Thank you for your interest in my blog! This is the second in a series of articles (check out the first) that focus on speaking at technical conferences, especially the event I’m most familiar with, Claris Engage. I hope to offer some special insights emerging from having helped to produce this event in the past. In this article, I’ll examine the session proposal process while covering the following subjects:
- Overcoming self-doubt
- Understanding the new conference goals
- Proposing multiple sessions
- Adopting an attitude of service
- Writing your biography
- Recording your video statement
- Avoiding excessive self-promotion
- Finding models for your proposal
- Constructing your session title
- Writing your session description
Let’s start by tackling that big bugaboo, the obstacle of self-doubt.
Forgive My Impertinence
Dear friend and fellow member of the Claris Community, forgive my impertinence, but I have an intimate question for you:
Do you have an as-yet-unrequited passion for speaking at the conference formerly known as DevCon? Are you dreaming of getting down on one knee to bare your soul, proclaiming for all to hear: “My dearest technical conference, will you be mine (along with about sixty other people, and only for a year)?” Is there even a tiny seedling hope deep in your heart that someday such a thing might come to pass?
If this is so, let me counsel you.
I know all too well that such a prospect can seem daunting: despite having spoken more than once, I still find the Call for Proposals nearly impossible to contemplate and every year can barely bring myself to apply. There have been times when, despite a vigorous wrestle, my inner demons have bested me, and I have failed to put myself forward at all.
Perhaps you suffer, as I do, from that crippling affliction known as impostor syndrome, where you find yourself terrifyingly immobilized by symptoms such as these:
- You cannot think of a single session to propose.
- If you think of one, you cannot imagine that you would have anything to share on the topic.
- If you do come up with something to share, it is not nearly expert enough, you fear exposing your ignorance, and you ask of the indifferent air, “Whosoever would choose to listen to such as me?”
But, I tell you, here is the truth of it: you should indeed apply. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? The worst thing is merely this: that your proposal would be accepted, and in consequence, you would need to stretch and learn and grow. Should it not be accepted (which, given the odds, is considerably more likely), well then, blithe spirit, you’re free to go on your merry way. You will simply have given yourself valuable practice at important skills such as the vigorous pitching of ideas and the aggrandized art of marketing yourself to all and sundry. In short, no matter what happens, you will benefit.
Enter a New Era
Having offered some encouragement, I’ll abandon this antiquated voice and return to the present day, or perhaps even the future, because this year we’re dealing with something new. Claris Engage is different from the conference we all know and love, and it’s likely to continue changing in the years to come. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Rosemary Tietge, the Claris Queen of Conference Content, about both her goals for Claris Engage and her recommendations for would-be speakers. That conversation provides plenty of excellent advice.
For a summary of the changes, see the proposal submission page. Here’s the gist of it:
If you can propose a session that meets the above criteria, by all means do so. But if you can’t, I’d encourage you to propose anyway and go with whatever is exciting to you even if it doesn’t seem to fit. You never know: if it’s compelling enough, it might get included. The main thing is that you should be excited about it, and you should be ready to share that excitement with others.
You may propose as many as three sessions. My advice is to propose at least two distinct topics. Writing more than one session proposal will get you in the proposal-writing zone where everything starts to flow better. Brainstorming a number of proposals will likely result in better ideas than the first one you came up with. And as you edit your top three proposals side by side, their strengths and weaknesses will become more obvious through comparison, each informing and improving the other.
In addition to all of this, there’s also simple probability: if you submit more than one proposal, you’ll have a better chance of getting picked. Of course, you’ll also run the risk of being asked to present more than one session, but never fear, my next article will be about Preparing A Session Or Two. I’m sure you’ll be up for the challenge!
Envision Your Audience
It’s helpful to envision who might come to your session and how you can help them. Free yourself of the requirement to be the smartest person in the room, and instead think of something that you’ve needed to learn and then imagine how you can help others learn it as well. When you approach speaking from the point of view of service rather than expertise, it can lift a tremendous weight of self-imposed expectations.
Regarding expertise, I like the metaphor of a voyage of discovery (sometimes even including sea monsters). As the speaker, I’m leading the voyage, but at the same time, I’m placing myself in the boat with the audience: we are all discovering together.
