Get Your Conference Proposal Accepted

Want to speak at a conference? First you’ll have to get a proposal accepted. To date, I’ve helped pick talks for Keep Ruby Weird since it started, and this year I reviewed for RailsConf 2016. I’ve also written a number of proposals, some that have been accepted, some that haven’t.

There’s no sure fire formula to guarantee your talks get accepted. In this post I’ll share some of the things I liked and disliked while reading proposals as well as some of the things that I’ve found help when writing my own proposals.

I’ll be talking about things I didn’t like in proposals, however all examples are made up. Any likeness to existing proposals is coincidental. When possible examples are given from my own proposals.

RailsConf 2016

I only recently started taking notes while reviewing proposals for RailsConf. There were over 500 to read through, and at some point, many start blending together into a generic proposal blob. I’ll mostly be focusing on this CFP experience. The CFP is split into 4 parts - title, abstract, details, and pitch. The App used for the CFP is open source. From the README:

The heart of the proposal is the title and abstract. These two will show up in your program and schedule. They are required fields and have limits on how long they can be. The details field is for reviewers/organizers only and is there to allow the speaker to show ‘what’s behind the curtain’ like an outline or other explanations that don’t belong in the abstract. The pitch is there to allow the speaker to sell you on why this talk should be in your event.

Let’s start off simple. Try not to make overt typos in anything you submit. They stick out like a sore thumb in otherwise potentially well written submissions. It seems trivial, but when your talk comes up as the 70th submission that a reviewer is looking at that day it might break their brain and hurt your chances. If you’re not a native English speaker or you’re awful with grammar like me, ask a friend for a review. I’ll also contract with editing services: Draft’s “Ask a Pro” feature is quick and easy.

Pitch

The first round of reviews is blind, however in the “Pitch” section some people are able to give lots more specific details without identifying themselves than others. I found myself leaning towards reading the “Pitch” section first as it was one area where some talk proposals really stood out. To me this section was all about the submitter’s credibility. Why should I listen to them? Are they an amazing speaker and will give a great performance? Are they an expert in a field that they can speak authoritatively on? Do they have some unique experience that makes their content special or different? You can’t identify yourself here, but you can identify traits or facts about yourself. Did you win “best comedic presentation” at your local toastmasters? Were you in every theatre play and musical production in school? Did you write an open source tool or library that deals heavily with the topics involved? Have you spoken before? It doesn’t have to be at a conference, tell me about your love for speaking at school or user groups, something that indicates your general ability to give a well thought out and prepared talk. Where did you speak? How was it received? What audiences did you resonate with? Did you write a book? Where do you work? Do you hate with a passion due to ? How did you find the topic you're submitting about, and what makes you the best person to speak on it?

Another way to think of a pitch section is if two people submitted otherwise identical proposals, how would you sell yourself as being the best candidate to speak?

A Cliche is Like…

Don’t use cliches, everyone use’s cliches and it makes your proposal blend in. If you feel the pull of using a phrase everyone has heard “a million times”, ask yourself if it adds to what you’re trying to convey. For getting out of this habit I recommend Word Hero. Along the line of cliche’s avoid absolutes in your writing unless you know they’re true

These types of “absolute” phrases only work when you really know your audience, even then they sound weak. Not to be “beating a dead horse” and absolutely NEVER use “absolute” phrases.

Details

The details section is where you can show how much you’ve thought about your topic. Did you just wake up one morning and think “hmm, maybe I could talk about Texas BBQ sauce history” or is this something that’s been brewing in the back of your brain for the last six months? The details section is where I’m interested in specifics. Facts, figures, and concepts. When I read it, I want to form a mental picture of someone walking around the stage going from topic to topic building towards a central argument, or whatever the point of the talk is.

BTW, your talk should have a point. When someone walks away from your talk they might only take away 2-3 things with them. Those things should be in your proposal, the details section seems like a reasonable place to put them. As much as I like to see specific content in the details section, I don’t want 60 bullet points of in depth takeaways. You only have <30-60> minutes depending on the conference and talk slot. 60 bullet points leaves you with 30 seconds per each, give your topic room to breathe. Don’t give a comprehensive overview of EVERYTHING in a field, you won’t have time. Go deep in one part.

If you know what you want to talk about, but you’re not sure how you want to structure it, check out Jeff Casimir’s great ‘Prototypical Conference Talks’ it has some do-s and some don’ts.

