How to Submit a Conference Talk

Speaking at conferences is a great way to share ideas and meet people - but actually getting the opportunity to do is a little more tricky and usually involves proposing a talk. In the last year I've attended IPC in Germany and PHP London, spoken at DPC in Amsterdam, submitted talks to and attended ZendCon, and helped select the sessions for phpnw - so I've seen it from all angles.

The first thing to say about submitting talks, is that there are no pre-requisites. You don't need to be published, well-known, or have letters after your name (in the PHP community, the latter is probably more hindrance than help). If you want to go to a conference, and there is a topic you'd like to share some thoughts on, then write them down and submit! A lot of conferences have a Call for Papers - usually this will be an online form where you put in your personal details and the details of the talk you'd like to give. If it sounds simple, that's because it really is ...

Proposing your talk

It can be tricky to know what to write in the boxes and how to sell your talk to the conference organisers. The call for papers should give information about the themes of the conference, the expected audience, and the kind of content they are looking for - so pay attention to this. Usually you'll be expected to submit an "abstract", this is a description of your talk that will be put on the schedule if you are accepted. A good way to get started with these is to read the abstracts from current conferences - these are the ones that got through the selection process and will give you a good idea of what you should say here. Its usual to also be asked to supply a biography, either when you submit your talk or when the talk gets announced as part of the conference schedule.

If there is room for additional information, then give it - and give the organisers as many opportunities as possible to feel like you would be a positive and safe addition to their event. I've seen a few variations on these but for the phpnw call for papers, we added a box which we didn't publish the contents of and where speakers could tell us why we should have them and/or their talk. This was illuminating, responses varied from "because this topic is so cool!" to "not sure really, thought it might be interesting though" and the unforgettable "meow" (that last one was from an entry that didn't get accepted - it was hard to tell if the speaker was taking the whole thing seriously or not).

My advice is to start planning your submission in plenty of time - take a look at the information that you will need to supply and make sure you have it all (and do write in the optional boxes). Its also a really good idea to bounce your idea off some other people, who can help proofread and point out any obvious problems with your submission - for example the time I tried to submit a talk to a PHP conference without the word "PHP" anywhere in my proposal ...

Getting your Talk Accepted

I have yet to successfully submit a talk via a Call for Papers and be accepted to speak at a conference - so I have no idea how to get talks accepted. If anyone else can add advice on this topic, that would be great :)

12 thoughts on “How to Submit a Conference Talk

  1. Excellent tips. Being accepted to two conferences recently through a CfP, I think I can second anything in this article :)

  2. Lorna, I'll add, what in my opinion is the #1 way to help yourself get accepted.

    Don't come up with '1 talk' that you really want to give and submit it.

    Instead, submit a ton of different talk ideas that you know you would be willing to give. The more ideas you give, the more the conference has to choose from, and the greater chance that you've submitted something unique that 3 other presenters didn't submit as well.

    Also, since many conferences (and in my opinion, all conferences should) cover some amount of travel expenses for the speakers ... conferences are often quite happy to get a speaker who is going to give 2 or 3 different talks. It means less speakers that they need to pay expenses for.

    So overall, come up with lots of ideas, submit them all, and hope that one of them is 'just exactly' what the conference was looking for.

  3. I've had talks accepted at two conferences now, and turned down for one more, so I'm hardly an expert at this.

    The first conference - php|cruise - I think I was accepted partly because I'd already been writing for Marco for php|architect. I was a known quantity to him. If I tried to submit to one of his conferences now, I'm not sure what would happen :)

    As you've been involved in selecting the talks for PHPNW, you'll be able to say better than me why my talk there has been selected :) My pitch for the conference was something topical (twitter and SMS services) combined with something I hoped would be different from the other submissions (end-to-end lifecycle instead of cool code features). It worked, but whether because or despite my pitch is something you're better placed to answer :)

  4. Great post, Lorna! The only things I would add are:
    1) that conf organizers like to see something *different* -- if you propose a talk that is similar to ones submitted by 4 other people, then your competition has gone up and your chances of being accepted have gone down.
    2) I think conf organizers also like when you speak directly to the specific theme or topics they're interested in.
    3) And to expand on your point of bouncing your ideas off other people (which is an excellent suggestion), submitters should keep in mind that they must sell themselves and not just the talk they're proposing. If the abstract comes in and is riddled with mistakes or overly confusing or complicated, the speaker's communication skills may be called into question.
    Cheers!

  5. Woo, lots of people dropping in with comments and advice - thanks everyone :)

    Stefan: thanks for the vote of confidence!

    Eli: I agree that lots of talks are good - to evaluate which I should actually submit I use a simple metric. If I could imagine myself talking enthusiastically about this topic at the bar, then I submit the talk - and if not, I don't!

    Stuart: You match all the criteria personally - local person, well known, speaking experience and PHP person. I also really liked the look of the talk, as Elizabeth said, different talks stand out.

    Elizabeth: The point about the speakers being as important as the actual talks struck me as well - if an organiser hasn't heard of you, then its hard to feel excited about having you contribute to the event!

  6. Interesting stuff.

    I've never actually been turned down for a PHP conference where I've submitted an abstract, but that's not because I have amazing star speaker quality (in fact I'd say 'far from it').

    I think I get the gigs because a) I can write, b) I can sell ideas, c) people know me, d) I tend to work in obscure and somewhat experimental areas - and e) if I don't think I have anything to contribute, I don't apply!

    I've no idea how important c) is. I do know that if I were a conference organizer it would be a consideration for around 50% of the available slots, and no more.

    One point to consider is that *most* conferences will ask for two presentations from each speaker, not just one. The exception is usually the keynote. So unless you're a potential keynote speaker, submitting a minimum of two abstracts is a good way to go.

  7. This is the best advice in this topic:

    "I agree that lots of talks are good – to evaluate which I should actually submit I use a simple metric. If I could imagine myself talking enthusiastically about this topic at the bar, then I submit the talk – and if not, I don’t!"

    Thnx :)

  8. Steph: I struggle with writing the abstracts, and I think that's a key skill that I have to work on. For now I'm compensating by dragging in anyone and everyone to help. I also think multiple submissions are a great idea, partly to give the organisers more choice, and partly I'd be more inclined to submit slightly further-out talks in company with serious and mainstream ones.

    Mahomedalid: It avoids me getting lots of follow-up questions on a topic I wasn't that bothered about to start with :)

  9. It's official, PHP North West 2010 is definitely happening ... and for that we'll need some people to pop along and give a talk! As in previous years, we'll first of all deal with selecting the papers for our main conference day, 9th October. Talks can

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