13 tips for getting your talk accepted at a tech conference

Before you respond to an event's call for papers, make sure your talk's proposal aligns with these best practices.
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As tech conference organizers ramp up for the fall season, you may be seeing calls for papers (CFP) landing in your email box or social media feeds. We at All Things Open (ATO) have seen a lot of presentation proposals over the years, and we've learned a few things about what makes them successful.

As we prepare for the eighth annual ATO in October 2020, we thought we'd offer a few best practices for writing successful CFP responses. If you're considering submitting a talk to ATO or another tech event, we hope these tips will help improve the chances that your proposal will be accepted.

1. Know the event you're submitting a talk to

This seems like the proverbial no-brainer, but some people don't take the time to research an event before they submit a talk. Peruse the conference's website and review the talks, speakers, topics, etc. featured in the last couple of years. You can also find a lot of information simply by googling. The time you invest here will help you avoid a submission that is completely out of context for the event.

2. Understand what the event is looking for

Look for information about what the event is looking for and what types of topics or talks it expects will be a good fit. We try to provide as much information as possible about the ATO conference, why someone would want to speak, and what we're looking for (both general and special interest topics). We also try to make the submission process as easy as possible (no doubt, there is room for improvement), in part because we believe this improves the quality of submissions and makes our review process go more smoothly.

3. Reach out to the organizer and ask questions

If you're considering submitting a talk, don't hesitate to reach out and ask the event organizers any questions you have and for guidance specific to the event. If there is no or little response, that should be a red flag. If you have any questions about All Things Open, please reach out directly at info@allthingsopen.org.

4. Be clear about what attendees will learn from your talk

This is one of the most common mistakes we see. Only about 25% of the proposals we receive clearly explain the proposed talk's takeaways. One reason you should include this is that nearly every event attendee makes their schedule based on what they will learn if they go to a session. But for organizers and proposal reviewers, having this information clearly stated upfront is pure gold. It simplifies and speeds up the assessment process, which gets you one step closer to being accepted as a speaker. A paragraph titled "Attendee Takeaways" with bullet points is the holy grail for everyone involved.

This is another mistake we see a lot. Many talks are submitted with either a single sentence description in the abstract or an extraordinary long volume of text. Neither is a good idea. The only exception we can think of is when a topic is very popular or topical, and that alone is enough to win the day even if the abstract is extremely short (but this is rare). Most abstracts should be between 75 and 250 words, and perhaps more for an extended workshop with prerequisites (e.g., preexisting knowledge or required downloads). Even then, try to keep your proposal as sharp, concise, and on-point as possible.

Disregard this advice at your own risk; otherwise, there's a high likelihood that your proposal will be met with one of these reactions from reviewers: "They didn't take the time to write any more than this?" or "Sheesh, there's no way I have the time to read all that. I'm going to give it the lowest score and move on."

6. Choose a good title

This is a debate we see all the time: Should a talk's title describe what the talk is about, or should it be written to stand out and get attention (e.g., evoking emotion, anchoring to a popular pop culture topic, or asking a compelling question)? There isn't a single correct answer to this question, but we definitely know when a title "works" and when it doesn't. We've seen some very creative titles work well and generate interest, and we've seen very straightforward titles work well, also.

Here is our rule of thumb: If the talk covers a topic that has been around a while and is not particularly hot right now, try getting creative and spicing it up a bit. If the topic is newer, a more straightforward title describing the talk in plain terms should be good.

Titles on an event schedule may be the only thing attendees use to decide what talks to attend. So, run your potential talk titles by colleagues and friends, and seek their opinions. Ask: "If you were attending an event and saw this title on the schedule, would it pique your interest?"

7. Know the basic criteria that reviewers and organizers use to make decisions

While this isn't a comprehensive list of review criteria, most reviewers and organizers consider one or more of the following when evaluating talk proposals. Therefore, at minimum, consider this list when you're creating a talk and the components that go with it.

  1. Timeliness of and estimated interest in the topic: Is the topic applicable to the session's target audience? Will it deliver value? Is it timely?
  2. Educational value: Based on the abstract and speaker, is it clear that attendees will learn something from the talk? As mentioned in item 4 above, including an "Attendee Takeaways" section is really helpful to establish educational value.
  3. Technical value: Is the technology you intend to showcase applicable, unique, or being used in a new and creative way? Is there a live demo or a hands-on component? While some topics don't lend themselves to a demo, most people are visual learners and are better off if a presentation includes one (if it's relevant). For this reason, we place a lot of value on demos and hands-on content.
  4. Diversity: Yes, there are exceptions, but the majority of events, reviewers, and organizers agree that having a diverse speaker lineup is optimal and results in a better overall event in multiple ways. A topic delivered from a different perspective can often lead to creative breakthroughs for attendees, which is a huge value-add. See item 10 below for more on this.
  5. Talk difficulty level: We identify All Things Open talks as introductory, intermediate, or advanced. Having a good mix of talk levels ensures everyone in attendance can access applicable content. See item 9 below for more on this, but in general, it's smart to indicate your talk's level, whether or not the CFP requests it.

8. Stay current on the event's industry or sector

Submitting a proposal on a relevant topic increases the probability your talk will be accepted. But how do you know what topics are of interest, especially if the CFP doesn't spell it out in simple terms? The best way to know what's timely and interesting is to deeply understand the sector the event focuses on.

