How (Not) to Respond to a CFPPosted by Dylan Beattie on 23 July 2021 • permalink
As the world tentatively relaxes COVID restrictions and we contemplate the prospect of actual in-person conferences again before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to revisit one of the perennial questions that people ask about speaking at conferences and technology events: how do I write a good CFP submission?
Many big technology conferences hold an open CFP1, and competition for speaking spots can be fierce; events I’ve worked with typically accept less than 10% of the talks that are submitted. Your submission will be reviewed by the programme committee, who decide which talks to accept, but it may also end up in the conference programme, often in the exact form you submitted it, where the conference attendees will use it to decide which talks to attend. The talks that get accepted normally represent a diverse range of speakers, technologies, presentation styles and audience levels, and consequently they’re all different – there is no secret formula for writing a good proposal.
That said, there are some very common factors among the talks that don’t get accepted, so rather than telling you how to write a proposal, I’m going to share some tips about what not to do.
1. Too short
There’s a particular kind of Hollywood action movie that can be perfectly described in fewer than ten words. “Die Hard on a bus”, “The Matrix, but with vampires”, “Gangsters killed his dog… now he wants revenge.”
Well, dear readers, this isn’t Hollywood, and if you want to get your talks accepted, you’ll need to work a little harder than that. I have reviewed submissions before where the entire talk description was “this is a talk about blockchain”. Literally six words. No event is going to offer you a speaking spot – let alone cover hotel and airfare – based on a six word pitch. (Especially if the only one of those words that’s remotely related to technology is “blockchain”)
A good proposal should probably be around 200-400 words; long enough that you can establish some context, tell us a bit about who you are and what you’re talking about, and give the audience some idea what they can expect to see if they come to your talk.
2. Too long
At the other extreme are the essay submissions. You don’t see too many of these in the wild, because most events use platforms like Sessionize that can impose a character limit on the talk description, but I’ve seen proposals that looked like somebody had pasted an entire blog post into the submission form. Save the detail for the talk itself (or, y’know, publish a blog post?) – because when it comes to responding to the CFP, it is all about striking a balance between brevity and detail.
3. Nothing special
“In this talk I will show you how to get started with machine learning in Python”.
OK, great subject, interesting topic, and very relevant to a lot of folks working in tech.
Ask yourself: what would somebody get from attending this talk that they can’t find on the web, or by watching YouTube videos? Are you a key contributor to an open-source project in that area? Have you or your team used that technology to do something particularly unusual or innovative? Is there something interesting about how you personally got involved with machine learning in Python? If the answer to all these questions is “no”, your submission will probably be rejected in favour of something that offers more in the way of perspective and personality.
There’s another saying in Hollywood that a successful director’s first movie is always a movie that nobody else could have made. Think about your talks the same way; try to pitch something that nobody else could do.
4. Sales pitch
Also known as the “single vendor solution talk”, programme committees can smell these a mile away:
“GDPR is hard! In this talk, Bob will explain how OmniCorp DataMulch 3.0 will solve all your organisation’s data management headaches”
That’s not to say you can’t talk about your own company’s products or platforms, but the rule of thumb here should be that the audience should go away having learned something that’s useful even if they never buy your product. Explain the problem, explain the principles and ideas that are relevant – and by all means throw in a demo that shows how your product applies those principles and ideas.
But if your primary motivation for going to a conference is to sell licences, get a booth on the expo floor like everybody else.
5. Wrong audience
6. Poor writing
As a native English speaker, I’m acutely aware that many of the brightest people in technology speak English as a second, third, or even fourth language, and so critiquing submissions on the quality of the written English can provoke a certain amount of controversy. Most programme committees I’ve served on have been relatively forgiving of grammar and colloquialisms; English is a horrifically complicated language and the odd grammatical oversight is usually no barrier to comprehension. The red flags here are things like mis-spelling technical terms, or confusing the names of specific technologies. I’ve seen proposals talk about the Kestral [sic] web server that ships with ASP.NET, about Microsoft Sequel Server (yes, that’s how we say it out loud, but nobody ever writes it that way), and one memorable submission about Angular, the popular Java framework.
Finally, read through your submission and check it makes sense. I’ve seen proposals where I’m guessing somebody edited something for length, and removed a key sentence or phrase, leaving an abstract that really didn’t make a huge amount of sense. Careless editing can leave you with a proposal like: “machine learning is revolutionising the world of financial analysis. In this talk, we’ll look at how you can use FoobarJS to streamline your deployments.” OK, fine – but what does FoobarJS and deployments have to do with machine learning or financial analysis?
7. Lazy copy/pasting
Good talks have a shelf life; it’s normal to see the same material being presented at a dozen different events before the speaker finally retires it, and that’s OK. Preparing a talk is a huge investment in terms of time and effort, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t seek to maximise your return on that investment by presenting it to as many different audiences as they can.
