Conference submissions – why and how

Recently someone asked me about how to become a conference speaker. I have spoken at conferences, and also served on programme committees, so I hope these thoughts are helpful to you in your quest to speak. Additionally, I been giving feedback to people whose submissions did not make it onto the EuroSTAR programme this year and who asked for feedback, and seen some common themes, including that with over 400 people applying for around 60 speaking places, and an excellent field of submission, many great submissions did not make it to the conference programme… not being selected doesn’t necessarily mean you did a bad submission.

Why speak at a conference?

My first question to you: Why would you want to speak at a conference? It is after all time consuming, stressful, and unlikely to be in the obvious mainstream of your job. Here are some reasons I speak:

  • to improve how I communicate about my subject – a skill for work.
  • to learn my subject: to give the talk, I’ll have to learn more, check facts, build my story.
  • to give back to my industry and educate others, by sharing challenges overcome.
  • for the fun of performing: it’s scary and fun, and a chance to play in public…

So, you want to speak at a conference… what to do? I’m assuming you have a story to tell, one you think is worth other people hearing? If you have not got a story to tell, there is no point speaking…

Don’t wait to be asked…

There are two ways to get a speaking place at a conference: you get invited, or you apply via a “call for submissions” (cfs) or “call for papers” (cfp). However famous you are, you might not get invited, so, if you want to speak at a conference, don’t wait to be invited. Instead, apply to speak. Your submission will be reviewed, and you will be accepted, or rejected. Don’t worry if you are rejected, it has happened to all of us – many times in my case. Conferences often have many more applications than they have speaking places. So review, and try again…

Choose your conference…

First job: decide which conferences you want to speak at, look at their websites to see what dates they run on and what style of submission they want. Look very carefully at any guidelines, themes, and style sheets they suggest. Also look at the websites for previous editions of the conference to see if there is a “house style” the conference favours. Also think about whether you can get to the conference if selected – travel visas, availability, dates and costs – can you go if you are selected, and how will you fund it? Some organisations will support you because they want representation at the conference. Some conferences provide funding towards travel and accommodation. When you are applying look at the balance of benefits and costs. Each of us will have a different view about what we want to do, what cost/benefit we need to make it worthwhile.

Investigate what information the cfp requires

Look at the session options offered carefully. Think about what they want for different types of session. Typically the minimum you will be asked for along with contact details is:

  • A title
  • An abstract
  • Your biography

You may be asked for a paper to explain your idea. You may be asked for key learning points, takeaways, what type of session this is, what type of audience it is aimed at, your speaking experience, evidence in the form of supporting documents, videos… it all depends on the conference.

What helps your submission succeed?

Factors that will help your submission for many industry conferences include:

  • telling a really good story – something compelling, coherent, concise, and which flows from the title, into the abstract and through to any takeaways.
  • focusing on your experiences of your projects – things where you are demonstrating your involvement, challenges you have faced and overcome, mistakes you have made and learnt from – rather than using your abstract to regurgitate theory.
  • having a new perspective to offer, something that has not been offered at this conference before.

If you don’t have speaking experience, think about getting mentoring – within your local/national industry communities, within your organisation, or via the conferences. You could look at SpeakingEasy for example ( https://speaking-easy.com/ ). Also look for opportunities to speak at local meet ups and national conferences before going for the larger international conferences. It’s likely that fewer people will apply and this increases your chances of being selected.

Conferences will often have themes that change year to year. Many conferences in addition are looking for speakers and sessions that increase the diversity of ideas and people, improve inclusiveness, are engaging, participative and interactive, allowing the audience to not just listen but also take part.

Do…

  • Have your own compelling story
  • About something unique, transformational
  • About overcoming challenges
  • Provide evidence!
  • Keep it coherent, well focused
  • Keep it clean…
  • Ask for help!
  • Get it reviewed
  • Get it proof read
  • Speak at smaller events first…
  • Ask for feedback

What to avoid

Don’t just send the same abstract to different conferences – they each want something different. Don’t send the same abstract several times to the same conference for different session types – it just annoys the programme committee. Don’t send an excessive number of submissions – it is better to have one really well thought out abstract.

Don’t…

  • Forget to spellcheck
  • Forget to tell your story
  • Present no evidence
  • Use bad language
  • Assume we know who you are
  • Ignore the conference style
  • Forget to ask for time off…
  • Expect to get in … necessarily

Useful links

Here are some useful other blogs and links…

Rob Lambert’s “Blazingly simple guide…”: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blazingly-simple-guide-submitting-conferences-rob-lambert/

Steve Watkins’ “How to prepare…” https://stevethedoc.wordpress.com/2019/05/20/how-to-prepare-your-first-conference-talk-1-getting-started/

SpeakingEasy: https://speaking-easy.com/

Good luck!

and give it a go – you won’t get in unless you try!