As part of our call for papers for Afrotech Fest 2019, we’ve prepared a blog series to shine as much light on the CFP process as possible. We’ll be highlighting amazing conference speakers who have things to share, as well as guidance on responding to CFPs, particularly our call for submissions, which is open now.
In our two-part interview, we spoke with Nadia Odunayo, who has given talks at RailsConf, Bath Ruby, EuRuKo, GORUCO and a number of other conferences and meetups. Nadia is more than familiar with speaking, reviewing calls for papers and supporting speakers. She’s also the founder of speakerline.io, which highlights speakers’ proposals to help demystify the CFP process.
In part one of our interview, Nadia focused on her experience as a speaker and how she prepares for a talk. In part two, she shifts her focus to her role as a reviewer of CFPs and the problems she wanted to solve with speakerline.io.
As well as speaking, you’ve reviewed a lot of calls for papers. What do you consider when reviewing them? And what are the most common pitfalls you observe?
When reviewing proposals, the main things I’m thinking about are:
- what other talks are we going to have at the event — you want to have a good variety of topics covered,
- how enticing does this talk read on paper — there’s not a direct correlation, but a talk that sounds dull on paper does not give you confidence that the talk itself will be intriguing, and
- why has this reviewer submitted the talk — I want to see some indication that you either know a lot about what you’re talking about, or you’re really excited about it so would be definitely putting in the hours of research often needed to pull off an excellent talk.
The most common weakness I see in proposals is no evidence of a narrative. There’s no story, just a list of things that are going to be covered. Those are the least engaging talks! The human brain is wired to love stores and we switch off when there’s no suspense, or nothing to keep us focused or intrigued. You might think: but there’s no ‘story’ here, I just want to speak about topic ‘X’ — I say: put in the work to find your narrative! Crafting a story is what will set your talk apart from all the others on topic ‘X’, believe me.
Other pitfalls: typically you see proposals that are way too scant in detail or ones that are so long and you’re stuck trying to figure out what the focus of the talk is. The other issue is people forgetting that proposals are selling devices — you’re trying to convince the reviewers to choose you, so sell to them!
I always point people to Sarah Mei’s ‘What Your Conference Proposal Is Missing’ blog post. There’s so much good stuff in there and she’s one of the most experienced conference speakers and reviewers out there today.
What made you decide to start speakerline.io?
I realised that there were a lot of people out there who liked the idea of speaking and felt like they had things to share with their communities, but they didn’t know how to start, or didn’t think they were ready, or that they were good enough. I also had a lot of people tell me: I can’t just start at a big conference, I have to start at small meetups and work my way up. These experiences made me realise that there’s a lot of obscurity around the process for applying and speaking at conferences. After all, my first gig was at RailsConf.
I figured that with Speakerline, people could: learn what makes a good proposal learn what doesn’t tend to work in proposals see that good proposals do still get rejected see that well-known speakers do get rejected, and see that you don’t have to start small when it comes to what events you apply to.
Ultimately, the main aim is to demystify the CFP process and give aspiring conference speakers the confidence to submit to any conference they wish to speak at.
The project is still in an early iteration, but I’ve got a lot of ideas about how it could be more helpful to the tech and software conference communities.
What advice would you give to anyone who is considering responding to a call for papers?
First and foremost, remember that you’re selling something. The reviewers are reading hundreds of proposals so yours has to stand out and you need to convince them that they should choose your talk out of all of the other talks. They also have to believe that their audience will want to come and watch your talk. Don’t let the reviewers think: but I can just google all of this or read a blog post — why does this talk have to exist?
The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s no one right way to write a proposal, and speakerline.io demonstrates that. However, you can’t go wrong with a proposal that shows that you’ve thought about the story, or narrative thread running through your talk. I always include a high-level overview of this in my talk in my proposals to show reviewers that I know what makes a great talk and I’ve started to think about how I’m going to implement it in this one. It makes writing proposals harder but, trust me, if the story makes sense and is compelling, you’ve massively raised your chances of getting accepted.