As of November 2022, I’ve applied to about 100 unique conferences and gotten accepted to about a third of them. I’ve also started helping out organizing conferences, such as reviewing talks submitted by speakers. So while I’m not the greatest conference speaker in the world, I think I’ve gotten at least good at them.
This blog post goes over the process that I take to submit my talks to CFPs (Call For Proposals). That process can be summarized as:
- 🧠 Pre-Work
- 👁🗨 Research the conference
- 🤝 Determine topic matches
- 📇 Craft a Title
- ✍️ Sketch the story
- 📫 Submit the CFP
- 🙏 Don’t get my hopes up
I’ve added a Further Resources section below, and a separate FAQs article for assorted questions.
I keep a publicly viewable Conferences Notion page tracking what I’ve applied to conferences with. Feel free to reference that as a resource of examples for what I mean throughout this post. ❤️
Speaking at a conference is rarely the first bit of community involvement taken by a developer. Start with smaller events and work your way up. That way you can build your skills and network with other people in your areas of work.
The strategy I took was:
- Start attending meetups, such as city-specific ones
- Speak at a meetup
- Actively ask meetup organizers for feedback on your talks there
- Repeat the previous two steps a few times
- Start attending conferences
Attending meetups and conferences is helpful for seeing what does or doesn’t work in talks. What kinds of topics do you relate to as an attendee? What speaking styles, narrative arcs, and general storytelling methods make you excited about the topic and/or effectively transmit information to you? Keep track of these things and remember them for when you want to submit your talks.
2. Research the conference
So you’ve found a conference you want to speak at. Great! Familiarize yourself with what the conference is about and what kinds of talks they tend to include:
- Thoroughly read their website
- Follow the conference and any organizers you can find on any social media you use
- Watch talks from the most recent 1-2 iterations of the event
Pay special attention to the tone of the talks from the conference. Are they fun and wacky? Serious and suit-and-tie professional? Keep a note of the conference’s talk vibes for when you submit.
You wouldn’t believe how many talk submissions CFPs get that are clearly low quality copy & paste, only barely suitable -if at all- for the conference’s intended subject matter. 🙃
3. Determine Topic Matches
Now that you have a feel for what the conference is looking for, try to recall your areas of work that match. You don’t need to present some amazing cutting-edge novel idea: just information you think attendees might want to know about.
A few examples of topic match areas I’ve seen come up frequently are:
- General software engineering:
- Coding patterns you’ve found useful
- Documentation and/or new developer onboarding strategies
- How you approach testing
- Getting started using a popular framework
- Best practices with your chosen UI library (Angular components, React hooks, …)
- Design systems
- How your team does microfrontends
- Using TypeScript
- CSS-in-JS libraries (Emotion, Tailwind, Vanilla Extract, …)
- Integrations with other libraries (Apollo, Redux, tRPC, …)
- Your latest 🌶 hot take on hooks
It’s impossible to know what topics will match well with organizers. Since most conferences allow multiple CFP submissions, I generally try with a few different topics, often 2-3 out of:
- A talk directly on the conference’s focus
- A talk generally on the conference’s focus, but with a twist and/or another area
- A talk partially on the conference’s focus, but more on another topic and/or a fun twist
Here’s a set of examples for a React-focused conference:
- React Context and Dependency Injection: Directly focused on React
- React Design Systems: Maximum Consistency, Minimum Effort: Generally on React, but applied to the area of design systems
- React + TypeScript Best Practices: Partially on React, but more on TypeScript
Don’t be afraid to branch out and experiment. As long as a topic has some overlap with the conference’s focus area(s), it’s a potentially good idea.
4. Craft a Title
I find naming talks to be one of the hardest parts of CFPs. A good talk title needs to be clear, concise, and to the point. It’s also often beneficial to include some flashy tech buzzwords to draw people in.
