I have been on several conference committees, reviewing proposals, and I want to offer some advice on putting together a great talk proposal. While these questions won’t guarantee you a spot, answering these questions will get you noticed and help you win.
If you’ve stumbled across this article, I’m assuming you’re submitting to a conference in tech. There are many different types of conferences out there, but my opinion is biased by the conferences in tech, which focus on knowledge sharing and learning. This contrasts starkly with the few business conferences I’ve attended, where the focus seems more to be networking, finding business opportunities, and product/service marketing; Learning tends to take a backseat to other priorities.
Why is this important? In my experience, the type of conference will shape the submission and selection process, so the first question you must answer is, “What type of conference are you applying for?”
As someone who has. reviewed thousands of talk proposals, here are some questions you should ask yourself before hitting that submit button.
Does your proposal fit the conference topic?
All conferences have a target audience. Some conferences have overarching themes, and many have different tracks with different topics. Even if your proposal is a great topic, the selection committee has an obligation to the audience to ensure the selected talks remain relevant. Don’t submit an iOS-specialised talk to an Android conference. Don’t submit a talk about AWS to an Azure track.
If you submit a topic that you feel doesn’t strongly connect, then use whatever notes you can in the submission system to explain your connection to the topic. Don’t make the selection committee try to guess at the relevance.
Does your abstract add value?
An excellent conference abstract balances explaining what you will cover, how, and the teaser to attract potential attendees. A great abstract will be as concise as possible.
Here are some common pitfalls where the abstract does not add significant value:
- Repeats the title – If you copy and paste the title into an abstract area, at least add more detail.
- Too much buildup – An abstract should not list the detailed history of where your submission came from, or what the problem is. A combination of a well-crafted title and up to three sentences should be enough.
- Too wordy – As a reviewer, I will read every part of your abstract, but if it’s too long, no participant will.
Is your proposal a sales pitch?
Unless you plan on presenting at a commercial conference or a track about a specific tool, a talk only highlighting the features of a tool will probably lose points. The audience at a conference is likely to be very broad, and the selection committee is responsible for ensuring a talk remains relevant for as much of the audience as possible. Attendees participate because they want to learn, not sit through a commercial or product demo, as there are always other marketing opportunities in the hallway, sponsor area or online.
If you propose a talk around a specific tool or product, focus on lessons that can be applied to similar products, or the problems the audience will face. For example, I remember attending a Serverless talk that used AWS Lambda as their demonstration. Still, the presenter discussed common issues with all Serverless applications, and how their approach would differ from Azure Functions or Google’s Cloud Functions.
Do you have practical takeaways?
Remember that the audience wants to learn something, so your talk should have some practical lessons learned. Some examples of this might be a concrete recipe for approaching a specific problem, a case study where you share your real-world experiences, insights, or provoke discussions.
A talk should not only outline a problem or issue as this does not teach the audience how to navigate it. Instead, provide a solution or different options to work around or resolve the problem or issue.
Are you spamming the submission system?
When O’Reilly ran software architecture conferences, and I was on the review committee, we needed to review almost a thousand different submissions. I worked in batches, looking at themes, but I, and other reviewers, noticed when someone submitted several variants of the same talk. Some people do this because they hope one of the variants appeals. Don’t forget that you’re creating more work for the committee, which will not win you any points. In other systems, spammers are frowned upon and lose significant points according to the assessment criteria.
Focus on quality over quantity.
Are you submitting this yourself?
You might be surprised at this question, but I’ve seen proposals submitted by a media agency or a personal assistant on someone’s behalf. Usually, these proposals already fail on some of the questions above. They also appear to take a scattershot approach, which doesn’t look good from a committee’s perspective.
Although some people are extremely busy, having someone else submit sends the wrong signal. Firstly, if you are too busy to submit, are you too busy to assemble a talk, or will you be presenting a talk prepared by someone else? Most conference submission systems don’t make it too hard to set up an account. If you can’t invest this little time, what does that say about your desire to speak at this conference?
Are there any spelling/grammatical errors in your proposal?
There are many non-native English presenters, but this doesn’t mean you should submit an abstract with spelling or significant grammar issues. Everyone has access to some basic spelling or grammar checks. If you write an abstract in a code editor, then at least copy and paste it into a word/google doc and run the in-built spelling and grammar checks before submitting it.
A winning talk proposal shows attention to detail
A great proposal isn’t the same as a great talk, but some of the same skills can be applied. Just as an excellent talk tells a story and shares some lessons learned, a proposal should convince the review committee your story is a good fit for the audience. Use the checklist above as the bare minimum for submitting a decent proposal, and you’ll be on your way to a winning talk proposal.
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