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Tips for Replying to A Call for Papers or A Call for Speakers

The following is a guest post written by Jennifer Bourn. With 21 years experience as a graphic designer, 15 years experience as a web designer, 14 years as a creative agency owner, and 11 years as a blogger, Jennifer Bourn has worked with hundreds of service-based businesses to build brands and establish profitable online platforms. She also co-organizes the Sacramento WordPress Meetup and WordCamp Sacramento.

After being the lead organizer for WordCamp Sacramento for two years, speaker wrangler for two years, managing the program for a year, and speaking at several WordCamps and non-WordPress related conferences myself, I have seen a lot of amazing and a lot of awful speaker submissions. Some speaker submissions have been from people I know personally — people I want to choose and say yes to — but ultimately couldn’t because their submission was subpar.

It’s incredibly tough to both apply to speak and select speakers from applications.

With that in mind, I shared a Twitter thread yesterday with tips for replying to a Call for Papers or a Call for Speakers that will help you get your next talk submission accepted and it is summarized for your convenience below:

If your title is confusing, weird, unclear, too cutesy, or it feels like you put no effort into it, that will work against you. Organizers want talks attendees will be interested in and excited for. It must be easy to understand what the talk is about based on the title alone.

If your talk description is all about you, is only one sentence long, is sarcastic/unprofessional, isn’t aligned with the event focus/theme, or it’s totally self-serving, you should rethink things. Your talk isn’t about you, it’s about helping attendees expand their knowledge and move the needle and helping organizers host a successful event.

It is never ever a good idea to disparage or put down a person, job, tool, piece of software, or anyone/anything to make your point or make your topic interesting. If the only way you can communicate your point is through negativity, reconsider the topic. Being controversial may have been a draw in years past, but now it’s a risk most organizers aren’t willing to take.

Consider that someone else (or several people) may submit a talk on the exact same subject. Your title and description need to convince organizers why your submission should be picked over the other person’s submission.

Consider that if you submit multiple talks, none of them may be selected if your titles aren’t interesting and your descriptions are not descriptive. It must be clear what the talk is about and what the takeaways are, and how this talk will benefit the attendees.

Always think about how you can make the organizers’ or event planners’ jobs easier and follow instructions. For example, if they ask for bios in third-person, provide your bio in third-person. If they ask for full name, provide your full name.

Spell the name of the conference, software, industry, etc. correctly in your speaker application. Want to speak at a WordPress event? Double check that you’ve capitalized the P and proofread your submission.

Look at the topics requested by the event organizers. Submit talks on those topics and your chances of being selected will be higher because they are telling you what they want. Lists of preferred topics are usually included because that is what their local community has specifically requested.

Don’t submit the same talk you’ve submitted 10 times to other events. Put in some effort. Look at the event theme and submit something that relates to it or customize the talk title/description to include the theme.

Look at the past event schedules, agenda, or programs. Look at the types of talks they accept. For example, if a WordCamp has only had 2-3 business related talks in the past four years, it might be a sign they aren’t looking for business talks and want talks focused more on using WordPress.

Look at the topics the event has already covered in previous years. Then find the gap and find something they haven’t already heard or done.

Steer clear of the marketing hype. Avoid topics related to killing it, hustling, crushing, and dominating. Don’t refer to yourself as a guru or a thought leader (that’s only cool when other people say it about you). Avoid negativity, sarcasm, and assumptions about the audience.

If organizers ask how or why you’re qualified to talk on the topic being submitted:

  • It’s okay to be new/just learning — fresh voices are awesome.
  • Don’t just copy and paste your bio into the field. They already have your bio and that’s not what they meant or what they want.

Never assume the people reviewing your application are experts on your talk topic or have the same technical background you do.

Avoid submitting a talk that is all about one piece of software — i.e. one plugin — especially if the software is premium and requires an investment. An entire session dedicated to a paid plugin 1) excludes those who have not purchased it or cannot purchase it and 2) will apply to few attendees. Instead, consider a compare/contrast presentation that covers both free and paid options or a talk that introduces attendees to multiple options.

It’s okay to submit opinion pieces as talks, but be careful to NOT position your opinion or approach as the only one or the right one, when there are other options. Often there isn’t one right way (unless it’s technical and there is one right way).

If the submission form asks what skill level audience your talk is the best fit — Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced — don’t pick them all. That isn’t helpful. The same is true if they ask who your talk is aimed at — designers, developers, or users, etc.

Organizers for events like WordCamps need to satisfy a diverse audience. The attendee makeup often ranges from those who make a living with WordPress all the way to newbies who just learned what WordPress is a few days ago, so talks at and for every skill level are needed and valued. Don’t skip applying because you think your talk isn’t advanced enough.

If there is a ‘notes to the organizer’ field in the talk submission form, communicate that you’re open to suggestions or making tweaks to the talk focus to ensure it’s a great fit for their audience. Often a talk being reviewed is close to what they want, but it needs a small tweak to be selected.

If something funky happened when you hit submit, don’t be afraid to submit your talk again. Organizers would rather have duplicate submissions than miss your submission. Also, it’s okay to reach out to confirm your submission was received.

Don’t skip applying to speak because you don’t think you know enough yet or don’t have enough experience yet. Everyone has value to contribute and fresh perspectives are always appreciated. Plus, there are people who just discovered or figured out the thing you want to talk about exists — I guarantee you can help them.

Behind the scenes organizers work hard to create a diverse lineup of speakers that provides representation for everyone in the community. Organizers can ask, beg, plead, and do loads of outreach, but ultimately, they are limited by who is willing to apply and/or who is willing to accept an invite to speak. So please say yes and apply.

When organizers make the offer to help you brainstorm talk ideas, craft a talk title/description, and even create your slide deck or watch your practice, say yes. Take them up on the offer. Asking for help doesn’t make you any less awesome. There are a lot of people who are incredibly talented and smart with great value to share but find it difficult to put what they know into a talk format. If that’s you, you’re not alone and there are people who want to help.

Interested in trying your hand at speaking for the first time?

Every event has limited space. When securing rooms for multi-track events and planning the schedule, organizers need to be able to split attendees across the different rooms/tracks. This means they need competing talks in each track that will be a draw and attract attendees. No one wants one full room and one empty room. No one.

If you don’t get selected, don’t get down on yourself. Often the selection choice has nothing to do with you and is simply a matter of many submissions on the same topic(s), needing to balance topics across disciplines to serve the range of attendees or skill sets, and looking for more diverse representation in the speaker lineup.

If the event is local to you, always apply. Many times event/conference organizers want to fill the speaking spots (or at least half of them) with local people from their community or region and you’ll have a leg up on the out-of-towners. Similarly, if there is a meetup group in the area tied to the event/conference, go to the meetup and get to know the organizers and other attendees.

New to a subject/topic? Just learning it? No problem! Consider submitting a talk reviewing your experience as a new user. Share surprises and obstacles encountered, lessons learned, and suggestions for improvement. This can be hugely valuable for advanced users who tend to what new users deal with and it can provide a different perspective and voice.

Want to learn a topic better? There’s no better way than to teach others about it. Submit the talk, do the work to learn it, and teach everything you’ve learned so far. For example, if you want to build a membership site, submit a talk on how to choose a membership plugin, document your research in finding the right plugin, and share what plugins you reviewed, what criteria you used for evaluation, what you discovered (pros/cons), and which you ended up choosing.

Never underestimate the power of awareness. Consider pitching a talk that presents options to expand attendees awareness of what is available or possible and gives them a starting place to research things on their own.

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