Whether it’s a niche summit happening online or a large-scale in-person extravaganza, getting a speaking slot at an industry conference remains a priority for business leaders, creatives, and entrepreneurs.
But how do you get booked to speak at a conference?
The simple answer, to quote Steve Martin, is to be so good they can’t ignore you. The best way to get booked is for the conference programming team to directly invite you onto the main stage. This is indeed simple, but it’s definitely not easy.
For many of us, our best way in is by submitting a proposal for programming teams and external evaluators to review.
I’m an external evaluator for one of the world’s most prominent conferences: SXSW. Over the last few years I’ve evaluated over 500 proposals across four tracks. Having just finished up my evaluations for the 2023 edition, I wanted to share a few do’s and don’ts to help you create your next conference proposal.
I’ve grouped the tips into four main categories for easy snacking and application. But first, a couple of caveats:
- SXSW have a very clear set of guidelines for evaluators. I’ve not mentioned them here so as to protect the integrity of the process. I’m not sharing these tips so you can game the system. Instead, I’ve shared them with the goal to help increase the level of everything that goes into the mix - especially for people who may feel speaking at a conference isn’t accessible or possible for them.
- These tips are based solely on my opinions. They certainly don’t reflect every evaluator at every conference. Your mileage may vary.
Ok, that’s the intro spiel out of the way. Let’s get into it!
Tracks & Topics
- Map the track: Many conferences, especially larger ones, split up their programming into ‘tracks’. These may be based on industries, segments, themes, or sometimes audience types. A surefire way to get yourself in a pickle is to submit your proposal into the wrong track. It’s common you may find yourself caught between two or even three tracks. Rather than try and spread across them all, it’s best to hone in on one track and craft your proposal so it sits snugly inside its frame. This sounds obvious, but proposals that feel way outside a track causes dissonance for evaluators and more importantly the audience.
- “Too broad”: I write this in my evaluation comments way too often. This is an issue for a few reasons. The main one being the broader the topic (aka the title of your proposal), the harder it is for me to believe you can land it. For example, if you are proposing a presentation with the title “How AI is affecting brands” I’m going to question two things: 1) whether people are going to get what they came for (they’ll probably be coming for a vast range of reasons); and 2) if you have the authority and guile to nail something so wide-reaching in a very limited period of time. Here are two simple ways to mitigate the risk of going too broad:
1. Add one (or more) levels of specificity to triangulate it: For example, go from “How AI is affecting brands” to “How OpenAI is affecting food & beverage CMOs”.
2. Blend the new and the old: “New Wine, Old Oak”, as Derek Thompson says. There are so many legacy areas that need elevation and innovation. Here’s one example: “How AI is affecting brands” becomes “How DALL-E is set to impact legacy retail brands”.
- Play hooky: There can be a fine line between a hook and clickbait, but without a hook in the title (or at least the first line of the description) your proposal will likely fall flat. I could write a whole blog post on this, but here are 3 types of hooks to try out:
- Avoiding mistakes (e.g. I used to do X, then I realized Y, now I do Z)
- Bad things may happen (e.g. If you don’t know/learn/do this, X will happen. If you do, then Y. That’s why it matters to know/do Z)
- Debunk a misconception (e.g. Most people believe X. But actually Y is true. That’s why it matters to know/do Z)
- Farm fresh, not microwave meal: If you’re pitched a rapidly reheated version of last year’s hot topic, it’s hard to say yes. Ask yourself: Why now? What’s changed? Which part of the conversation is yet to happen?
- Don't go beyond belief: the topic tends to set up most of the proposal’s premise. If I don’t believe the premise, it’s really hard to buy into everything else. Accentuate the possible, but don’t put it beyond the realms of believability. For example, do you believe in a premise of “how to solve any business problem with video”? Nah, me either.
A format is the type of delivery mode. Common formats include panels, presentations, fireside chats, meetups, demos, and workshops
- Match the format: I have to say no to tons of proposals because the format doesn’t match the pitch. It’s a bit like the maxim "writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. If you’re showcasing an amazing new visual technology, put it forward in a format that allows us to experience it. Show, don’t tell.
