Tips for applying to a WordCamp

Let’s talk about teaching. While not the main topic discussed on this site, it’s still a topic comes up as a topic on a pretty regular basis. That’s because it’s an important and underrated way of growing as a developer.

As a WordPress developer, one way to teach that comes up over and over is speaking at a WordCamp. If you’re not familiar with WordCamps, they’re community-run WordPress conferences. There were 115 WordCamps in 41 countries in 2016 alone.

This means that the odds are pretty good that there’s a WordCamp near you! (Those odds are even better if you’re in North America or Europe.) So all that you have to do is apply and you’ll get in. That’s how it works right!?

Well, that’s not quite true. More and more people are applying each year. I’ve been a WordCamp organizer since 2011 and we saw a record number of submissions this year. (We got 130!)

This can make it hard for you to stand out from everyone else. You’re just one submission out of many. So what can you do to tip the odds in your favour?

Impostor syndrome

Before we discuss tips for applying to WordCamps, let’s take a second to talk about the impostor syndrome. WordCamps can be pretty intimidating to apply for. (That’s especially true if it’s your first one.) It’s normal to have fear and insecurities about it.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t have something useful to teach to the community. On the contrary, I think that everyone has something useful they can teach back. But you have to put yourself out there to do it which is scary.

That said, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about it. It’s a fear just like a fear of spiders. (Or snake clowns!) You don’t always get over your fears, but you do learn to deal with them. It’s the same here.

Submit more than one talk

If there’s one piece of advice to take away from this article, it’s this one. You shouldn’t submit only one talk. There are a couple reasons why this is a good strategy to use.

Better odds

From a basic mathematical perspective, submitting more talks should give you better odds. If you only submitted a single talk, you’d only have a single chance to get accepted. But, if you submitted a second talk, you’d double your chances of getting accepted!

It also helps mitigate against the odds that you’ll submit the same topic as someone else. This isn’t something that we often think about. But someone else might submit the same topic as you. (How dare they!?)

This topic overlap can fluctuate a lot from year to year. One year a topic can be really hot and a WordCamp will get a few submissions for it. And then the next year it’ll get none. A good example of such a topic is security.

Lets you diversify

Now, don’t go ahead and submit a security talk just because of that! The point is that it’s not useful to try to anticipate these fluctuations in topic popularity. Instead, you should try to mitigate them.

You can do that by submitting talks with topics that don’t overlap. This doesn’t mean just one developer talk, one design talk and one SEO talk. Not everyone can do that! (But good for you if you can!)

But let’s say that you’re a developer. You could submit one security talk, one on WP-CLI and one on the REST API. Those three topics, while being development focused, don’t overlap.

This fluctuation in topic submission doesn’t only affect speakers that are applying WordCamps. It also affects the WordCamp organizers as well. They’re trying to build the best possible schedule for their WordCamp. It’s harder to do that if a lot of talk submissions are on the same topic.

How many talks should you submit?

Alright, here’s the question that you want answered! How many talks should you submit to a WordCamp? Is there even a limit? As you can imagine, the answer to this question is quite subjective.

As a WordCamp organizer, I’ve seen a few people apply a lot of talks. (The record is 15 submissions!) But applying with that many talks doesn’t mean that you’ll get picked. There are issues that arise as you submit more and more talks.

For one, it’s easier to find three good topics than it is to find five or ten. You’re also more likely to apply with topics that overlap each other if you try to submit a lot. This can defeat the purpose of submitting more than one talk.

It’s also less overwhelming for the WordCamp organizers trying to evaluate all your submissions. While we mentioned that submitting more than one talk can help WordCamp organizers, it’s also possible to overdo it. (like with most things!) Too many submissions and organizers might think you’re a spammer. Or they might have difficulty picking you due to having too many choices.

So how many should you submit then? This is a personal opinion, but I feel like three is a good amount of submission. You get the benefits of submitting more than one talk and it’s still pretty easy to find good topics.

Empathize with the WordCamp attendees

Now, submitting more than one talk isn’t the only thing you can do to improve your odds of speaking at a WordCamp. There’s another set of tips that’s as (if not more) important than submitting more than one talk. It’s having empathy for the people who are going to attend your talk.

What does it mean to have empathy for WordCamp attendees? Well, it means that you should also always keep the WordCamp attendee in mind when applying. This translates to a few different recommendations.

Don’t make it about you

Humans tend to be a pretty self-centered bunch. We love talking about ourselves. This should take a backseat when applying to a WordCamp.

The point of a WordCamp is to help the community. It’s not about promoting yourself. Your talk description should reflect that.

One of the best ways to do that is by avoiding the use of “I”s. Instead, you should use a lot of “You”s and “We”s. This will force you to think about the attendee and what they’ll get out of your talk.

Mention your takeaways

And speaking of what attendees will get out of your talk. You should always try to mention the takeaways of your talk in your talk description. There are a few reasons why this is a good idea.

