Writing and submitting an abstract for a conference CFP (Call for Proposals) is a skill just like actually getting up on stage to speak is a skill. In fact, some great speakers struggle with abstracts more than they do with actually delivering their talk.
Composing a great abstract takes practice, writing skills, and attention to detail that may or may not come naturally to you, but hopefully, this section will help you on your journey. But, before we get to writing an abstract for your talk, you’ll need to pick a topic.
This post is part of an 8-part guide to speaking at technology conferences. Be sure to check out the other sections listed here.
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You do NOT need to have the talk written before you write a proposal for that talk to apply to conferences with. Eva PenzeyMoog
While you don’t have to have your entire presentation ready before you submit to a CFP, you should have some idea what you might want to talk about. Be sure your topic is something you really want to speak, answer questions, and learn everything you possibly can about.
Here are some things to consider when choosing a topic:
1. Does it fit the conference?
Think carefully about what your audience is interested in as opposed to what you are. What problems do they want to solve? What are the gaps in their experience? Where do they need guidance? You need to serve a need and purpose, and if you can map your presentation more commonly to these needs, you are more likely to get picked. Jono Bacon
Matching your talk with the conference’s area of focus is one of the best ways to get more talks accepted. Not only should the talk fit the conference’s broad area, but you should also look at the individual “tracks” the conference will be offering and make sure your abstract fits into one of them.
2. Does it get you excited?
DO NOT propose a topic that you think will get you on stage but doesn’t actually excite you at all. Raquel Vélez
One of the hardest things you will ever have to do as a speaker is stand up on stage for an hour talking about something you’re not really interested in. That’s why you need to pick a topic that gets you excited, but keep in mind that your interests will change over time. Sometimes a topic you cared about 2 years ago will no stop be interesting.
Pick a topic that you wouldn’t mind speaking about for hours and make it interesting for the version of you that would benefit from the talk. Rhia Dixon
Your interest level and passion for the topic will come across in your presentation. It’s really hard to fake genuine excitement, and having that positive energy will make you a much more confident and effective speaker. Audiences want to listen to speakers who are excited about their topic, and conference committees will notice that in your application.
When you speak about something that you are passionate about; you will actually be pretty excited to speak instead of being nervous. And your energy will be reflected when you present. It will boost your confidence and you will enjoy speaking! Drishti Jain
Finally, talks that get you excited are easy to prepare for. You probably choose to spend time learning about the topic already, so channeling that knowledge into a talk you can share with others is just the logical next step.
You know you’re passionate about a topic if you’re already spending a lot of time reading about it, thinking about it, and debating it with people on Twitter. Wrap your talks around your passions. Anjuan Simmons
3. Is it something you know well?
Pick a topic you are passionate about but also already knowledgeable about. Don’t experiment on new topics until you start getting accepted to speak. No need to add pressure on top of everything else. Matthew Trask
Just being excited about a topic isn’t enough on its own. You also have to be (or become) very knowledgeable about it. While you may have lots of time to learn about the topic between when your talk gets accepted and when you first present it, don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to prepare a really strong conference presentation.
New speakers may want to stick to topic areas they know already to minimize the amount of after-hours work they have to put in.
Think of something you’ve been successful at professionally, and then think of what advice you’d give to others on that topic. Can you come up with 5–10 tips to make your audience better at X? A coding language, a new tool, even a soft skill? Then you’ve got enough to respond to a CFP. Laura Janusek
Using things you’ve learned at work or on a side project are usually a good direction. If you collaborated with others, you can also get their thoughts on the topic and integrate that into your talk as well.
4. Is it sufficiently unique?
Talks that can be summarized as an ‘Intro to (Tool)’ are often lazily conceived, poorly designed, and delivered mechanically. Great talks, meanwhile, dive deeper and are eager to explore fundamental issues, even if they use a tool as the catalyst for discussion. Justin Searls
The best conferences are looking for speakers who can do really unique and deep dives into a topic. Surface-level “intro to X” talks aren’t likely to get accepted at the most competitive international events. Speakers are expected to present unique, novel, experimental, and personal talks at these kinds of events.
