Writing a Killer Conference Submission

I’ve been participating and leading program committees for different technology conferences. The amount of submission I’ve read must be around 5,000+ and I’m still passionate about it. In this guide I want to share some insights about what makes a conference submission a killer submission. Let’s get started:

Does your topic fit?

Conference are looking for topics that are:

  • New – Is your talk about a new hot technology or method that everyone is speaking about right now? The committee love to have those in the program since it attracts mostly senior attendees and those are the ones that often get the budget to go to a conference. But I would also love to see talks like “Git 101” or “Kotlin for beginners” but I guess it’s harder to get accepted. Still worth a try.
  • Unique – If you’re not THE well known expert for a hot topic it’s also harder to get accepted. If you’re among 10 submissions on a new technology the competition is pretty tough. Try to find a unique topic that you’re passionate about.
  • Fit the track – At a lot of conferences you’re supposed to pick a track. Read the track description. Does your talk idea fit? The program committee often split up the efforts so different tracks are reviewed by different people. I’ve often seen a low score by a reviewers with the comment “Doesn’t fit”. Even though a lot of reviewers also just change the track by themselves, those submissions can fall through the cracks.

Some tracks might be more popular than others. If you’re an expert on many fields you could consider submitting to more unpopular tracks. At the moment conferences get a lot of submissions on Methodology, Programming Languages and Software Architecture so there is probably a lot of competition in these tracks.

The killer title

The title is the first thing a reviewer sees. Even though I guess every reviewer is reading the abstract to make a final call the title gives a first (and important) direction. I also believe that a lot of attendees JUST read the title. Have a killer title if you want a packed room.

What’s the anatomie of a good title? Here are some hints:

  1. It should summarize your content. What’s the talk about? Don’t just try to be too creative with the tile if it sacrifices the meaning of your talk. Titles like “Make Java great again” might sound cool but doesn’t say anything about the talk.
  2. Keep it short and snappy. Don’t create titles that you have to read 3 times in order to understand what the talk is about. You want to have a title that is short and clear. Don’t try to explain your whole talk in the title. Titles like “10 Things: How to be more productive with Koltin” are clear and easy to understand.
  3. Don’t be boring. Make your title interesting. Make it so people want to know more. Don’t just say: “Our experience with using Kubernetes”. Try to find the interesting things you learned and name the talk “Things you shouldn’t do with Kubernetes”
  4. Funny and clever – TBH, work on the 3 things above.

Write down 5 different titles and run those by your co-workers. Which talk would they visit? Spend as much time on your title as on your abstract. It’s your entrance ticket to get accepted. When the program committee discusses the talks it’s better to have an easy to understand and memorable title.

The abstract

Great, you got people’s attention with your title and they ended up wanting to know more what the talk is about. An abstract should still be written as a pitch or description. Not as a casual conversation with the readers. Yes, people are really doing it. They write: “I’ll first talk about __ and than I will explain ___ in depth. I’ll also have a lot of examples”… No, don’t do that.

An abstract serves two purposes: First: The committee decides to accept your submission based on the abstract. Second: The attendees might read it and choose to attend your talk over others.

Here is my recipe helping 100s of people get accepted at conferences:

  • Describe the problem. Why should people care? What is the real world issue that your talk is trying to make better? The people need to feel the pain. Make it obvious that they have a problem and you’re here to solve it. I always think that this a great way to start the conversation.
  • Describe why your solution will solve this problem. Please be concrete. What’s new with your solution? How does it solve the problem? What’s unique?
  • Give examples. I often miss this from a lot of submissions. It makes your talk real. How can people otherwise judge that you’re not talking about things they already know? The committee is more likely to accept your talk if it’s super relevant for the audience.
  • Will you do live coding? Will the session be interactive? You may want to consider give people hints about the format of your talk. Don’t do this if it’s slides only.
  • Wrap up and tell us how much impact the talk can have on the daily developer life. For people that are already using the solution / technology and for those how should use it or switch to it.

Also run the abstract by a couple of people. Find out if your audience understands what you will talk about. For non-native English speakers I would recommend to run your abstract by a grammar checker or ask a native speaker friend to review your description. It’s not only to make it 100% correct but often I’ve read through abstracts that I didn’t understand.

Your presentation skills

A lot of conferences ask for material of you presenting or would like to see previous slide decks. If you’re a frequent speaker this won’t be a problem. But what if you want to enter the speaker circle? Just do a quick 2-5 minute video of you presenting. It doesn’t have to be high quality. It’s for the program committee to judge your skills to explain a topic to the audience and how entertaining / interesting you’ll do it. Make sure the audio is on an OK level, e.g. not too much echo and you come across loud and clear. I’ve often asked new speakers to send me a video if the topic was super interesting but I wasn’t sure that the presentation skills were good enough for a big stage.

Especially if you’re planning to present in English but you’re not a native speaker it’s a good way to prove that your language level is good enough to be understood. That said: I reviewed a lot of talks for conferences in the UK and USA and maybe I’m a bit biased here.

Message to the committee

It seems you’ve made an impact if reviewers are looking at the additional fields like the message to the committee. Use that for your advantage. Give your submission the last push and win the committee over. Talk about your reputation, your knowledge in the specific field. Share more insights how the talk will look like. Maybe add an outline of your talk. Explain why you think this is a super relevant topic and the conference will be much more interesting when adding your talk to the program.

Your bio

One advice: Not too long. I personally look rarely at the bio of a speaker. I don’t see too much relevance to read what a person is interested in, what jobs they had, and what technologies they used throughout their career. If it’s one thing that I expect: They should be passionate about the topic and have some kind of experience in the specific area. Actually if a person puts in a submission I assume that the person knows what they talk about.

One or more submissions

Some conferences limit the amount of submissions per person. I personally submitted no more than 2-3 talks to get one slot at the end. Make sure not to pitch too many different topics. It makes you look like you’re not an expert in one of them. Don’t also submit 2 submissions on exactly the same topic. It makes you look like you’re trying out what resonates more with committee. It’s alright to submit a basic and advanced talk on the same topic. Makes actually sense.

Get inspiration

Alright, there were a lot of tips and information in this article. If you’re still unsure how to write a killer abstract look at web pages of conferences and read through the presentation titles and descriptions. What does really resonate with you? What style do you like? There is nothing bad in copying a description style (don’t copy the talk idea, though). There are thousands of examples out there. Get inspired and write your own. Good luck with your submissions.

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