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  • Writing a conference proposal from zero to one

  • This post is a part of the blog series Speaking at tech conferences - From zero to hero. In them, I write tips, stories and sometimes about science to help people to get started in giving talks at conferences.

    Writing a conference proposal is one of the most important task anyone would do when they decide to talk in a conference. Sometimes it is a tedious task too. But carefully crafting your proposal will increase the odds of your talk getting selected.

    A good conference proposal should be simple, precise and persuasive. It should crisply convey what your talk is about. When the audience read it they should realize that the time they are going to spend sitting in front of you is worthwhile.

    Apart from clearly conveying the takeaways to the audience, it should also persuade the organizers that this talk is worth the money that attendees spend. Yes, conferences are community events, but at end of the day the organizers have to pay for the venue, food(😍) and take care of speakers travel and accommodations.

    There are awesome articles on writing a good proposals out there, but here I will explain few methods that worked out for me, I cannot guarantee that it will work for you right away. But there is nothing wrong in experimenting.

    Let's take a look at the different fields that any CFP page would have.

    Title

    This is the one line elevator pitch for your talk.

    Title is responsible for making the first impression on people. Once your talk is selected, the title will be listed along with other talks. So, your title is going to act as something which attendees would use to gauge the quality of the conference. This shows that the organizers will be seeking for a title which they feel it's worth the attendees interest.

    Not to mention that, it will make your proposal to stand apart from the other proposals in the CFP listing page.

    CFP listing page of an infrastructure conference: RootConf (with names masked)

    After the CFP deadline, if you go to the proposals listing page, you will find hundreds of proposals there. Of course, the editorial team will go through each and every proposal but a good title will grab their attention when they skim through the listing page.

    There are few approaches to write a title for conference proposals. Let's take a look at some of them. A title can be,

    1. A Brief description
    2. A Straightforward one
    3. Vague one

    I will take few examples from the list of titles shown in above picture.

    Brief description

    "Our Journey to dynamic cloud infrastructure using Packer + Terraform + Ansible + Jenkins"

    Here the speaker gives a brief description of what she/he is going to talk. After reading this title, anyone would know that they are going to hear about her journey and experience in different tech mentioned.

    Most likely they would attend to learn about the tech involved. Even if they know any one of the stack like ansible, they would attend to know how it goes well with other stacks.

    Straightforward

    "SE linux: A deep dive"
    "Spotswap: running production APIs on spot instances"

    Most proposals in the conference has a straight forward title. If you are going for a straight forward title you've to make sure the topic does not sound cliché. Note that the examples I've shown above, talks about something that is not often heard of.

    Vague

    "FreeBSD is not a Linux distribution"

    Having an idealistic or vague title is quite popular nowadays. Sometimes it will bring curiosity among the reader or the audience. "FreeBSD is not a linux distribution" but so far it's always known to us as a linux distribution.

    This will make the reader to think that if it's not a linux distribution, then what it is. They will go to description page to read more about the talk, a good description will kindle their interest to attend this talk.

    Once you find a topic for your tech talk. You can choose any one of the above method to come up with a good title. You can add some hot buzzwords in your title, but do not over do it.

    Abstract

    Most of the CFPs will have an abstract field followed by the title. You should use this space to convey the key piece of your talk in ~300 words. You have to keep in mind that you're using abstract to convince your audience why your talk is worth their time.

    Organizers will include your abstract in the conference schedule in various contents like websites or social media posts. It is the summary of your talk in few lines on which people decide whether to attend your session or not.

    Your abstract should be precise and succinct. Try to split your abstract into three sentences.

    1. The problem statement
    2. The solution
    3. Key takeaways for the attendees

    Let's look at an example that works for me. Whenever I follow this pattern to write my abstract, I use to receive positive feedbacks from my peers when they review it.

    This is a abstract I wrote for a recent talk called "Concurrency vs Parallelism".

    Well, I cannot argue that this is a perfect abstract, but it conveys precisely what I am going to talk about. Here I am stating that, you have to use all the resources to execute certain tasks parallelly but there is a way to execute the same speed by not eating up all resources.

    Next line I am giving out the solution for the problem by conveying to the audience about what we are going to discuss. The last line is the takeaways for the audience. I am telling the audience that they will be able to write concurrent programs after this talk.

    The key takeaways can mostly be predicted from the content of the talk. But reading the lines: "After the talk, the audience will learn how to design and write concurrent code", the reader will feel assured. When you give them a sense of assurance, it's most likely that the they will be eager to attend your talk. Remember you are writing your abstract for attendees.

    Description/Outline

    You can liberally use the description field in your CFP page to give more details about your talk. Unlike the abstract, your description should target the reviewers who are in the editorial team to select your talk.

    You will be using the description or outline to convince your reviewers that,

    1. You have plans to deliver the content to the audience.
    2. You will be able to communicate the content within the given time.
    3. Your contents aligns with the theme of the conference.

    I took an example from a conference on devops and cloud infrastructure called rootconf. The theme for 2017's conference revolves around performance, monitoring, incidents and postmortem experience. This speaker submitted a proposal to talk about his/her experience on managing PostgreSQL database.

    Keeping the theme of the conference and the topic in mind, let us take a look at the outline of the proposal.

    Above image is self explanatory. The speaker clearly describes what she/he is going to convey to the audience, also assures the reviewers that it can be done within the given time. The topics covered aligns with the theme of that conference.

    This also tells us that before coming up with a proposal, first one should go through the CFP page from top to bottom. You may have an awesome topic to talk about, but if its not in the scope of the conference, even if you submit a world class proposal it will get rejected.

    Giving your reviewers enough data about your plan, your talk structure and time estimate for each chunks reduces the back and forth communication. You will make them happy if they are able to get enough details about your talk just by reading the description.

    Try to incorporate AIDA

    AIDA originally stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. It is a solid method that marketing people use to create kickass copy writing. But here's our own version with a slight change.

    Attention
    Interest
    Desire
    Assurance

    Whenever possible try to incorporate AIDA into your proposal. Try to grab the attention of the reader in first sentence. Once you got their attention, present them with an interesting problem statement. Next you give the proven solution to them by telling what you are going to talk about, this will simulate their desire.

    Finally give them an assurance by stating their takeaways and what all new stuffs they will learn after your talk.

    To conclude,

    Writing a proposal is sometimes a boring job. But once you figure out the knack for creating good copies. You will be able to write awesome proposals in no time.

    One of the way to get that knack is asking your peers and friends to review your proposal before submitting. If your proposal is rejected, getting feedbacks from the organizers on proposal is the first thing you should do. Gather those feedbacks, consider them while writing your next proposal.

    No one can write a good proposal in one day. It takes many meetups, conferences and a hell lot of rejections to write a decent proposal. Never stop experimenting with different proposal styles. Good luck for your next CFP!👍