It’s fairly easy for anyone to step in, read available materials and prepare a mediocre presentation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done it too, which now makes me able to see why we can do better. Trust me, we’ve all seen the Angular 2 talks already. Don’t copy your predecessors. Interesting angle on React Native? Experimental usage of Rails to build a realtime app? Your own personal experiences and unexpected solutions? Yes, please. Karolina Szczur
That said, smaller regional conferences might be interested in simple, “how-to” talks. Some of my most highly accepted talks are introductory-level talks on Docker and Testing because lots of attendees are actually interested in learning about those topics, and can use them as a reason to get their companies to send them to the conference.
ANY topic is fair game even if people have talked about it before. You can always bring a new perspective to a topic. Molly Struve
While you should try to make your talk unique, you don’t have to be the only person in the world giving talks on a particular topic to get accepted to speak about it.
5. Does it make the world a better place?
One of the things that motivates many speakers is a desire to improve the world around them, and this comes across in their choice of topics. Even technical topics can make the world a better place because they’re spreading knowledge that you have to others.
Talk about topics that make the world a better place; in particular accessibility, diversity, ethics, etc. I [try] to go beyond just technical issues and spread good ideas I believe in. Oleksandr Tryshchenko
Try to think about how your talk will improve the audience members’ lives. If you can convey that in the talk description or abstract, you’ll make a big impression on the organizing committee.
6. Is it genuine?
Submit sessions that are interesting, engaging, and challenging, but don’t resort to clickbait titles and topics. Break the mold of what people normally talk about and how they discuss it, but stay classy. Jono Bacon
Some speakers are tempted to take speaking as an opportunity to push the limits of what can be said on stage. This might work, but it’s a risky tactic for a new conference speaker. Selection committees can see through cheap laughs and hackneyed titles, so keep your topics clear and intentions genuine.
The talks that are most engaging to me include stories of failure, they talk about learning something you don’t know and falling down along the way, or they’re a new perspective from an outsider on a specific topic. Laurie Barth
Being genuine can also mean sharing a story about how you failed in the past. This is a great topic because nobody succeeds every time they attempt something, so your audience will probably resonate with the description of challenges you’ve failed to reach.
7. Is it actionable?
Talking about why technology X is cool in a general way can be just fine, but sharing how we used X at Y to achieve Z gives the audience something more concrete to walk away with. George Mandis
Thinking about topics that are actually useful to your audience is surprisingly hard. A lot of new technology is interesting but practically useless, so try to center around real problems that can be solved by your area of focus.
OK talks are about the topic. Good talks are about the speaker/presentation. Great talks are about the audience. Kyle Simpson
Another way of thinking about this is by thinking about your audience and what they hope to take away from your talk. Keeping your takeaways succinct and clear will help you in this effort. Your slides shouldn’t be bullet points, but there’s no reason your abstract shouldn’t use a list of key learnings for readers.
Your talk should have a point. When someone walks away from your talk they might only take away 2-3 things with them. Those things should be in your proposal Richard Schneeman
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Writing a Title and Abstract
Now that you have some tips for picking a topic, you can write a talk title and abstract. Each CFP you submit to will require a title and abstract and the organizing committee’s selection will be largely based on these fields, so it’s important to spend time on them.
Here are some tips for writing a great abstract and title to submit to conference calls for proposals:
1. Customize each submission
At least 30% of ~2,500 proposals I’ve ever read violated the predefined rules for talk abstracts and submissions that have been set…no matter how adept in speaking you are, do read the instructions carefully before submitting and ensure the proposal is following them. Karolina Szczur
Every conference has its own set of priorities, rules, and requests for abstracts. Be sure to read everything they include on their CFP page as well as their conference website.
In addition to the clearly-stated rules, every conference attracts a slightly different audience, and as a speaker, you should know who is in that audience before you submit your abstract. Even if the bulk of your talk will be the same at each conference, the abstract may need to be revisited between each one.
2. Include enticing details
Make it easy for a reviewer to get excited about your talk. Be specific and get into the details about what you’re point of view is. Maggi Mitchell
Vague abstracts or titles are not easy to assess. Conference attendees won’t go to a talk they don’t understand, so it’s best to be clear and include an appropriate amount of detail in each abstract you submit. This means including tangible details that show the organizers and attendees that you know what you’re talking about as well as some concrete takeaways they can expect to glean from your talk.
