Jennifer Pahlka

I’ve just read (or in some cases skimmed) all 691 submissions that came in through our Web 2.0 New York call for participation. There’s some truly great stuff in there, and I feel a little like a Harvard admissions officer; we’ll accept fewer than 1 in 10 submissions, which means that there are literally hundreds of excellent talks that we will decline. I’m thrilled and amazed at the interest in the event, especially given the somewhat early deadline, but saying no to talented, engaged, and knowledgeable would-be speakers is no fun.

I will say, however, that there were also a fair number of submissions that might have been good, but never made it past the first cut. One of the most common questions I hear is why wasn’t my session chosen?, so while the 691 are all fresh in my mind, and inspired by Jeremiah Owyang’s post on How to moderate a panel, here’s my best advice when making a speaking submission.

A caveat: I don’t purport to speak for the entire conference industry here. I’m talking specifically about the Web 2.0 Expo events, and I think this is probably good advice for other TechWeb/CMP conferences (including my old haunt, GDC) and O’Reilly conferences, and probably many others, but every event organizer has different goals and different measures.

My Top 5 Dos:

Read examples. Before you start writing, read examples of sessions on the website for our current conference. It will give you a good sense of the kinds of tones, angles, and topics that tend to fit the event. We try to avoid repeating the exact topics from event to event, so use this as background only.

Tell us what you are actually going to talk about. Don’t just set up the question, tell us (briefly) what the answers are. We’d like to know where you’re going with talk, and what conclusions you’ve drawn.

Be specific. While there are certainly topics that are so niche that we decide against them due to the limited audience, much more common is the talk that’s so general we can’t see attendees getting enough concrete from it. Big in this category are how to succeed talks. If you’re going to submit a session called How to Get Rich, you need to be Donald Trump. (Not that I would book Donald –I’m not personally a fan– but you get the point.)

Be clear and concise. I shouldn’t have to read your submission three times to understand what you’re saying, and if it’s on the long side, I won’t. Have someone else read your submission and do a clarity check, then edit. Also, straightforward, plain language beats out corporate marketing speak and buzzword bingo any day.

Be a part of the conversation. I cringe to write that, as it violates unwritten Mistake #6 (don’t try to piggyback on an overexposed meme), but it’s important, and it’s also a bit complex. Showing that you are part of a larger conversation can mean anything from referencing other schools of thought on your topic to proposing a panel to bring in other opinions. Beware, however, of the Panel Of Me And Three Other People Who Strongly Agree With Me. Even panels of putative competitors often end up being 45 minutes of violent agreement, since they are generally all validating the same market. Sometimes it’s a just tone of humility that comes across in a submission (and a tone that may not be natural for PR people, who are often trained to hone in on what’s unique and position the speaker as the sole expert in the entire world.) Ultimately, it’s about being aware and honest about the context in which you address the topic.

Bonus: Title your talk X is the new Y. I still love those. Everyone else is sick of them, but not me. (This directly conflicts with the next to last mistake below, but I never said I would be consistent.)

My Top 5 Don’ts:

State the obvious. I can’t tell you how many submissions start with some variant of Web 2.0 is hot and getting hotter or social media is a very big phenomenon. Yep, we totally agree. Unfortunately, we knew that already.

Too much why, not enough what. Many submissions spend a lot of words on why the topic is important, or quoting statistics validating the need for the topic. Stats are great (bring em on! I learn a lot reading these) but you must also at some point (hopefully early on) put forward a thesis of some sort. Or tell us that it’s a panel and you have the top thinkers in this area signed up provide their theses. Point is, get to the point sooner rather than later. This goes for your presentation, if you’re selected, as well.

Pitch your product. This is a biggie, and I feel so bad, because I know PR people are told to go out and pitch, and they work very hard on the pitch, and the pitch is often very good, and I don’t know how to get across strongly enough that this just isn’t the proper venue. It’s confusing, as many events are very product-driven and even pay for play and can provide a lot of value that way. Also, you will see major vendors on our conference program, so it’s not like we have a hard and fast rule against them. Look deeper, however, and you’ll see that when vendors have speaking slots, they are either sponsored sessions (which are pay for play, but clearly labeled as such), or they were chosen because they are bringing lessons learned from a peer-to-peer perspective. The work is to figure out what you have to contribute to the community, and articulate that.

Remember, talk about what you’ve learned, not about how great your product is. Sometimes I read submissions that sound like the author heard my advice and said to him/herself, that’s right, I will talk about this thing I’ve learned while making this really great product, which, by the way, is amazing and world-changing in the following 12 ways. The impulse is hard to resist.

Go for a kooky or mismatched title. Okay, sometimes the goofy title works really well. We’ve all seen them. But it’s like an outfit that only looks good on Angelina Jolie: the rest of us can’t get away with it. A joke or catchy something can work if it’s short and actually explains what you’re talking about. Make sure it accurately represents your talk. If possible, make the intended audience clear in the title.

Delegate. Don’t pass responsibility for speaker submission onto the new guy who is just getting to know the company or client. Your best people should submit, and they should submit topics about which they are passionate and knowledgeable. See all of the above points for support.

