What does an effective talk proposal look like?

Update: You can view the slides from the CFP workshop here!

GoCon Canada is back for its second year, and we're hoping to build on last year's success and put together an even bigger, better conference for the Go community. To do that, we of course need some great talks to add to the program!

The CFP is open until 11:59 PM EST on February 14!

Writing talk proposals can be daunting, but it's not exactly an art: it's a science! There are specific patterns that strong talk proposals tend to follow, and in this blog post, we'll demystify the components of effective proposals so you can put your best foot forward.

Who should submit?

GoCon Canada is a 100% community-driven conference, so we want to hear from everyone who uses the Go programming language, at work or for personal projects. We are focused on growing the Go community in Canada, and in particular the Greater Toronto Area, so we want to feature as many local voices as possible. That said, we also are prepared to support speakers coming in from further afield, and we're committed to covering 100% of travel costs for out-of-town speakers. Details about travel support can be found in the CFP.

You don't need to be the foremost expert in your domain to submit a talk. In fact, we anticipate that our audience will have diverse levels of experience with using Go. Beginner-level and introductory talks, as well as experience reports, are welcome. The best proposals offer a unique perspective, which sets them apart from other talk proposals.

We're committed to building a diverse speaker lineup, as part of doing our role in making the Toronto tech community more inclusive and welcoming to people from all different backgrounds. We know that many tech conference speaker lineups do not reflect the demographics of the Go community that we want to build. If you're from an underrepresented group in tech, and/or it's your first time submitting, please reach out to us for any support that you need in getting your proposal over the finish line. We'd much rather you ask for help, than quietly decide to not submit anything at all. speakers@gocon.ca

Please note: We cannot offer any feedback after a proposal has been submitted. This would bias the review process, so if you need support, please reach out before you submit your proposal.

Hint #1: "Reveal your cards."

The number one mistake I see in talk proposals is submitters being mysterious about the content of their talk. By this I mean, the proposals contain statements like, "What are the four rules of simple design? You'll have attend this talk to find out!" Vagueness is fine for abstracts and short form fields with character limits, but when you're given the opportunity to expand on your ideas, your audience is the program committee, and we want to see evidence that you've thought about your content.

Hint #2: Err on the side of more details, not less.

In general, the more details you can provide in the submission about how you'll spend the 25 minutes you have onstage, the stronger your proposal will be. If you have an unlimited text field where you can provide extra details (and in GoCon's case, there is one!), you should strategically use the opportunity to say all the things you couldn't fit in the short abstract. Program committees generally want to see evidence of a few things:

  • You've spent some time thinking about this topic
  • You have an idea for what content you want to cover in 25 minutes
  • You've put some effort into the CFP process

If you want to go the extra mile, consider including a timeline in the proposal. Check out this blog post by Lindsey Kuper who co-organizes BangBangCon, discussing how to effectively write a timeline that discloses exactly how you'll spend your time onstage.

Hint #3: Tell a story.

My friend Nadia started speaking at conferences years before I did, and she gave me one of the best pieces of advice for successfully getting into conferences:

"In the proposal, tell me why this has to exist as a talk, and not a blog post."

A lot of technical talks end up being streams of information that many audience members would likely prefer to consume as a static document, such as a blog post or tutorial, rather than being fed in real-time. Just because a talk is technical does not make it mutually exclusive with the possibility of a narrative.

People love stories. Humans are hard-wired to love listening to things that contain a beginning, some sort of conflict, and an ending that resolves the conflict. Some people, like Nadia, are naturally talented storytellers, and they find a way to take technical content and weave it inside of an imagined story, like a detective hunting for a wayward bug in her program.

Many technical talks that are first-person experience reports are already more than halfway there. Take, for example, Sarah Wells' talk about an architectural migration, in which she spends the bulk of the time on explaining the nonstop deluge of challenges that her team ran into.

It's not just traditional story structure that engages an audience. Sometimes, you can take information that's out there, and consolidate it or reframe it in a new, interesting way. Take for example, Laura Nolan's SRECon Americas 2019 keynote, in which she reviews and categorizes some high-profile outages in the last few years. (An aside: the "postmortem" genre of stories about catastrophes and failures are inherently interesting.)

So, if you want to push your proposal to the next level, make it clear in your submission: Why should this content exist as a talk, and not a blog post?

Hint #4: Empathize with the audience.

Fundamentally, most people who attend GoCon are hoping to learn a few new things. Strong proposals should have clear, distinct audience takeaways, and these should be disclosed in the long description part of the CFP form. In the short abstract, try to summarize the takeaways at a high level.

One question that I always ask myself when I'm writing a new talk, is: "Would I choose to attend this talk, if it were at a multi-track conference?" Attending a talk should be enjoyable. Going through the process of developing and writing a talk should also be fun. One of the best ways to keep yourself on track throughout every stage of the process is to make sure that you're still having fun. Odds are, the audience will too.

Need further support?

If you're based in Toronto, please come out to our CFP workshop on January 30. If you're outside of the GTA, we'll publish the slides from that workshop as well as additional resources on our Twitter account. If you have any questions, or you're worried about your proposal, please get in touch with us for support. Reiterating because it's important: We'd much rather you ask for help, than quietly decide to not submit anything at all. speakers@gocon.ca

Please note: We cannot offer any feedback after a proposal has been submitted. This would bias the review process, so if you need support, please reach out before you submit your proposal.

Happy proposal-writing, and good luck. Hopefully we'll see lots of you in May!

This post was authored by Denise