When you’re submitting an existing talk to a new event, though, make sure you check the detail carefully. The most glaring error is a submission that still includes the name of another event: “Join Dylan Beattie at DDD East Midlands” doesn’t really work if it’s a submission to NDC Porto. Check dates, check product versions and codenames, check whether anything in the submission needs to be updated – whether it’s just a cosmetic detail, or it’s a whole chunk of your talk you’ll need to go away and revise.
Incidentally, it’s well known and generally accepted that certain parts of our industry move significantly faster than some conference selection processes… if you’ve submitted a talk about WombleJS version 2, and by the time the event actually takes place six months later WombleJS 2 is ancient history and everybody’s on WombleJS version 5, then (a) be prepared to update your talk, references and demos, and (b) let the conference organisers know, ideally with an updated abstract, a few weeks ahead of time so they can make sure it’s reflected in the schedule.
8. Too generic
You want to present “Introduction to Python” in half-an-hour? Good luck. That’s just about long enough to explain that Python exists, it’s a programming language, it comes in version 2 and version 3, and they’re different because… oh my goodness look at that, we’re just about out of time.
That’s not to say you can’t present broad intro-level talks – but your CFP submission needs to make it very clear what your angle is. Show the committee you’ve thought about who’s likely to be in the audience, what level of knowledge and experience you’re expecting them to have prior to your session, and exactly what it is that they can expect to learn by the end of your presentation.
9. Too specific
At the other extreme from the “introduction to Python” are the talks that aren’t likely to attract any audience because they’re only relevant to a handful of developers working in a very specialist area. You may be the world’s foremost expert on aspect-oriented programming in Object COBOL, but face it, if you drew a Venn diagram of people who are interested in AOP and people who are interested in Object COBOL, you’d probably end up with two very small circles, and the only person on the overlap is you.
If you’re submitting to an AOP conference, or an event that has an Object COBOL track, then hey, you might be in with a shot. But for events that target a broader audience, this kind of extremely specialist topic is likely to be rejected in favour of something that’s relevant to more of the audience.
10. No further resources
If your submission ends up shortlisted and the committee is trying to work out which talks to pick, they’ll often look online for anything else which supports your inclusion on the programme. If you’ve spoken at events before, include links to these – especially if it went OK and there’s video of it happening. If you’ve published books, training courses or open source projects related to your submission, say so, and include links where you can.
And if you haven’t, get started! Write some blog posts. Record a couple of short videos of you talking about something you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, stick them up on YouTube, start getting your name and your personal brand out there where people can see it.
The key thing is – whatever you’ve got, make it easy for the programme committee to find it. They’re unlikely to go googling your name when it’s 9pm, there are 143 more talks to review and the only snacks left in the committee room are Norwegian salted liqorice.
So what SHOULD I do?
Come up with an idea. Something nobody else can talk about; you’re unlikely to know more about F# than Don Syme, or more about Entity Framework than Julie Lerman, but I guarantee there will be something in your own experience, a chapter of your own story on which you are the undisputed expert.
Figure out what you want to talk about. Maybe you’re already written the talk; run through it, pick out the high points. Maybe it’s something new, in which case sketch out your narrative arc: where do you start, where do you end, what do you talk about along the way? Condense that down to 500 words. Go for a walk. Come back to it, take out another 100 words. Spell check it. Double-check the product names, acronyms, and technical terms. Ask somebody else to take a look. Read it out loud, check it all makes sense, then hit “submit” and cross your fingers.
Above all, don’t get discouraged. The acceptance rate for most public CFPs is somewhere below 10% – so if you’re getting 1 acceptance for every 10 submissions, you’re beating the odds.
There are literally hundreds of events going on all over the world, all the time. Two that you really don’t want to miss are NDC Oslo (closes Aug 1st) and NDC London (closes September 26), but there are hundreds of events going on all over the world, all the time; online, in-person, covering just about any technology you can think of. Check out sites like papercall.io and the Discover Events feature on Sessionize to see what’s open.
Get out there, good luck with it, and see you on a conference stage somewhere soon!
I run live, interactive workshops for technology professionals who want to get started with public speaking, or to improve their presentation skills. The next one is on 1 & 2 of September 2021; 2pm-6pm BST, online. using Zoom and Slack. Tickets are strictly limited and on sale now from just £165; check out https://ursatile.com/workshops/from-keyboard-to-keynote for more details and booking:
CFP stands for “call for papers”, a term we’ve adopted from academic conferences where presentations are usually based on scientific papers published in academic journals. I’ve also seen it retconned as “call for proposals” or “call for presentations”, but really everybody just calls them CFPs without worrying too much about what it stands for. ↩