How to succeed in a Call for Proposals

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Having been involved in a quite large number of conferences over the last five years — from big ones like NEXT Berlin to mid-sized ones like Cognitive Cities to smaller ones like TEDxKreuzberg and Ignite Berlin to brand new ones like UIKonf and ThingsCon — I have seen many, many, many submissions in Calls for Proposals (CfP for short). Easily hundreds, more likely thousands.

From my own experience and conversations with peers in other events I can tell you that a good proposals can go a long way. In fact, your proposal is likely to make or break your chance to get into the conference. So if you really want to present (and why would you otherwise submit anything) make your proposal count.

 

Here’s how.

What’s a Call for Proposals?

First things first. What’s a CfP and what is it for?

As a curator, you usually have a pretty good idea who should be speaking at your conference. That’s the very core of your job: To know the best speakers you can possible get. (What “best speaker” means depends entirely on the context, audience and goals of the conference.)

But of course you cannot possibly know everybody. And that’s where the CfP comes in: It’s a way to open up the funnel of potential speakers that you might not be aware of.

Depending on the system you choose, speakers can either submit their own ideas for a talk, or third parties can submit speakers they would love to see on stage.

As an aside: Over at UIKonf, we ran a special version of the CfP that’s completely anonymous – this is to ensure that we don’t accidentally give in to our own biases. If we don’t know who’s applying, we cannot preferential treatment to people we know, or who are well known, or who work for organizations we strategically might pick otherwise. On top of that, the UIKonf CfP is completely public, so everyone can comment on proposals to help the submitters improve their pitch, and everyone votes on their favorite proposals. It’s a model that at other conferences really helped foster diversity onstage and it’s certainly worth trying. But I digress.

So concretely, a CfP is a basket for potential speakers to apply for a conference. Usually an email form that helps structure the incoming proposals and makes it easy for the program team to share and process internally.

Dos and Don’ts

If it works, a CfP will attract a lot of attention and hence a lot of proposals. So your submission will have to be better (more relevant, better written, etc.) than a lot of other proposals. Here are some concrete pointers of how you can improve (or ruin) your chances.

 

DO NOT…

  • Don’t state generics. You don’t want to know how often I’ve read how many devices will be connected to the internet by 2020 or what share of the population will be living in urban centers by 2050 or that “we get more and more connected every year”. If it’s a topic discussed at that conference, assume the curators will know the basics. Note: If you’re coming in from an unusual angle or background, then absolutely provide the context.
  • Don’t copy & paste a lengthy essay. The style of your proposal reflects your style. So if the proposal consists of pages upon pages of text, the curators are likely to assume that your talk will be also be a long, meandering mess.
  • Don’t assume everyone knows you. Some praise is ok. If it’s not by yourself but a respectable third party, all the better. A statement like “I’m well known for xyz” either states the obvious (if you are well known for it, as in really, really well known). Or we don’t know you, then it’s awkward at best and we’ll have to start googling your name. It’s better to give a sentence of context.
  • Don’t bury the lede. Write like for a news article, pyramid-style: The most important thing first, then the second important thing, etc. Hiding the relevant stuff at the end just means lower chances of it being read.
  • Don’t follow-up on other channels unless something has changed. It’s not uncommon that speakers (or their speaking/PR agencies) try to follow up on their submissions by email, phone, twitter, IM, skype, and contact form right before they submit, right after, then again after a week… You get the idea. A follow up can be perfectly fine – if it’s friendly, non-invasive, or if relevant information has changed (maybe you changed jobs, founded a new company, have found an even better topic, etc.). Just, y’know, don’t make it awkward and distracting for all parties involved.

Those are some of the most frequent mistakes I’ve seen. And while I (and most curators I know) will try to look beyond any of these mishaps, it certainly never helps.

Now let’s look at what makes your proposal stand out of a mass of contributions:

 

DO…

  • Write a solid, concise teaser. That’s really all a proposal can be: a teaser for the talk you’d like to give later.
  • Provide context. Why is your contribution important, and why are you the perfect person to talk about this topic? It’s all about relevance for the audience in that particular event.
  • Be concrete rather than smart. Try to make your point clear rather than introducing a smart-sounding, artsy new terminology that you’ll end up having to explain.
  • Respect the curators’ time. The more concise and useful your proposal and information, the easier you make the curators’ lives. Make sure the links work, the copy is concise, the contact details are up-to-date. Do have a website.
  • Customize your pitch for the event. You don’t have to drop in the event name or anything, just make sure that your pitch shows as clearly as possible how your contribution adds value to the audience and event.

 

There’s never a guarantee to get into a conference through a CfP, after all there are only so many speaking slots available at an event. But if you stick to these basic rules – and common sense – you’re halfway there.

 

Good luck!