I should make it very clear that decisions on sessions and speakers are a collective effort involving my co-chair and our esteemed advisory boards (our New York board is listed at the bottom of this page), and since we choose them for their diverse perspectives, I’m sure they’d each have their own top five dos and don’ts. Moreover, I’m sure I’ve missed a couple of important points here, and I count on you all to let me know. So what wins your vote or turns you off in a speaker submission? Chime in.

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18 Responses to “How to Write a Successful Speaking Proposal”

  1. Sean Tierneyon 18 Sep 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I’ve never been on the selection committee side of the table in this process but I’ve submitted and landed a couple speaking proposals at various conferences and from my perspective the key things (most of which you mentioned) are:
    -have something interesting and conversation-generating to say
    -demonstrate that you are a knowledgeable and credible person to deliver the talk
    -use direct language and be genuine

    When competition for a speaking slot is fierce you may need to gamble on more of an edgy topic or unique angle. If it’s light you can “just not be an idiot” and have a good chance of landing the slot. General rule: do a topic that you yourself would want to attend and find useful. Stripping your personality out of the proposal is a mistake in my opinion- afterall that’s a fair component of a good speaker. The more actionable the takeaways from your talk, the stronger it is. Reverse engineer it in your mind and think – what kind of talk will result in people leaving energized and emailing later to say “wow that was amazing and got me thinking – thanks!”

    other than that I guess it never hurts to have a unicorn on your panel->


  2. Peter Lairdon 19 Sep 2008 at 12:04 am

    Thanks for the info. How do you feel about replays?

    Meaning, I just did a Cloud talk at Interop, and the feedback was pretty good. I would enjoy doing the talk again. Obviously, it wouldn’t be exactly the same talk because the space is changing so fast, but I could offer a v2 of the original talk.

    I know conferences don’t want to have a ton of repeats, but is there space for some material with a track record?


  3. [...] questions about writing your proposal? You might want to take a look at a blog post our program chair Jennifer Pahlka wrote on tips for writing speaking proposals. Let us help you, [...]

  4. Govind Kabraon 08 Jan 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Good tips on preparing the proposal. We have been watching the updates, too look for the “launchpad” event.. however, havent yet seen any call-for-participation to launchpad.

    We are a startup company, ready to now launch our apartment search service. The system crawls apartment listings from all over the Web. Please try and let us know your comments:

  5. [...] co-chair Jen Pahlka wrote up some great tips for successfully submitting a proposal specifically for Web 2.0 [...]

  6. Vince Stevensonon 26 May 2009 at 10:28 am

    This is a very useful blog post. Thanks for sharing this type of work with a larger audience. Rgds Vince

  7. [...] to the submission form. Need a little guidance on creating an eye-catching proposal? Check out the great tips from Program Co-Chair Jennifer Pahlka on how to submit a successful [...]

  8. [...] advice on how to write a successful speaking proposal? Check out our blog post detailing the “Dos and Don’ts” of winning [...]

  9. Milena Regoson 11 Nov 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you for your insightful post. Great recommendations. I will take them into consideration as we are working on our submission.

  10. Warren Whitlockon 13 Nov 2009 at 8:37 am

    Great insight into the selection process.

    When I think of the time involved to review all of the submissions, I’m amazed that you can get it done at all. We should think twice before sending a “I’ll throw my hat in the ring” proposal.

    Thank you for the clarity.

  11. Twitted by stcaccesson 16 Nov 2009 at 7:07 am

    [...] This post was Twitted by stcaccess [...]

  12. Cindy Luon 19 Nov 2009 at 7:11 pm

    I was about to submit a proposal, realized I couldn’t send ppt directly, instead, I have to fill the abstracts in a very odd, old-fashioned format… ( back to dos and unix time)

  13. Kelli Wilsonon 11 Dec 2009 at 11:43 am

    Loved this post…as a newer speaker it has been pounded into me by my coach that title is everything but I love the solid advice to still keep it relevant and simple. I’ll be reviewing my speaker sheet with these tips!


  14. Emily Goligoskion 07 Jan 2010 at 6:12 pm

    The information about reading examples is invaluable–you probably wouldn’t film a TV pilot without having seen primetime–and I’m glad you put it first.

  15. Torsten J. Koertingon 08 Jan 2010 at 1:38 am

    Great Post and advice.
    Sometimes its challenging as the requirements vary from conference to conference to speaking opportunity.

    How ever, to go through your thoughts and the items mentioned increases the chances for success and being selected big time.

    Especially for the newbies (non branded speakers) in the field.


  16. [...] more advice on how to write a successful speaking proposal? Check out our blog post detailing the “Dos and Don’ts” of winning [...]

  17. Bloggers Schoolon 11 Apr 2010 at 8:21 am

    I found great info to use on a short deadline. Thank you for posting this info for all of the community to look over. Looking forward to getting our proposal in on time!!

    Thank You

  18. Coach Sherrion 27 Oct 2010 at 8:23 am

    Thank you for this valuable blog. I am not in the web 2.0 speaking arena but in the transitional life coaching arena. However, I found your information to be applicable to helping me write a successful proposal too. Thanks again!
    Moving forward…
    Coach Sherri

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