How to Write a Conference Talk Proposal

At the end of May, I’ll head down to Austin to attend Texas Linux Fest 2013. This year will be my first time attending the event and it’s also my first time on their speaker committee. Recently the CFP closed and I looked through talk proposals submitted to Texas Linux Fest. I noticed that I frequently got excited about an interesting talk title, only to be let down by the content of the proposal — or more precisely, the lack of content in the proposal. And I worry that we’ll have a small percentage of women speaking, despite our outreach efforts. (Image credit: http://paulmjohnstone.files.wordpress.com)
I interviewed a few FOSS (free and open source software) conference organizers to round up a handy list of suggestions to help you write a better conference talk proposal. But first, here’s my pep talk to women who have never submitted a conference talk proposal before:
Ladies, conference organizers cannot force you to submit talk proposals, but by golly I wish we could.

Why should you talk at an event?

  1. If you care about the low numbers of women represented in STEM careers, speaking at events is one way to raise visibility for women who are already here. How will anyone know about the cool stuff you are doing if you don’t tell us about it?
  2. Speaking at events can be good for your career. Being a conference speaker looks great on a resume, can make your manager and team happy because you are publicizing your work, and makes you visible to potential future employers.
  3. Speaking at events can be great for your social life. As an event speaker, you get to rub elbows with other cool speakers, including some big names in tech. You also get to know the event organizers and network with attendees who share common interests with you.
  4. You can get cool stuff. Maybe you get a speaker gift, or invited to a speaker dinner, or access to the speaker’s lounge with the good donuts. Or you could get an all-access pass to a pricey conference. And you get bragging rights, of course.
  5. You can get over your fear of public speaking. When I started speaking at events, I hated it. Dreaded it. Regretted signing up to do it. But I knew that I wanted numbers 1-4 on this list, so I bucked up and gave my first talk at a community conference. Then I gave another and another. I wasn’t a natural, I looked nervous, and I felt like puking, but I did it. And every time I spoke at an event, it got a little easier and my talks got a little better. (Believe me, I’m still not the speaker I want to be, but I’m not giving up.)
  6. People want to hear you. If your talk got selected, there are people who want to hear what you have to say. Your talk attendees are interested in your message, even if your hands are shaking and you feel queasy. And they want you to succeed. Anyone who has ever given a talk already went through the crazy thoughts rushing through your head and the churning going on in your gut. (Check out this great book for speaking tips and advice: Confessions of a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun.)

So why aren’t you submitting talk proposals already?

And now for talk proposal best practices. I compiled these tips from suggestions I received from fellow TLF 2013speaker committee members Cody Lee and Nathan Willis, Selena Deckelmann (frequent conference speakerand event organizer), and Chris St. Pierre (2013 USENIX Configuration Management Summit program chair).

8 Tips for Writing a Talk Proposal:

  1. List key points you plan to cover in your talk. The points should be somewhat specific, but broad enough for the selection committee to understand or at least do a quick search for the topic if they are not familiar with the subject.
  2. What’s the one thing you want your audience to walk away from your talk with? State that sentence in your talk proposal.
  3. One way to start proposals is with questions you think the audience might ask before they see your talk.
  4. Specify whether you will include a demo in your talk, what it will be, and anything you might need the event organizers to provide for it.
  5. How long will your talk be? If you have a 45 minute time slot, but you only expect your talk to take 30, how will you fill the other 15 minutes?
  6. Who is your intended audience? For example, novice programmers, expert software developers, recruiters, community managers?
  7. If you want to speak at an event but can’t afford to cover travel and/or lodging, specify that in the proposal. If your proposal is compelling enough, event organizers might have a travel budget or other resources to help you attend the event.
  8. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate. You need to convince the speaker committee that your talk will help make their event interesting.
Still stumped? Chris advises, “I always try to make my proposal ready for immediate publication. That is, I look up last year’s program for the conference that I’m proposing to, and I make my proposal match their format exactly — sections, approximate length, etc. Ideally, once they accept my talk they should just be able to copy and paste into their proceedings.”
And Selena recommends a couple of other handy resources to help you polish your proposal:

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