How To Talk Really, Really Good. Part 2

Writing a good talk proposal.



Introduction


Assuming you have read Coming up with a talk and now have a few potential talk ideas. What’s next?

In this post, we will explore what is involved in writing a talk proposal. As part of this, we’ll share some of the tips we’ve been given, from people much more experienced than us, while writing our previous proposals.

What do you mean by talk proposal?

A talk proposal is a short summary describing your talk. There are a few different words, phrases and acronyms which can refer to this tricky little devil, including:

  • CFP / Call For Papers / Call For Proposals
  • CFS / Call For Speakers
  • Abstract
  • Summary

What is the purpose of it?

There are a few uses to the talk proposal:

  • To sell your talk to whoever selects talks for the event you are applying to.
  • To ensure alignment between your topic area and the events “theme”.
  • To sell your talk to attendees.

In just a few words you need to describe what your talk is about and make it sound interesting so people want to hear it. That’s not an easy task.

At DDD East Midlands you will be selling your talk to the attendees. They get to vote on the talks they want to see before the day, with the most popular being selected. On the day itself, there are three streams of talks, so attendees will be picking between three talks at each time slot, which is where the strength of your proposal comes into play again. Your proposal will convince attendees that they want to see your talk over the competing talks in that time slot.


It’s as tricky as it sounds.


This is one of the things that can help you get selected to speak, but also gather the right audience to your talk.

I know, too many people coming to hear you speak does sound scary but from personal experience, it’s not as scary as talking to one solitary person in a room. That starts to feel really personal.


The First Thing To Do Is Research.


We are prepared to jump in, upskill and write this mind-blowing talk proposal! But first, there is something we should do.

You’ve already got your list of talk ideas, and you probably have a conference or two in mind to submit to. If there is a specific conference you are aiming for, it’s not a bad idea to do a bit of research on them.

Does your talk fit the conference’s themes and preferences?

Some conferences will be looking for talks with a certain bias. Maybe they prefer demo heavy talks. Maybe they specialise more towards diversity. If this is the case, you will want to frame your talk proposal in a way that is appealing to the body that picks the talks. You’ll want to emphasise why your talk is good for their conference.

Is there a pattern to the talk descriptions that get picked?

While you are doing this research, look at what talks have been picked previously. Is there a theme to the titles (i.e. click-baity vs. descriptive)? Maybe there is a theme to the talks picked, or maybe your talk is something they’ve never had the likes of before. Both are good to know.

This can lead to you having a few different versions of the same talk proposal, but that’s ok! We need to play strategically sometimes. As we said before, one purpose of writing a great talk proposal is to sell it to the selection committee, whatever form it might take.

DDD East Midlands is a general technology conference with no bias. All talks are chosen by our attendees using popularity vote. All they see is the talk title and description. As such, there’s no need to be concerned about any emphasis on any aspect of your talk for this particular conference.


What to consider when writing the talk proposal


For such a short block of text, there are a number of factors that you need to consider. Remember, we are trying to sell our talk, be descriptive of the context, show that our viewpoint is unique, interesting and maybe informative all in less than 250 words! This is not an easy thing to pull off.

Don’t worry though. We are here to walk you through some of the points you need to keep in mind so you are ready to wield your awesome talk in a way that will knock socks off.

Be Clear

State your purpose.

It needs to be clear what your talk is about.

  • What kind of talk is it? It could be solving a problem or could be a cautionary tale.
  • What is included in the talk? What will you cover?
  • Who would benefit from attending and what will the gain from coming?

Bullet point the answers to these questions so you are clear about it before writing your talk proposal.

Grammar and spelling.

If you can’t tell already; this is something I struggle with myself. Grammar and spelling are important in making your proposal look well-thought-out and professional. Here’s how I get by:

  • Asking someone to proofread what you’ve written
  • Using plug-ins such as Grammarly
  • Carefully reading aloud to someone what you have written. It doesn’t need to be a person. My stuffed toy Charmander has been a very good listener when I’ve been checking the flow of proposals and talks.

Be Plain

It is really important people understand what you are talking about.

Write in “Plain English”

English is a wonderfully complex language. There are rationalisations & colloquialisms. If that’s not enough, we make our own internal language and grammar in the groups we interact with.

This resource is an incredibly useful guide to what it means to write in “Plain English”, making your talk proposal more accessible.

Avoid situational language

Every place has its own internal language. This can even be at a departmental level in a business. We have words we use to describe things that only make sense to those working in that environment and context.

You can get away with buzzwords like “microservice” or “blockchain” because let’s face it, they work as a selling point. Even then, if someone who is not in your field of expertise doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, you are cutting out a lot of potential audiences that would benefit from your talk.

