Make it easy to accept your talk!

Curating an agenda for a conference is a hard thing to do.  I highly doubt that you thought otherwise, but I also doubt you understand exactly HOW hard it is (I certainly didn’t).

For the last 2 years, I’ve been involved in curating the agenda for the best developer conference in the UK (and probably the world, although I’m a little biased) NDC London.  I’ve gained a lot of insight into everything from what makes a good abstract, to what makes a good talk.  I’d like to share a few things I’ve learnt along the way.

The topics I’m going to cover are what I’ve learnt from working with some awesome people on the agendas, and from reviewing over 2000 submissions over the last 2 years.  I believe this qualifies me to give you my opinions on what to do to make your talk appealing.  I’ll try to give you actionable insights, not just what I’ve seen.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take away the fact that the organisers really want to accept your talk, so help us.  This is a points game, where the rules change, the weighting changes, and there are opinions are aplenty.  Hit all the points, and the organisers will love you as they will be able to choose you above everyone else, and it’s easy.

Sidenote, Special thanks for Chris O’Dell and Liam Westley who helped me understand what it takes to do all this.

The Basics

There are couple of key elements to whether a talk will get accepted:

Will people choose that talk?

It may be the best talk in the world, by the best speaker in the world, but if attendees won’t choose this talk over others, then there is no point in us bringing you in.

Will it help boost conference attendance?

There are a few types of talks, those that bring people to the conferences (headliners, new hot topics, etc.) and those that are great inspirational, tangential talks.  If you can hit both then great, but otherwise the former has more chance.

Does it fit with the topics of the conference?

Don’t try to submit talks on on-premise servers to a cloud conference.  Know the audience that the organisers are trying to attract, make it easy for them to choose you.

Those are the key things that you need to keep in mind, but beyond that, there are unwritten things that influence each of those.

The non-tangibles

Beyond the basics, there are a few other things that factor in.  Largely this is after the first pass of the abstracts where we’ve worked out:

  1. The topic fits the conference theme, etc.
  2. The talk could have the right draw on attendees (speaker, and/or talk in this part)
  3. The abstract has a…”je ne sais quoi”.

This is where the fun starts.  We’ve gone from 1000 submissions to probably 400 ish.  It’s starting to get hard at this stage.

Witty titles only get you so far.

There are only so many “{subject} is dead, long live {subject}” talks that you can look at before you get jaded and find it loses it’s impact.  Attendees are wise to it, and likely will avoid them.

Don’t misunderstand this.  Having the right title for your talk is vitally important, it’s what draws the audience in.  However, that on it’s own isn’t enough, and if it’s a predictable title, it won’t do you any favours.

If you’re a new speaker, try to stay away from these sorts of titles.  Keep it clear on what you’re trying to do. Many people look at the Title, Speaker, then abstract in that order.  If they don’t know you, they may not even make it to the abstract.

Who are you? and why should YOU talk about this.

There are so many talks that are submitted with interesting topics, even good abstracts, but they are a topic that can be covered by someone more qualified.

A great example of this is Mental Health related talks.

This is a hot topic, and one that everyone should be tuned into.  That said, if you’re going to talk about this to over 100 people in a major conference, we need to know why YOU are the right person to talk about it.

Whatever your reason for talking about it, don’t be shy about that in both your abstract, and your notes to the organisers.

This alone can score you an invite.  If you have a unique perspective that’s relevant, then how can someone else be better placed to talk about it?

Your Bio is part of your abstract too.

When we’re looking at the abstract, what you’re telling us AND attendees about is both your abstract (the talk) and the speaker (you).

If you’re a Rockstar developer (i.e. someone who works on Grand Theft Auto, or just someone who can program in Rockstar) or someone who’s a known quantity to the community, maybe you don’t need to give us a reason.  However, if people won’t know you, it’s another reason for us to bring you in.

Things to include are (if they’re relevant to your talks):

  • Education: Are you an academic, or just educated in the school of hard knocks?
  • Employment: Is your company known to have experience in the problem space?
  • Projects: What have you done that’s relevant (Although this is more likely going to be relevant to your abstract).

Keep it short, to the point, and relevant (unlike this blog post, I get the irony).

Knowing someone with a reputation helps, but not as much as you think.

It’s a common thought that the speaker circuit is very insular.  There are people who talk at lots of conferences, and there is rarely more than 1 or 2 degrees of separation in the community.  However, that doesn’t help as much as you think it does.

Having someone vouch for you, that will put their reputation up with yours will likely only mean that the committee will take another pass at your talk to make sure they’ve not missed something.  There is no automatic selection of peoples friends, co-workers, drinking buddies.

If you do know someone, get them to give the committee a nudge.  It may help you get past the first pass, but not much more.

Your online presence is your friend

WE WILL GOOGLE YOU! (if we don’t know who you are).  If we can’t identify you from there, then we won’t be able to use that to increase your chances of being selected.

We need to know why we should bring you.  That can’t all be done from your abstract and Bio, we need the whole picture.  We’ll skip through your recorded talks to check your speaking ability, listen to podcasts, we’ll have a look at blog posts, we’ll even look at your social media if we can.

Making this easy by providing direct links helps.  This is especially important for new speakers, who have no conference speaking presence we can draw on.

Try to make sure you have a blog, or page when can find.  If not, include relevant links in the notes.

Don’t submit your entire portfolio

There is nothing worse than a single speaker dumping every single talk they’ve got into the process.  It’s a scatter gun approach and does not make the committee want to select you.

Essentially, you’re putting the work on the committee to see which ones are worth bringing in.

You may know about 10 relevant subjects, but choose 3 talks MAXIMUM and submit those.

The Final Cut

So now we’re down to around 100 or so submissions (the top 10%).  These are the awesome talks that all the committee wants to see.  There are no marginal, “just ok” talks now, you’ve advocated for every one of these.

This the battleground, the cage match where people need to fight for the talks that they want the most.  As a general rule, you get 1 or 2 golden tickets that allow you to put a talk in without anyone shouting you down (without good reason).  After that, they’re all in the pool and we have to agree together.

The biggest deciding factor at this stage is “Narrative”, and scheduling.  We’re trying to create an agenda that allows people to build their own conference, and agenda, to sell to their money people

At this stage, there is nothing that will help you other than having the best talk, that maps to the themes, and narrative that we’re looking for.  We could have 4 Blazor talks at this stage, but only 3 people.  This is the stage we look at whether it’s worth putting those talks across multiple days, is there a “right place” for additional talks, etc. or they get culled.

Special note on Diversity

You’ll probably notice that I’ve not mentioned any consideration for diversity here, and may be thinking that this is bad.  However, it’s not tackled at the agenda stage, it’s a pipeline issue, and we tackle that there.

Tackling diversity when it comes to the final stage of selection involves selecting people who are not necessarily the best at what they do, just in the name of diversity, and that’s something I’m against, and the committee I’ve been on is against too.

The way this is tackled is through outreach by the committee and our network.  Talking to the diverse speakers and encouraging them to submit.  This also involves helping people complete abstracts, curate talks, and working on their online presence.  Some of the team even do speaker workshops for new speakers.

The only other time this comes into play is when arranging the schedule, where we look at making sure that new speakers are setup for success by ensuring they can get the audience and environment to make their experience as awesome as it can be.

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