Medium over Message

One big deciding factor for me on whether a talk should be accepted or not, is asking “is this the right medium for this content”. Before you submit a proposal on a topic, consider writing a blog post about it. If you were able to say everything you wanted to in 1 post, then it’s probably not a good candidate for a talk. Written words work well for reference and getting started, materials, and for comprehensive rundowns. Talks on the other hand favor emotional communication. What is the story behind this refactoring? Are you taking a boring topic and making it interesting or memorable somehow in a way that only a live performance could do justice to? Imagine your talk is finished and has been recorded by Confreaks. Under what circumstances would someone say “hey you should watch a video about " and link to your video? If you see a high possibility of that happening, then your topic is well suited for the stage.

The detail section is where you can also get into sharing your personality as it relates to the topic. What are the themes? Are there jokes you plan to tell? How will the things that make you unique co-mingle with your talk topic? Statements like “This is the talk I wish I could have attended a year or two ago” are great if they lead to helping the reviewer uniquely understand your position on a topic. How does your talk make the world a better place for the people who come to see it?

Something that I liked when consuming the details section is a bullet point list that would show the general flow of information and ideas. Something I didn’t like is when proposals went so far as to give minute markers telling how long they would spend talking about each thing. Estimates are okay but I don’t want it to look like a stenographer’s transcript, it’s mind numbing.

Did I mention I feel like talks are a good time to share information through stories? If you think the pitch section is about selling yourself and your credibility, then the details section is about selling your topic presentation flow, takeaways, and the stories that bind them all together.

Abstract

Imagine you bump into me in an elevator, you’re about to go give your talk. I ask if I should go, you have 400 words to sell me on attending. What would you say? For many conferences the title and abstract are the only things they ask for. I’m seeing more and more organizers seeking more info like RailsConf does. Either way you’ll have to write one, and the better it is, the better your chances are of getting accepted.

An abstract to me is a pure marketing pitch. You can google on how to “write good copy” and see a ton of “do this” and “don’t do that” lists. It may sound cheesy but many of the techniques work well at grabbing attention and keeping it. Start off with a bang, if your first sentence isn’t good they won’t read the rest. Here’s a few of my opening sentences of talks that I’ve gotten accepted:

I’m not going to claim they’re all master works, but they’re at least kinda interesting. Another key point in abstracts is brevity. Use short sentences. Short sentences are concise. Short sentences are rich. Short sentences are powerful. Short. Sentences.

Remove unnecessary words, obviously. Remove soft or hedging statements “sometimes”, “maybe”, etc. It’s okay to be a little hyperbolic in an abstract. Instead of “your tests might be slower than you may like” it’s okay to shorten to “your tests are slow”. Attendees will self select so that statement will likely be true. If my tests are fast, i don’t need your talk. Being concise in an abstract shows me that you know the core essence of what you want to talk about and you know how to extract and distill it.

Once you’ve grabbed attention, you’ll want to make sure to give your reader enough information to determine whether or not they should see the talk. Is it an advanced topic? Very technical? Any prerequisites? I like being specific on these points. Here’s some of my “in this talk” statements from proposals that have gotten accepted over the years:

Tell me what I can expect to learn, what I can expect to take away. It’s not a requirement, but it helps to cut some of that marketing hyperbole with some straight talk.

A well written abstract is almost like a piece of technological poetry. It is more than the sum of it’s words. Speaking of words one thing I found helps in my abstract creative process, is to make word clouds. Given a topic like “security” or “performance” I write down as many other words come to mind. I then stack rank them based on which are the most interesting. I write about 10-20 different intro sentences. About 3-4 different copies of the “takeaway” sentences, and about 5-10 outro sentences. I then mix them up until they feel right.

When working on an abstract get feedback, from anyone. How does it make them feel? What do they think the talk is about? What types of things would they consider about the abstract before deciding to come or not? If they respond “good”, that’s not helpful press them for details. It helps if that someone has submitted to conferences, but it isn’t required. If you find yourself working with experienced submitters, don’t let them re-write or edit out your voice. Don’t force a sentence in that won’t fit just because it sounds great on its own. Write lots, throw away lots.

