Getting your conference abstract/proposal accepted

Jacinta Richardson, Perl Training Australia

So you've got a great idea in your head, and you've decided that you'd like to speak about it at a conference. Perhaps someone has asked you nicely to submit a proposal because they're impressed with what you've been doing, or perhaps you've given talks at other conferences or events and you'd like to give one here. Perhaps you're a repeat speaker, or at least a repeat proposal-submitter and you want some hints on how to make it much more likely your talk will be accepted. Well, you've come to the right document!

Find the Call for Papers/Proposals/Presentations (CFP)

Some conferences are invite-only, and never send out a CFP. The easiest way to get a chance to speak at these conferences is to ingratiate yourself with their conference selection committee (which is often just one or two people). You're more likely to be noticed and remembered. This applies to getting keynote talk slots at most conferences, too.

Most conferences send out a CFP, but may send it to a very limited audience. Don't be put off by this, many conference organisers would be delighted for outside talent to propose a talk at their conference, but just haven't considered how to spread the word further. If you want to speak at such a conference, ask the conference committee whether there's a mailing list you can be on to hear about the CFP, or whether you could be notified. Make friends with the conference committee, previous speakers and anyone else you can think of who can help you get a copy of the CFP.

Once you have the CFP, read it very carefully. Make a note of when submissions are due, what you have to do for the submission and any other requirements. If you're dealing with a volunteer-run conference then there is a good chance that some of the information will be out of date. Don't assume everything is right, and instead ask questions if something doesn't make sense.

Pitching your talk

If you've been to your conference of choice a few times, then hopefully you've gained a feel for the type of attendees and the depth of knowledge the talks assume. In this case you're set.

If you've never been to the conference, but it's run for a few years, look at the programmes from previous years. You want to determine what depth of knowledge the talks assume, what kinds of topics are popular, and get a feel for who the typical attendee might be.

If this is the first year the conference is running, then it's a lot harder.

If you are at all uncertain about the conference's audience, ask the conference committee. Also ask around the people you know, and any groups you and they are associated with to see who is considering attending. Ask the potential conference attendees why they're going, what kinds of talks they're hoping to see, whether they go to really in-depth talks or not.

Don't be deterred if you really want to trail-blaze, but do understand it may reduce your opportunity for successful acceptance.

Know your audience

Your conference proposal has two audiences: the selection committee and the conference attendee. You need to write your proposal such that the selection committee accepts your talk and the conference attendee wants to attend your talk.

The selection committee

Your proposal needs to be convince the selection committee that your talk will be interesting and appropriate for the conference attendees. Furthermore, they need to feel that your talk will be a positive addition to the conference programme. This is not as hard as it might sound.

Unless your previous behaviour has biased them against you, the selection committee will want to like your proposal. Selection committees are full of optimists. Even when they have to reject 80% of the proposal because they get too many for the conference slots available, they tend to approach each new proposal with the expectation that it is perfectly matched for the conference audience and that you're an awesome speaker.

You can encourage this belief by writing well. Most of the time, even if you link to a video of you giving a presentation, the selection committee will judge your talk on how well your proposal is written. Help yourself out by following one really simple rule: Write well.

Make sure that each of the following is perfect, or nearly perfect. Get someone else to check each of them for you:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Capitalization
  • Grammar

If you get all of these right, and your proposal is interesting, you have a high chance of having your talk accepted.

The conference attendee

I lied a little - the conference attendee doesn't actually want to read your proposal at all. The conference attendee usually wants to pick talks he or she is going to attend based purely on their cool sounding titles.

Most conferences run multiple, concurrent streams. This means that conferences attendees usually have to decide whether to go to your talk, or one of the other 2-10 other talks running at the same time as yours. (You'll probably wish you could go to a few of the talks scheduled against your slot as well.) How do you get the conference attendee to pick your talk?

Have a great title. Preferably 4-8 words. As punchy as possible. Avoid titles which include "for fun and profit", "what I did on my holidays" and words such as "sexy". Pick titles more like "Get less spam" and "Recover your sleep-in".

Diligent attendees will read your proposal if they like the title, so you do need to consider them a little. However, if you've convinced the programme committee, you're most of the way there!

Writing a convincing proposal

If there could only be two rules, they would be write well, and use paragraphs. Don't submit your proposal as a wall of text. Paragraphs should be as long as they need to be, but hopefully they don't need to be more than 6 sentences long. Sentences should be as long as they need to, as well, but hopefully that's not more than two lines. Ideally paragraphs are no longer than 8 lines long.

