Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

29 Mar 2016, 20:01 p.m.

Tips To Increase Your Conference Talk Acceptance Rate

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2016 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

This year I submitted talks to several tech conferences and got a higher acceptance rate than I had been used to. For instance, this year I will speak for the first time at OSCON and PyCon North America, conferences that had previously rejected my proposals.

Why did this happen? I am a more polished and experienced speaker than I was in previous years, yes; program committees can see more videos and read more transcripts of my past talks. I have a better résumé and more personal connections. And through practice, I've gotten past the "get ideas on the page" stage of writing conference proposals, and learned how to better suggest a useful talk relevant to the audience.

Those factors you can't replicate today. But some, you can. Here they are. I believe following these tips will increase the acceptance rate for your software conference talk submissions.

Learn what they need.

Check whether you already know someone involved in selecting talks for the conference or a sub-track. If you do, ask them if they have any topic gaps you could help fill. Maybe they've gotten no talks yet on, say, Python web frameworks other than Django; they might specifically encourage you. And even if you don't know the con-runners personally, check their social media presences, in case they've spoken there and specifically asked for more talks about certain topics, or more talks from people from underrepresented perspectives or groups (example).

If this conference has happened before, look at the previous year's schedule; look for the range of the possible. What is this conference's universe of discourse? This helps you match the audience's interests and helps you avoid duplicating a conference talk from last year. What topics are adjacent to the topics they already seem to have covered?

Speaking of duplication, here's my take on "repeating yourself":

Tell them if you gave the talk already.

If you've given the talk before, say so, and link to the text, transcript and video/audio. Having all this info ready in your comprehensive "past talks" page is handy (see below). They can try before they buy! If you gave the talk to a standing-room only crowd and great acclaim, say so! And even if that was not the case, if you've already given this talk at another conference, now they know that it was good enough for someone else already, which is a useful social signal. I delivered "HTTP Can Do That?!" at Open Source Bridge last year, and in 2016 PyCon North America and Great Wide Open accepted my proposal to give nearly the same talk.

Different people and subcommunities follow different norms or rules of etiquette in distinguishing rude repetitiveness from sensible re-use. You might be able to lead the same multi-hour skill-building workshop at one convention multiple years in a row. I don't think I'll be re-proposing "HTTP Can Do That?!" in 2017 at any conferences; a 2-year exposure window feels all right to me.

More on reuse:

Reuse your blog post that went viral.

Basing the talk on a blog post or article of yours that got a lot of responses is great. Point to it and to the long comment threads, response blog posts, etc. This demonstrates that the community is interested in your thoughts on this topic, and that you've already thought about it a lot. I have successfully done this by turning my "Inessential Weirdnesses in Open Source" blog post from 2014 into a talk LibrePlanet and OSCON accepted this year.

I know, I said I'd only give you advice you can replicate today. I have no secrets to share about the internet fame lottery. But you can think aloud in a blog post or a Model View Culture essay or LWN article, and get feedback that helps you sharpen your message. Or, if you found someone else's article super provocative, you can ask them to pair up with you and co-submit.

And in general:

Save what you write.

Look at the talk submission form and figure out what they'll want, but write your submission and save it somewhere else. This makes it easier to reuse your proposal for multiple conferences, and to have multiple proposals to submit to any one conference.


Submit two or three proposals to each conference.

If I want to speak at a conference, I usually submit multiple proposals on different topics. I have never heard of a conference that limits speakers to one submission per speaker. The first time it occurred to me to do this: 2009, when I saw that the Open Source Bridge submission system lets everyone see everyone else's submission. I saw that some men were submitting three, four, even five proposals. Oh, you can do that! I submitted three talks, and one got in.

For each of those proposals:

Specify the audience and the takeaways.

Some conference submission forms explicitly ask who the audience is for your talk, or what prerequisites you think they should have. Also, some ask for the objectives of your talk, or what the audience will take away. This is a great question. Give specific answers. Even if the conference doesn't ask for these things, I suggest you include them anyway -- put them in the abstract, additional info field, detailed description, or similar.

Two examples, from talks I successfully submitted. Example 1:

Audience: Developers with at least enough web development experience that they've used GET and POST, but who are unfamiliar with using DELETE or conditional GET

Objectives: Attendees will learn about HTTP 1.1 verbs, headers, response codes, and capabilities they did not know of before, with use cases, example code, and jokes. They will walk away feeling more capable of using more of the HTTP featureset and with a greater understanding of the underlying design of the protocol.

Example 2:

Takeaway: Open source contributors and leaders who are already comfortable with our norms and jargon will learn how to see their own phrasings and tools as outsiders do, and to make more hospitable experiences during their outreach efforts.

Prereqs: Attendees need to already be able to use core open source tools (like version control, IRC, mailing lists, bug trackers, and wikis), and be familiar with general open source culture and trends such as "+1", scorn towards Microsoft Windows, and the argument between copyleft and permissive licenses.

And in each proposal:

Provide a detailed outline.

Be concise in the short-form description, and then write out a big outline for the "more details" or longer abstract. For 45-minute talks I've provided detailed outlines/abstracts of 300-1200 words. The committee can easily infer that you have already thought a lot about this topic and are pretty prepped, and this that there's less risk of you giving a half-baked or rambling talk.

Finally, three more logistical tips:

Get the proposals in on time.

You know yourself. You have probably figured out how to avoid missing appointments and deadlines. Do that. Set up phone alarms, calendar reminders, a boomerang'd email, a Twitter feed subscription, a promise to an accountability buddy, what have you.

Publish a "My past talks" page.

Here's mine. List your past talks, including workshops and classes you've led and podcasts or interviews that feature you. Where possible, link to or embed sample video and audio so a conference can try before they buy. If you can, name the conference, place, and year for each one; in some cases it might make more sense to say "led weekly brownbag talk series, Name of Employer, 2010-2012" or similar. A longer public speaking résumé means you're less of a risk.

Customize your bio.

A good biographical paragraph establishes your credibility and likelihood to speak about the subject and say interesting things. For instance, I've taught interactive workshops before, and I've won an Open Source Citizen Award. Sometimes I put this kind of thing in my bio, sometimes in an "additional info" field. This is one place that a comprehensive "My past talks" page comes in handy. I can cut and paste stuff from that page into a customized bio that demonstrates why I'm a great choice to give this talk.

That's what I know so far.

I add my voice here to the multitude of resources on this topic, and especially commend to you Lena Reinhard's excellent and comprehensive talk prep guide and the weekly Technically Speaking email newsletter.

Thanks to Christie Koehler for the conversation that sparked this post!