Title

The best wisdom for writing titles is to save it for last. I hate this advice because I always forget about it until I’ve spent 4 hours up front trying to write a good title. Instead my advice is set a timer for 3 minutes, write as many titles as you can. Pick your favorite, then write the rest of your submission. When you’re done go back and throw away the title and re-write it. Chances are your original title won’t match your final talk concept. Try to spend a bit more time writing down title ideas, maybe 10-15 minutes. Try testing your favorite 2-4 on a few people and then go with your gut as to the best one.

Try to use descriptive words or action statements in the title. Really avoid cliches here, I’m really not interested in “how [you] stopped worrying and learned to love the <blank>”.

Don’t alienate your audience through jargon. Your title should say something about your talk. If it’s an “in” joke or an acronym don’t use it. I get it that you know what HATEOS is, but some of your attendees or conf selection committee might not. (No one used this acronym in this year’s CFP to my knowledge I’m not picking on anyone’s proposal).

As a rule don’t put anything in your title or abstract that your attendee would not understand unless they already attended. You can lean on your knowledge of the conf, it’s likely that attendees of RailsConf will have heard of REST, so you can probably use it, but unless you’re talking explicitly about that topic maybe it’s not super helpful. When in doubt lean on being more descriptive, and less creative. You can also use two titles with a colon if it helps. I did this for “Millions of Apps: What we’ve Learned”. The title is probably the least important thing to me as a reviewer, but likely the most important thing to an attendee in terms of picking your talk. Spending time working on your “pitch” and your “details” actually can help improve the quality of talk you give, spending hours on your title won’t. Budget your time accordingly, don’t dwell on the perfect name™.

Submission notes

If you want to increase your chance of getting a talk accepted I have two pieces of advice.

1) Submit more than one talk to each conference 2) Submit to 3x the number of conferences you want to speak at

Speaking is a numbers game. The great players in baseball only hit the ball 1/3 of the time at best. I find I only get accepted to every 1 out of 3 conferences I apply to. There’s a zillion reasons why your talk wasn’t accepted that has nothing to do with you.

The list goes on. Trying to predict what a conference needs and writing to that is impossible. Most reviewers don’t even know until they have read all the proposals. I try to at bare minimum always write one technical and one non-technical leaning talk. I like to have 3 or so proposals in my back pocket that I would be willing or interested in presenting on. Writing 3 proposals takes 3 times as long, but they can be reused for other confs. When I am in a writing mood, it is easier to write 3 talks than to try to find 3 separate times. If you find writing a specific proposal idea is too hard or painful, it’s a good sign that isn’t a great topic to talk on, imagine having to expand that proposal to a full 30 minutes.

Lots of good talks get rejected to every conference. Rejection never gets any easier. My one piece of advice is to focus on the future of submitting to other confs. The reviewers likely won’t have time to give you specific feedback on why a talk wasn’t accepted. Even if they do you might not like what you hear, it probably won’t be actionable to future talks. I’ve never been given feedback from conference organizers. Instead I focus on bright spots.

Look at the talks that were accepted, what did they have in common with your proposal? What did they have that was different? Maybe you can ask some of the people who got talks accepted to share their details & pitch (things that are not put on the schedule). They don’t have to, of course, but if they do it is more data for you. Don’t be snarky about it though, show genuine appreciation and interest. “I saw your abstract on the program and thought it sounded really interesting, I definitely want to go. I’m trying to get better at submitting to conferences would you be willing to share your ‘details’ and ‘pitch’ in a public blog post or a private gist?”.

Again, it may have been blind luck that their talk was chosen, or maybe they did something implicitly different than you, or maybe it was bad luck that your talk wasn’t chosen. The only thing you can do is try to get more data points, just don’t try to read too much into each of those. Here’s the three proposals I submitted this year (reviews are blind and I’m programmatically prohibited from voting on your my talks, reviewers are encouraged to submit talks). The “Saving Sprockets” was chosen, why? Who knows. Don’t take these as good or bad examples, they just are. What did you like about them? What did you dislike? What have I recommended to do here that I didn’t do well in my proposals?

I really want to give the “Everyday Heroes” sometime, it’s more of a non-code talk that I think has really broad appeal with some useful ways to think about the world. However I seem to be better at writing proposals for more technical content. BTW. don’t comment on the gist, GitHub doesn’t send any notifications you can send comments via @schneems on twitter.

