How to Submit a Talk to a Conference

I’ve been on both sides of the proverbial conference table. I have been the one submitting proposals, hoping against hope that they will pick mine, and I have been on the selection committee, struggling to choose between hundreds of awesome proposals when you only have a few talk slots available. Through these varied experiences, I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t when submitting a conference proposal.

  1. First and foremost, remember to hit spell-check. If your browser doesn’t spell-check things for you automatically, take a moment and paste your submission into a word processing program, or even into your e-mail program (most e-mail programs have a built-in spell-checker). If your word processing program has a grammar check, do that too.
  2. Read your submission out loud to yourself. This may seem silly, but you will be surprised at the grammar/wrong word mistakes that you’ll catch when you have to read it out loud.
  3. Have someone else read your submission. Having an outside perspective on your submission can be very beneficial. You already know what your talk is about. Having someone else read it will let you know if you are explaining your topic well enough for an outsider to understand.
  4. Don’t talk about yourself in your talk description. Let your bio talk about you. Let your talk description explain the topic that will be covered.
  5. Be specific about what you are covering. It’s great to use a clever topic description, but if it is not clear what you are specifically covering, it’s not going to work. You don’t have to give a detailed outline of your talk, but make sure the biggest points are mentioned in the public description, and use the notes field to give the selection committee more in-depth information. This helps them know if your talk covers a duplicate or complimentary topic to other talks in their schedule.
  6. Identify a clear problem that the topic of your talk will help solve. Most times, the audience for your talk will not be familiar with your topic (which is why they are coming to your talk). So, don’t assume that they know why they should care about your topic. Explain a problem that they have that your talk topic will solve, and you will be much more likely to convince the selection committee (and your future audience) that your talk is essential to the schedule.
  7. Explain the practical applications of your topic. Conference attendees like to have tangible take-aways from talks. Make sure to explain to the selection committee why your talk will benefit their attendees, and make sure attendees can tell from your talk description that they will gain a direct benefit that they can put to use immediately from attending your talk.
  8. Be honest about your topic. We all want big crowds at our talks, but it’s better to have big crowds that want to be there. Don’t lead your audience to assume something that won’t be there. Be clear.
  9. Share past feedback in the comments or notes section. If you have given this talk somewhere else, let the selection committee know that and if you can, share any feedback you received with them. If you are on Joind.in or have feedback from a user group meeting on Meetup.com, include the link for them. It’s best to share feedback for the talk you are submitting, but even if it’s a different talk, let them know that people liked your speaking style. If you don’t have feedback on your talks anywhere, make sure to find a way to collect feedback on your next talk. This is a great resource for the selection committee.
  10. Follow the conference focus. Take a look at the conference website. See if they have a theme, and if they do, adjust your talk description to align with the theme. I’m not saying to regurgitate the theme in your talk description, but if you can show how your talk fits in with their goals in a smooth, integrated manner, that won’t hurt.
  11. Submit a lot of proposals. It is really difficult to put together a varied schedule for a conference, and oftentimes, budgets require that you have speakers give two talks at a conference in order to be able to afford their travel expenses. The more good talks you submit, the easier it is for the selection committee to fit you into their budget and the schedule.
  12. Don’t submit unfinished proposals. Your talk doesn’t have to be done, but your proposal has to be. Don’t submit descriptions that explain that you “could” do a talk on this topic if the selection committee wants. Write up a real description for the future talk so the selection committee knows what they are evaluating. Feel free to be flexible in the notes section and say that you could take this talk in multiple directions if they’d like a slightly different focus.
  13. Don’t submit multiple topic ideas or variable time lengths in one submission. If your talk could be a one hour talk or a three hour tutorial, submit them as two separate proposals. Most selection committees read through all of the descriptions, rate the talks, and then start going through based on title and rating. If you submit multiple topics in one submission, you are only getting one rating and are being evaluated only once. Even the most well-intentioned selection committee will not be able to remember off-hand that your single submission could actually be any number of other submissions. This also breaks their ability to use your submission correctly in their voting system and makes it likely that they will miss your talk when viewing a list of talks for a certain time length because it is listed under a different time length. Selection committees have a rough job; don’t make it more difficult for them. Do, however, let them know in the comments that you have also submitted the proposal under a different time length. That will make it easier for them to know that they do have options for where in the schedule your talk will fit.
  14. Don’t talk down to your audience. If your talk description insults a group of people, implies that this topic is so easy that <insert reference to a type of person> can do it, or asks you to send your noobs over to learn the basics, feel free to skip hitting that submit button. Talk proposals should be about encouraging and educating people, not degrading them.
  15. Be brief. Chances are that the selection committee will be reading hundreds of proposals all in row. The more you write, the more likely it is that their eyes will glaze over and they will miss the best parts of your proposal. Don’t neglect important details, but skip the fluff and get to the point quickly.
  16. Be interesting. Don’t just give a text book definition of what you will be talking about. Put a little excitement into your talk.

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