blowmage A Mike Moore joint

How to write a conference proposal

I run a small but successful Ruby conference. It is a difficult and draining experience, but I'm generally very happy doing it. We select the majority of our sessions from proposals submitted by folks just like you. One of my least favorite parts of running the conference is letting folks know there proposal was not selected. I had to do that today.

Every year folks ask why they didn't get selected. Sometimes they ask me, sometimes they ask themselves loudly on twitter. My conference has a very specific type of session it's looking for, sort of a niche of a niche. But more often than not the proposals that are not seriously considered are not off topic as much as they are poorly written. I've been on all sides of this, as a speaker that has been accepted, a speaker that has not been selected, and an organizer. So here are some thoughts from the mind of a conference organizer on what makes a good conference proposal.

Make the title good

Be clear. What makes a title "good" depends on what type of session you are proposing. Is it an exhaustive look at a specific subject? Then make that clear in your title. "Foo Deconstructed" Is it a beginner-friendly introduction? "Foo for the uninitiated" You want to convey what the session is about and what experience level it is aimed at.

Avoid hostility. You may think it is cute to say something like "You suck at topic", but in my experience that isn't effective. Folks don't want to feel bad about themselves or mad at the presenter, and that title will make them feel one or the other. A better alternative might be "Being great at topic". It should also go without saying that you should avoid sexism and racism in your proposals, but you would be surprised. Just don't, okay?

Have a hook. Most attendees will judge their interest solely by the title. The title is the hook. It's important to grab attention, but don't be misleading. The goal isn't to shock someone into reading your blog post, it's to give them an idea of why they'd benefit from attending your session (or accepting your proposal).

Description/Abstract

This is the meat of the proposal. It's common for conferences to print this in the program unchanged. So consider that this needs to appeal not just to the selection committee, but to conference attendees as well.

Focus on the outcome. What will attendees know by the end of the session? Describing the benefits of the session is much more effective than the mechanics of what the session will cover.

Keep it brief. It's unfair to ask a reader to parse through 3 paragraphs setting up a scenario that the session will address. A person ought to be able to scan the description and feel confident about what will be covered.

Avoid lists. Sticking with the "why" is where the power of your proposal comes from. Some may disagree with this guideline, but if your proposal contains lists (or more than two paragraphs), it's a strong indicator that you're diving deeper into the "what" than the "why". (Yes, I understand the irony of giving the advice to not use lists in a list. But this blog post isn't a conference proposal either.)

Make it topical. Consider the audience and the theme of the conference. If you are submitting to a Python conference, then it's probably not a good idea to submit a proposal on Lisp. Yes, you may think that the audience should all hear how Lisp is great, but will the attendees care? Does the selection committee? If the conference clearly states that they intend to be as beginner-friendly as possible, then your dive into the subtle details of natural language processing libraries is unlikely to be accepted, no matter how great a talk it would be.

Both attendees and selection committee members are not clairvoyant. They don't know why you think this subject is good or not, so you need to explain it to them.

Justification

Some CFPs allow you to enter some text only to be read and considered by the selection committee. If you have this available, then there are a couple things you should consider:

Stop selling. Any selection member has already read through dozens or hundreds of proposals all vying for their attention. This isn't the place for the hard sell. This is the place to level with the selection member. Is this only aimed at basket weaving beginners with extensive underwater experience? Then state that here.

Explain the destination. Are you intentionally trying to sell one thing in your description because it's popular, but then expose it as flawed during your session? Let the selection members know. If you have a hard time quantifying where attendees are going to be at the end of your session, you might have a problem with your proposal.

Thank them. Do you like their conference? Have you been there before? What do you like about it? More than kissing up, it shows you understand the kind of conference the organizers are striving for. It's not a good place to rant about what is wrong with the conference, the community, or the world.

Biography

Most organizers or selection committees don't care as much about the biography of the speaker as the conference attendees do. So my advice here is to explain what makes you unique. Are you an authority on the subject? Do you have a novel or interesting take? Don't make this overly long, folks aren't looking to hire you. They just want to know if you know your stuff and are worth watching.

If you're looking to inject humor, my opinion is that your best bet is to play it straight in your proposal and go for broke on humor in your bio.

I hope this helps. I understand how frustrating it can be to spend so much time and energy on a proposal only to be shattered when it isn't accepted. My advice is to play for the long term. Pay attention to what ends up in the conference sessions and figure out where you can differentiate yourself while adding value. Speak at user groups. Attend a Toastmasters meeting. Write a book. You will only get better.