- Don’t default: When it comes to any conference proposal for a conference, I suggest starting here: how could it not be a panel? Panels are an incredibly inefficient and often ineffective format, and in a world of sparse attention, incredible creative technologies and a deep desire for connection it feels almost remiss that so many proposals fall back into the same old format. A lot of significant conferences are having a serious look at the experience they offer for attendees, and the content formats are a key part of this
- Format Innovation: So, what if it’s not a panel? In his excellent People vs Algorithms newsletter, Troy Young talks about format innovation as being key to successful new media:
Format is all the ways in which it is packaged and presented… Howard Stern brought a new format to talk radio with active listening, empathy and irreverence. Axios brought format innovation to email and text more broadly with "Smart Brevity." Pewdiepie became a YouTube sensation with his novel style of first person video gaming commentary
How could you innovate on format? It doesn’t need to be drastic, complex or expensive - a simple twist can have an outsize impact.
- Design matters: If you want to showcase the power of a new creative technology through a workshop (yes, a splash of format innovation!), but the proposal is you working 1:1 with everyone, then you have a problem. Unless you can clone yourself, if 20 people show up then 19 of them are going to left disappointed. Consider the design of the experience you’re proposing.
This is likely the main part of the proposal - describing in a few sentences what it is, why it matters, who’s involved, and what’s in it for the audience.
- Don’t bury the lede: Some proposals have a really smart or incisive angle, but it’s been buried within a generic or clickbait pitch. Pick out that angle and bring it to the surface; put it front and center.
- Takeaways are critical: So many suggested takeaways feel like something I just skimmed in a particularly bad Forbes article: “Marketing matters for the success of your brand”. Instead, think like a Learning Designer. Be specific, use action verbs, and default to depth. People are seeking real insight.
- The more it’s about you, the less it’s about you: Go ahead and include your company/project/product (that’s why you’re doing this - it’s ok, life’s a pitch). Just don’t ram it down our throats. We aren’t turkeys targeted for foie gras feeding. We know what advertorial is.
- Share challenges, risks and fails: There is enormous demand for behind the scenes stories. I can’t overstate this enough. Share the risks, problems, what you would have done differently. This is particularly relevant for project-focused (i.e. advertorial) proposals.
- Demo & Debunk: Challenge a commonly held belief, or expose an uncomfortable truth that no one wants to admit. And do a demo to prove it.
- Help us: People are yearning for something actionable; a solution to their pain; a path forward. Vitamins are nice, painkillers are better
- Buzzword bingo: Purpose. Engagement. Connection. Insights. Future. Meaningful. Relationships. Community. These are powerful, positive words, but if you jam a bunch of them together you end up with a word salad that's been doused in processed sugar. Review your proposal and cut the amount of buzzwords in half - at least. (I should do the same for this post).
- Apply some craft: A lot of proposals look whacked together in 20 minutes as a box-checking exercise (this is especially true of many big-name brands). I understand you have 4000 other things to do, but come on. And especially for emerging voices, the fact that so many big names are lazy is your opportunity. I will notice if you apply care and craft.
Speakers & Assets
The wonderful humans involved, and the supporting materials you’re putting forward to make your proposal stand out
- No speakers, no bueno: A panel proposal with just one speaker (you) is basically impossible to say yes to. Waiting on hot shot names? Sure, I get it. So how about this next tip instead…?
- Elevate voices: Yes, I know the C-suite’s role is partly to talk about the company and do some flexing, but (especially) if you’re a big brand, why not bring in one of your front line or junior team members instead? The cost is negligible, new voices get heard, and they’ll get an incredible experience
- I’d like to get to know you: Proposals with no video - especially for presentations - are so hard to evaluate. Can you speak well, present well, make good slides, communicate in compelling ways? With no assets (especially video), I have no idea.
- Your product is not your video: Speaking of video, a lot of video submissions link to a generic product/company explainer that’s unrelated to the proposal. For me this creates the inverse of the desired effect: I get the sense you’ve phoned it in, and/or are only interested in pitching your stuff.
Phew! That’s the lot. For now at least (we have at least 5 more to share...)
We’d love to hear how you’re using these tips, what we’ve missed, or if there are any you them you want to challenge.
And if you’re looking to level up your next presentation for a conference, off-site, leadership gathering, or any place where people share ideas - send us a note. We’d love to hear from you.