How to Write a Talk Proposal

How to Write a Talk Proposal is a guest post by Dawn Foster, Puppet Labs community manager. This article is the first installment in our new USENIX Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) series.

How to Write a Talk Proposal

by Dawn Foster

One of my many responsibilities as community lead for Puppet Labs is to drive the process to select speakers for PuppetConf, our annual conference, and for the Puppet Camps we run in various locations around the world. We are always trying to get more women to speak at our events, which has proven to be quite a challenge. We know that having more diverse speakers —and more women — is something that will make our events better for everyone, but we haven't quite succeeded in hitting the right balance. I'm working on a few things to get more women involved, and one of the first steps is to get a lot more great speaking proposals from women.

There are a lot of benefits of speaking at conferences that people underestimate. First, most conferences allow speakers to attend for free, so convincing your boss to let you attend a conference if travel is the only expense is much easier. Second, speakers often get special access to other speakers and VIPs because many conferences have speaker lounges and VIP parties that speakers can attend, which gives you opportunities to network with other experts in your field. Third, speaking at events will help you become better known as an expert in your field, which can help you gain credibility at your current job and make it easier to advance your career. By speaking at conferences, I've been able to travel the world and meet all kinds of interesting people, and now I can travel the globe and meet up with friends whom I've met at conferences. Conference speaking has been great for my career, as well as a positive personal experience.

So how do you write a great talk proposal to get that speaking gig?

Pick a Topic

The first step in writing a proposal is to come up with a topic. This is hard for a lot of people because they feel like they need to be "the" expert in a technology or know everything about a topic before submitting a talk. This simply is not true. You only need to know enough to provide useful advice to other people who aren't as experienced as you are. At any technology conference, the audience is made up of people who are just getting started all the way up to experts in certain topics; however, most conferences tend to skew toward new people, because they are the people who most need to be at the event.

At our Puppet conferences, for example, I love to see talks from people who are relatively new to Puppet and can talk about the mistakes they made, how they fixed their issues, and what they did to get everything working. This type of talk is incredibly useful for conference attendees who are new to a technology because they can relate to the subject. Further, troubleshooting talks help attendees feel like they are not alone — everyone hits rough patches when working with new technologies.

Another good way to find a topic is to think about the technologies where people come to you and ask for help, or think of the technologies that you love to work with, and talk about those. Technology conferences are also filled with less technical talks about processes, culture, community, management, and many other topics that almost anyone can talk about. Think of something you've done, love doing, or know a lot about, and talk about it.

Pick a Conference

Once you have a topic, you need to find the right conference. Spend time researching potential conferences to make sure that you submit a talk that is relevant and likely to be accepted. Do not just blast your talk out to any conference with an open call for proposals. Find a couple of conferences that have had similar talks in the past and have the audience that you think would most benefit from your topic. Carefully read the instructions for proposing a talk to make sure that you follow the requested process and include the required information. For each conference, review the titles, abstracts, and bios for talks that they have accepted for previous conferences. Use these previous talks to get a feel for the types of talks accepted, length, amount of detail included in the abstracts, and the types of speakers they've had in the past. Keep this in mind when writing your proposal and tailor your title, abstract, and speaker bio to the specific conference. Some conferences even have a page with tips for submitting a proposal for their event, and this example from PyCon is particularly good.

Write the Abstract

Now that you have your topic and a conference, you need to write the abstract. Keep in mind that you do not need to write the presentation until your proposal is accepted. In fact, I would discourage you from trying to write the presentation before the talk is accepted. You run the risk of spending time on a topic that isn't interesting to conference organizers, and sometimes organizers will respond with special requests to make slight changes to your topic, so you'll want to have the flexibility to incorporate this type of feedback.

The abstract should be of a reasonable length to describe your talk, but not so long that the organizers feel like it is a burden to read it. Most submission processes will set a maximum length, but don't feel like you need to fill the space. Find out how long the conference session will be, and make sure that you think about how much you can reasonably cover to fit in the time allotted and still leave room for questions. Use the abstract to list or describe the key points that you want to make during the talk, and either begin or end it with a sentence about what you want people to learn from your talk.

If there isn't a separate field to specify the audience for the talk, you should also include information about who will benefit from your talk and who should attend. The abstract must give the organizers enough detail to understand what you plan to cover and should provide a clear description to potential attendees. Keep in mind that the abstract often becomes part of the conference guide. Most importantly, the abstract should be clear, descriptive, and technical. For technical conferences, anything that sounds like it came from the marketing team or has too many buzzwords is likely to get rejected, so keep it technical. You can get a little clever or humorous with the abstract, but do not let it cloud the description of your talk.

