Tips for Effective Session Submissions at Technology Conferences

Several of us go through the process of submitting talks at a technology conference. This requires thinking of a topic that you seem worthy of a presentation. Deciding a topic can be a blog by itself, but once the topic is selected then it involves creating a title and an abstract that will hopefully get selected. The dreaded task of preparing the slides and demos after that is a secondary story, but this blog will talk about dos and don’ts of an effective session submission that can improve your chances of acceptance.

What qualifies me to write this blog?

I’ve been speaking for 15+ years in ~40 countries, around the world, in a variety of technology conferences. In early years, this involved submitting a session at a conference, getting rejected and accepted, and then speaking at some of the conferences. The sessions were reviewed by a Program Committee which is typically a bunch of people, expert in their domain, and help shape the conference agenda. For the past several years, I’ve participated in Program Committees of several conferences, either as an individual member or leading the track with multiple individual members.

Now, I’ve had my share of rejects, and still get rejected at conferences. There are multiple reasons for that such as too many sessions by a speaker, more compelling abstract by another speaker, Program Committee looking for a real-life practitioner, and others. But the key part is that these rejects never let me down. I do miss the opportunity to talk to the attendees at that conference though. For example, I’ve had rejects from a conference three years in a row but got accepted on the fourth year. And hopefully will get invited again this year 😉

Lets see what I practice to write a session title/abstract. And what I expect from other sessions when I’m part of the Program Committee!

Tips for Effective Session Submission

  1. No product pitches – In a technology-focused conference, any product, marketing or seemingly market-ish talk is put at the bottom of the list, or basically rejected right away. Most vendors have their product specific conference and such talks are better suited there.
  2. Catchy title – Title is typically 50-80 characters that explain what your talk is all about. Make your title is catchy and conveys the intention. Program Committee will read through the entire submission but more likely to look at yours first if the title is catchy. Attendees are more likely to read the abstract, and possibly attend the talk, if they like the title.Some more points on title:
    1. Politically correct language – However, don’t lean on the side of making it arcane or at least use any foul language. You must remember that Program Committee has both male and female members and people from different cultures. Certain words may be appropriate in a particular culture but not so on a global level. So make sure you check global political correctness of the title before picking the words.
    2. Use numbers, if possible – Instead of saying “Tips for Java EE 7”, use “50 Tips in 50 Minutes for Java EE 7”. This talk got me a JavaOne 2013 Rockstar Award. Now this was not entirely due to the title but I’ve seen a few other talks with similar titles in JavaOne 2014. I guess the formula works 😉 And there is something about numbers and how the human brain operate. If something is more quantified then you are more likely to pay attention to it!
  3. Coherent Abstract – Abstract is typically 500-1500 characters, some times more than that, that describes what you are going to do in your session. Session abstracts can differ based upon what is being presented. But typically as a submitter, I divide it into three parts – setup/define the problem space, show what will be presented (preferably with an outline), and then the lessons learned by the attendees. I also include any demos, cast studies, customer/partner participation, that will be included in the talk.

    As a Program Committee member, I’m looking at similar points and how the title/abstract is going to fit in the overall rhythm of the conference.Some additional points about abstract since that is where most of the important information is available.

    1. WIIFM (Whats In It For Me) – Prepare an abstract that will allow the attendees to connect with you. Is this something that they may care about? Something that they face in their daily life? Think if you were an attendee, would you be interested in attending this session by reading the abstract? Think WIIFM from attendee’s perspective.
    2. Use all the characters – Conferences have different limit of characters to pitch your abstract. The reviewers may not know you or your product at all and you get N characters to pitch your idea. Make sure to use all of them, to the last Nth character.
    3. Review your abstract – Make sure to read your abstract multiple times to ensure that you are giving all the relevant information. Think through your presentation and see if you are leaving out any important aspects. Also look if the abstract has any redundant information that will not required by the reviewers. You can also consider getting your abstract peer reviewed.I’m always happy to provide that service to my blog readers :-)
    4. Coordinate within team – Make sure to coordinate within your team before the submission – multiple sessions from the same team or company does not ensure that the best speaker is picked. In such case we rely upon your “google presence” and/or review committee’s prior knowledge of the speaker. Its unfortunate if the selected speaker is not the most appropriate one.

    Make sure you don’t write an essay here, or at least provide a TLDR; version. Just pick the three most important aspect of your session and highlight them.

  4. Hands-on Labs: Hands-on labs is where attendees sit through the session from two to four hours, and learn a tool, build/debug/test an application, practice some methodology, or something else in a hands-on manner. Make sure you clearly highlight flow of the lab, down to every 30 mins, if possible. The end goal such as “Attendees will build an end-to-end Java EE 7 application using X, Y, X” or “Attendees will learn the tools and techniques for adopting DevOps in their team”. A broad outline of the content is still very important so that Program Committee can understand attendees’ experience.
  5. Appropriate track – Typically conferences have multiple tracks and as a submitter you typically one as a primary track, and possibly another as a secondary. Give yourself time to read through track descriptions and choose the appropriate track for your talk. In some cases, the selected track may be inappropriate, either by accident, or some other reason. In that case, Program Committee will try their best to recategorize the talk to an appropriate track, if it needs to. But please ensure that you are filing in the right track to have all the right eyeballs looking at it. It would be really unfortunate, for the speaker and the conference, if an excellent talk gets dropped because of being in the inappropriate track.
  6. Use tags – Some conferences have the ability to apply tags to a submission. Feel free to use the existing tags, or create something that is more likely to be searched by the Program Committee. This provides a different dissection of all the submissions, and possibly some more eyes on your submission.
  7. First time speaker – If you are a newbie, or a first time presenter, then consider paying close attention to the CFP sections which gives you an opportunity to toot your horn. Make sure to include a URL of your video presentation that has been done elsewhere. If you never ever presented at a public conference or speaking at this conference for the first time, then you can consider recording a technical presentation and upload the video on YouTube or Vimeo. This will allow the Program Committee to know you slightly better. Links to slideshare profile are recommended as well in this case. Very often the Program Committee members will google the speaker. So make sure your social profile, at least Twitter and LinkedIn, are up to date. Please don’t say “call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx to find out the details” :-)
  8. Run spell checker – Make sure to run spell checker in everything you submit as part of the session. Spelling mistakes turn off some of the Program Committee members, including myself 😉 This will generally never be a sole criteria of rejection but shows lack of attention, and only makes us wonder about the quality of session.

Never Give Up!

If your session does not get accepted, don’t give up and don’t take it personally. Each conference has a limited number of session slots and typically the number of submissions is more, sometimes way more, than that. The Program Committee tries, to the best of their ability, to pick the right sessions that fits in the rhythm of the conference. You’ve done the hard work of preparing a compelling title/abstract, submit at other conferences. At the least, try giving the talk at a local Java User Group and get feedback from the attendees there. You can always try out Virtual JUG as well for a more global audience.

Even though these tips are based upon my experience on presenting and selecting sessions at technology conferences, but most of these would be valid at others as well.

If your talk do get approved and you go through the process of creating compelling slides and sizzling demos, the attendees will always be a mixed bunch 😉

Attendees in a Conference Session

Enjoy, good luck, and happy conferencing!

Any more tips to share?

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