10 tips on submitting a conference session proposal

Conférence NWX2012

CC Image courtesy zigazou76 on Flickr

I have been seeing a lot of calls for speakers to submit their abstracts to various conferences lately. This got me wondering what it takes to get a session proposal accepted. Is it that the session content is cutting edge or is there something more to it than that? So I scoured the web for the best tips and compiled them here.

Your first question though might be where I do I learn about conventions looking for speakers? Well, since I work in the .NET stack I am only tracking conferences looking for speakers on .NET or Microsoft products. To find these I closely monitor Speak.NET. This is a group that finds and rebroadcasts calls for speakers on all things Microsoft. You can follow Speak.NET through Twitter @SpeakNET or through their Google group SPEAK.NET. Note though that to access this group you must sign up to be a member through your Google account. If you are new to Google Groups you can get more information through their Support Page. Finally, many of the posts are duplicated between the Twitter feed and the Google group so checking in with one or the other should be sufficient to keep you abreast of all the current announcements.

So, now, here is my list of what I found makes for a good conference proposal:

Read the speaker guidelines

A sure-fire way to not get your proposal accepted is to do something they have asked you not to do. Take five minutes to read the instructions they wrote for all submissions, including yours.

Get it in early

Most symposiums announce their call for speakers weeks before they open the floodgates for proposals. This should give you plenty of time to think about whether you want to even to give a talk at that particular seminar and if so to come up with a good topic. By submitting early you are showing the conference organizers that you want to be a part of the speaking line-up. As well, some conferences assign spots as the proposals come in so waiting to the end means a smaller chance of acceptance.

However, even if you missed the initial call for speakers most conferences give people about two weeks to get a submission in. That being said try not wait until the final day as that could leave a bad impression with the people selecting the speakers.

Having a good title

You want to make sure the title is descriptive enough to grab everyone’s attention. A title like “LightSwitch Development 101” is not as exciting as a title that says “Develop a complete LightSwitch app in 20 minutes”. You also want to make sure that any non-native English speaking attendees can understand your title and session abstract easily enough.

Make sure you can deliver on what you promise

Regarding the point above, if you say you can deliver a LightSwitch application in 20 minutes make sure you can or you will lose the audience. They will then discount the rest of your presentation or worse, tell others not attend any future presentations which could be disastrous if you have several planned for the same conference.

Having the right amount of material for your allotted time

You want to make sure you can cover your topic in the amount of time you have been given. If you give a high-level overview you may find you don’t have enough material. On the other hand if you try to cover every aspect of your topic you might find you are rushing through your slides with only five minutes left. Make sure you can go at a decent pace with some time left for questions at the end.

Don’t do a sales pitch

If you are presenting a topic that relies on a certain technology then make sure it is not a sales pitch. Tell the organizers that you are including the product to assist in your talk but not to be the focus of it.

And don’t think about doing a bait and switch either. Meaning don’t tell the organizers that you will not be focusing on the product and then once it is accepted make your entire presentation an overt sales pitch. You will only burn your reputation for future talks.

Having a good session description

A well-written session description has two goals – 1) entice the conference organizers into accepting your abstract, and 2) get attendees into the seats (since most conferences will use your submitted description within their promotional materials). To do this you want to show you are passionate about the topic you are presenting. If you have a passion for teaching the technology then people will want to hear what you have to say.

You must give people a reason to come and hear you speak instead of one of the other sessions you are competing with in your time slot. What you want to do is tell people how your talk will benefit them in their day-to-day work and to give them information they can use immediately. Returning to the LightSwitch example above you could add a statement like “Developing a simple CRUD application with LightSwitch will reduce development times by 50%!” People reading that can see an instant benefit. As I said before though make sure you can back up your claims.

Also, try to be very specific in what your session is going to cover. Do not think you can submit a high-level overview of the topic as your description. Conference selection committees want to know specifics about what you plan to talk about. Are you doing a case study, a live-coding demo, delving into a certain area only? Tell them this in your pitch.

Finally, try to make the description concise. Eliminate any unneeded words and sentences. This makes it easier for the conference organizers to remember your abstract when it comes to making their selections. It also helps attendees make their choices as they can quickly understand what your talk is about.

Complete the entire abstract portion of the form

The organizers have created the form specifically to gather certain types of information they will need to make their choices. Leaving portions of it blank shows them that you did not take the process seriously and this can cast your proposal in a negative light.

Make sure you fill out your biographical information in full

Give the conference planning committee every pertinent detail about yourself that you can. Write a compelling bio and tell them what makes you qualified to speak on the topic. This is especially important if you are not a well-known speaker or if you are travelling to a conference outside of your normal speaking circles. It also allows you to differentiate yourself from others speakers.

If the form includes areas for various social media accounts like Twitter and LinkedIn then fill them in. If not then include them in your bio. You want to demonstrate to attendees that you are open to continuing the discussion after your presentation is over.

As well, make sure you have links to your developer’s blog and your previous presentation videos including any YouTube screencasts you may have done. If you do not have a developer’s blog read my article on how Creating a developer’s blog can benefit you. If you have done presentations in the past push your slide decks to SlideShare and mention those links to the selection committee. Finally, you can also include any URLs to sites that contain information you are planning to use in your presentation as this shows that you have given your topic some in-depth thought.

Check over your session abstracts and bio thoroughly for errors

When submitting your session proposals you are competing against everyone else for a spot on the speaker’s list. The conference organizers want to know you are not going to waste a spot by giving a shoddy presentation. So attention to detail here is crucial. Make sure you double check your entire submission over several times for grammatical and spelling mistakes. Better yet have a friend read it over to make sure that the topic sounds compelling and that your submission is tip top.

So these are the top 10 items I found in my research. If you are a conference organizer or a seasoned speaker and you have other useful tips then please leave a comment below as I would love to read them.

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About Ken Cenerelli
Ken Cenerelli is a software developer specializing in designing and creating effective solutions for both the web and desktop environs. Ken lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Ken blogs regularly at kencenerelli.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter via @KenCenerelli.

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