How to find something interesting to share at a conference — and how to pitch it to me

Sophie Dennis
7 min readSep 21, 2018

As Programme Chair for both UX in the City: Manchester and Service Design in Government I hear from lots of people that they aren’t sure sure what they could speak about, what would make a good session, or what to include in their proposal. So here is my collected advice on how to pick a good talk topic, and what I look for when reviewing submissions.

This post was originally written during the open call for speakers for the 2019 conferences.

Trust me, you have something to share

Lots of people tell me they’d like to try speaking at a conference, but don’t think they have anything interesting to share. Every time, within five or ten minutes we’ve found at least one really useful thing they could talk about — if not several.

There’s this belief that everyone at the event will be either as or more experienced than you. This isn’t true! There will always be people who are further behind on their journey than you are. We’re all learning all the time, and love to hear about how other people have dealt with the kind of situations we find ourselves in.

Here’s how to get over this hump:

  1. Think back to a year ago. What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? There’s your talk. There will absolutely be people in the audience who are where you were a year ago.
    This does not need to be ground-breaking. Share how you’ve taken a technique or method from someone else and made it work, and what you learned in doing that which wasn’t obvious from the stuff you’d read or heard.

If you’re a bit more experienced, another way to think about this is:

  1. What advice are you often asked for or do you often give to people you work with? There’ll be lots of other people keen to learn from you too, and lots more people who have exactly the same questions.
  2. What issues do you talk about most with your peers and what tips and advice do you share with them, or have you found most useful? There will be lots more people just like you at the event who will be in a similar position and will value your perspective. If nothing else it’s always reassuring to learn we’re not the only ones finding something hard!

It doesn’t have to be for everyone

These are multi-track conferences. That means your session doesn’t have to be suitable for everybody. If it’s not right for someone they can just go to one of the two or three other sessions that are on at the same time.

Better your session is really relevant to a specific section of the audience, than vaguely interesting to all of them.

For both events, we get a mix of experience levels.

At UX in the City: Manchester we have a core group of ‘UX professionals’. They may be in a specialist research/design/content role, or a generalist “UXer”. We also get quite a lot of the “UX curious” — people who are developers, designers or whatever, who are passionate about making things work well for users, but don’t have formal responsibility for UX design. Some people are working in mature organisations with large, dedicated design teams, but there are also lots of people struggling with the challenges of being a UX team of one. Not everyone is working “agile”.

Much of this also applies to Service Design in Government. Yes I want sessions that speak to experienced service designers who want to deepen and extend their practice. But we also get plenty of people for whom service design is part of their role, but not actually their job, and who want to learn more about how to use the methods in their work. People are generally working in larger teams — there’s less “UX team of one”, and the message to “start with user needs” and idea of agile ways of working is pretty well established, if not always practiced.

Types of session

For both conferences I’m looking for:

  1. solid tutorials on core skills
  2. case studies

Tutorials can be solid “[subject] 101” stuff, or things that help established practitioners deepen their practice with a deep dive into a particular area we could all be better at. The latter are particularly useful and well received.

I also always love the opportunity to practice a technique or learn a new workshop method. It’s all very well reading about a particular workshop technique or analysis approach in a book, it’s another thing to have the confidence to actually do it — and practicing in a safe environment really helps.

For case studies, these are best when they share:

  • how to apply and adapt a technique to work in the ‘real world’
  • what you learned about a particular kind of user, design problem or technology, and how it’s applicable to other people and organisations
  • how doing all this great user-centred digital service design-y stuff has made an impact on your end-users or your organisation’s bottom line. Stuff people can point to with their bosses to say “look! I am not a crazy person! This stuff actually works!”

You don’t have to do all three.

Here’s some more advice on what we’re looking for at Service Design in Government in 2019. Tl;dr: if you’re wondering if what you are working on is relevant, the answer is probably “yes”.

Writing your proposal

Eventually your session description will end up in the programme, but right now I and my fellow session reviewers are your audience. So write your proposal for us — you can always amend it later for participants.