If you need to use acronyms — explain them.

Avoid using acronyms. If you can’t avoid them, put the explicit rendition of them straight after their first use. For example:

Trying to convince your team that TDD is valuable, is a challenge. Many complain that the velocity of output is affected by this practice when a team is unaccustomed to working in this style.

becomes

Trying to convince your team that TDD (Test Driven Development) is valuable, is a challenge. One concern is that is can slow down a team, affecting how much work they complete when they are learning this new way of working.

There are many acronyms used in our industry, and annoyingly, a lot of them are used interchangeably.

By writing in this way, more people will understand what you want to talk about and can determine if the content is relevant to them.

Why will people care?

As stated before, talk proposals are selling pitches. One way to help people decide whether they want to see your talk is to tell them why they should care.

Does it help with a personal, technical or business issue? Does it have an advantage over a standard alternative? How will it change others lives or perspectives?

How will your audience find the talk useful?

Somewhere at the beginning of your proposal, state your purpose.

  • A common problem your talk solves.
  • Is it an entertaining talk that is a break from all the mind-melting in-depth talks.
  • Are you inspiring people to change their situation, view on life or work?
  • Maybe it’s a warning, what fallacies to avoid that you once fell into.

Tell your readers in a sentence or two what the value of your talk is.

What will the takeaways be? Can the information be applied?

Is this talk some cool general knowledge, opinion piece or a history lesson? Maybe it’s a panel discussion on a topic, a demo of a cool but quirky project you completed?

On the flip-side, you might be giving a tutorial or guide on how to achieve something? Talking about a pattern and the advantages or disadvantages to it. Maybe you are giving people advice they can take away and apply to help them with their career progression or self-confidence.


When we tell our audience what they can take away from our talk, it’s good to know ourselves what kind of takeaway they should have.


Who is it useful to?

Not all talks are going to be useful to everyone. Some are, but that is rare.

Think about your audience.

  • Is it a high-level talk?
  • Is it suited more to a certain speciality or level (i.e. development vs management)?
  • Is it suitable for beginners or more for advanced users with some experience in the area?

Make it clear to those people you have information to share, and to those who may not get as much out of your talk that it might not be great for them.

How is it different?

Sadly, applications are always a little competitive. You need to determine what makes your particular take on a topic shine.

In all industries, there tends to be trends and buzzwords. Talk applications tend to follow these themes. Determine before you start writing what makes your take on a topic different from someone else’s.

It might be your talk is based on personal experience or that you are framing a problem in a certain way. You may not even come up with something you think is particularly different and that’s ok. All talks are different because everyone’s perspectives and experiences are different.


If you can think of something, that will help your talk on enter buzzword here stand out against the 15 other submissions on the same topic.


Maybe use a hook.

One way you can do this is with a hook. A hook is something that makes a talk stand out a bit more. A statement that grabs the attention of the audience.

Here are some ways in which you can introduce a hook to your talk:

  • “How I Solved This Problem A Lot Of Us Face” or “How To Make This Thing Useful”. Definitely a theme I’ve used a lot in my talks this last year.
  • “Here’s How I Solved A Unique And Interesting Problem”. Personally, I find those kinds of talks interesting and surprisingly valuable.
  • “X For Dummies”, “New Features In Y Explained” or “How I Finally Understood Z”. As stated in the previous blog, things are only easy or simple once you’ve learnt them. There are loads of us looking for help and shortcuts for those things you know, but we haven’t learnt yet.
  • Using something quirky or familiar. My very first set of talks used a particular episode of Rick and Morty as a reference for all my examples. It helped me explain what I wanted to, with an example all attending could understand. Further, it prevented me from slipping into using assumed knowledge about an experience I had had. It worked very well for me. I’ve also seen a couple of talks based around Jurassic Park. Fun, informative, familiar.

One thing I would advise when using a hook — be true to who you are and how you want to present.


I’m a little quirky (my friends use the word “charming” but I know that’s a nice way of saying a tad weird). I roll with that. I have a very casual presenting style, I write the way I talk and think, and that suits me.

Other people are more “professional” with their style. That’s awesome too! That is who they are and how they are comfortable sharing information.

Personality isn’t a bad thing to have or show. Present, write, go through life in a way that is comfortable for you — just so long as you aren’t being hurtful or offensive to anyone else.

That brings me onto the next point neatly.

Extra: Remember the Code of Conduct

I’m sure you are all marvellous, wonderful people and I am being over-cautious with this section, but I’ve seen this go wrong and it is still worth stating. STICK TO THE CODE OF CONDUCT.

