How to write a winning conference talk submission


I just read and reviewed 250 conference submissions and boy are my eyes tired! There were a lot of excellent submissions, and it will be an awesome conference for sure, but that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the submissions that I didn't recommend, the ones that missed the mark in some way that might easily have been improved.

Most niches of our industry have a loose group of "the usual suspects": speakers who have developed a reputation over time, and are known to deliver good results. That said, I love to see new speakers emerge; they're not only fresh faces, they also bring fresh ideas and new perspectives! I have to say, the more seasoned speakers generally didn't make the mistakes explained in this article. How many great new speakers will be turned away because they didn't know how to write a good abstract? I'm hoping this article will help!

Here are 6 suggestions for improving your next conference submission, especially if you're new to the speaking game:

  1. Start with learning objectives. Unless you're a major celebrity, people aren't going to the conference to see you; they actually want to learn something. So don't start by thinking about your presentation, start by thinking about the audience. What can you teach them that will help them the most? And then focus that into maybe 3-5 learning objectives that spell out what the audience will learn.

    Learning to do something is more impactful than just understanding it theoretically, so try to write your objectives that way. For example, instead of "Attendees will learn what aardvarks like to eat," make it actionable: "Attendees will learn to plan and deliver a healthy diet to their pet aardvarks."

    Then make sure that the title and abstract reflect these learning objectives. This is the value you're offering to people who attend your session; what could be more important?

  2. Be specific in your title and abstract. One or two sentences isn't enough of an abstract, nor is a long rambling string of hype and generalities. As a reviewer, I didn't have enough information to evaluate overly general abstracts.

    Your title and abstract not only sell the talk, they also help the audience choose sessions they'll find useful. I once did a talk with a very cool sounding title that was subject to interpretation; some attendees loved it, but a lot of people commented they were expecting something else. My mediocre ratings taught me an important lesson: be specific!

    For example, instead of saying only that the session will teach the best way to feed your aardvark, give more detail. "In this session, you will learn about an aardvark's nutritional needs, the nutrients found in different varieties of ants, termites, and aardvark food, and the tradeoffs between feeding live insects vs. packaged aardvark chow."

    If you indulge in grand statements such as "Everything you need to know about Aardvarks", it's doubly important that you back that up with specifics! Make sure the reviewer, who is probably an expert zoologist in this case, is convinced you're really covering everything the conference audience will need to know!

  3. Check your spelling and grammar. You'd think this would go without saying, but there were a surprising number of really glaring errors. One talk had two spelling errors in the title!

    Now I don't mean to be picky, but if a submitter can't do a spell check on the title, how much polish are they going to put into their presentation? If they can't construct a sentence in proper English, how well will they communicate with an English speaking audience? If the conference's primary language is a second language to you, please don't be intimidated; your varied background might make your talk extra valuable! But do yourself a favor and ask a friend or colleague to review your submission before you send it.

  4. Submit the right number of talks. If you're submitting to a community event, they often make it part of their mission to encourage new speakers and accept as many as possible. That's good news if you're new to the game! But it also means they'll probably only take 1 or maybe 2 talks from any one speaker. Submitting 15 will just bog things down and create more work for volunteers.

    On the other hand, if you're submitting to a conference that pays your travel expenses, it's probably not worth it unless they get 2 or 3 talks out of each speaker. So it's worth submitting a few more options.

    Don't submit a bunch of talks to "see what sticks," go with topics that are current, likely to help the kind of people who attend the conference, and in which you have enough expertise to know and teach the best approach.  Also, always go with topics you're passionate about; that will show through and make your submission and presentation better!

  5. Start small. If you're just getting started, start at free events and user groups. Once you build up some of those, you can start to submit to bigger, paid events.

    A good way to break into the next level of speaking is to co-present with a more established speaker. That's how I graduated from the community stuff (which doesn't require much or any speaking experience) to paid conferences. You'll learn from your co-presenter, and it will help you get your foot in the door. (Thanks Arpan!)

    Generally once you've spoken at a conference and gotten decent reviews, it's a lot easier to get invited back.

    By the way, in the 250 sessions I just reviewed, I didn't ding anyone for being light in their speaking bio. But I know at the end of the day, when someone has to pick one out of several submissions on the same topic, most commercial conferences will go with a more proven speaker.

  6. Be careful when reusing talks. This is the only blunder I saw from the more experienced speakers!

    Now for what it's worth I think it's perfectly OK to present a topic more than once; it's way too much work otherwise! Only the absolute top tier conferences expect you to submit exclusive, never before presented topics. My rule is I never repeat the same talk at the same conference in the same city (and of course I won't repeat it if the topic has gone out of date). If the audience is likely to be different, repeating can be a good thing; it helps you hone your message and perfect your demos.

    But when you do repeat a talk, make sure you keep it up-to-date! I saw submissions where the title was updated to the latest version of the technology, but the abstract still mentioned the old stuff and really looked out of date.

I'll close with my personal formula for writing a good abstract for a non-academic conference. Take it with whatever sized grain of salt you like, but here it goes. Though it's probably not obvious at first glance, my abstracts have 3 sections:

  • Problem statement: What problem(s) will this talk help to solve? This is the hook, the value that your attendees will get for spending their time and money to be there.

  • What will you learn: These are the learning objectives. They can be a simple list, maybe even bullet points, or some creative prose - but the reader should understand specifically what they'll be able to do at the end of the session that they couldn't at the beginning. And if you're going to talk about technology, include the details: what specific products or tools, and what versions will you cover?

  • Call to action: This might just be a sentence encouraging people to attend. It should be short, and is a good place to build excitement or tie back to the problem statement

I hope this is helpful and that it opens the doors for more speakers to bring their ideas and approaches to the next conference!


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