You’ve attended a few conferences, watched a lot of presentations, and decided it’s time to give a talk of your own! As someone who has both given talks at conferences, and sat on the proposal review board for others, I’m here to tell you what I’ve learned and to encourage you to submit your own talk proposals.
How do you go about doing that?
First, find your niche.
Figure out what you want to talk about. What are you passionate about? What kind of unique perspective do you bring to this topic? That doesn’t mean that if someone has written about it, or presented about it before, that you should completely avoid the topic.
However, you should think about how your presentation is different than the content which already exists, and what new example, viewpoint, or data you’re bringing to the topic (your view on a particular thing counts as a unique viewpoint!). Also, you don’t have to start out by presenting for an hour. Conference talks range from 5 minute lightning talks (a great way to get an introduction to conference speaking!) to 15–30 minute presentations, to 2+ hour workshops or panels. Figure out what you’re comfortable doing.
Then, based on your idea, figure out where to give your talk. You can look at online lists such as CallbackWomen or Paper Call for CFPs (or Call for Presentations/Papers) or try looking at some of the following:
- Internal company presentations (Can you host a lunch & learn event? What about an annual conference your company might host?)
- Look at past conferences you’ve attended (or search for conferences based on the topics you’re interested in).
- Get involved in local organizations, meet the organizers, and ask to present (Meetup is great for this).
Then, write your proposal.
Follow the rules outlined in the call for speakers. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do that, and while some reviewers or conferences are willing to overlook that, don’t take the chance. Just follow the requirements.
- Avoid the sales pitch (if you work for a sales-driven organization). It’s fine to use your organization to illustrate a case study, but avoid making your proposal a giant advertisement.
- Write a great title. Pick something catchy, but that clearly explains what your talk will be about. Think about your title as if you were an attendee. Would the title draw you in? Does it tell you enough about the proposal to pique your interest? I like puns, but that’s a personal (and surprisingly polarizing) choice. The title for the last talk I gave was 'Shooting Phish in a Barrel: Practical Proposals for Reducing Phish Click Rates'
- Write the abstract. If a proposal is accepted, the abstract is often used (unedited) as the description of your talk the audience will see, so make sure it caters to the audience (not to the conference reviewers). Think about what matters to them. Tell a story, but keep it brief. Clearly explain what your talk is about (why do I want to go?), who the talk is aimed at (is this talk a good fit for me?), and what your audience will gain from attending (what did I learn from this talk? What can I do now, that I couldn’t before?).
Personally, I recommend the following structure:
State the problem [Sentence one]. What did you do to approach the problem? [Sentences 2 and 3]. Actionable takeaway for the audience [Sentences 4 and 5]. That's it! Don't use more than 5 sentences, and you can usually do it in less. If it takes you more than that to explain your proposal, it probably isn’t well thought through.
5. Most proposals consist of an abstract and a bio, but some will have additional sections (justification, outline, etc.). For these additional sections, keep in mind the same key principles as above.
6 . Create a bio. This is an opportunity for you to highlight your relevant experience and explain to the organizers (and later attendees) why YOU are the best person to give this talk. What experience do you have that directly relates to this talk? Here’s a helpful place to start (it's my favorite template for writing a conference bio).
Here's mine from a recent conference: Megan Kaczanowski is a Threat Intelligence Analyst at S&P Global who works closely with the threat hunting and incident response teams to protect organizations from emerging cyber threats. Megan understands that delivering effective threat intelligence isn’t about utilizing the latest industry buzzwords – it’s about delivering curated, actionable intelligence to the relevant stakeholders.
In addition to her experience in threat intelligence, Megan runs the simulated phishing training program at her organization and co-leads a Security Champions user awareness initiative. Megan holds a BA in Economics and Political Science from the University of Michigan. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing and is a PADI certified scuba diver.
7. When you’re finished, check your spelling, grammar, and formatting. Use an app like Hemingway or Grammarly or ask a friend to review it! Little mistakes can impair a reviewer’s ability to read and understand your proposal and you want to make it as easy to read and understand as possible. This is particularly important if you're writing a proposal in a language which isn't your native language. Often reviewers have very little time to look at each proposal simply because there are so many proposals. Make their job easy.
8. Feel free to submit more than one proposal, if the conference is something you’re very interested in (but make sure that all of the topics are something you’re excited about, and feel comfortable speaking on).
Still looking for help? Check out these resources:
- How to Write a Successful Conference Proposal
- Writing a Conference Proposal
- What Your Conference Proposal is Missing
- Conference Prompts: Or How to Submit Proposals and Influence People
- What I learned from reading 429 conference proposals
- Is Your Proposal Good Enough?
- How to Write a Compelling Proposal
If your talk is rejected, don’t worry! This can happen for many reasons, and doesn’t mean that your proposal was necessarily bad. Perhaps there were 4 other proposals on the same topic. Perhaps the conference organizers are looking for a range of different tracks/experience levels/topics and yours wasn’t a good fit this time.
Whatever the reason, if the conference provided feedback, read it and use it to improve your next proposal. If not, ask for it. They might not have time to provide feedback for every single proposal, but there’s no harm in asking, and feedback will help you improve faster. Don’t let one rejection discourage you. Everyone gets proposals rejected. Improve your proposal, or write a new one, and try again!
If your talk is accepted, congratulations!
Time to write your talk. Here’s some resources to help:
- Practical Tips for Creating Great Slides
- Practical Tips for Being a Great Speaker
- Toastmasters (an organization which can help you improve your public speaking skills)
- How to Improve Your Communication Skills