What makes a good submission to the CFP? This article draws from the repository Conference Talk Proposal Advice, advice from our very own Program Team members Ana-Maria Mihalceanu, Rabea Gransberger and Andrew Harmel-Law, and a guide produced for the LJC and Devoxx UK New Speaker Academy.

What makes a good title?

Don’t underestimate the importance of a good title!

Interesting and relevant: The title should be interesting and appropriate to the conference. One contributer Mark Sellors suggests trying to be brief and convey the main theme of the talk: he gives the example of a talk called “Joint quantum chemical and polarizable molecular mechanics investigation of formate complexes with penta- and hexahydrated Zn2+”. This is unlikely to appeal to the Devoxx UK audience!

Stand out from the crowd: If you’re submitting a talk about something that is frequently spoken about, for example Java tips, think about how the title can stand out compared to similar talks. So instead of “Tips for Java 12”, why not try “Java 12: 50 tips in 50 minutes”.

Short and catchy: Andrew Harmel-Law believes “short and controversial” can work. Rabea Gransberger agrees: “have a snappy title, most attendees won’t read the abstract”. Ana-Maria Mihalceanu suggests “you should ask yourself or your colleagues if they would go to a talk with that title. Do you feel it’s catchy? Also, always align the title to the abstract. If you wrote both, read them again in order to check their “connection” and/or maybe something can be improved.”

Run it by a friend: long time Devoxx speaker Roy van Rijn suggests running title ideas by a friend: “One thing I always do is throw about 10 different title ideas at other speakers and discuss what sticks/interests them.”

What makes a good abstract?

Give details: A good abstract should be detailed. The audience should be able to get a clear idea of exactly what they’ll get from the talk. Ana-Maria says: “I really value descriptions that can draw a picture of what will be presented. Using interesting technologies for your demos is cool, but you should look at how to gain the interest of the public on the entire story.”

Be sure to include clear learning outcomes, for example “by the time you leave this talk, you’ll know exactly how to diagnose that Docker network issue”. Andrew adds “[a] good description will tell me what my problem is (so I know why I need to come) and how things will be when I’ve solved it by putting your talk into practice (takeaways).”

But don’t be verbose: Saying that, the abstract should also be short and to the point: it should be possible to read it in a minute or two and get your key takeaways.

Sell your idea and yourself: Make sure the abstract sells your idea. What makes this talk interesting and different? What makes you the right person to present it? Ana-Maria: “add your own ‘sparkle’ in the abstract. Of course, you can gain inspiration from the abstracts that others submitted in previous years, but everyone in the conference will come to your talk based on what makes it different. So the ‘you factor’ also matters in the description you write.”

Structure: Make sure the abstract reads well. You can always fall back on ‘who what when where’ – the first few sentences should introduce the idea, then elaborate. Finally, tell the reader what the point is – what will they learn. Andrew: “Structure it like a newspaper article. Goes into more and more detail as it goes down the description.”

Avoidable mistakes

Do not offend: Avoid sexual references and inappropriate language, and be respectful. There are better ways to get attention, and they are very unlikely to get past the Program Team.

Buzzword bingo: Steer clear of too many buzzwords. In addition, use company names with care: they can be a turn off for attendees. This is something to judge on a case by case basis: mistakes made when Massive Corp migrated to Serverless could be interesting. How we implement testing at X might be less so. If unsure, run the idea by colleagues. Would they go and see the talk?

Check it: Be sure to run your proposal by someone else and at the least, a spell checker. For Rabea this is a must: “Use a spell and grammar checker”. This is especially important if you’re submitting a talk that is not in your native language.

Check the track: “Make sure it fits the goal of the track,” according to Andrew. Make sure you are submitting to the correct track: your submission might not be considered if it is in the wrong track. Rabea adds, “it is important for me to match the track with a proposal. Moving them around is always a hassle and often results in down votes”.

If you are unsure, or on the edge of multiple tracks, think about the majority of your technical content.

Give credit: Andrew adds, “[don’t] be arrogant, pretend an idea is yours when it’s someone else’s” – be sure to credit others, of course sharing is fine, so long as it’s credited!

Sales pitch: Ana-Maria suggests: “These are rare, but you should avoid proposals that are a “sales pitch”. The audience is made of developers; maybe they don’t use the same framework/cloud provider as you, but your talk has to be accessible to them in order to learn something from it”. Andrew agrees: “[don’t] try to sell something (unless it’s free/open source)”.

Pay attention to the form: A rare occurrence, according to Ana-Maria, is putting your bio in the description of the talk: “we all are busy but you will lower your chances of getting accepted with those few fields in the CFP that are not filled in properly.”

Another commonly seen mistake is not filling in all parts of the form – they are there to assist the Program Team make a decision, and not filling in sections, like Bio, Experience and Elevator Pitch, can count against you.

Don’t over do it: there is a limit on the number of talks a speaker can submit to the Devoxx CFP. “Don’t submit too many variations of the [same] talk”, Rabea suggests. You don’t want to turn the Program Team off!

How can a proposal stand out?

According to Andrew you should “add links to you doing the talk, or another talk. It helps a lot for us to see you presenting. Meet-ups or bad recordings are fine.”

Ana-Maria: “A funny/intriguing title backed up by a solid description accompanied on why you love to talk on that topic”.

Something to consider…

At the end of the day we get close to 800 proposals a year. You can write the perfect proposal and not get accepted. Unfortunately we are not able to offer individual feedback on proposals, but please don’t be disheartened!

First time speaker?

“For me the important thing is motivating newcomers to submit something … everybody has something to share” according to Rabea. At Devoxx UK we’re always keen to see new people coming forward to share fresh perspectives. If it is your first time, look out for details on New Speaker Academies and CFP workshops, or reach out for mentors.


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