Talking at Technical Conferences Part 3

Fred Tingaud · February 28, 2020

How can I have my talk accepted?

All the conference I attended as a speaker or a program committee, the process was always quite the same. A call for proposal/paper/submission a few months before the conference, then suspense while the program committee reviews everything, then the official answer from the committee a few months before the conference.

One question I’ve been asked frequently is whether you should write your whole presentation before answering to the CfP? You should not. You should work on the subject just enough to make sure that you will be able to give an interesting talk in the assigned time, but not more than that. Many conferences have to refuse a lot of talks and you don’t want to spend dozens of hours working on a talk just to have it be refused. How much work it will take you to make sure you will be able to give a talk depends on your experience as a speaker and how well you know your subject.

Once you are confident about your talk idea, comes the CfP answer.

The Title

It is the hardest and the most important answer of your CfP. Unfortunately, it is also often the first thing you are asked. In a conference where multiple talks happen in parallel, many attendees will select which talk they attend based only on its title.

The goal of your title is simple: tell people what your talk is about. Secondary goals are to encourage people to read more about the talk and to attract them, but if the main goal is not reached, they will almost certainly fail too.

You can try to put a joke in your title. But it can backfire… Your joke has to be original! Multiple talks having the same joke in their title is something that happens pretty often and being one of them can frustrate a little bit the reviewers.

Something way worst than unoriginal jokes, though, are titles of the form “Make XXX Great Again”. Those are not just unoriginal, they are also not funny and actively hurtful to many reviewers and attendees.

The Abstract

The abstract is a short text where you present your talk to the attendees. It will be part of the program and is with the title, the only information attendees will have to select which talk they want to attend. Thus, you should polish it for them and make sure that it makes perfect sense on its own.

It should first contain an explanation of what the talk is about written for your target audience. For example, if your talk is an introduction to sorting algorithm you might not want to name all the algorithms you will mention, because the people you are targeting have no idea what they are yet!

As important as explaining what the talk is about, your abstract should also explain why your target attendee cares about the subject. If you don’t expect them to have knowledge of your subject, you need to explain to them why your talk is relevant to their interest.

By reading your abstract, an attendee should also find what the takeaway from your talk will be for them. It can be in a very litteral way by saying something along the line of “the takeaway from this presentation will be a basic understanding of sorting algorithms” or it can be something more subtle. If attendees can know in advance what they will learn in your talk, they will be able to make a better decision on whether they should attend.

My talk “Clang Refactoring at Large Scale” was refused by 4 different conferences. Just before proposing it a 5th and last time, I posted it on #include<C++> for advices and somebody mentioned to me that they already saw a talk about this exact subject. I started writing a long answer explaining how my talk was actually different because of my approach… Then instead of posting the answer, I integrated its content in the abstract. That got me to realize the title was also badly chosen. And without changing a line in the actual talk, I got it accepted to 3 conferences as “Clang Based Refactoring - How to Refactor Millions of Line of Code Without Alienating your Colleagues”. Which is to say that if your talk takes an original approach or angle, or is different from other talks about similar subjects, make sure that it appears in your abstract.

Finally, you might also want to indicate clearly who you are targeting. If you give a talk about sorting algorithms, do you expect attendees to have some algorithmic knowledge and for example know about algorithmic complexity? Mentioning it can avoid either people not understanding the talk or be afraid to attend.

The Outline

The outline is a small presentation of the structure you imagine for your talk. It will not be seen by the attendees, but it is crucial for the reviewers of your CfP. It is with this text that they must judge whether you have a good grasp on the subject and how to present it. Here too, you should make sure it is written with the right target in mind.

What you want to tell the program committee is first how you want to present the subject. What is the structure of your talk? What are the key ideas you want the attendees to remember?

And secondly, how far in the details you want to go. If you are giving a talk about introduction to sorting algorithms, you should indeed not list them all in the abstract. But you want to list them in the outline. The reviewers should have that kind of information to make an educated review of your talk.

The Bio

The bio is the most dreaded question of the CfP for many speakers, although it is by far the less important one. It should be written in third person because of reasons (don’t ask me!).

I said attendees will only have access to the title and abstract to choose which talk they want to see, but that is not completely true. They can also look at your bio… If they do so, it will not be to know about how many children you have or your hobbies, but to know your perspective.

Are you giving a talk about library XXX as a maintainer of the library? A power user in the industry? Or somebody who tried it in their side project? None of these is inherently better or worst, but it will give a very different talk. It should be possible to find that information in your bio.

Learn by Being the Reviewer

Many conferences are looking for new program committee members. It is in my opinion one of the best way to improve how you write your CfP. By switching perspective and becoming the reviewer, you learn a ton about what reviewers look for in a CfP and what information are usually missing. If you get the chance, I really recommend doing it.

The Ultimate Secret to Have your Talk Proposal Accepted

There is one thing that you have to do to have your talk accepted: propose a talk!

So even if you are not sure of yourself and might have an imperfect proposal, send it. You have very little to lose except for a little time.

The Checklist

If you just wrote a CfP, here is a checklist of what you just read, so that you can go over your proposal and make sure everything is either done or left unchecked on purpose (rules are made to be broken, but consciously).

  • The title states what the talk is about
  • The abstract explains what the talk is about
  • The abstract is fully understandable by the target audience
  • The abstract states why the target audience should care about the subject
  • The abstract states what the main takeaway(s) will be
  • The abstract shows how this talk is different from other talks on the subject
  • The abstract states what the target audience is and the prerequisites
  • The outline shows the structure of your talk
  • The outline shows the main ideas you want to present
  • The outline shows how deep in the details your talk will go
  • The bio is written in third person
  • The bio shows from which perspective you know the subject
  • The proposal is posted

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