It’s also useful to envision the committee itself. They are simply a group of people, all of whom have demanding jobs, who have chosen to take the time to participate in the selection process. They have volunteered to read through the proposals, watch the videos, and juggle all the possibilities to put together the best conference they can.
Like any audience, they start out on your side. They want your proposal to be engaging. They want to enjoy your video and to get a sense of your personality. They get excited about your topic when you’re excited about it, when they sense that you have a sincere desire to help, and when you bring your authentic self to the party. They are looking to increase the diversity of the speaker group from many points of view, such as your market sector, business role, gender, ethnicity, technical background, and more – so don’t be afraid of your quirks. They make you interesting and memorable.
Trust in your love of the topic and the strength of your proposal, and represent your speaking experience honestly. Have you presented at technical user groups or within your company? The content doesn’t have to be relevant to your proposal; the point is to demonstrate your storytelling skills and your experience in putting together a compelling presentation.
Leverage a Mentor
If you’d like to keep growing in this area, my first recommendation is to work with a mentor or buddy within the FileMaker community. If you’re a woman, Women Innovating Together’s mentorship program provides proposal review and general support. You might also seek out a coach (I recommend the brilliant and intuitive Janna Sobel from Second City in Chicago). If you want a group experience, consider joining Toastmasters; attending narrative events like the Moth Radio Hour story slams, the Odd Salon, or Here Chicago; or participating in Jonn Howell’s Meetup group for practicing technical presentation skills.
Tell Us Who You Are
As part of your proposal, you will need to submit a short biography. A version of this will be published as your speaker biography on the conference website and helps to market your session. If people are interested in your biography, they will be more likely to attend your presentation.
If you don’t have an impressive technical resume, don’t fret. It’s enough to list a few facts about yourself, give some context for why you’re excited about your topic, and then close with something playful. Here’s a bio from FileMaker DevCon 2019 that embodies this approach. The speaker, Bradley Boggs, presented a case study of the custom apps that he designed for manufacturing and warehouse management:
If I were to follow Bradley’s lead, I would write something like the copy below. My session that year was about redesigning legacy systems, and this bio focuses on that aspect of my experience:
In retrospect, I think this contextualizing approach has produced a more relevant bio than the one that was published, where I tried to cover much more of my resume. For what it’s worth, if you’re chosen, you aren’t stuck with the bio you submitted with your proposal. You can always rewrite it when inspiration strikes (just be sure to do it well before the conference, not as part of a blog article six months later).
In addition to the bio, you’ll need to submit a video of up to two minutes in length. You don’t need to pitch your session in this video. It’s just a chance to say hello to the reviewers, give them a sense of who you are, and help them connect your name to your face. If you have significant speaking experience, this is a good time to mention that briefly as well.
I wouldn’t sweat it too much: just point an iPhone at your face and talk. Introduce yourself, share a little about why your topic excites you, and then thank the committee for their time. Try not to write a script, but go ahead and record a few takes, learning more or less what you want to say without nailing it down. Keep it simple and let the committee see a little of the real you. After all, that’s who is going to give the presentation.
If you’d like an example, here’s the video that I submitted to Claris Engage 2020:
It’s not perfect, but I hope it embodies my advice. The first part introduces me and shares my speaking credentials (with a focus on the content I intend to present), and the second part shares my enthusiasm for the three sessions I’m proposing.
My friend Makah has a different take than I do on how to approach a proposal video. She read this blog post and shared the following:
Clearly, each of us needs to find our own approach. My preference is for a video that doesn’t feel scripted or overworked, where I’m feeling friendly and authentically present, but Makah needs something different. Give yourself whatever you need to get to your happy place (or as close to it as you can). Regarding energy, since Makah and I are both pretty animated as presenters, an energetic video probably represents us most honestly. But one of my intentions right now is to relax more as a presenter and trust I’m enough without fanfare or overcompensation. One way I’m practicing that is in my video.
Bewitch, Don’t Pitch
In all of your submission materials, be careful of pitching your services or product. Aim to get people excited about what you have to say, not about what you do or sell. I recognize that one reason to speak at a conference is to generate interest in your services. However, conference reviewers and the attendees can detect even a whiff of self-promotion, and often they don’t like how it smells. It’s up to you to judge what’s appropriate. I’ve had some people give me a hard time about mentioning my music on iTunes, though I keep doing it anyway because I like sharing another side of myself.
