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Breaking down a CFP

Written by Alexis Wong

If you’re thinking of applying to speak at a conference, chances are, the organizers have created a basic criteria for acceptance or Call For Proposals. Because the scope and focus of conferences (and sheer number of them out there) can be both general and niche, the CFPs tend to be just as varied. Remember the groundbreaking discovery of the Rosetta Stone? It was the first archeological discovery to provide a translation between two forms of Egyptian hieroglyphics/script, and ancient Greek. Trying to interpret the different qualifications for many CFPs can call up the need for a translator especially when there isn’t a pattern to the submissions.

This article is specifically to talk about how to breakdown a CFP. That is, how to review a series of requirements outlined in a CFP and how to frame your talk topic around them to be responsive, exciting and informative!

Remember Evie from the Mummy? Her superpower was translating ancient texts and kicking butt at the same time.

CFPs all roughly follow the same guidelines and multiple CFPs may fall into similar categories. The following bullet points are a bare minimum for what to expect for baseline talk prerequisites.

  • A proposal topic must fall within the general umbrella of the conference/event
  • A proposal must include what you want to talk about, and why you’re the most qualified person to give this talk, including your type of research,any accolades you’ve garnered and projects you’re involved in.
  • A proposal has a due date — often times this is months prior to the conference so organizers and sometimes adjudicators have time to review all the proposals and do additional research.

My favorite personal rule about writing a CFP response is that the proposal should include audience takeaways and/or call to actions. After all, you’re applying to share what you know because you’re the pro!

Now you’ve got a pretty good idea of what most proposals will be asking for. But just like any good translation, the devil is in the details. And getting those details right shows your CFP savvy.

QUICK TIP: If you’re applying for multiple talks, it can be tempting to submit a template style proposal for each one. Much like writing a cover letter, having a great template is fantastic and easy, but getting accepted or invited to speak means you’ve targeted the request key points. So before you hit that send button, make sure to check off any critical *must haves*.

CFP requirements are where a lot of CFPs can get hazy. They may have some vague asks around topics or length or acceptance. The act of reading a proposal can be a daunting act in and of itself. So let’s break this one down shall we? This CFP was for iA Summit 2018 -

BEFORE YOU BEGIN — Important to Research/Note

Dates: When is the proposal due?

How: How is the proposal accepted? Email/ site form/ snail mail (unlikely, but who knows?)

Format: Are there any restrictions around word count or platform?

Themes: Is there a theme or a general inquiry that the conference topic is centered around? And are there any keynotes or talk topics that have already been announced? What topics have already been discussed in previous conferences?

Additional requirements: a referral / recommendation?

[From iA Summit 2018] What We Look For

Creating information environments in our growing digital universe is affecting more than what we could have imagined. Everything is converging! To anticipate a pervasive information environment where everything is connected, digital architecture and design practices must improve. Below is a list of topics that we seek to stimulate insight and discussion for IAS18….


  • IA frameworks, process, and practice
  • IA theory and science
  • Information architecture in 2100
  • Methods for building consensus

According to our theme, we want convergence to be at the heart of every conversation. What does convergence mean to you? How do you incorporate that into your thinking and your work?

These are topics we anticipate, but we’re also looking for the unexpected. We’re looking for new voices and new ideas. We’re looking for a mix of hands-on, practical, “you can bring it back to work next week” sessions together with thought-provoking theory-driven talks.

Send us the best proposal you have, even if it doesn’t fall into our theme of Convergence. We are very interested in what you have to say!

If there are specific click thru links in the text body of a CFP, make sure just to do a quick sanity check and click on them. If an organizer thought they were important enough to add in, taking a moment to double check a link might lead to essential information. For the iA Summit CFP, organizers previously included a link to how they define “convergence”, something they want to inhabit the heart of every talk they feature in 2018.


Join us at IAS18 as information architects, user experience designers, content strategists, developers, and taxonomists converge in Chicago to explore how information architecture can create sustainable information environments that stand up to scale and complexity. Let’s come together to make sense of it all.

Notice how in rest of the proposal this mission statement isn’t included anywhere else? And yet, the organizers included a link to this separate page twice in the actual proposal. Don’t you feel smarter now?

QUICK TIP: Set yourself some reminders! When you’ve decided you want to submit, throw that date onto your calendar, set yourself a day, week and month notification in your GCal or phone and get ready to write!

Now, we just want to acknowledge not every conference has a formal Call for Proposal — but if you’re interested in speaking at a specific event, having a proposal ready is incredibly useful should you be inspired to email an organizer to pitch an idea. Using our guidelines can help you create a framework for writing your own CFP! Being proactive is a great way to start a conversation with an organization and get on their radar for future speakers.

QUICK TIP: One additional reason for reviewing the CFP requirements, by your acceptance, you may also have your talk fall under a Creative Commons license. This could mean that your talk will be distributed by the conference organizers, but you won’t be able to use the recorded session for commercial (read: paid) purposes.

Creative Commons License Agreement: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

There are plenty of additional articles and amazing tips on how to get your first talk started. Attend one of Women Talk Design’s workshops and practice giving your own talk at one of our bi-monthly Women Talks Design Lightning Talks events! You can also check out our list of recommended conferences and events for opportunities to speak.

WTD Recommends:

Advice for Submitting a Speaking Proposal

Innovation Women is a “visibility bureau for women speakers in the tech and entrepreneurial space. Their goal is to helping empower women to speak at events and assisting talk organizers to engender and diversify their roster. A WTD favorite tip? How the simple act of including takeaways and Call to Actions in your proposal makes it stand out from the crowd.

It’s All About the Details: What the IA Summit Taught Me About Submitting to a Conference

iAS Summit does an incredibly thorough job of walking thru what it’s like to write a proposal and have it accepted. Top points from this article included: lots of detail is a lead indicator of expertise, being funny ie. expressing your unique personality was a plus and to check out the blurbs from previous years’ talks to get a feel for what best works for the type of conference.

How to Write a Kick Ass Conference Proposal

The partners at UX Australia put the emphasis on memorable proposals which generally means meaningful talks. The writer also has great feedback on why talks don’t get chosen and how to create a punchy talk description, a wholly different beast to the more detailed and long form proposal write up.




Women Talk Design elevates the best talks about design from women and nonbinary speakers, and empowers event organizers with tools, approaches, and information to engage more diverse speakers.

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Women Talk Design

Women Talk Design

Women Talk Design elevates the best talks about design and tech, and empowers event organizers w/ tools, approaches, and info to engage more diverse speakers.

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