You’ve been scouring the web for upcoming events. You’ve subscribed to Developer Avocados and you’ve bookmarked conferences.css-tricks.com. And now you’ve found a call for proposals (CFP) that you can’t wait to enter. You quickly fill out the online form and your pinky races towards the Enter button...
Stop. Take a deep breath. And move slowly away from the keyboard.
As a conference organizer, I’ve gone through hundreds — if not thousands — of speaking proposals. While many are excellent, there are always a bunch that show a profound misunderstanding of the event, audience, and duties of a speaker. These are the ones that immediately get dumped onto the "No Thanks" list on my Trello board. And, as a regular speaker, I’ve learned more than a few things about getting proposals accepted.
While there’s no magic bullet for fast tracking your talk, there are a number of habits you can develop and questions you can ask yourself before hitting "submit" to improve your chances of getting invited to events. If you’re a fan of checklists, I’ve put one together to guide you through the process of submitting a proposal.
It’s even available on CodePen. 😉
Start with some research
The first thing before submitting a proposal is to research the heck out of the event.
There are a ton of events out there, each with its own unique audience and vibe. Some are big, some are small; some have huge budgets and some are bootstrapped and brand new. Your first task as a potential speaker is to learn as much as you can about the event to make sure that you’re a good fit for it and the audience. There are a few ways to do this.
First, check out the website to get a feel for the event. See when and where it is, check out past years (if there are any), and read every last bit of copy on the site. A few things to keep an eye out for: an FAQ page, a CFP page, info about sponsorships or speaking opportunities, lists of past speakers, and a hashtag. The event hashtag is important, as that will allow you to check out hype and past attendee experiences on Twitter, as well to as get a sense of excitement about the upcoming event. If there isn’t a hashtag, or all of the comments about the event are terrible, then perhaps it’s time to move on to the next CFP.
Next, do a search on YouTube, Speaker Deck, SlideShare, and Notist for past talks and slide decks. These will give you a great idea of what to expect at the event and what kinds of talks go over well with the audience.
After you’ve completed a first pass of research, it’s time to answer some key questions:
- When and where is the event?
- Who’s organizing it?
- Do they have a code of conduct?
- Do they value diversity and inclusion?
- Are they looking for specific topics or proposals?
- Do they cover travel/hotel?
- Do they pay speakers?
- Most importantly: who is their audience?
You may not be able to find an answer to all of these, but try your hardest. Feel free to reach out to organizers — most are happy to answer questions for potential speakers, and the more you know, the better you’ll be able to determine whether or not you’re a good fit for their event.
Add focus your idea
After you’ve done your research, it’s time to focus in on your proposal idea. Chances are good that you’re hunting around for events with a talk idea already in mind, but even so, you should take a few steps to make it’s as compelling for organizers as possible.
The main question you want to answer when developing a talk idea is, "What will attendees get out of my session?" This is where knowing about the audience and event — all of that research — pays off.
Far too many would-be speakers submit proposals for the wrong reasons. Many think of events as marketing and sales opportunities for their business. Others are looking to make a name for themselves so they can start charging on the speakers circuit. But the best talks come from sharing personal experiences, challenges, and solutions to problems you’ve experienced in your own work.
By researching the audience, you can determine what’s likely to be important to them. You get a feel for their challenges and interests, and you can think more deeply about how your experiences and skills can best serve them. Try to forget about the actual organizers and making a pitch to them, and instead focus all of your energy on clearly communicating how attendees’ lives and work will be improved after they sit in on your session.
A great exercise is to list out the key things attendees would take away from your talk. Try to focus on 3-5 things that people can put to work when they get back home. Making them as actionable as possible is a fantastic idea. While some proposals are all about inspiration, wrapping practical advice into inspirational examples is an excellent way to make that inspiration stick in people’s minds.
