How to Get Your Conference Proposal Accepted

David Keener, Speaking at RubyNation 2008I've been part of a team running a technical conference called RubyNation for the past three years. It's been a successful conference all three years, both in terms of profitability and its reception by conference attendees. This wasn't entirely an accident. We worked hard to make sure we had high-quality speakers with the kind of content that would be attractive to our intended audience, as well as making sure other conference aspects were solid, e.g. - venue, food, equipment, etc.

This experience has given me some insight into what it takes for an individual to secure a speaking engagement at a conference. In this article, I'll provide tips on how you can making your speaking proposal more attractive to conference planners, thereby increasing your odds of getting accepted as a speaker.

Practical Tips to Help You Get Accepted

  1. Your Proposal Needs to Be Solid: If you can't write a couple of paragraphs with good grammar and without typos, you probably can't do a good 40-minute talk either. Look at it this way. A speaking proposal consists of a title and an abstract. The abstract consists of a couple of paragraphs describing your talk. If you can't even put together a good abstract, you're a chowderhead and nobody's going to want to listen to you.

  2. You've Only Got a Limited Time: If we look at your proposal and it sounds like an abstract for a week-long class, you're not getting in. A conference talk has a set time limit, usually between 30 and 45 minutes. I've seen proposals where the individual listed so many topics that they were going to cover in the time period that nobody looking at the proposal thought it was even remotely feasible.

  3. Past Speaking Engagements Help: If we've seen you speak somewhere before, and you were good, we'll look favorably on a proposal. You do understand that the conference organizers actually go to local user groups (in our Washington DC area) and other conferences, right? If any of us have seen you do a good talk, even a Lightning Talk, it'll come up when we're evaluating proposals.

    The poster child for this is Bryan Lyles, a speaker from Baltimore, who gave a Lightning Talk at RubyNation 2008 that was just absolutely hilarious. As it turns out, two of our speakers fell through at that same conference. The first we knew about before the conference, and we had already engaged our backup speaker to fill the slot. But the second speaker bailed out immediately before the conference, and we needed a replacement. That replacement turned out to be Bryan Lyles, who had a talk on testing already prepared - you may have heard of his now-famous TATFT talk.

  4. Be Ready: If you have a talk prepared, opportunities to give it can pop up out of the woodwork. As Bryan Lyles found out, he had a talk ready and we had a need at RubyNation 2008, so he got to speak. Have something good prepared, even if it's only a Lightning Talk. Likewise at RubyNation 2009, one of our speakers got ill right before the conference, so Dave Bock, an experienced speaker, filled in with a talk on workflow systems that he had previously given at RubyConf.

  5. You're Probably Not As Famous As You Think You Are: Some people expect us to simply accept their proposal because they're obviously brilliant and we'd be fools not to accept them. These are the ones who demand to know why THEY have been denied a speaking opportunity when we turn them down. Look, folks, we don't get that kind of attitude from Chad Fowler, Dave Thomas, Rich Kilmer or others of similar stature in the Ruby community, and these people are draws. People come to conferences specifically to see them. You might be a brilliant Rubyist, but A) we can't see your halo from where we are, B) that doesn't mean we've heard of you, and C) that doesn't necessarily mean you're a good speaker. Attitude doesn't get you in. Deal with it.

  6. Give Us a Choice If You Can: If you have only one idea for a talk, and we don't like it, then you're not speaking. Heck, even if you have a good idea for a talk, it might get rejected. For example, you might have prepared an excellent talk on Cucumber, but if one of the primary Cucumber creators has also submitted a proposal for a similar talk, well, we're probably accepting his talk because he's an authority and you're not.

    If you have a couple talks ready, then let us know what they are. Maybe we'll like one of the other ones better, or it might fit a need in our schedule. At RubyNation 2010, we deliberately arranged a second-day track with four talks in a row on NoSQL databases, e.g. - a general overview of XML databases, a talk about MongoDB, etc.

  7. Don't Be Too Narrow: After a while, a lot of proposals that organizers receive begin to sound similar. "Similar" means that you're competing with others in that same topic space. Don't be afraid to venture off into virgin territory. You might even consider proposing something on a tangent, like a JQuery talk at a Ruby conference. A lot of Ruby on Rails developers are using JQuery now to provide dynamic, client-side features.

    The most popular talk at RubyNation 2010, as rated by attendees at, was Jeff Casimir's "How to Teach Anything to Anybody, Even Your Dev Team." It was a talk about educational strategies, had nothing directly to do with Ruby, and was probably the most "off the beaten path" topic we've ever scheduled.

You'll have a much better chance of getting your speaking proposal accepted at a technical conference if you take these practical tips into account when crafting your next proposal. Good luck!


David Keener By ubolt on Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:54 PM EST

Excellent advice. I've also heard that some of the bigger conferences are now requesting users to send a two minute video clip showing how they interact with an audience, which basically provides another way to screen speakers.

David Keener By dkeener on Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:59 PM EST

I mentioned in the article that getting a speaking engagement can be competitive. Here's a couple of examples with hard numbers. For 2010, RubyNation got 66 proposals to fill 29 slots. RailsConf, the largest conference (at 1500 people) in the Ruby/Rails space, had 63 slots. They got 378 proposals. They ended up with 85 speakers (some talks were panel discussions or had dual presenters) from 15 countries.

David Keener By Mel Riffe on Saturday, August 28, 2010 at 12:43 PM EST

This is brilliant advice. I would also like to suggest that usually giving talks at a local Users Group has a lower barrier to entry and will give you (the potential conference presenter) a chance to either a) practice your presentation before a conference appearance or, b) provide you with experience for when you do finally get a chance to speak at a conference. Oh, BTW, I'm the organizer for CVREG ( down here in Richmond, VA, and I get a lot talks but using the above suggestion/tactic. Plus, I'm always looking for new and interesting topics/speakers. Cheers, Mel

David Keener By dkeener on Saturday, October 02, 2010 at 01:58 AM EST

I agree, although you can start with other smaller venues, too. I started out doing public speaking by conducting brown bag sessions at work. When I thought my presentations were ready for an outside audience, I sought out some the local user groups. I spoke 4 times at the DCRUG the first year it was formed, as well as the NovaRUG and the NovaJUG. Then I moved on to conferences like RubyNation, the Scottish Ruby Conference, SunnyConf, etc.

David Keener By dkeener on Saturday, October 02, 2010 at 02:05 AM EST

If anybody is really serious about improving their public speaking skills, I also heartily recommend ToastMasters. It's a lot of fun, it's cheap and it's had a dramatic impact on my own public speaking skills.

David Keener By dkeener on Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 06:27 PM EST

Well, Jeff Casimir's 2010 talk WAS the most off-the-beaten-path talk that we've done at RubyNation...until I did my well-received talk on "Creating Killer Business Models" at RubyNation 2011.

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