3. Don’t be too wordy
Most of JSConfs receive an average of 500 proposals, assuming a very strict 1-minute reading time per submission it’s still a full workday of reading…A good rule of thumb is two to three paragraphs clearly expressing your idea. Karolina Szczur
Depending on the rules the conference lays out, between 200 and 500 words is usually allowed, so you have to include details while being succinct. It’s not easy, but when you consider that some conferences receive hundreds of submissions, it’s easy to see why it’s necessary.
Keep in mind that your audience might be reading your abstract on a small, printed handout, so be informative without boring them with jargon or unnecessary detail.
4. Get a proofreader
A typical conference selection team will be reading dozens or hundreds of session proposals…That means conference organizers are going to skim…many if not most will automatically discount anything with obvious typographical and grammar mistakes. Larry Garfield
Think of your abstract like you would your resume when applying for jobs. Details matter. Spelling and grammar mistakes will hurt your credibility and make you look sloppy to organizers who are already looking for any excuse to lighten their submission load.
This reason alone is probably enough to get a proofreader, but having other people read your proposal can also help make sure you aren’t relying too heavily on jargon or assuming too much about what your reader knows.
Find people from varying backgrounds to read your abstracts — I have a speaker in tech, a speaker not in tech, and a non-speaker in tech review all of my abstracts to tell me what they think the point is, what they would expect to learn, and offer alternative titles. Rhia Dixon
Stepping back and being your own proofreader can help as well:
Don’t immediately submit your abstract. Write it, and then talk a walk, get away from it, and come back after an hour and see how you feel about it. You may see things you can do better. Matthew Trask
An English teacher once told me to go back and read my papers one word at a time starting at the end. This forces you to think about each word and can help you fix simple spelling mistakes. Tools like Grammarly can help with these fundamentals as well.
5. Avoid cliches
Don’t use cliches, everyone uses cliches and it makes your proposal blend in. If you feel the pull of using a phrase everyone has heard “a million times”, ask yourself if it adds to what you’re trying to convey. Richard Schneeman
Cliches are very tricky to use well without seeming trite. In general, conference speakers should avoid using them in their titles or abstracts. If you need some good examples of cliches, here’s a list.
6. Find a format that works for your talk
There’s no one right way to write a session pitch, but I’ve found the 3-part pitch works well for me. A 3-part pitch has three key points, in order:
- State the problem
- Tease the solution
- Explain how you’ll provide the rest of the solution in the session
Not every speaker takes an approach that’s as prescribed as Larry’s above, but it might be a good idea to start with a very formulaic method of writing and submitting talks until you get more comfortable with the process. This can help you focus on the content and mechanics before moving on to creative approaches.
7. Get creative
Conferences are generally looking for novelty when choosing talks. Maggi Mitchell
Because you’re trying to stand out, there is some room to break the mold. While having a format for your talk submission might help, don’t feel like you can’t try something a little different from time to time.
One thing I found helps in my abstract creative process, is to make word clouds. Given a topic like “security” or “performance” I write down as many other words come to mind. I then stack rank them based on which are the most interesting. I write about 10-20 different intro sentences. About 3-4 different copies of the “takeaway” sentences, and about 5-10 outro sentences. I then mix them up until they feel right. Richard Schneeman
Look into brainstorming methods if you have trouble coming up with creative new ideas or topics. Sometimes these will unlock things that will set your talk apart from other similar submissions.
8. Aim for a specific experience level
Learn the approximate proficiency of your target audience before giving a talk. Make it easier or harder if needed. I mismatched several times, and it’s not the best thing to do. Oleksandr Tryshchenko
Generally, conferences are looking for a wide range of talks directed at different experience levels. When you write your abstract, be sure to make it clear if your talk is especially directed at beginners, intermediate, or advanced learners. This will help the conference organizers know where to slot your talk in and help attendees decide whether your talk is right for them or not.
