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How to write a great talk proposal for a tech conference

You’ve watched countless talks online. You wrote a blog post, or ten. You went to a local meetup, and maybe even gave a presentation there. You’ve been to conferences, observed people share their knowledge, their stories (or their failures) on stage – and thought to yourself: I should be up there! I have something to talk about!

Well, we think so too! It’s time to get your talk proposals ready for the upcoming conference season, and we have some tips and insights on how to write a compelling talk proposal that will help you to conquer the big conference stages.

Getting your topic right

You found a conference that is just for your field, and is looking for just the people with your knowledge. You recently learned something useful while working on a project, spent time researching and comparing new methods to solve a problem, or just have a crazy, fun demo coded up. But now you are not quite sure how to shape a topic out of what you know.

Try thinking of yourself as a conference attendee, and ask yourself:

  • What do you want to learn about?
  • Which problem(s) need to be solved?
  • What makes you curious?
  • What would you want to take away from the conference?

Read the Call for Speakers carefully

Make sure to read the Call for Speakers multiple times. In addition, read about the conference itself on their website, and check out their line-ups from previous events. This will show you which talks made it, and what tone they used to present them.

Weigh your idea against the requirements, and make sure your topic matches all of them, and can be presented within the available time slot.

Attend meetups

It can be very hard to judge whether your topic can work in the planned amount of time, and how the audience will react to it. There’s only one advice to this: Go to tech events, and get a feeling for it. Be an attendee, ask speakers you meet there, and start to give talks yourself at local user groups.

Watch talks online

If you can’t make it to a conference or there are no groups in your area: Watch talks online. There are amazing talks from great speakers covering a wide range of topics which you can find online, often for free. This will also teach you different approaches and angles to present a topic, and get the ideas flowing on how you could tell your story.

Ask the organizers

If you are still unsure how to frame your topic, send a quick tweet or email to the organizers: “Hey, I would like to talk about XY at your conference and wanted to check if you think this is interesting to your audience?” If your topic needs adjustments, is too specific or too general or just not the right fit, they will let you know. Bonus: By reaching out, you already demonstrated that you care.

Translating your topic into a title and an abstract

Ok, now you know exactly what to talk about. Next step: Translate that into a short and kick-ass abstract. An abstract which stands out and convinces the jury that your talk is not only solid, but is going to inform, entertain and maybe even amaze the audience!

“When you’re writing a talk proposal, you’re trying to convince people to spend 30 minutes listening to you” – Sarah Mei

Do:

  • Answer basic questions: What is the talk about? Who is it for (expert, beginners…)? What will the audience learn?
  • Make it easy to categorize your topic: Drop some words that make it easy to sort your talk into a category, e.g., for CSSconf: animation, dev tools, typography…
  • Use words and phrases that stand out: Especially in blind votings, where the jury does not see your name, your talk will be discussed like: “Did you read the ‘CSS like a cranky owl’ proposal yet? Sounds fun!” With a slightly weird twist and unusual word choice, you show some humor and make your proposal immediately memorable.
  • Be interdisciplinary and try unusual angles: In 2013, of the many animation-related proposals we received, Rachel Nabors stood out with mentioning learnings from japanese animation studios and cartoons – we were immediately interested!
  • Show off: Mention if you will use cool demos, have great slides, show stunning examples.
  • Show excitement: Ultimately, the jury is on the look out for the talk that receives standing ovations. If you are passionate about your topic, chances are you will excite the audience as well.
  • Proof-read! Put some love into writing, and avoid sloppiness or typos. It’s similar to writing a job application: Typos and sloppy formatting will put you to the bottom of the list, if not immediately disqualify you. The best and easiest trick: Have a friend proof-read.
  • Think big – try to re-think your topic on a high level: What relevance does your topic have for the entire community? How does it enable and empower people? How have things been handled in the past, how are they now and what may happen in the future?

“I don’t want a promise about how good your talk is going to be. What’s your thesis? Give me a taste. I want the meat, not the menu.” – Noah Slater

There are also a few things that you should avoid:

Don’t:

  • Leave away words that soften your message, like “perhaps”, “sometimes” etc. Be confident!
  • Avoid absolutes or groupings that you can’t back up with real data (like “most people” and similar). Reword them.
  • Don’t force a voice that isn’t yours. Don’t crack jokes if that’s not your thing, and don’t be stone-cold academic either if that’s not how you talk.
  • Pitch a product – While it’s fine to talk about a problem that you solved at work, avoid using the stage for a product pitch. Excite the audience with your findings and ideas. If you do a good job a that, you will earn respect and interest in your company for free.
  • Be aggressive or offensive – It’s cool to have a controversial opinion, but absolutely avoid to disrespect competing methods, frameworks or approaches. Instead, show that you are aware of pros and cons on all sides, and can discuss them in a respectful way.