The questions I’m asking myself when reviewing your session are:

  • Will anyone be interested?
  • Will they learn something useful?
  • Does this person know what they are talking about?

The last one is really hard. We blind review. That means I don’t see your name or bio when marking your session. I don’t know anything about your background or experience. The only thing I have to go on is the title and description. So that session description has to demonstrate that you know the subject matter and that the insight you have to share is robust and valid. The best way to do that is to tell me exactly what that insight and advice is going to be.

Top tips for your proposal:

  1. Don’t be coy! Clever titles and ‘I’ll share my top 3 secret tips’ might work in the programme, but when blind reviewing your submission the more detail you can give me the better. Be specific. I want to know what those top 3 tips actually are.
  2. It doesn’t have to be most perfectly crafted marketing copy. Just be really clear, coherent and straightforward about what you’ll cover.
  3. Try writing “People will learn:” and then follow it with 3 to 5 bullet points that simply set out what people will take away from the session. Keep it practical and clear.
  4. If you find yourself writing something that sounds a bit like “people will learn how awesome I / my agency / my product is and why they should pay me all the money” then you have a sales pitch, not a conference session. We’ll probably pass.
  5. You can always revise the description before it’s published if you worry the description is too long or gives too much away that you want to save for your Big Reveal.
  6. Longer is better than shorter. Unlike some events we don’t have any word limit on the long form of your session description. We want as much detail as you can give us about what you’ll talk about. While I don’t hugely appreciate wading through a 1000 word case study, that’s better than getting a single paragraph.

Picking a session type and length

The following is a bit specific to the session types offered by the UX, Service Design and Agile conferences run by Software Acumen, but may be relevant to other events as well.

Don’t sweat it. No really. I used to agonise over which session type was the best fit, or whether my session really fitted into the types described. Don’t worry about it too much. I’ve discovered this is the least important piece of information as far as I’m concerned. What we really need to know is whether to put you in a room with chairs in rows (“theatre style”), or with people sat around tables (“cabaret style”). So just pick the one that seems best. ‘Case study’ and ‘tutorial’ are probably the simplest defaults. If none of them fit that’s fine. We’re always open for people wanting to do something a bit different.

We have four session lengths:

  • 45 minutes
  • 60 minutes
  • 90 minutes
  • 3 hours (150 minutes, with a half hour break)

45 minutes is great for a talk or a tutorial with one or two really quick exercises.

60 minutes is fine for talks as well, and will let you really go deeper into a subject. It’s also perfect for a short workshop or hands-on session. A good 60 minute workshop format is a 15 minute introductory talk-y bit, then two 10–15 minute group exercises that get people to apply what they’ve learned, then a wrap up. It’s good for something focused on a specific skill, or as a taster session.

The 90 and 150 minute slots are both for more in-depth workshops. We don’t ask our participants to sit through 90 minutes of someone just talking. 90 minutes gives you time to include a longer exercise. The 150 minute slot is basically a 3 hour half-day session with a break in the middle.

If your session could suit a couple of different lengths — for example if you could present it either as a talk, or as a more interactive workshop — then mention that in the description. Once all the sessions are reviewed and we’ve got a shortlist, myself and our Event Producer sit down and play tetris with the schedule, trying to work out how to fit everything in to the slots we have. So it’s always useful to know if something might suit a shorter or longer slot. I’d suggest you submit it once in your preferred format, but clearly say that you’d be happy with a different length slot. But if you’d rather submit it twice — perhaps to give more detail on what a workshop version would cover — then that’s fine too.

Phew! I think that’s my collected advice on submitting to conferences done. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter what other questions you have. But most importantly…

Submit your ideas!

UX in the City Manchester
https://2020.manchester.uxinthecity.net/

Service Design in Government
https://2020.govservicedesign.net/

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Sophie Dennis

User-centred digital strategy • Embedding UX in agile • Freelance/contract UX lead @NHSDigital @cxpartners @DWPDigital @LandRegGov. Devon exile in Yorkshire.