I have been keynoting and speaking at conferences for more than ten years. I also contribute to a number of conferences as a reviewer, giving my thoughts to conference committees on evaluating potential talks/workshops. In this post, I want to share a number of attributes I look for, when reviewing a conference submission. It may help you as a person who wants to submit an idea to a conference. I won’t promise that your talk will be accepted if you follow these tips, but I do hope you end up with a better chance.
Make it relevant to the conference
Some people use a scattershot approach – preparing a single talk that they send to all types of conferences. As a reviewer, it’s relatively east to spot these ones. At an agile-themed conference, there’s a loose tie to a talk titled, “Introduction to Kubernetes.” At a developer-focused conference, there’s a loose tie to talk on “Optimising flow with Kanban” unless there’s an agile twist to the conference. Talks with loose-ties will perform poorly against well-targeted talks that are very relevant to the conference theme and audience.
Consider who the conference attendees are and what themes/tracks the conference has to see if you can make the content more relevant.
Use the Goldilocks rule for talk descriptions
A talk can be too abstract when it tries to put in too many buzzwords without adding any practical information. Want to talk about microservices, docker, or continuous delivery? Great, but let us know how your talk is different and useful. A talk can also be too specific with a very narrow lesson or target audience. Great that you want to talk about how you managed to optimise the smallest possible CSS, using X tool! Is it relevant to a conference focused on software architecture?
Follow Goldilocks and make sure that your talk abstract is just right by considering how your description gives some weight and more meat to your talk. Conceptual talks with examples are a good start. A super narrow topic can be fine as long as it really unique or interesting for potential attendees.
Bonus tip: One sentence talk abstracts are normally too short.
Make your talk title and description match
I don’t claim to have the best talk titles, but I really make sure that the talk descriptions builds on what is eluded to in the talk title. I have see too many submissions where people have a catchy title, and then the description doesn’t match the topic at all. It sometimes seems like two completely unrelated topics and I give the submission a low rating because it’s hard to predict what it will actually deliver.
Define concrete learning points
Although some talks are intended to be inspirational, many talks are there to help others learn about a particular circumstance. You will attract the right participants, and help committees select your topic if you can explain what you hope audience members will learn. I look for three to five key points in a 50-60 minute talk that make your talk stand out from others. The more concrete (and relevant) these learning points are to the audience/conference, the better.
Avoid the sales pitch
Unless you are at a vendor conference, I favour talks that are not overly product focused. This becomes more difficult when the field is highly aligned to a specific topic or technology. Amazingly I have seen many talk submissions made, as if the marketing department of some mega-corporate technology vendor (wonder who that could be, cough cough) made it on behalf of someone else. Please provide something useful, rather than words that don’t add substance.
Draw on real world experiences
People love hearing stories about problems and solutions for technology conferences, and real world experiences or case studies can be really strong vehicles for demonstrating lessons learned. Distilling case studies into higher level conceptual, design or architectural learnings rate highly (assuming it is relevant to the audience).
Use your editing tools
Although I don’t expect all submissions to come from people where English is the first language, please make sure you run your submissions through some sort of spellcheck or grammar check. It’s very painful as reviewers if every third word has a typo and we can’t understand every sentence. If we can’t understand them, chances the conference attendees will not be able to understand them too!
These basic tools are built into almost all text editing program, so please use them.
Having a conference talk accepted isn’t really a mysterious process. There are certainly things that make the life of a selection committee or reviewer much easier if you follow the tips I provide above. Although these tips don’t guarantee your proposal will be accepted, following these will make sure that they don’t automatically get rejected.