Along the same lines, avoid pitching the Claris platform. Neither the reviewers nor the attendees need to be persuaded that it’s worthwhile. Show how you use it to solve specific problems rather than making general claims about its value.
Beg, Borrow, and Steal
When writing your proposal, look at past DevCon session descriptions. Start by identifying the ones that have something in common with what you want to do:
- Is this a topic that keeps generating interest?
- Has it been done recently?
- What distinguishes your session from past sessions?
Next, look at all the session descriptions to identify which you find most compelling, then use those as a model. The published session descriptions have all been vetted by the Claris marketing department, so they can serve as a rough style guide for your proposal.
Each proposal primarily consists of a session title and a session description. You’ll also answer a few questions about your session, such as what attendees should already know, and whether it features any Claris products. Bear in mind that your session should be relevant to an audience who doesn’t use the Claris platform, although showing how Claris products solve problems is always welcome.
To start with, I recommend coming up with a working title, then writing the description, and then revising the title after finishing the description. To help illustrate this, now I’m going to take a pretty deep dive into analyzing a few titles and descriptions to identify common patterns and successful strategies.
Hook Them With Your Title
Your title should catch people’s attention and communicate the session’s content as clearly as possible. Have a look at all the 2019 titles and see which you find most compelling. Some ask questions, some are mysterious, some play with words, and some, frankly, are rather dull. Take heart from this! Even if you write a dull title, the reviewers may still choose your session.
Let’s start with an excellent model from a marketing professional. At Claris, I had the good fortune to learn from Leslie Kareckas, who, among other things, is the chief writer and editor of marketing content. I’ll try rewriting her session title to follow five common grammatical patterns: creating tension using a form of the verb called the gerund, calling the reader to action, making a statement or claim, leading with an adverb, and asking a question.
1) Creating Tension with the Gerund
Leslie expertly summarizes the content of her session in a single phrase:
Crafting Content to Promote Your Business
Her title starts with a verb in the gerund form (“crafting”), where essentially the verb acts as a noun. The gerund frequently is used in presentation titles because it combines the stability of a noun with the action of a verb, giving the phrase a dynamic tension. By lending abstraction to the activity in question, it elevates it to something that feels worthy of intellectual discussion. Leslie has added an infinitive acting as an adverb (“to promote”), explaining the purpose of the content – and by implication, why her session might be relevant to you.
2) Call the Reader to Action
Sometimes I want a stronger sense of activity than can be provided by the gerund. The strongest is a call to action using the imperative form of the verb. It feels very immediate, implying motion and productive activity. Since I like telling people what to do, I use it a lot, but bear in mind that it runs the risk of turning off people who hate to be bossed around.
When Leslie’s title becomes a call to action, the phrase becomes more concrete, and maybe falls a little flat:
Craft Content to Promote Your Business
You could try a modifier to make it more compelling, such as:
Craft Professional Content to Promote Your Business
Do you think that’s too wordy? If so, go back to the gerund. The abstraction of the gerund has more resonance, and that lets you get away with being more succinct.
But what if you reversed the phase?
Promote Your Business by Crafting Professional Content
I like how that begins, but it still feels a little long. What if you broke it into two phrases separated by a colon?
Promote Your Business: Crafting Professional Content
This sets up an effective call to action followed by a second phrase that provides useful context.
A good example of a single-phrase call to action is:
Build a Connected Product with Particle IoT
In this case, the action verb makes a difficult thing sound possible. It says, “You can do this, and I’ll show you how.” Here’s a good two-phrase example:
Harness Your FileMaker Data: How Machine Learning Can Impact Your Bottom Line
Even if I’m already harnessing my FileMaker data, the implication is that if I’m not doing it using machine learning, then I have something valuable to learn here. The explanatory half of the title following the colon helps me determine whether the content is relevant to me. I don’t find it too wordy because the first phrase is short and punchy, with a strong call to action.
