Proposing a Compelling Fluent Talk

Intriguing reviewers and attendees

As the Fluent call for proposals nears its September 30th (Monday!) close, I’ve had more and more questions about what makes a good proposal. For Fluent, we’d like talks centered on the Web Platform and JavaScript, but the Call just lays out the broad story. What helps a proposal that’s in that neighborhood become a session? If you have an idea, how do you develop it?

Audience: Who are they? What do they want?

My first suggestion to anyone proposing a talk (or a book, or even a blog post) is to focus on audience. Who is going to be interested in what you want to discuss? Will they be at that event? What should they know before they get there? How can you convince them that it’s worth their time to join your conversation? Even for lectures and books, thinking of it as a conversation helps to focus planning.

A lot of people seem to think, for example, that their talks will appeal to “all levels” of attendees, but that only really works for a small share of sessions or workshops. Advanced developers don’t seem to enjoy sitting through a 30-minute session for five minutes of useful information, and beginners will leave if a seemingly welcoming tutorial turns out to require years of experience.

Also, you might think of attendees as your customers, but putting a sales pitch into your technical talk will lose you the audience and potential customers. Your product is almost never going to be the only solution to their problems. There may be a place for a sales pitch in a sponsor track that is clearly labeled, but otherwise, don’t do it. (Perhaps even more important, don’t smuggle a sales pitch into a talk that wasn’t labeled as one. The audience will groan and the conference organizers curse.)

Audience is also critical is you’re considering talking about something you’ve done. I do like to hear about case studies, but they don’t often fare well in competition with talks that promise a more direct return on attendees’ time. Try to focus on key technical pieces other people can apply in many contexts.

The pitch, for the Fluent CFP

When you describe your proposal, it’s best to think of it reaching the audience of the conference. Write it for them, not as a letter to the program committee.

The title is going to be the piece of your proposal that shows up first and frequently. Does it tell potential attendees what they’ll get from the talk? Or maybe it poses a question they suspect will lead to fruitful thought? Can they tell how much they need to know before they get there?

Different conferences ask for different things. The rest of this section is specific to the Fluent Call for Proposals, but may fit other conferences as well.

Fluent ask for a brief description – not Twitter’s 140-character limit, but a 400-character limit – that we can use for a quick look. Ideally, readers will know from that what they will get from your talk. Later, there’s also an abstract, which is a chance to provide a longer description. This helps both the committee and potential attendees who’ve decided your talk is worth a closer look.

Fluent is a fairly loosely tracked conference, but we try hard to help attendees find talks that fit their interest and experience level. Take your time selecting a topic (not too many!) and consider adding some short tags to help searchers find your talk on our site and in our mobile apps. Think about audience level broadly. We added a prerequisites box because of too many past mismatches. There’s a separate box for workshop prerequisites because workshops go far more smoothly when attendees can avoid installation glitches.

We have three kinds of talks this year: 30-minute sessions, 90-minute workshops, and 3-hour workshops. Workshops are primarily focused on teaching, and are often though not always hands-on, with attendees working on projects at their laptops. Sessions are more a chance to tell a story about a given corner of technology. (We’ll have a separate later call for 5-minute Ignite proposals, if that’s your preferred format.)

The Fluent CFP also asks whether a talk is more conceptual or how-to. Sometimes this can be obvious, and sometimes it’s difficult, but again, it’s largely asking about what the audience will get from the talk. We want to have a mix of both.

We ask for some information about you as well. If you’re new to speaking, or haven’t had your past talks recorded, the most daunting field may be the video. If you have talks online, pick one you like and put it there. If you don’t have one, just give us a short clip. Webcam video from your laptop is fine – we aren’t asking for production values, just a sense of how you get a message across.

There’s a general “tell us anything else you want us to know” field. If there’s something special about your talk, or a connection to other possibilities, or anything else, let us know.

There are a few last questions that make some people itch. We want to know when potential speakers might help us broaden our conference diversity. We want to know when speakers already have a connection to O’Reilly. (I’ll add, though, that if you’ve worked for another publisher, I’m happy to hear that too!) Finally, if someone encouraged you to submit a talk, let us know that as well.

The last question there will make some people itch less, but doesn’t affect your pitch. O’Reilly has been looking at proposals as a source for more than just conference talks – books, blog posts, and other opportunities might fit as well. If you just want your talk considered but don’t want us to bother you about anything else, that’s fine. (And it won’t affect your talk’s chances, promise!)

Then you’ll need to add information about the speaker(s). Make sure your bio reflects your connection to your talk! You don’t have to be a perpetual speaker to have a chance, and we’re always looking for newcomers as well.

You can also edit your proposals – if you see this now and want to change something you already submitted, changes are fine until the end of the call.

The wait

Once your proposal is in, it will take us a few weeks to sort through them. We may contact you with questions or requests for changes, or you may get a simple acceptance or rejection. Sadly for proposers, we have many more proposals than slots. If you get in, we’ll be happy to see you at the show, but if not, we hope you’ll try again sometime!

(We have a more comprehensive 68-page guide to speaking by our Strata co-chair Alistair Croll: Propose, Prepare, Present: How to become a successful, effective, and popular speaker at industry conferences. I don’t expect you to read it by Monday! Writing a proposal by then is more than enough.)

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