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Josefine Schfr
Josefine Schfr

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Speaking at Tech Confs - Applying for CFPs 🎙

This is the fifth part in a series on speaking at tech conferences - it focuses on successfully submitting your talk proposals to open calls as well as writing your speaker bio.

Once you have found open calls, conferences or meet-ups you’d like to speak at, it’s time to get your hands dirty and write your application. Yes, that’s right - in most cases, you will have to apply. This is why you want to make your proposal as compelling and catchy as possible, to spark the committees' interest and, of course, later, your audiences’.

Tell a Story
Regardless of how good your talk idea is - if you don’t manage to bring the vibe across in your application, it likely won’t be selected. The organisers don’t know your talks' full potential and are doing their best to put together a jam-packed, varied schedule. So it’s on you to make sure you boil down everything you got to give into your abstract. Tell a story. Let them know what people can take away from your talk. Will there be hands-on examples? Live coding? What makes your talk special?

One of my colleagues, Arisa, once gave me the tip to think along the lines of famous movies and tailor your abstract to something along the lines of the plot. You can do the same with your favourite song or incorporate puns or cliffhangers. Get creative - if you are having fun writing it, so will people reading the talk description.

Boil it down
A good headline can make or break your application. We all know how short our attention spans are these days. Make sure you win your potential audience over from the start. Write a short, crisp headline. Make them curious. In the process, it might be helpful to come up with different headlines and let your friends vote on them, so you can be sure to pick a winner.

Besides a short summary of your contents, you might be asked to specify the following when applying to speak at a conference:

  • Type of session or duration: Depending on the conference, there might be different formats to choose from. For example, a Lightning Talk (short, 10 - 15min), longer format (anything between 30 - 90min), or even a full or half-day workshop. If you are open to different formats, you can indicate this as well.
  • Co-Speakers: Will you be delivering the talk with a buddy? Mention them in this field.
  • Speaker-Bio: A short and sweet speaker bio to tell either the committee something about yourself or to be used on the website if your talk is selected. More on this a bit later.
  • Topic / Tracks: If the conf has different tracks, you can specify here which one you deem most suitable.
  • Additional Notes: Anything that doesn’t fit the mold but that you would like to share, you can add here. Some conferences ask for links to recordings if this talk has previously been delivered.
  • Travelling Details: For in-person events, organisers sometimes ask where you would be travelling from to be able to estimate costs.
  • Cost Coverage: will you need support or will your employer cover the costs for travel and accommodation?
  • Personal Details: Many conferences aim to make their programs as diverse as they can. They might ask, for example, if you identify as a member of an underrepresented group.

Bio - What do you want to be known for?
As mentioned above, in many of these forms, you will need to add a short biography, which might be viewed by the conf organisers beforehand to get some context on, or may even be used as background info when your talk is accepted. So be sure to only share things you are comfortable with ;) Depending on the event, this doesn’t need to be formal at all. What do you want to be known for? What might add interest in connection to your talk topic? Is there a fun fact you can add in? If you are not so comfortable ‘selling yourself’, don’t do it - just be yourself.

If you are unsure, ask your friends how they would describe you or check out previous events' speaker listings for inspiration.

If you are in it for the long run, it might come in handy to prepare different lengths of speaker biographies for different applications so that all you have to do is select the right one and copy and paste.

Be Patient.

Especially when you are just starting out, it can be nerve-wracking to hand in CFPs and wait for the answer. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Especially for popular conferences, the among of applications is much larger than the actual speaker slots available. Meaning that lots of people will be rejected. Maybe even you. Don’t let this discourage you. It’s part of the process and doesn’t mean that your idea or your application wasn’t good. It just means there were so many that the organizers had to make a decision. 

If you have multiple ideas, and that’s allowed, don’t hesitate to hand in more than one proposal per conference. And do apply to multiple events. I can only speak for myself, but I consider myself lucky if one out of ten proposals gets accepted. So don’t let rejections stop you.

Best of luck with your proposals! 🎉

Top comments (4)

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Great advice! Your tip on creativity is spot on. In most cases, when I've reviewed CFPs I find that problems fall into either the author was overly verbose or the author was too concise but in both cases the larger issue was that the intent of the session was unclear.

I usually recommend shooting for one to two short paragraphs at most. Start by stating the problem that you are addressing. This isn't the tool or framework or whatever you are talking about but what problem it solves for developers. Like if I was talking about feature flags and LaunchDarkly, I might say something about how the complexity of managing releases and/or the difficulty caused by long-lived feature branches. This should be no more than one or two sentences.

Then move on to how whatever you are talking about addresses the stated problem at a high level. Again, this should only be one or two sentences.

Finally, end by digging down into the tangible things you'll teach in the session. It's better to be as specific as you can. For example, not "We'll see how to use LaunchDarkly for feature management" but "We'll explore how to set up a JavaScript project using LaunchDarkly's SDKs and work through examples of different types of flags and how they can be used for managing the release of features."

josefine profile image
Josefine Schfr

Wow, thank you so much for sharing your insights, Brian 🙏 It's so great to hear from someone who has reviewed CFPs themselves, super helpful advice!

yuridevat profile image
Julia 👩🏻‍💻 GDE

Thank you Josefine for your great and helpful Series about Speaking at Tech Conferences.

Since I am starting to apply for some conferences myself, I am still wondering, if I should apply to all conferences with the same topic or if I should change the subject everytime.

To make my question more specific: I'm wondering if I should always apply with the same topic for different events, since there might be different people at each event, or if I should apply with different topics, since there might be the same people at the same type of event.

I am aware that each event is looking for different types of talks (light, full length, etc).

I also created a discussion about this topic this week, unfortunately no answers/interactions so far:

developbit1 profile image
Tammy Miller

Great advice as I am in the middle of review CFP for an upcoming event for next year. It has been really helpful to see the different talks and how the CFP's are filled out.