Keep your talk title as small as possible while still conveying the gist of your talk. If you’re getting stuck, try to combine 1-2 buzzwords with a relatable situation. Here are a few examples:
- React Hooks Best Practices and Common Pitfalls
- Statically Catching Bugs with ESLint and TypeScript
- How TypeScript Helps Scale Team Expertise
You don’t have to stick to that format. If I think a title is catchy with less information, I’ll go with it. Especially if I can sneak in some alliteration! Here are a few examples:
- Redux Redone (Redux Toolkit Totally Rocks)
- Static Analysis: Shockingly Useful!
- Why Software Projects Fail
Try checking past talks given at conferences you’re applying to for more inspiration.
5. Sketch the Story
For each talk title, think on:
- What are the takeaways you want audience members to leave the talk with?
- For each of those takeaways, what are the pieces of information needed to get there?
- What starting points (pre-requisite knowledge) do you want to assume?
- How can you structure a journey from the starting points to the ending takeaways that introduces those pieces of information in a reasonable way?
That process is similar to the process teachers, documentation or textbook writers, and other knowledge sharers often take when structuring their content.
You’ll want to summarize those points in the talk description. You don’t have to narrate the entire presentation - just the high-level takeaways and general topics you’ll cover.
Describing the Story
I often use the STAR format for talk descriptions:
- Situation: The context behind your talk / what problem you’re trying to solve
- Task: Your general strategy for improving the situation / fixing the problem
- Action: A list of actions, software projects, or other information for the task
- Result: End state after the actions, along with conclusions/takeaways
These submissions of mine contain good examples of matching descriptions: How to Complain Positively and TypeScript Static Analysis Hidden Gems.
I highly recommend reading On Writing Well to learn how to write engaging, pithy descriptions. Its lessons apply both to writing CFPs and giving the talks themselves.
6. Submit the CFP
Ok! You’ve gotten your talk titles, abstracts, and general storylines figured out: time to submit the form. As with job applications, I strongly recommend thoroughly filling out all pieces of information you can. The biggest mistake I see in CFP submissions is teeny 1-2 sentence descriptions in fields like Full Talk Description.
That being said, don’t put heaping mounds of unnecessary details. Human beings with limited time will need to read your application and many others’.
Aside: Speaker Bios
Most conferences ask for some kind of speaker biography / “about you” field. You don’t have to think too hard on these. List your name, your employment, technical areas you work with, and one or two fun facts. I keep a copy & paste blurb in that Notion page for all conferences (link).
7. Don’t Get My Hopes Up
Applying to conferences is like to applying for jobs: you’re going to rejected loads of times, especially when you’re new. Many CFP processes are chaotic and poorly managed behind the scenes, which introduces a strong element of random chance to which submissions of yours will get chosen. Then, even if a CFP process is well-managed, your submission just might not match what the organizers are looking for.
I was rejected from multiple conferences before I landed my first talk. For a while after that my rate was around 5%. It’s since slowly grown to around 40% or so.
Rejections are part of the process. Keep applying and eventually you’ll get in. You got this! 💙
I hope this was useful to you as a resource for getting started applying to CFPs. Thanks for reading! 💖
Speaking at conferences is a big topic! See my How I Apply to Conferences: FAQs article for answers to many common questions.
On top of the references mentioned in this article, I recommend reading at least these two articles:
- How to write an effective conference talk abstract: A fantastic deep dive on good and bad abstracts in CFPs.
- How To Give the Killer Tech Talk — A Pamphlet: Great, actionable tips on giving the talk.
Edit 11/18: Luis Sánchez, an organizer of conferences including J on the Beach and Wey Wey Web, wrote a great post from an organizer’s point of view: CFP Tips and Tricks for Tech Conferences. Would recommend!
Got any more great resources? Please let me know over email, Mastodon, or Twitter!
Much appreciation to Ali Nehzat, Julie Jones, and Sylvana Santos for advice and feedback in writing this post, and Carter Rabasa for enthusiasm and moral support. Y’all rock! 🙌