But I can not give a talk because…

There are plenty of reasons that hold people back from submitting a talk, despite them having great ideas to share. Here are a few of the concerns we heard, and what we answered:

“The language spoken at the event is not my native language”

It can be intimidating to present in a foreign language, and it certainly requires even more time rehearsing the talk. But keep in mind: We use a widely-spoken language (in CSSconf’s case: English) as a means to allow an international audience to participate. Everyone getting up on stage presenting in a foreign language deserves extra respect for doing so, and everyone in the audience will profit from their fresh perspective. Still, a certain level of skill in the language is required. If you can have a conversation in the language, and make sure to rehearse the entire talk multiple times, you will be fine. If possible, find a native speaker who can help rehearse and fix pronunciation and odd word choices. And don’t forget: People came for the content, not for perfect pronunciation.

“I have never spoken publicly before”

And you are not alone with that! Everyone had to start at some point. Like everything else, speaking gets better through practice, but it’s definitely possible to deliver a great talk with the first attempt. And conference organizers are keen to discover great new talents! For example, Sara SoueidanAntoine Butler and Ana Tudor all kicked off their speaking careers at CSSconf events, and impressed everyone with their great debuts.

“I am actually not an expert / rockstar / unicorn”

If you did a good job at preparing your talk, you spent many many hours researching your topic. It is very unlikely that anyone in the audience has dedicated the same amount of time on that particular topic – be honest, how much time does your busy life leave you to read up in depth on every topic you are interested in? You will be the expert in the room on your topic, keep that in mind. And as far as unicorns are concerned: They are mythological creatures. They actually don’t exist ;)

A look behind the scenes… what does a conference jury see when they read proposals?

In our debut year, we at CSSconf EU received 97 talk proposals. And that’s not even unusual: For example, eurucamp and CascadiaJS each had more than 160 submissions. JSConf EU even received 330 proposals in 2013!

The average talk proposal we saw last year for CSSconf EU used around 160 words for just the talk title and description, which is all we see in our first round of reviewing (we don’t actually get to know who the submitters are in this round). That sums up to a good bit of reading, and it took 1-2 two days to carefully review and form an opinion on each proposal.

At CSSconf EU, the first round of reading is followed by each curator rating the proposals on a scale from 1-5 (ok… the one spam attempt we had got voted 0). If we strongly disagree on a certain proposal, we will discuss back and forth, but the most promising 15-20 talks bubble to the top pretty quickly. But this means that we can only show about half of our absolute favourite talks!

At this point, the most challenging part of curating begins: Figuring out which talks will blend well to form the perfect line-up. What’s the perfect combination of talks to cover all areas of our field? Which talks match the expertise level of the audience? How to balance cutting-edge demos with hands-on advice ready to use in production? Are there both deeply technical talks, and talks that discuss the big picture and the status of our community?

While this part is incredibly fun, it also means we have to reject talks that we really love, but simply won’t fit into the program. In addition to content-related considerations, we also want a broad and diverse spectrum of speakers, and also have to take budget limitations into account (the not so fun part).

So… I got rejected. Meh.

Always keep that in mind: There is no perfect talk proposal, and a rejection never simply means anyone didn’t “like” your submission. Your talk might have not made it for any number of reasons – maybe a similar topic got covered in the previous year and the curators decided to not run it this time. Maybe there were too many technical talks, and the curators opted for a more big-picture talk. Maybe your proposal just didn’t quite convince this time. In any case, there is no reason to give up! Don’t take it personally, and don’t be discouraged. Keep trying, and don’t be shy to ask the jury for feedback on your proposal. 

Whoa – my talk got selected! What’s next?

Great news! We’ll cover tips and tricks on how to prepare for the talk in an upcoming post, and until then – time to celebrate!

Further reading (and listening)

Many others have shared their insights on how to write successful talk proposals. Here are some of our favorites:

The 2015 CSSconf EU Call for Speakers is open for submissions until July 15 2015.
Submit a Talk Proposal


by Kristina Schneider

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