This is not academia (unless it is). Your proposal may be informal, irreverent, but most importantly make it easy to read.

Consider this example submitted to a systems administration conference in about 2009 (but do not feel obliged to read it):

According to different surveys 80-97% of all emails worldwide are spam. As a consequence, mail servers may collapse, mailboxes overflow, thereby blocking important mails by an over-quote-condition and users simply don't notice an important email among thousands of spam messages. These spams come from email harvesters, searching the web for addresses just like a search engine spider indexes sites for content. Publishing email addresses is a requirement of visibility and commercial work to be contacted by non-spammers. Foiling the email harvesters adds additional cognitive burdens to those we want to be able to contact us. With an Apache web server output filter we can obfuscate mail addresses also for dynamically generated web pages without further modifications. We can add additional optimizations to avoid performance hits. ... [truncated]

This is a wall of text and your conference selection committee's eyes are going to glaze over before they've finished the third line. If it's accepted, attendees will see the wall of text and the dense writing and pick another talk. Even so, maybe there was something in this talk that was ground-breaking and would have been of great interest to our attendees.

Let's rewrite the above example:

You probably get too much spam. No matter how viciously you filter it, some still gets through. This is because filtering only helps to treat the symptom, not the cause. Worse, the more stringent your filters, the more likely you'll lose legitimate mail due to false positives.

How can you get less spam? First you need to think about how the spammer got your email address in the first place. The most common method is to use email address harvesters. These search the web for email addresses just like a search engine's spider indexes site content. If you could avoid publishing your email address, you'd get less spam.

We need to publish our email addresses so that we can be contacted by non-spammers. Fortunately, human visitors are more intelligent than the harvesters and usually can deal with obfuscated addresses. Studies have shown that some obfuscation methods are just as efficient as not publishing the email address at all.

This talk discusses several methods to obfuscate email addresses. It further suggests an output filter which can be used with the Apache web server to obfuscate mail addresses even on dynamically generated web pages without the need for any manual modification.

This new version contains only a little less information that the original dense version. On the other hand, it does make the issue personal, gets to the point, and is easy to read.

The essay rule

Back in high school, you may have been given the following rules for writing essays (this formulation with thanks to Swarthmore College):
  1. Topic sentences should appear at the beginning of each body paragraph in your paper. You can think of each one as a mini-thesis dictating your agenda for that particular paragraph.
  2. Keep in mind that each body paragraph should only deal with one idea or aspect of your argument. If you're having difficulty introducing a paragraph with a topic sentence, it's likely that you're trying to fit too much into it. Try splitting the material you want to address into logical smaller parts that are more easily summarized in one sentence.
  3. When you finish writing, print out a hard copy of your paper and read it over, summarizing each paragraph in a few words. Your topic statements should closely match what you write down as the central theme of each paragraph.

Another way of considering this is that it should be possible to read just the first sentence of each paragraph to understand the gist of your essay. You should apply this rule to your proposals as well. Let's see what happens when we take the first sentence of each of the paragraphs in the previous proposal example:

You probably get too much spam.

How can you get less spam?

We need to publish our email addresses so that we can be contacted by non-spammers.

This talk discusses several methods to obfuscate email addresses.

Just skimming these four paragraphs gives us a fine idea of what the talk is going to cover. Try this out on your proposals.

Getting feedback

Don't submit your proposal just yet! Once it's written, show it around to a few people. Get some feedback. You probably know many people who'd be happy to give you ideas on making your proposal better.

Considering soliciting feedback from:

  • Relevant user groups
  • Friends who've gone to previous conferences or similar conferences
  • Friends you've made on the selection committee
  • Consider the feedback carefully, most of the time it'll be good advice.

In summary

Congratulations on wanting to present at a conference. I'm sure you'll write a great proposal and the conference organisers will be delighted to accept! Speaking is a fun and rewarding experience, if also nerve-wracking.

The points I made above are best summarized as:

  • Get a copy of the Call For Proposals/Papers/Presentations (CFP).
  • Read the CFP carefully and follow its instructions.
  • Determine your conference audience (ask the organisers if you're unsure).
  • Make sure that your proposal is well written.
  • Make sure that your proposal has a catchy title.
  • Remember to use paragraphs.
  • Remember the essay rule.
  • Get feedback before submitting.