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Crafting a conference proposal

Dear Reader,

Recently on twitter, @johncongdon asked me about proposals for conferences. Specifically, he asked if I had any examples that I can share because he was considering submitting to a conference. While I don’t have any examples to share, I can give you some advice on the topic.

First things first

Read Tips on how to get accepted as a speaker at a PHP conference, if you haven’t already. The process of getting accepted starts a lot earlier than the proposal, you need to lay the groundwork first.

Do your homework

Ok, so you’ve done all of that and you are ready to submit. The very first thing you need to know is that each conference has its own personality. Each conference is different, has different rules and different processes for selecting talks. Step 1 is always READ THE CALL FOR PAPERS CAREFULLY. Understand what the conference is looking for, what you need to submit to them, and what they are offering you if you get accepted. If, for example, the conference only offers a free ticket to speakers and you do not have the resources to travel to the conference, don’t submit. As a side note, it is ok for a conference to only offer a free ticket. It is also ok for a conference to pay speakers. Different conferences have different goals and business models. If you don’t like what they are offering, don’t submit.

Look for clues as to what content they are looking for presenters to submit. As of this writing, and until June 30th, 2011, IndiConf is accepting proposals. I’ll use this conference as an example because it is run by my friend Michael Kimsal. IndiConf’s announcement is very spartan but the “session focus” section tells you what they consider appropriate talks for IndiConf. The only real problem I have with IndiConf is that they do not give the speakers any information on what to expect or how the sessions are selected.

While I don’t in any way intend for IndiConf to be considered a bad example, let’s look at the call for papers for tek ’11. (I like this one because I helped write it) The php|tek ’11 Call for papers gives prospective speakers everything they need to know. Yes it is long. However if your attitude is TLDR then you aren’t the right person to speak; read the entire thing. Second, buried on the tek’11 site but linked as part of the submission process is the “Speaker’s Package” . Conferences should let you know up front what they are covering and what they aren’t. Read it over and make sure you understand and can accept the terms. If this information isn’t provided, ask.

Eli White, a friend of mine and conference organizer had this to say.

“I’m often looking for submissions that DIRECTLY match the theme of the conference, hitting points on the nose that the conference wanted to. Often those are rare as very generic submissions come in instead.”
  – Eli White

That is directly on point; one of the best ways to get accepted is to submit a presentation that is on-topic for the stated goals of the conference.

Another great source of information about a conference is Check a conference’s entries for past years to see what was selected. This gives you some great insight into the types and skill levels of the talks the conference accepts. The more you know the better your chances are of getting accepted.

The submission

In this section I will explain how I select papers. Some of the advice here is from talking with other conference organizer’s as well but most of it is based on my personal experience organizing seven PHP conferences. (holy crap, I am getting old)

You’ve got ten seconds…GO!
For tek ’11 we had over 300 proposals. Five people had two weeks to read, digest, and filter all 300+ sessions and pick fifty two of them. You have got to stand out to get more than a cursory review. Have a great title. Pick a topic you are passionate on and let that passion show in your proposal. Grab my attention quick so that I don’t just pass you over.

It helps if we know you
Yes, it sucks, but a lot of times, we as organizers “go with who we know”. Every conference I have worked on has had as one of its main goals “sell tickets”. Bringing in people like Sebastian Bergmann, Lorna Jane Mitchell, Rob Allen, or Travis Swicegood, help us sell tickets.

My friend Keith Casey had this to say about this topic.

“If someone submits on xdebug and Derick is under consideration, we’ll go with the safe bet [Derick], unless there’s something truly unique.”
  – D. Keith Casey

The good news is that there are now a lot of conferences out there. This means that the big names can all too easily get over-exposed. My friend and conference coordinator Rafael Dohms had this to say about speakers from a conference coordinator point of view.

“If your conference is during conference season or close to places with bigger conferences, it is good to keep in mind the “speaker uniqueness” or at least a session uniqueness, people in the area may lose interest if both conferences have the same material”
  – Rafael Dohms

So while making a name for yourself is important, you can use your lack of a name to your advantage

Inspire me
If you are pitching a case study, make it inspiring. Don’t show me how you did it, show me the lives that you touched because you did what you did. Show me that what you are doing is making the world a better place. If you session is a technical one, teach me something new. Look, you’ve only got 30-50 minutes with your audience, so you aren’t going to have time to bond and become BFFs with them. Give them the whatand the why, then give them the GitHub to your code. Most attendees can pull your code and pick out the juicy parts.

Be complete
If the conference coordinator has taken the time to ask you for information, take the time to provide it for each proposal. If the form asks for your bio, provide it on every submission. If I’ve got to go look you up in a previous submission, I might just skip over you and go to the next person who did provide me with the information.

Wrapping it up

The picture is not bleak at all. As I said earlier, each conference is different; for tek ’11 however, we set a goal of 30% new speakers. Most other conferences have similar goals. We all recognize the benefits of infusing the speaker pool with new blood, we just have to balance that with the other goals.

To paraphrase The Great One “You won’t speak at 100% of the conferences you don’t submit to.”

Until next time,
I <3 |<

3 thoughts on “Crafting a conference proposal

  1. Great article, really helped me out! Since I would like to both organize a conference in the future as well as speak at them, this gave me a good insight into both ends of the business! I really liked the “make a profit” part myself though! LOL

  2. Another one is “Have a descriptive title”. The abstract is what we go to if we can’t figure out what your talk is about by looking at the title. Then we have to think about it more.

  3. Another is “If your talk already fits into another category, don’t select “Other””
    Another is “Don’t post your resume as the talk abstract”. Actually had someone do something close to that.

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