In early 2018, I got an email from the Grace Hopper Celebration. They had just opened their CFP (call for proposals) and wanted me to apply! I mean, not me personally, but anyone who got their marketing email. At first, I was like no way, I don’t have anything interesting to say. But how cool would it be to speak in front of all those people? I grew up in a huge family so I can never get enough attention. I decided before I could feel confident writing anything, I had to do my research.
The first step was going to a technical conference. I had been working in technical teams for years but hadn’t gone to a conference. I applied to be a volunteer because I knew that my employer at the time wouldn’t pay for anything. I also made sure my job as a volunteer meant I would actually get to see the talks. So I volunteered to load presentations and give time warnings. I sat in the same room for 6 hours watching whichever talk came up. Some of the topics I had some background on, some of them were completely new. I made sure to watch the audience as much as I watched the speaker. I wanted to see the audience's reaction, if they were nodding along, laughing, or playing on their phones.
Here’s what I learned:
- Every talk should be a story, as relatable as possible. The most memorable talk was about buying too many plants, losing track of them and then using engineering to make sure they stayed watered. You might not know what IoT is, but it’s easy to relate to accidentally killing a plant.
- Make people laugh and they’ll stick with you. Presentations that engage emotions are more memorable. I had originally thought that tech was serious and my talks had to be serious. Nope. Add that emoji and they’ll stay with you.
- Give the audience everything they need to get the most out of your talk. Sometimes talks will have levels and you can give the audience prerequisites. Most of the time you don’t know the background of those walking in. In a 10-minute lightning talk about Docker I went from being vaguely familiar with the term to understanding how to launch it; all because the presenter explained it fully.
Now that I had a good idea of the kind of speaker I wanted to be, I had to actually write an abstract. I’d never even seen one, how would I know what a good one was? Luckily, in the same email from the Grace Hopper Celebration was a chance to volunteer to judge CFP submissions. As an engineer, reading others’ code makes you better. This was my chance to not only read 30 submissions but to see the rubric. I did not think it was going to be agonizing to say no or take me an hour to analyze and write constructive feedback for each one, but it was worth it.
When you are deciding what to write, make sure to put your audience first, providing actionable content and using your own experiences. If you need help brainstorming, this blog was invaluable for me.
When creating a product it is common to create marketing personas, such as a "stay-at-home dad" or a "high-earning woman who lives alone". You should think about your audience as one of those personas, such as an "early career Wordpress developer" or "mid-career solutions architect". Your talk should match the level of knowledge that persona generally has. When writing the abstract you should make the prerequisites clear so the judges will know who will benefit the most from this talk.
I often hear from people starting out that they don’t have anything new to say. That their knowledge is easy to Google. The first person who said that to me was me! The fact is no one has had the exact same experience as you. Also, knowing your audience means knowing they have different experiences than you and might never have thought to search for that topic. You will be surprised to realize how much you know that is new and valuable to another person.
Your proposal needs to have actionable items. When I am reading your CFP, I need to know what you expect the audience to remember. If I walked out of your talk right now, what do you want me to do? Build a robot? Write a bio? Ask my boss to think more about accessibility? You can’t just tell a good story, you need your audience to have something they can take away.
The most common conference sessions are talks, panels, workshops and keynotes. Some conferences will have other formats and you should read carefully on what their specific criteria are.
If you want to have a panel there must be a point of contention. The panelists should have a diversity of experience (such as career level) and identities (such as race and gender). A panel should present multiple viewpoints, or what you really have is a talk with multiple speakers.
Keynotes are inspirational with a focus on storytelling, like a Ted talk. People should leave feeling uplifted and ready to do whatever it is you inspired them to do.
Workshops can run anywhere from an hour to all day. Some key things to remember about workshops are that you must have enough assistance. Attendees should be able to call people over for help. Attendees should be given all the info to finish the tutorial later if they are having technical difficulties or just want to think about it more. For technical talks, there need to be extremely clear instructions, without missing any steps that might seem simple or self-explanatory to you. You should always test your tutorial on a fresh machine without anything needed on it. All the prereqs should be made clear, from having a laptop to installing Python or setting up an AWS account.
A talk is the most common format. This is where you can tell the story of learning or creating and teach something. Your story is unique, so no one else can use it even if it’s the same technical info.
For the rest of my story on submitting CFPs succesfully, read on to part 2!