If a conference was only filled with super-advanced talks, they would lose a huge part of their audience. So, even if you just learned something, you can teach it and many attendees will welcome your perspective as a relatively-recent beginner. Since you just went through it all for the first time yourself, you know and remember all the roadblocks that someone getting started will have and can help them learn even quicker. Keanan Koppenhaver
9. Use inclusive, positive language
Technology conferences have become very aware of the lack of diversity and inclusion in our industry, and many are actively trying to reverse it. Even if the conference isn’t addressing these issues directly, using words and phrases that may offend in your abstract is a really bad idea. It alienates users from your otherwise good content and makes you seem less credible.
Conference track chair here: please don’t curse or use any offensive language in your session title. It’s not cute, it violates the code of conduct, you were told not to in the CFP, and I will automatically rate your submission a zero. Alanna Burke
Also, be aware of ableist language. You might think using the word “crazy” is just a way to describe illogical technology choices, but you could also be hurting people.
Common examples of ableist language are words like, “lame,” “dumb,” “retarded,” “blind,” “deaf,” “idiot,” “imbecile,’ “nuts,” “psycho,” and “spaz.” These terms can be associated with a person’s identity or their challenges, and because of that, can be interpreted as insulting or hurtful. Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
10. Take time with the title
A good title is reasonably short, self-descriptive, contains the appropriate buzzwords for your topic (and no others), and has enough of a “hook” to make someone want to read further (or attend). Larry Garfield
While your abstract may be a few hundred words, your title will probably only be 10 or 20, so it’s really hard to make it convey meaning while being interesting to readers. This is why you should spend a good amount of time thinking about and refining your title.
This is another area where brainstorming techniques and coming back to it later can help.
Set a timer for 3 minutes, write as many titles as you can. Pick your favorite, then write the rest of your submission. When you’re done go back and throw away the title and re-write it. Richard Schneeman
11. Close strong
Make the last sentence in your abstract somewhat memorable, preferably short, even better if it’s actionable. Richard Schneeman
The last sentence in your abstract is your hook. It’s that final word that reels readers in and makes them want more or inspires them. It matters.
Submitting Your Talks
Once you’ve picked a topic and written an abstract and title for your talk, you’re about almost done, but there are a few more things you should consider before you click the final “Submit” button:
1. You may be asked to submit more information
The organizing committee will select talks based primarily on the abstract and title fields, but they may also have you submit other information like a long description or your qualifications. These fields vary pretty widely, but since the audience is only internal conference organizers, you don’t have to worry quite as much about it being catchy. Shoot for informative, include lots of links to references, and videos of you speaking if possible. Conference organizers want to know that you can stand in front of a crowd.
2. Plan to submit multiple talks to each conference
No matter how confident you are, never bet the farm on one idea — brainstorm and prepare several talks. Karolina Szczur
Most conferences will encourage you to submit more than one talk, and some may have an upper limit on the number of talks you can submit. Either way, it will not hurt you to submit multiple abstracts. In fact, many conferences want speakers who can give multiple talks because it cuts down on the amount of funding and coordination they have to spend working with speakers:
One thing that started really getting me more speaking opportunities is submitting multiple talks to each CFP. Conference organizers sometimes have an agenda of the talks they’re looking to accept and if you submit more talks, you give them more chances to fit you into the schedule they’re looking to craft. Keanan Koppenhaver
3. Consider a workshop
Workshops require a lot of preparation time that not every speaker has. You can improve your chances of being accepted by submitting such a workshop. Nicolas Fränkel
Conferences that offer workshops often struggle to find good speakers to give these 4-8 hour interactive sessions. You might be more likely to get your talk accepted if you offer it as a workshop. Keep in mind that workshops are completely different from typical conference talks though. The first time I gave a conference workshop, it took me about 20 hours of work to convert my slides into an interactive format for attendees.
4. Be persistent
If getting a talk proposal accepted seems like an unattainable goal, just keep sending in proposals and you’ll probably eventually get something accepted. Jason Swett
In the next section, we’ll talk more about dealing with success and rejection, but ultimately you have to be persistent if you want to become a conference speaker. Most speakers I talk to have an acceptance rate of around 10%-20%, so expect to submit at least 5-10 before you get a talk accepted.
Keep trying, and if you’re ready to learn more, keep reading to learn what happens when your talk is accepted or rejected from a conference.