The Art of the (Conference Talk) Proposal
I’ve been going to conferences, and submitting talks to them for over 4 years now. Over this period I’ve tried a few different approaches for submitting the proposals to several conferences and tracking my success (and failures). In this post I’ll explain my process of coming up with new proposals for technical talks at conferences (and, by extension — meetups), and how I like to submit my talks to events.
What I won’t do is explain how I prepare my actual talks — the content, slides, the lot. I also won’t give you the “12 tips to make your talk proposals accepted by ANY conference (you’ll be surprised what #6 is)”. That’s a story for another day.
My process 🛣
In general, it goes something like this:
- I come up with a topic or title for a talk or presentation,
- turn this into a fully fledged talk proposal,
- which I then use to submit to relevant events.
- Wait, rinse, and repeat.
Coming up with a topic 💡
Sometimes this is just a title, or sometimes it’s a rough description of what I want to talk about.
Sometimes it’s a topic I’ve tackled or researched at work — most of my early talks on Android testing and architecture started that way. Sometimes I’m just passionate about a topic — I did a talk about political engagement a few years ago. Often it’s literally a shower thought, happens during a walk with my wife, or in a conversation with my colleagues. It can occur anywhere, at any time.
Depending on how your memory works, I believe it’s good to scribble it down. For me, that’s usually either email or Google Keep.
Doing the legwork 💪
I’ve got a topic, now I need to turn that idea into something compelling enough for conferences to accept.
I’m a big fan of puns and pop culture references, as well as clickbait titles, so my submissions (at least the titles) tend to have a certain Buzzfeed-like quality. Some of my talk titles are Library Development: Between a Pod and a JAR file, Tools that give you Superpowers, and Beyond Hacktivism — why #policymatters.
Most conferences require a title, a short abstract they can publish, and a slightly longer “proposal” part — something that is usually seen by their selection committee. Another common field is one for “notes” or comments — here you can put anything you think might be relevant, but you don’t usually need them.
I usually start by writing the title and proposal, and then turn that into an abstract. I feel that a title gives me focus, and the proposal gives me the freedom to explain my thoughts. The proposal can also contain a rough talk breakdown.
The abstract is just coming up with something between the two with some clever jokes thrown in. I also write a series of potential titles that would fit the bill, and select the one I like the most.
Something that’s hard to boil down into a tweet about is probably not a good candidate for a talk.
Where to write them? 📝
I like preparing these proposals, far away from submission forms for talks. Usually in a Google or Paper document, so I can copy and paste passages around. I also used markdown files versioned in a private git repository.
Some people like Joe Birch have also turned this into fully transparent systems: https://github.com/hitherejoe/PublicSpeaking
A living online document also allows me to have my bio and speaker profile picture ready for copy pasting .
I sometimes test the ideas on Twitter — just to get a feel of how they resonate. They can be titles, or they can be a few thoughts towards the idea. In general, what gives me some likes or retweets is good. Something that’s hard to boil down into a tweet about is probably not a good candidate for a talk.
Note that at this time, I do not yet create my talks in their entirety. I’m not a fan of creating talks before I know when and where I’m speaking. I also tend to tweak them until the last possible minute, even though I’ve rehearsed before. It lets me stay on my toes.
A 45 minute talk takes a LOT of preparation, and this is just the time I don’t have when writing a proposal.
I like asking for feedback. This can be either my colleagues, or the people I know are potential audience for these talks.
Finding events 🕵️
After I have a serviceable talk proposal written, then I can start thinking where that talk might fit. What conferences could use it?
My thought process goes something like this: Am I speaking about a particular technology — let’s say Android? What Android conferences, mobile conferences, and general conferences am I interested in? Time to get Googling.
There are also several aggregators that help with my search. For Android, there is the conferences repo from AndroidStudyGroup. For JS, there is confs.tech.
I recently discovered Awesome Conferences — which is a more generic aggregator.
