is to submit multiple talk ideas. That way if a more-expert WP-CLI talk is offered, they may take yours about being a WordPress expert at your workplace.
  • Your “Talk Summary” is what you’re selling the talk with. For most conferences, the literal text you submit here is what’s used to select, and exactly what goes on the site. As such, you want to make sure it’s a compelling argument for attending (and hosting) your talk to the relevant audiences.
  • Keep a personal biography handy. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who loves composing a personal biography. As such, most of us dread and put off that process. So when you do it, don’t waste the results. Save it as a note or file somewhere. Copy-and-pasting that to WordCamps many times a year (or over many years) is not a problem.

Step 3. You Got Accepted? Prepare Your Talk

I highlighted what my talk preparation process looks like in time costs above. So the dynamics of technical details of preparation do merit some note. Like most conference talks, it’s rare (but not impossible) to present at a WordCamp without slides.

It it good, if you’re organized enough, to prepare a talk well in advance of delivering it. Even better is to pick up the topic over-and-over at weeks-apart intervals, so that each time you have a relatively fresh perspective. First take an amorphous notes file. Then turn that into your talk outline. Then make your slides, use Slides, PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever. The add cat GIFs, or whatever your preferred lightness is. (I don’t do that, but it’s a common enough step to highlight.) Then practice and hone your ability to talk about and around your slides.

All the rules of good slide presentations can and should be used in a WordCamp talk. In short, the conventional advice I’d echo is:

  • Slide design should be high contrast. Most projectors (and lighting setups for conferences) are not the best, so subtle color tone variation is a risk you should generally avoid.
  • Your slides are there as a compliment, not to replace the audience’s need to listen. As such, do not put many words on your slides. If you do, the audience reads rather than listens. Visual-only slides, or single-word slides, are a good way to stop them from reading.
  • Do not plan to read your slides. Reading the literal text on a slide once in a while is OK. Doing so for an hour is a recipe for sleepy audience members.

Step 4. Deliver Your Speech—Here’s What to Expect

WordCamps sometimes ask for your slides in advance of the day. This is mostly to make sure you’re not going to “sell from the stage.” In other words, to make sure you’re not just selling a product. If you’ve done your preparation in advance, that should be easy for you to respond to.

Some conference will want you to give the slide presentation that you sent them, often in a PDF. This makes videos and other fancy (and prone to breaking) things impossible, but is good to oblige them if they need that. It does make the A/V (audio-visual) setup at the venue a little easier for both you and them.

If that doesn’t happen (which is more common), you’ll need to make sure you have a computer that can hook up to the projector. This will often be either a VGA or HDMI connection. If you have a new MacBook (or some Windows laptops and Chromebooks), this will mean having a dongle that presents the right port from the projector. Every conference I’ve ever presented at does have the necessary and expected male-VGA or male-HDMI cable, so if your computer has that port you’re fine.

Finally, every conference talk I’ve given has had a podium for my laptop. So starting about 5 or 10 minute before that time, I’m getting to that podium, setting down my water, and hooking up to the projector. These things are pretty easy and quick to do.

Almost every conference talk I’ve given has also had a microphone, either on that podium or portable. For portable microphones, that has most often been a lapel (or lavalier) mic, although once or twice I’ve been handed a handheld
“ice cream cone” microphone. Even if you’ve never been micced before, this isn’t too hard to deal with, although you should have some sense that it’s coming. 🙂

Step 5. Make the Most of the Experience & Follow Through

The final step I’d recommend is to do something else with the material you present at a WordCamp. Present it again at a local meetup. Write it up as a blog post on your site. Make it into a series of Twitter or Facebook posts. Do something to realize more value from the amazing ideas you’ve compiled.

Similarly, take some advantage (especially after any nervousness you may have had about your presentation approaching is done) of having spoken. Chat in the hallway to anyone who comes up to thank you for your talk. Follow up after the conference with anyone who seemed especially keen.

But mostly, congratulations! You’ve now spoken at a WordCamp.

More Resources for Future WordCamp Speakers

Here are a few more links and articles that I think could help you to be great WordCamp presenter sometime soon.

You’re Ready to Become a WordPress Speaker

Yikes! Roughly 4000 words. I hope this kind-of-exhaustive tour of all I know about speaking at WordCamps and attending them has been helpful. Being a WordCamp attendee is a fun, nerdy time, and I’ve so enjoyed all that I’ve attended in my life. Being a WordCamp speaker just takes that experience and doubles it, with a few more opportunities to meet great people, a few more opportunities to have conversations unexpectedly but pleasantly started with you.

It’s not the case that WordCamp speaking, technical speaking, or even motivational speaking can change your life. It’s just an experience that you can have. It has not lived up to some wild (and, in retrospect, silly) expectations I had for what it would do for me. But it’s helped me to be a better teacher, presenter, and writer. So if you think speaking at WordCamp may be for you, I hope you’ll try it out. Good luck! 😊🚀

Image credit: Blanca Stella Mejia, https://www.flickr.com/photos/teegardin/


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