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How to write a compelling proposal

Whatever your motivations for speaking, you first need to get selected to speak, and for that you need to craft a proposal that gets your talk selected. Additionally, since your proposal defines the scope of your talk, it can be a valuable early step in the overall process.

Direct the proposal to the attendees, not the curators

Many conferences use your talk proposal as the description of the talk in their programme. With that in mind, your target reader is the conference attendee who is reading the programme. Tell the reader why your talk will interest them, and what they will learn.

The curators want to put together a great conference with compelling talks for their attendees. Your talk will be part of the package they offer, so sell it!

Be specific about the focus your talk will have

Generally speaking, a shallow introduction to many things is not as interesting as an in-depth introduction to one thing. If you discuss the broader topic, do so only to set the context for what you will focus on.

One strategy: Pose the question your talk will answer

Often, talks answer questions that start with “how”, “why”, “when” and so on. An easy trick is to directly ask these questions in your proposal, leaving the reader wondering the answer.

Use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation

If you submit a sloppily written proposal, you appear careless and as if you are not taking the opportunity seriously. You risk being rejected on those grounds outright. Speaking requires a lot of thoughtful preparation, and curators can only assume you will be as careless when preparing the talk itself.

Make your point as succinctly as you can

If your first draft requires more than two paragraphs to get to the point of your topic, edit to slim things down. Take out any words that can be removed without changing the meaning. You may have a lot of competition, so try to make a good impression quickly. If your proposal is too much work to read or understand, it might get skipped during the selection process.

A few examples of good proposals

From my experience as a JSConf EU curator, I have seen lots of compelling, and not so compelling, talk proposals. Here are some examples of proposals I found compelling and why:

A successful proposal from Angelina Fabbro:

“Many of us have heard about web components and shadow DOM elements as up-and-coming technologies for front-end development. They certainly sound cool, but what can they actually be used for, right now? At the time of writing this proposal, there aren’t a lot of good tutorials to get started using them available on the web. We’ll take a look at the proposed W3C spec and the current state of implementation (including libraries and polyfills for cross-browser niceness), but we’ll also go a step further and dive into the DOM with live coding to show what can be done with JavaScript to play with these components and how they can be used for rapid wireframe and prototype development.”

Why is Angelina’s proposal compelling? It asks what practical applications a cool new technology can be used for “right now”, then offers to fill an existing knowledge gap, and show you examples of how to use the technology in your work.

A successful proposal from Stuart Memo:

“Programmers are artists, and JavaScript is the new Punk Rock. My talk will show that JavaScript can be used to write and perform music using the wonderful Web Audio API. I’ll talk about why we should do this and why it’s the future of music. By the time the conference is over you’ll have burned your guitar, remixed a dozen tunes on GitHub, and started a JavaScript band that has its sights set on changing the world.”

Why is Stuart’s proposal compelling? It claims you can do something unexpected (write and perform music with JavaScript), and says that after the talk, you will be able to do so yourself.

A successful proposal from Natalia Berdys:

“Designing with cognitively-impaired users in mind can be very illuminative, leading to a broader understanding of the role of UX/UI design in general. The perceptual issues involved for users with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism in fact pave the way for current web trends - their web experience can be the most sensitive test of good design.”

Why is Natalia’s proposal compelling? It claims there is an unexamined relationship between a lesser-known topic and a general one (between designing for cognitively-impaired users and good design in general). The second sentence adds substance by expanding the claim, and draws a connection to a topic the reader is already concerned about (current web trends and design testing).

Have your proposal reviewed by someone with experience

Just as you might ask a friend to critique a draft of your CV, an essay, or the talk itself, ask someone (ideally a writer, speaker, or curator) to review your talk proposal. They will catch typos, as well as verify whether your proposal explains the scope of your talk, and explains its benefit to your audience.

Good luck!

More advice

Other people have shared their advice from their personal experience too. Be inspired!

Further Reading