Six Steps to Speaker Success

In the first post in this series, I talked about my path into public speaking along with the benefits and barriers that we face when becoming a conference speaker. So let’s assume that you’re figuring out how to conquer your fears and hold your imposter at bay. Now it’s time to get started by picking a topic and submitting a proposal to speak at an upcoming conference!

Selecting a Topic

The first step in writing a proposal is to identify a topic, so this is where imposter syndrome can get in the way of your success. Coming up with a topic is hard for many people because they feel like they need to be “the” expert in a technology or know everything about a topic before submitting a talk, but this is just not the case. You only need to know enough to provide useful content for people less experienced than you. Remember that everyone brings a unique point of view to a topic and your experience is different than everyone else’s. At any technology conference, the attendees are there to learn and be exposed to different points of view and ideas — and your presentation can help meet that need. 

Personally, I love to see talks from people who are relatively new to a particular technology and can talk about the mistakes they made, how they fixed their issues and what they did to get everything working. This type of talk is incredibly useful for conference attendees who are new to a technology because they can relate to the subject. These troubleshooting talks help other people see that everyone hits rough patches when working with new technologies and helps them feel like they aren’t alone.

Another source for topics is to think about why people come to you and ask for help, or think of the technologies that you love to work with, and talk about those. Technology conferences are also filled with talks about processes, culture, community, management and many other topics. Think of something you’ve done, love doing, or know a lot about, and talk about it.

Call for Proposals (CFPs)

The most common way to get your talk into a conference is by submitting a proposal into the CFP for that event. The catch is that most CFPs are only open for a short period of time — maybe a couple of months — and the CFP usually closes many months before the conference, so this requires careful advance planning if you want to speak at an event. 

It’s also important to remember that every CFP is a little different. They may require different information, and they will have slightly different word limits for things like abstracts, so you should very carefully read the CFP instructions for proposing a talk to make sure that you follow the requested process and include the required information.

Finding the Right Conference

Once you have a topic, you need to find the right conference. Spend some time researching conferences and looking at open CFPs. You’ll want to make sure that you submit a talk that is relevant and likely to be accepted at this particular conference. Please, please, do not just blast your talk out to any conference with an open call for proposals. Find a couple of conferences that have had similar talks in the past and have the audience that you think would be interested in your topic, and tailor your submission to that event. 

For each conference, review the titles, abstracts and bios for talks that they have accepted for previous conferences. Use these previous talks to get a feel for the types of talks accepted, length, amount of detail included in the abstracts and the types of speakers they’ve had in the past. Keep this in mind when writing your proposal and tailor your title, abstract, and speaker bio to the specific conference.

If you are new to conference speaking, local meetups are almost always trying to find talks for upcoming events, and can be a nice friendly place to do your first talk. Seek out regional events, like SeaGL (Pacific Northwest), Texas Linux Fest, Ohio Linux Fest and SCaLE (Southern California) for your first “outing.” Presenting in front of a smaller audience, especially a local meeting with friends or colleagues attending, can help take the pressure off while you get some practice. These local events are also a great place to try out new material before taking it to a bigger event, whether you are a new speaker or an experienced one.

Writing a Title and Abstract

Writing the title and abstract is probably the most important part of preparing your submission, and this is another area where I see imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head. This isn’t a place to downplay your topic — you’ll want your topic to shine and you’ll need to be clear about why this is an important topic for this particular event. 

Your abstract should be clear, descriptive and detailed. It should give the organizers enough detail to understand what you plan to cover, and since it often becomes part of the conference guide, it should provide a clear description for potential attendees. The abstract should be long enough to describe your talk, but not so long that the organizers feel like it is a burden to read it, so keep it as concise as possible. The scope also needs to be realistic. Find out how long the conference session will be, and make sure that you think about how much you can reasonably cover in that time while still leaving room for questions. Use the abstract to list or describe the key points while also being clear about why the talk is important and what people will learn if they attend.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to write the presentation until your proposal is accepted. In fact, I would discourage you from trying to write the presentation before the talk is accepted. You run the risk of spending time on a topic that isn’t interesting to conference organizers, and sometimes organizers will respond with special requests to make slight changes to your topic, so you’ll want to have the flexibility to incorporate this type of feedback.

Titles for talks can be tricky. You want a title that sounds interesting enough to stand out, but one that also accurately describes your topic — and it should do all this in only 3-7 words. I’ve been guilty of writing long titles, but usually this just makes it hard for me to tell people about my talk because the title becomes too much of a mouthful. And from a practical perspective, long titles can be hard to fit on conference programs.

Bios are Important

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of having a well-written bio to accompany your talk proposal. And, here’s another opportunity for imposter syndrome to torpedo your plans. Use your bio as a place to brag about yourself — this is not the place to be modest or downplay your experience!

Your speaker bio is a critical part of the acceptance process, and you should customize it for different types of talks or conferences to emphasize your experience in a particular topic or technology. Conference organizers want to know that you have expertise that is relevant to your topic, and your bio is probably the only opportunity to demonstrate why they should select you to speak about a topic. Remember that this is not a time for modesty. You will need to brag about your accomplishments and make sure that your bio puts your expertise in the spotlight.

Many CFPs ask for links to supporting materials, like presentations, blog posts or videos of previous talks. Again, don’t be shy. If members of the selection committee haven’t seen you talk before, this is what they will use to learn more about whether you have the expertise and presentation skills to give the talk. If you don’t have something ready to share, you can always write a blog post on a related topic and contribute it to one of the many blogs who accept guest content, like If you need a video, you can record a 5 minute presentation and put it on YouTube. For supporting material, I strongly recommend focusing on quality over quantity by using your best examples, and not everything you’ve ever done.

Here be Dragons

Now that you know what to do, here are some insights on what “not to do” when preparing a CFP submission. These insights are based on my experience serving on program selection committees:

  • Not enough detail. Many people don’t want to give away the point of the talk in the abstract or maybe they want some mystery or big reveal. In my experience this is a mistake. Organizers need enough detail to know if it will be a fit for the event, and make sure it isn’t too similar to other accepted talks. 
  • Poorly written. When I see poorly written abstracts or bios that look like they were thrown together at the last minute without any proofreading, I worry that the presentation will be of similar quality. If someone doesn’t take the time to proofread their proposal, what will their presentation look like? Have a colleague or a friend proofread your submission before you hit “submit.”
  • Don’t get discouraged. It’s important to remember that your talk is competing with many  other talks, and proposals are declined for many reasons. Maybe they had another very similar proposal that was accepted instead. Even very popular speakers don’t get all of their talks accepted at every event.

To wrap it up, I mentioned imposter syndrome a few times. It’s easy to default to doubting your abilities and feeling like you don’t know enough to give a talk at a conference, but that’s just not true. We all have expertise and knowledge that we can share with people who are just getting started. You do not need to be the world’s leading expert to give a presentation on a topic. You just need to know a few things that can help other people learn. By bringing your authentic voice and unique perspective to the topic, people will walk away from your talk with new insights that they wouldn’t get from any other speaker.

If you want to learn more, join me at the Open Source Summit where I’ll be speaking on this topic!


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