First, you shouldn’t force your attendees to guess what your takeaways are. After all, you’re trying to help them. You’re not being helpful if someone has no idea what the point of your talk is.

And, in the same vein as the attendees, you also have WordCamp organizers. They also need to know what the takeaways of your talks are. If they have to guess it as well, that’s not good. It means that your talk description never was that clear to begin with.

Use clear language

This brings up this last point about attendee empathy. It’s pretty tempting to try to find a clever talk title and description. But those tend to force attendees and organizers to figure out what your clever title or description means to them.

That’s why those clever talk titles and descriptions tend to backfire more often than not. Well, that’s unless you’re good at it! (Or if you want to get good at it!) In that situation, you might want to do one submission like that, but not all of them. (Like we do with overlapping topics.)

But, in general, it’s better to use a clear language. Yes, it’s pretty boring, but it gets the message across. Attendees and organizers don’t have to struggle to understand what your talk is about.

Reviewing a previous WordCamp application

A good way to look at these recommendations in action is to review a previous WordCamp application. To go back in time, we’re going to look at the application for my first WordCamp talk. I gave it first at WordCamp Toronto in 2015 and then at the inaugural WordCamp US. (That was also in 2015!)

Title:
Introduction to WordPress unit testing

Description:
“But this worked the other day!”

We’ve all had those moments (maybe you even had one today). It’s so frustrating when things that used to work break. Sometimes, you feel a bit silly. Other times, you’re ready to flip a table.

Well, put that table back down!

Let unit testing save you from this nightmare. It’s a lot like coding with a safety net (or body armor if that’s how you roll). It lets you go a bit crazy while minimizing repercussions (as long as the police don’t show up).

Want to try something new? No worries! It’ll let you know if something isn’t working as it should. That’s how most paid plugins maintain a high level of quality over the years.

If that sounds good to you, then you’ll love this talk. We’ll go over what unit testing is and its benefits. We’ll also look at how to get you started and how to write your first test.

You’ll be on your way to testing godhood in no time.

The title

There isn’t too much to say about the title. “Introduction to WordPress unit testing” is pretty unoriginal. But that’s the idea when trying to empathize with your attendees.

They don’t have to think too much about what this is about. (And neither do the organizers!) They know it’s an introduction and that it’s about unit testing with WordPress. It’s straight to the point.

The description

Alright, let’s move on to the description. There’s a lot more to talk about here! After all, this is the meat of the WordCamp application.

Using a story

The description for this talk starts with a story. Stories can be a great way to show empathy with your attendees. If they relate to it, they’ll know right away the problem that you want to help them with.

But if you’re someone like me who likes to talk about topics that are more complex than average. (I have the meme to prove it too!) A story can fall flat on its face and have the opposite effect. Organizers and attendees will think that your talk isn’t relevant and that you don’t relate to them.

So I feel that you have to be careful with stories. That said, most of my applications start with one. I think they’re a great way to start a description and give some context to the talk.

Making jokes

I also tried to add some humour to the description about table flipping. I felt that it was a meme that was popular enough to use. Most people would know about it when they read it.

I think that having one submission out of your three (or how many you choose to submit) have jokes like this is fine. That’s one of the ideas behind submitting more than one talk. You can take risks and try something like that.

On top of the table flipping joke, I also added some quirky comments in parenthesis. This is something that I like doing since I feel it represents how I think a lot. (I have a lot of random thoughts like that! (Did I just break the fourth wall!?)) But again, this is a risk that I was willing to take on this talk submission.

The takeaway

The last part of the description focused on the takeaway. I started by mentioning how unit testing could improve your life. You could try new code without having to worry about breaking anything.

I also mentioned paid plugins. A lot of developers aspire to have their own paid plugin one day. They look up to them as examples of what a good plugin should be.

The last paragraph is pretty standard with all my applications. It explains exactly what an attendee will see during the talk. This prevents any confusion and also sets the expectation.

Let’s recap!

So that’s it for the analysis of a previous submission. This is as good of a place to wraps things up! But first, here’s a quick review of what you can do to increase your odds when you’re applying to a WordCamp:

  • Submit more than one talk
  • Try to minimize the overlap between your submission topics
  • Empathize with the people that you’re trying to help
  • Don’t make your talk only about you
  • Mention the takeaways of your talk

Applying to WordCamps is something you practice

This is more of a personal opinion than anything grounded in any fact that I could find. That said, I think that applying to WordCamps isn’t something that you just pick up like that. You have to do it over and over to get better at it. (Or you could organize a WordCamp and review a lot of submissions like I’ve done!)

This means that you shouldn’t be scared to ask for feedback. If you get rejected, ask if they can explain why you were. This will help you improve the quality of your submissions. And you’ll see, you’ll get your next speaking opportunity in no time!

Photo Credit: Jeremy Clarke