There are also fully fledged CFP solutions like PaperCall.io, that incorporate speaker profiles, talk submissions and reviews, as well as have a browsable event directory.
And for meetups, there’s the Auth0 Meetup Finder, and of course meetup.com.
A honourable mention is Lanyrd, which used to be the one aggregator to rule them all, that then got ruined by Eventbrite who bought it and put it in a “read only mode”. It was a great tool for tracking events, speakers, and organisers.
RIP Lanyrd, fuck Eventbrite. 🖕🏻
Submitting to events 📮
At this stage I have a shortlist of events that I’m submitting my talk proposals to. I start reading about their expected attendances — if an event has been happening for a few years they likely have an idea who to expect.
For example: 60% frontend developers, 20% tech leads, and 20% designers and product managers. This will obviously vary from event to event but it gives important clues of what they want to see in their talks.
Conferences also sometimes have a few preferred topics they would like to focus on — such as “apps everywhere”, “containerisation”, “the future of conversational interfaces”, or “testing”. This is either to ride the hype 🚂, or because their know their audience prefers specialised content.
I also usually look for the Code of Conduct — if a conference doesn’t have one it’s usually a bad sign. Reading it also helps me see if they are trying to avoid profanity altogether — I like dropping a few f-bombs here and there and it’s definitely a good to know in advance.
Finally, I check for when the conference is happening. Are they clashing with anything already in my calendar — maybe it’s the vacation I have planned, or with an all-hands event at work? If so — the conference is out.
Knowing all of the above, it’s time to fine tune my proposals. Often the title can stay the same, and I just get to explain my talk in a way that better corresponds to the conference’s specific audience and needs.
Scheduling shenanigans 🗓
Conferences usually happen in 2 distinct seasons — Spring and Autumn. The spring season goes roughly March-May, and the autumn season goes around September-November. Of course, there are some exceptions, but I’ve noticed that most events tend to fall into these dates. Most also tend to favour days on either end of the working week — either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday.
What I’m getting at is, if you are applying to a lot of conferences (and across different disciplines), then you will inevitably see that events are overlapping. If you are extremely lucky, they will overlap and also be in the same city.
If you are not, they will be on a different continent.
As I submit a proposal to a conference, I have no accepted talks at the time of submission. If I learn that one of my talks has been accepted and I am confirmed as a speaker then I inform the overlapping conferences I submitted my talk to (that haven’t yet come back to me), that I need to withdraw my proposal. Most conferences accept their speakers in batches, and usually take a few weeks to finalise all proposals after the CFP has closed and selection has begun.
I currently track all of my submissions in Google Calendar where I have a dedicated Events calendar. I enter them as full day events (or multiple days), and add corresponding labels Submitted, Rejected, or Talk confirmed that corresponds to my talks, as well as colour code them. I put the talk titles I submitted to each event in the descriptions. I also list the events accepted alongside the proposals themselves, so I know immediately what got accepted where from that side too, and helps me manage any scheduling conflicts.
Exceptions rule! 🤘
The above steps explain my usual process for submitting my talks to events. Funny thing about conferences and talks is that the best ones are one-off, and between different talks only a few things stays the same.
Maybe my bio, that only sees dramatic changes every year or so 😂.
I find it that the more I submit, the more I’m likely to tweak a talk. Especially after I’ve given it once or twice, gathered feedback from participants, added new parts and turned them around. Even if the title stays more or less the same, and the talk will change and evolve dramatically — that’s the beauty of it. It’s always possible to go back to the “drawing board” and rewrite the abstract or proposal points.
Rinse, repeat, recycle ♻️
I never have just a single talk to give. I submit 2 or 3 different talks to most conferences I’m applying to. I usually write and tweak my proposals in the off-months (before the conference seasons kick in), and have 3 to 5 proposals ready to go at any given time.
This is a system that I currently have in place. It works for me, and my hope is that it will help other budding conference goers to start thinking about their involvement in a more systematic way.
Maybe also start a debate around our processes — how do you plan your conference talks?