Yes, this requires time and effort, and it implies you enjoy the sector enough to stay current on it, but it will pay off. This knowledge will result in a higher sector IQ, which will be reflected in your topic, title, and abstract. It will be recognized by reviewers and immediately set you apart from others. At All Things Open, we spend the majority of our time reading about and staying current on the "open" space so that we can feature relevant, substantive, and informed content. Submitting a talk that is relevant, substantive, and informed greatly enhances the chance it will be accepted.

9. Describe whether the talk is introductory, intermediate, or advanced

Some CFPs don't ask for this information, but you should offer it anyway. It will make the reviewers and organizer very happy for multiple reasons, including these:

  1. Unless the event targets attendees with a certain skill or experience level (and most do not), organizers must include content that is appealing to a wide audience, including people of all skill, experience, and expertise levels. Even if an event focuses on a specific type of attendee (perhaps people with higher levels of experience or skills), most want to offer something a little different. Listing the talk level makes this much easier for organizers.
  2. News flash: Reviewers and organizers don't know everything and are not experts in every possible topic area. As a result, reviewers will sometimes look for a few keywords or other criteria, and adding the talk level can "seal the deal" and get your talk confirmed.

10. Tell organizers if you're a member of a historically underrepresented group

A growing number of events are getting better at recognizing the value of diversity and ensuring their speaker lineup reflects it. If you're part of a group that hasn't typically been included in tech events and leadership, look to see if there is a place to indicate that on the submission form. If not, mention it in a conspicuous place somewhere in the abstract. This does not guarantee approval in any way—your proposal must still be well-written and relevant—but it does give reviewers and organizers pertinent information they may value and take into consideration.

11. Don't be ashamed of your credentials or speaking experience if it is light

We talk to a lot of people who would like to deliver a presentation and have a lot to offer, but they never submit a talk because they don't feel they're qualified to speak. Not true. Some of the best talks we've seen are from first-time speakers or those very early in their speaking careers. Go ahead and submit the talk, and be honest when discussing your background. Most reviewers and organizers will focus on the substance of the submission over your experience and recognize that new ways of approaching and using technology often come from newbies rather than industry veterans.

One caveat here: It still pays to know yourself. By this, we mean if you absolutely hate public speaking, have no desire to do it, and are only considering submitting a talk due to, for example, pressure from an employer, the talk is not likely to go well. It's better, to be honest, on the frontend than force something you have no desire to do.

12. Consider panel sessions carefully

If you've got an idea for a panel session, please consider it carefully. In more than 10 years of hosting events we've seen some really good panel sessions, but we've seen far more that didn't go so well. Perhaps too many people were on the panel and not everyone had a chance to speak, perhaps a single panel member dominated the entire conversation, or perhaps the moderator didn't keep the dialogue and engagement flowing smoothly. Regardless of the issue, panels have the potential to go very wrong.

That said, panels can still work and deliver a lot of value to attendees. If you do submit a panel session be sure to keep in mind the amount of time allotted for the session and confirm the number of panel members accordingly. Remember, less is always more when it comes to the panel format. Also, be sure the moderator understands the subject matter being discussed and doesn't mind enforcing format parameters and speaking time limits. Finally, let organizers know panel members and the moderator will engage in a pre-conference walk-through/preparation call before the event to ensure a smooth process in front of a live audience. Remember, organizers are well aware panels can be terrific but can also go in the opposite direction and very easily lead to a lot of negative feedback.

13. This is not an opportunity to sell 

This is a sensitive topic, but one that absolutely must be mentioned. Over the years we've seen literally hundreds of talks "disqualified" by reviewers because they viewed the talk as a sales pitch. Few things evoke such a visceral response. Yes, there are events, tracks, and session slots where a sales pitch is appropriate (and maybe even required by the company paying your costs). However, make it a priority to know when and where this is appropriate and acceptable. And always, and we mean always, err on the side of making substance the focus of the talk rather than a sales angle. 

It might sound like a cliche, but when a talk is delivered effectively with a focus on substance, people will want to buy what you're selling. And if you're not selling anything, they'll want to follow you on social media and generally engage with you—because you delivered value to them. Meaning: You gave them something they can apply themselves (education) or because your delivery style was entertaining and engaging. With rare exceptions, always focus any abstract on substance, and the rest will take care of itself. 

Go for it!

We greatly admire and respect anyone who submits a talk for consideration—it takes a lot of time, thought, and courage. Therefore, we go to great lengths to thank everyone who goes through the process; we give free event passes to everyone who applies (regardless of approval or rejection), and we make every effort to host Q&A sessions to provide as much guidance as possible on the front end. Again, the more time and consideration speakers put into the submission process, the easier the lives of reviewers and organizers. We need to make all of this as easy as possible.

While this is not a comprehensive list of best practices, it includes some of the things we think people can benefit from knowing before submitting a talk. There are a lot of people out there with more knowledge and experience, so please share your best tips for submitting conference proposals in the comments, so we can all learn from you.

All Things Open is a universe of platforms and events focusing on open source, open tech, and the open web. It hosts the All Things Open conference, the largest open source/tech/web event on the US East Coast. The conference regularly hosts thousands of attendees and many of the world's most influential companies from a wide variety of industries and sectors. In 2019, nearly 5,000 people attended from 41 US states and 24 countries. Please direct inquiries about ATO to the team at info@allthingsopen.org.

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Todd Lewis is the creator and Chair of the All Things Open conference, as well as numerous other open source events and meetups. He's been in the open source space for more than a decade and firmly believes it remains a primary on-ramp to opportunity and innovation. 

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