Another suggestion is to run your idea by colleagues, friends, or your partner. Put together a two-minute summary, stand up in front of them, and give them the ol’ elevator pitch. Not only will this force you to add a clear focus to your idea, but it’ll let you know if you’re ready to get up on stage in front of strangers. If you can’t give a short talk in a few minutes now, then you should probably sit back down and prepare some more before answering that call for proposals.
Craft your proposal into something worth reading
Finally, it’s time to craft your proposal and get it ready to submit.
Most CFPs consist of an online form. They can range from a few questions to multiple pages of inputs, but you’ll be filling something out for organizers to review. Although some speakers are able to fly through the forms and quickly hit "Submit," I’d recommend prepping your CFPs outside of the form first.
Open up a text file or make a note in your app of choice on one side of your screen and the CFP form on the other. Go through each field in the form and write down your response in your notes. Putting together a rough draft outside of the form gives you the opportunity to think through your answers and edit them until they clearly reflect your focused idea and the value for attendees. What’s better is that you can take that note and share it with someone you trust and respect. Gather feedback from them and use it to further refine your proposal.
A lot of CFP ask for supporting materials. These can be videos showing that you are a clear communicator, links to your website or social media accounts showing your personal interests, or even slides from previous talks. Instead of fumbling around and potentially timing out the CFPs form (and having to start all over), collect all of those materials in your note or a folder on your computer. If you’re a seasoned speaker, make sure you curate your materials to show your best and most recent talks.
Submit and wait
OK. You’ve done the research. You’ve focused your idea. You’ve even drafted the answers to the CFP, pitched the idea to your partner in the kitchen, and collected feedback from a co-worker or two. It’s time to scratch that itch and submit your proposal.
Go back to the CFP form, open up your notes and resources, and start copying and pasting. Take your time to work through the form and triple-check that you’ve filled everything out. Attach any supporting materials (seriously, how many times have we all sent an email that says "See attached file" without actually attaching anything?) and take a deep breath. Scroll to the top and read through every response as many times as you need to before you feel comfortable submitting.
Now, press "Submit." Do a little celebration, take another deep breath, and move on with your life.
It can take a long time for organizers to process submissions and figure out an agenda. Try to be patient. It’s tempting to email organizers and ask about the status of your proposal, but resist the urge. Organizers are extraordinarily busy — with the conference and their full-time jobs — and should be left to review proposals instead of fielding emails from impatient potential speakers.
A good organizer will get back to you when they’re ready and let you know the status of your submission — good or bad. If they don’t, chances are the event wasn’t that great to begin with. The key thing is to try to forget about your submission as much as possible (while still keeping the event on your calendar, just in case) and focus on more important things. Not only will this ease your anxiety but you’ll be in for a wonderful surprise when your proposal is accepted.
Speaking at events can be incredibly rewarding. Sure, it’s massively time-consuming and, depending on your disposition, extremely stressful, but it’s an excellent way to build connections and help others in the industry. While you could start spamming every event with proposals, your chances of being invited to speak all hinge on the amount of preparation you put into your submission. Taking the time to make sure you’re a good fit for an event, that you understand the audience, and that you have a focus and are able to clearly communicate your idea will up the odds of you standing onstage, clicking through slides, and (hopefully) solving some problems for the folks that paid to be there.
I’m definitely not the first person to write about answering CFPs. There are a ton of good tips out there for crafting the perfect proposal. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Write a Good Abstract, from Notist
- How to Find Ideas for Your Talk, from Notist
- What Your Conference Proposal is Missing, from Sarah Mei
- How to Rock the Call for Papers and Get Your Talk Picked, from Jono Bacon
- My Presentation Workflow and Challenges, from Lara Hogan
- Demystifying Public Speaking, from Lara Hogan
- Conference Speaking Like a Boss, from Jennifer Wadella
Finally, if you have any hesitation about not being "good enough" to speak at conferences, read this excellent post from Sara Wachter-Boettcher. Then start crafting that perfect proposal.