Proposing a Compelling OSCON Talk

Intriguing reviewers and attendees

The OSCON call for proposals closes on January 30th. I’ve seen some great explanations of how to write a conference proposal generally, and my co-chair Matthew McCullough has an excellent presentation on how to write proposals and presentations:

Tailoring talks to specific conferences sometimes takes a bit more. For OSCON, we’d like talks centered on the Open Source computing ecosystem, 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 40-minute session for five minutes of new useful information, and beginners will leave if a seemingly welcoming tutorial turns out to require years of experience.

Also, while you might think of attendees as your customers, 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. Your experience is key, but don’t just tell the story of how you acquired it. Tell the story of what you made possible, not just the parts you assembled. Focus on what you learned, what surprised you, and key technical pieces other people can apply in many contexts.

OSCON is the Open Source Convention. That doesn’t mean your talk has to evangelize free and open source licenses, but it will certainly help your proposal if there’s a link. Talks about open source projects and tools are obviously welcome. Techniques are also useful. Sales pitches for commercial products that lack a strong connection to the open source ecosystem won’t go over well with an audience expecting OSCON.

Attendees are generally technologists, with a solid majority of developers. They’re eager to learn more but also fairly skeptical or ungrounded claims or promises. Many of them are looking for new tools and techniques they can add to their core set, and many of them are also creating tools and exploring new techniques.

The pitch, for the OSCON 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? Think of the title, and only the title, showing up on a concise schedule. Will people know why to attend? (Or not attend?)

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

OSCON asks 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 is critical for the committee and guides potential attendees who’ve decided your talk is worth a closer look.

OSCON has a lot of tracks, as we try hard to help attendees find talks that fit their interest and experience level. Take your time selecting a topic. Stick with just one or two that are most important—that makes it easier for both attendees and reviewers to navigate the huge list of possibilities. 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 two primary kinds of talks this year: 40-minute sessions and 3-hour Tutorials. Tutorials 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. You can suggest other options—maybe something you want to do at lunch, or an event?—by using the additional notes field at the very bottom of the form.

The abstract is your chance to tell the full story of your talk. It shouldn’t be the contents of every slide, but a fuller discussion of what you’ll be presenting and why it’s compelling. When attendees read your description, they should know what to expect to learn from the session and why it’s worth doing.

You should also consider adding some short tags to help searchers find your talk on our site and in our mobile apps.

Audience level can be tricky. In some sense attendees are usually there to learn about what you’re describing. The level, though, is more about how much prior background they need to have to benefit from your talk. The prerequisites field gives you a chance to provide more detail. (Tutorials get an additional prerequisites field later for more detail on this like software installation.)

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.

We want to know when potential speakers might help us broaden our conference diversity. We also 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!)

If you’re proposing a tutorial, the tutorial prerequisites field lets you describe what you expect attendees to already have. It might be knowledge, or it might be installed software and frameworks.

The next question doesn’t affect your conference pitch, but may (or may not lead) to other things. O’Reilly has been looking at proposals as a source for more than just 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!)

There’s a general “Additional Notes” field. If you want to try a new format, if there’s something special about your talk, or anything else, let us know.

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. )

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