This includes your talk titles and descriptions. Two wise men called Bill and Ted once said: “Be Excellent To Each Other And Rock On”. These are words everyone should live by.

  • Do not use sexual or aggressive language
  • Do not use discriminatory language. ← This is a point people trip up on. This is not just referring to personal characteristics, life choices etc. DO NOT use negative language towards a type of coding language, company you’ve worked for or otherwise.
  • Avoid graphic imagery.

Read the code of conduct for the event you are applying to. Make sure you adhere to it.

For inclusivity’s sake as well, if you have flashing imagery, loud noises or anything that may be detrimental to attendees with specific needs, try to let the organiser know in advance so they can add warnings if needed.


The Structure


Back onto a more positive track.

We have our notes on what we need to include and exclude.

We have a list of weapons at our disposal.

Time to determine how we are going to wield these epic talk ideas to make all the conferences and meetups want to host them and all the attendees want to come and listen.

Below is an example of the general structure I use for my talk proposals.

Hook and what problem are you solving

Our tech community is full of bright and interesting people each with their unique experiences and points of view. Each and every person has something they can share that some of us would benefit from. You are one of these people. But how do you conquer that first step to submit a talk, and what’s in it for you?

Briefly, what does the talk include?

Let us be your guides through the challenging lands of talk submissions. From picking a topic to structuring the talk summary that will inspire and blow minds and submitting it. Finally, we’ll talk through why you should even think about speaking — it’s a scary thing to do, is it worth it?

Who is it useful for (if applicable) and last hook.

By the end of this talk, you’ll not only be ready to inspire with your words but feel fully prepared to take on the world.

This is one example of a structure. There are many more online. Some people prefer to be briefer, I wouldn’t recommend being too verbose. The above is the style that was recommended to me when I first started, and it’s the one I’ve stuck to.

See the bottom of this blog for links to other advise, or use your Googling skills. Let us know if you find some great advice; we are always learning too.

I’ve only been speaking for less than 18 months and by no means am I an expert. The next point of this blog post is the most important one and it is how I’ve come to learn all these fun facts.


Getting feedback


If you can, don’t just get feedback from your peers or loved ones, but from those who have done this for a while, or have been involved in the conference process.

  • You may see offers of feedback or mentorship on Twitter (that’s how I approached Todd Gardner for feedback — who then constructively tore my abstract to pieces and gave me a lot of the advice in this blog).
  • You could discuss the interest in speaking with someone at a conference.
  • HelpMeAbstract is also a great resource for finding speakers with experience who are happy to help you with your plight.
  • If you are brave enough, put yourself out there and ask who might be interested in looking over your abstract’s or talking through your ideas. Social media can be a wonderful thing to the cheeky sometimes.


Submit “All The Things!”


This next piece is a gamble. Much like having to score a high dice roll in D&D or having a big kickback to using a certain attack — this approach can fall well or put you in deep water very quickly.

If you have 3 abstracts, submit them all to several conferences. The one(s) that get selected, are the ones you can put the effort in to write the talk for.

Advantages

  • You can find out which of your ideas are appealing to the conferences you want to talk at without too much effort.
  • You may only have to write one full talk rather many (if only one gets selected). -Increased chance of getting selected! You are playing the numbers with a variety of talks.

Disadvantages

  • You will have to face a lot of rejection and that is NEVER easy.
  • You might get more than you bargained for. I’ve known people that have done this, got all their talks selected and had to perform three different talks in one month.


Prepare for not being selected


You will face not being selected. This is never an easy thing to deal with.

It may be from meetups, conferences, or just someone who didn’t like the content of your talk.

I won’t write about the different ways to cope with rejection here; that is a blog post all of its own. What I will say is when you decide to try to talk, facing rejection is nearly an inevitability. Please don’t let it discourage you.

It is never personal. Sometimes it’s just because there is a lot of fantastic content to choose from. Sometimes there are more reasons than that, that are specific to circumstance. That is why it is good to ask for feedback, to find out what they were looking for, if it matched what you were expecting and if there is anything you can improve on.

As for individual critique, not everyone will be happy with your content and that is fine. You can’t please everyone in life or in literature. Again, it’s not personal, try not to take it too badly and remember: the talks that I haven’t personally enjoyed or benefited from are the ones I can’t remember. I imagine this is the same for others. If the worst case is that you are forgettable to one individual but your content helps and informs one or more person — well, that’s not a bad job really is it?


Good Luck

Now, go wield that sword, or ink that pen. You are armed and ready to submit. How do you submit and what links are useful? Well, read the next blog in this series to find out.


Series

How To Talk Really, Really Good


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