Your First Conf Proposal

So you’ve read all of this, you’ve decided to take the plunge. What should you do first? I think you should go speak at a user group. I help to run Austin on Rails and we practically have to hunt down people to give talks. If you approach a local user group organizer with a talk idea they’ll most likely give you a slot, probably sooner than you were expecting.

If things go well, consider submitting the same talk to a conference. If they go poorly reflect on why, look for local mentors that speaks well, ask them to coffee to give you feedback on how to get better. There’s lots of books, and videos on improving technical speaking. Watch good talks. Watch technical conference talks, and also watch talks in other fields like TED that are captivating. What makes them good? You don’t have to present exactly like them, but did someone use a technique you really liked? Steal it, and incorporate it. Writers, write. Speakers speak. I’ve talked at user groups that have been standing room only 100+ people. I’ve spoken at major industry conferences with less than a dozen people in the room. Just because it is “local” doesn’t mean it doesn’t count as speaking.

In general you won’t get much actionable feedback when presenting. I’ve had someone tell me my talk was “too advanced” and “too beginner” from different people at the same talk. If you have an in depth opinion on someone’s talk, right after they gave it is not a good time. (“Hey I liked your talk” is always appreciated even if you have criticisms that you want to share later). Let the adrenaline settle, wait for a day maybe. Ask before giving advice “can I share some feedback?”. Ask if there is any specific type of feedback they are looking for. Maybe they are working on the enunciation, or stage presence, maybe they feel the technical content could be tweaked.

Don’t blindly give feedback, speaking is a performance. Even the best of intentioned feedback from closely trusted friends can damage egos. Try to focus on the positive, or if there was negative focus on remediation items instead of why things were bad. Speakers, the best time to get feedback is before a conference. Sit a co-worker or loved one down and present to them for an hour, get immediate feedback. Give them a pen and paper to write notes. If you’re not practicing for the timing of your talk let them interrupt you with questions. You should consider baking answers of those questions into your talk. You can keep notes on a paper too. Speaking is a skill, if you practice it with appropriate feedback loops you will get better.

As an organizer of Keep Ruby Weird, my number one priority is that my audience will walk away and say “Wow, those speakers were amazing, I’m very glad I came”. When we are going through the 2nd or 3rd round we don’t do blind review, I have few enough speakers that I can google for videos of them presenting. A few sound bites can go a long way. It’s certainly not required, but I take it as an irrefutable sign that you’ve at least put work into speaking as a craft. If you don’t have Confreaks at your local meetup, try turning any presentation into a screencast and putting it online. Our conference doesn’t penalize “non-unique” content i.e. you’ve given it before. We want it to be well delivered and executed, it’s okay if other people have seen the talk before, it won’t get moldy. It’s okay if english is your second language, it’s okay if the other speakers in the lineup don’t look or act like you, it’s okay if you don’t have a famous twitter handle. A good story, well presented can be unstoppable.

Don’t feel like speaking is some rite of passage every developer must go through to advance. I loved theatre in high school. I was awarded “biggest ham” in my first musical of which I had maybe 2 or 3 lines. I get a rush when I speak. I also love teaching, I was an adjunct professor at UT for a short while. I use the pressure of giving talks as a kind of peer review platform for things I’m trying to figure out. Being forced to present on a topic means I can’t fake or pretend to know the subject matter. Speaking for me is as much of a personal journey as a public outreach.

I once thought that speaking was how I got to the “next level”. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I know lots of programmers I really respect that don’t speak or speak infrequently. There are other ways to express yourself, podcasts, blog posts, technical papers, writing books, pull request, GitHub issues, etc. Speaking to check off some professional bucket-list item will probably not end well. If you get up on the stage because you have something to say and you have something to get out of it, you’ll be great.

Now comes the disclaimer, all these opinions and advice are mine only. I’m very biased towards my own successes and failures, try to get a diversity of opinions. Remember that they are opinions, not facts. YMMV. You can see the organizers and review team on the RailsConf about page. Maybe find them at RailsConf, thank them for reading proposals till their eyes fell out and ask them for their thoughts.

I forgot to mention, make the last sentence in your abstract somewhat memorable, preferably short, even better if it’s actionable. Now go forth and write better proposals!


Richard is a junior woodworker who dabbles in programming for Heroku. He has opinions, and dad jokes. Follow @schneems on Twitter for more.