How to submit a successful conference proposal

Perhaps you would like to speak at an international software conference… there are many wonderful, friendly conferences around the world, and speaking to their audiences is fun and very rewarding.

However, it's difficult not to notice that while there are often plenty of western speakers at African conferences, there are far fewer African speakers at western events.

The purpose of this article is to change that!

To speak, you must be selected

In order to speak, first you have to be selected to speak - and that's not so easy. For most conferences, many people submit proposals to the CFP ("Call for Proposals"), but only a few are selected - sometimes as few as one in ten or more.

What's more, many of the other speakers will be experienced speakers who have learned over several years how to make the best possible speaking proposal. So, you're likely to be facing stiff competition.

This guide will help you create a better speaking proposal, so you have a better chance of being selected.

What the committee chooses

The committee makes a selection of:

  • speakers
  • talks

that are:

  • good
  • new (for the audience)
  • different from each other

So, your description of yourself and your talk must be good and new and different from the others.

With that in mind, let's consider some of the questions that you will face in the Call for Proposals form.

The Call for Proposals form

The CFP will ask you to provide a number of things, which will include:

  • a title
  • a description of your talk
  • description of yourself

The title

Make it catchy and memorable. For example, suppose that your talk is about debugging. Fixing bugs in software is a very dull title, but I am a hunter: two strategies for tracking down bugs sounds much more exciting - and it can be about exactly the same topic.

It's fine to put yourself in the title in this way - the talk should be about what you know and do, not a generic description that could be obtained from anywhere or anyone.

And importantly, just making the title intriguing and lively will help make you think in intriguing and lively ways while you are preparing your talk.

No programmer gets away without having to debug their own code, so the topic of debugging is always of interest. But which of these titles will intrigue the talk selection committee? 

  • Fixing bugs in software
  • I am a hunter: two different strategies for tracking down bugs

What if you used some basic Python at work to solve a problem - which of these titles suggests a story that other people would be interested in hearing?

  • Using Python to analyse factory production data
  • Confessions of a factory production manager who dared to learn Python

It's always better to hint at your perspective, and challenges and even limitations in your title. The second title here already suggests an interesting story that people will want to hear more about.

Or maybe, you think Python is extremely important and you want to explain why. Which of these sounds more appealing?

  • Python: a language every programmer should know
  • Python literally saved my life

The first title doesn't stand a chance of being selected at a Python conference. But you could present the same material by framing it in an interesting personal story, and then it suddenly looks much more promising.

Perhaps you're a relative beginner. That's tricky, because of course many other speakers will be experts. Still, beginners can still have insights that are worth sharing, or insights related to other relevant skills they have, and they can also remind more experienced programmers about important things they may have forgotten. In that case, which of these should we choose?

  • Python as a beginner
  • I still don’t know much about programming, but I do know three important things that you might not

You'll notice that in each case, the better title is more specific, more personal and more narrow.

What's more, you'll find that a title that manages to be specific, personal and narrow helps make your topic go in the right direction too.

The talk description

Just as with your title, in your talk description you should also be specific, personal and narrow.

What specifically, exactly, will you talk about? By all means give a complete, timed breakdown of your talk - apart from anything else, it shows you have thought it through and are taking it seriously (in fact, some conferences require you to do this). The more detail you can give, the better.

Experienced speakers know that longer, more detailed talk proposals to better than brief ones.

Never hesitate to bring in your own personal perspective and experience. After all, if it's not personal to you, why should you be the person selected to talk about this subject? Unless you're a top expert on the subject, your personal angle is where the insights and interest will come from.

Be narrow. Don't be tempted to think that you need to be comprehensive, or show that you know about the whole field. Just say: I will discuss x, but not y or z.

However narrow your focus, it's probably not narrow enough - the more sharply you focus on your subject, the better.

Your description of yourself

This is your chance to say who you are, in such a way that the committee will consider you a good choice for their roster of speakers.

The two single most important things:

  • you don’t need to impress the committee
  • don’t forget that you are unique

You might imagine that - especially if you are not an expert - you need to demonstrate your expertise. But you don't. In fact, trying to do so is to play a game that you can't win; there will almost always be someone more expert than you.

By all means, mention what you have achieved, it can be useful to show who you are. But equally useful will be to describe what you do ("I am a student") and what you'd like to do ("I want to introduce Python to my office colleagues who work in data analysis") even if you don't think it sounds very impressive. Far too many people create long lists of minor achievements in their descriptions, in the hope that it will make them sound like a worthy candidate - at the expense of simply describing themselves.

On the other hand, very few seem to realise that the differences between them and other people are what matter - it's the differences that will make you stand out.

There'll be numerous world-class experts, top web developers, creators of famous libraries and other impressive people submitting talks to a particular conference. But if (for example) you do your Python programming at a shoe factory in Lagos, or you're a Zimbabwean teacher who runs after-school coding sessions for girls, or you're a Namibian physicist who does Python at an astronomical observatory in the desert - you're pretty much guaranteed to be the only one of those. It could even be that you're the first-ever African speaker to propose a talk at that conference.

Take advantage of the fact that at many conferences there have not been a lot of African speakers with African perspectives.

An example

This story is a real-life example, though some details have been changed.

A major western Django conference received a proposal from a programmer in Lagos, on using models and forms in Django - in fact, it was titled Using forms and models in Django. The description was a comprehensive discussion of the subject, starting with the basics and moving onto more advanced topics. The speaker clearly knew the subject reasonably well, and made a lot of effort to show this in his proposal and to impress the committee with his knowledge.

The proposal was rejected. Anyone at a Django conference could be expected to know about Django models and forms already. The talk wasn't going to say anything that wasn't already covered in almost every Django tutorial - there was nothing new in it at all, it was in fact just a lecture on using Django. People don't come to Django conferences to hear that.

But, in the last line of the talk description, the submitter mentioned, almost casually: "I use Django at the shoe factory where I work, to solve problems we had on the production line." That seemed to him like a minor detail - but that should have been the entire focus of his talk: How I used Django to solve production line problems at a Lagos shoe factory would have been an excellent title and topic, and would have been selected immediately. The Django audience would have been thrilled to hear about this story, about something new to them, from a perspective most of them had never heard about.

They don't need to be taught how to use forms and models, but learning someone's Django story, even a story about the most basic use of Django, or about the mistakes a beginner programmer made, would be exciting, interesting and novel.

Sadly, this prospective speaker tried to be general, impersonal and broad, instead of specific, personal and narrow. He thought he had to be impressive, instead of being himself. He didn't realise that one of the most valuable things in his favour was his marvellous unique perspective and experience.

When you come to make your own conference talk proposals, remember these principles and try to apply them. And, with perseverance and some luck, African programmers will start to feature much more often at international Python conferences.