Write Your Bio

Your speaker bio is also critical to the acceptance process, and you should customize it for different types of talks or conferences to emphasize your experience in a particular topic or technology. Conference organizers want to know that you have expertise that is relevant to your topic, and your bio is probably the only opportunity to demonstrate why they should select you to speak about a topic. You might want to cut some less relevant information from your bio to give you room to be specific about the expertise you have in your topic, but like with the abstract, your bio should be short and concise, not a dissertation. Also remember that this is not a time for modesty. You will need to brag about your accomplishments and make sure that your bio puts your expertise in the spotlight.

Write the Title

Titles for talks can be tricky. You want a title that sounds interesting enough to stand out, but also it must accurately describe your topic — and it should do all this in only 3-7 words. I've been guilty of writing slightly longer titles, but usually this just makes it hard for me to tell people about my talk because the title becomes too much of mouthful. And from a practical perspective, long titles can be hard to fit on conference programs.

Also try to avoid buzzwords in your talk titles. Those of us who regularly select talks for conferences can get a bit jaded and tired of the same buzzwords that make every title and every talk sound the same. For technical conferences, you also need to make sure that your title doesn't sound like it was written by a marketing team, so use appropriate technical language in your title. Keep in mind that many people will decide to come to your talk based mostly on your title because that's what shows up on most schedules, and you don't want people to be disappointed if your title doesn't match the content in your presentation.

There are so many women doing amazing work in technology, but too few women presenting at conferences. Those of us working in technology need to propose more talks at conferences now. One of the best ways to get more women involved in technology and presenting at conferences is to be a role model and lead by example. So, get out there and submit a few proposals to your favorite conferences!

Here's what I want you to do this week:

  1. Select a topic.
  2. Find 2-3 conferences that you want to attend, but that don't overlap.
  3. Write abstracts, bios, and titles for your talks.
  4. Submit talks to those conferences. Don't forget to follow all of the conference instructions for submitting the proposal.

Let us know in the comments or via email which conferences you picked and what you decided to talk about.

LISA '13

Don't miss the USENIX WiAC sessions at LISA '13. Register  by October 15 to take advantage of the early bird discount.

Sunday, November 3 (Half-day workshop): Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC): Recognizing and Overcoming Bias—Ways to Make Your Workplace More Successful and Welcoming

Thursday, November 7 (Technical session): Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) panel

Open Access WiAC Archive Videos:

Career Information and Workload Warriors - Time Saving Tips and Tricks (WiAC '12) by Clea Zolotow

Free to Be a Kid (WiAC '13) by Keila Banks

Computational Zen (WiAC '13) by Allison Randal

Burnish Your Brand, Using Your Best Talents More Often (WiAC '13) by Sheryl Chamberlain

Crafting a Strong Resume (WiAC '13) by N. Nadine Miller

What Does Feminism Have to Offer Me? (WiAC '13) by Beth Andres Beck

Creating a Personal Brand That Reflects What Really Matters (WiAC '13) by Terrell Cox

Why Do They Do That? Men's Behavior Through the Lens of Gender (WiAC '13) by Beth Andres Beck

Building a Successful Technology Career (WiAC '13) by Dawn M. Foster

How I Got There (WiAC '13) by Jean Yang, Kirsten Stewart, Jessica Rothfuss, and Melinda Graham

The Mid-Career Donut Hole (WiAC '13) by Nadyne Richmond

Speaking Up and Selling Yourself (WiAC '13) by Trish Palumbo and Lisa M. Groesz

Staying Happy in System Administration (WiAC '12) by Emily Gladstone Cole

Uncharted Paths (WiAC '12) by Leslie K. Lambert

Overcoming My Biggest Roadblock: Myself (WiAC '12) by Sabrina Farmer

Strategies for a Successful Career in Computing (WiAC '12) by Panel


Thank you for the article, great advice. I was wondering if you could provide a couple of successful examples that illustrate your tips?

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Here is a good example from PuppetConf. The proposal is short, but he makes the talk sound interesting and outlines the specific items he planned to talk about. His bio is also short, but still tells me enough to show his credibility on the topic. I'll see if I can dig a few more examples up when I have more time.

Maybe other people have favorite examples that they could post?


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