Steven HicksAboutSpeaking

5 Tips For Writing A Conference Submission

We recently finalized the speakers and sessions for Cream City Code 2018. We received a great number of submissions this year, and after reviewing them all, I've put together 5 tips for writing your next conference submission.

Writing a winning conference talk submission seems like a dark art.

In the past couple months, I've read every word of nearly 250 conference talk submissions. Multiple times. I'm on the speaker committee for Cream City Code (nee MKE DOT NET), and we recently finalized our selections for our October 2018 event.

I cannot refute the idea that small animal sacrifice or eye of newt will get you into your next tech conference. I can share some tips for writing a submission that I'd love to read, though!

Note: I'll pick on myself a little in this article, so as not to pick on anyone else. All examples are based on my own talks.

Tip 1: Clear titles are better than witty titles

Some people recommend that you craft a witty title in your submission, to stand out from the others.

A better way to stand out is to have a title that tells me (and the attendees) exactly what the talk is about. If you can craft a witty or punny title and still give me full clarity on the talk subject, that's great. But I will not dock you for a simple, straightforward title like "Building A Blog With Static Website Generation." It tells me what I'm going to learn about!

On the other hand, a title like "Back-ends? Where we're going, we don't need...back-ends..." is a super awesome reference to a great movie, but it doesn't tell the reviewers what the talk is about. Worse, it doesn't tell the attendees what the talk is about. So when they check the schedule right before the next session, deciding where to go next, they will skip over your talk and find a title they understand.

In my experience, talks don't get accepted/rejected by conference organizers based on title alone. They do get chosen/skipped by attendees based on title alone, though. Help them find the right session by using a clear title.

Tip 2: Don't stress out about the "elevator pitch"

We use Papercall to manage our CFP. Papercall provides two fields for people to describe their talk: Abstract and Description.

Description is not character-limited. Abstract is limited, though, to 300 characters. Characters - not words.

It is really hard to write something worthwhile in 300 characters. There are a few strategies I've seen (or used) to maximize the 300 characters:

  • Cut sentences/phrases out of the Description field to get it down to 300
  • Write a single sentence that is a lengthy version of the title
  • Apply SEO skills, and pack keywords

All these result in something that is pretty much meaningless to me. I've stopped reading the Abstract field.

I'm sure I'm an outlier on this, and you should definitely still fill this in for submissions to Cream City Code and other events. But your efforts are better spent on the Description than the 300-character Abstract.

Tip 3: Tell me why I should attend, and what I'll walk away with

Sometimes we get submissions where the Description field is about the same length as the 300-character Abstract field.

I almost always down-vote these submissions, for lack of information. The Description field is not character-limited. It ends up on the website, and in the printed program. This is what attendees read to decide where to go - give them a good idea of what they're going to learn about!

There are several components I love to see in a Description:

  • a common pain-point, or an explanation why the talk is important
  • a brief description of the main topic
  • a few things I'll take away from the talk

These components lead again to clarity: not only for me, but for the people looking for a session to attend.

The most important thing your Description does is get the right audience in the room. You don't want everyone to attend your talk, you want the people who will most benefit from it.

If you describe a problem, the solution, and some takeaways, you'll get the right attendees in your session. You'll also help the organizers feel confident about the lineup they're putting together.

It's also important to note that you can write a Description that far exceeds 300 characters, but still doesn't give me enough information. Don't add fluff to make your Description longer. Add words that are meaningful, and that add value.

Tip 4: A few small errors are fine...but not too many

In the second grade, I took second place in the Oconomowoc School District spelling bee. I lost on the word "embarrassed." The jokes wrote themselves: "It's okay, Steve! Don't be...(wait for it)...EMBARRASSED!!!" To this day, I am convinced I spelled it correctly, and the judges did not.

That is to say, I am an above average speller. I am also married to an English teacher - and I think there is a super-secret English teacher test for potential partners, to weed out the grammatically deficient. So I think I'm above average at grammar, too.

A couple small errors will get noticed by me, but I'll look past them. We all make mistakes - I once submitted a cover letter with the wrong company name! I'm willing to overlook a couple small issues.

But I won't overlook a submission with lots of spelling or grammar errors. It makes me think you haven't thought much beyond the abstract. If you don't care about the quality of your submission, I'm not sure you'll care about the quality of your talk. Most of all, I'm worried you might not do a great job of communicating to the audience.

Use tools to check your spelling and grammar. Use Hemingway or a similar tool to reduce the reading level of your submission. If you struggle with grammar and spelling, have someone review your submission.

Tip 5: Please don't make people feel bad

Sometimes things are worded in a way that I feel like I'm an idiot, or not smart enough to attend your session. If I'm a WordPress developer, the sentence "If you're still using WordPress, you're doing it wrong." makes me feel bad about myself. I'll admit that I'm pretty sensitive - but if your abstract makes me feel bad about myself, I'm not going to attend.

You probably intend to be funny. You and your officemates maybe say things like "you're doing it wrong" as a joke, and you laugh with each other. I get that. But I still don't like it.

Submissions with exclusive/gate-keeper language like this are a red flag to me. They worry me that someone will attend your session who doesn't get your jokes. That you won't have a good sense of your audience, and you'll push the jokes too far. And that we'll have to have a conversation that none of us are happy about.

Keep submitting your talk!

All of these recommendations are based on my preferences. Different conferences are organized by different people with different preferences. Even within Cream City Code, there are differences in the preferences of all 6 reviewers. (This is intentional, and a benefit. We want different preferences, to give the lineup a good balance.)

This is one of the main reasons conference talk submission seems like a dark art. What gets you into one conference won't get you into another. Different reviewers are looking for different things.

The large majority of submissions to conferences are well-written. Conferences just don't have room for them all. At Cream City Code, we start with our highest-rated sessions, then fit other highly-rated sessions around them to give broad topic coverage. There are a lot of really good submissions that we just can't pick, because we only have 30 slots!

If you submit to a conference and don't get in, there's a good chance you did nothing wrong. Please don't take it personally. Keep submitting!

It's all about finding a group of reviewers with which your talk resonates.