3) Statements or Claims Work Too
In addition to the gerund and the call to action, there’s a third option, which is to make a statement or claim:
Crafting Content Promotes Your Business
Statements put a stake into the ground and assert your expertise. They have the most stability and authority. However, at the worst, they have a static quality and, as in this example, risk being painfully self-evident. This version of Leslie’s title pretty much demands a modifier in order to work at all:
Crafting Professional Content Promotes Your Business
Like the call to action, I think it’s still too concrete and obvious. It doesn’t hint at any revelation or discovery that will intrigue me enough to read the session description. It lacks the magic resonance of the gerund.
Here’s a more effective title of this kind:
Compliance is a Process; FileMaker is Your Toolbox
The grammatical symmetry here appeals to my sense of order. It invites me to make a comparison between the two phrases and establish a relationship between them. My only complaint here is that without action verbs, the whole thing just sits there in balanced stasis.
Another interesting title-as-statement is:
We’re an Open Book by Skeleton Key
I like the play on words, but readers are likely to find this one mysterious unless they already know about Skeleton Key’s open-book management approach. I’d recommend adding a second phrase that shares this crucial information, such as:
We’re an Open Book: Financial Transparency at Skeleton Key
4) When an Adverb Leads the Way
Moving on from titles-as-statements, I have one more option to explore: titles that start with adverbs such as how, what, and why. These invite the reader to imagine a topic of discussion and imply that the speaker has practical information to share. This is how Leslie’s title reads in this format:
How to Craft Content That Promotes Your Business
It says, “I know how to do this, and I’m going to share that knowledge with you.”
However, sometimes people can set up pretty nebulous topics. For example:
How Not to Worry About Security
The negative construction here is weak and vague. I’d use a call to action instead and follow it with a compelling phrase that summarizes the problem:
Stop the Stress: How to Protect Your Vulnerable Data
In this example, the adverb starts the second phase instead of the first. The previous example, “Harness Your FileMaker Data,” follows this structure as well.
Let’s look at one more title of this kind:
What Works and What Doesn’t: Things I Learned Becoming a SeedCoder
Here I find the second phrase too general. My guess is that since this is a vendor session, they’re attempting to shoehorn in the company name. However, I’d be much more likely to attend a session called:
What Works and What Doesn’t: Managing Time, Money, and Client Boundaries
5) How About a Question?
Why not use a question in your title? Even more directly than the leading adverb, this invites the reader to join a conversation. You come across as a curious investigator rather than an authority, giving a session that’s openminded or even collaborative. Once again, here’s a variation of Leslie’s title:
Where’s My Market? Crafting Promotional Content
This communicates that if you haven’t yet reached (or found) your market, this session will help you create content for it. There’s a sense that you might be more actively involved than in a typical lecture and that there will be a more personalized takeaway.
Here’s a session title from DevCon 2018:
What Could Go Wrong? Troubleshooting Strategies
For me, this question works as an effective hook in at least two ways: it feeds into my subconscious anxieties while also poking fun at my past naivete (or programming hubris). Titles like this tend to have a humorous or ironic slant.
While I like the first phrase, the second one could stand some improvement. It lacks rhythm and just lands there with a thud. As the actual session description is no longer online, I’m going to make up a couple of stronger titles without knowing the original intention:
What’s Going Wrong? Troubleshooting During a Total Meltdown
What Could Go Wrong? Defensive Coding for Peace of Mind
There you have it: the five commonly-used title types I can come up with today. I imagine that once this is published, I’ll think of at least a couple more (feel free to suggest some in the comments), but I hope that these spark some ideas for you, and get you thinking about the best match for the session you plan to give. Bear in mind that all five of these are used often enough that they can feel artificial and even cliché. Use your own judgment to determine what will best represent your session and capture people’s attention. If you need some objectivity, ask a trusted friend or colleague for some input.
Tell a Story
Now, having beaten the title to death, I’d like to move on to the session description and see whether I can do the same with it. Similar principles apply: you want to capture people’s attention, tell a story, and communicate the benefit that attending your session will provide.
There’s a tried-and-true formula for you to follow, and Leslie’s session description nails it perfectly:
1) Introduce a problem
The first sentence describes a problem that the session will address. In Leslie’s case, she asks:
Have a great product or service but want to improve your marketing?
2) Address the problem
The next three sentences form the body of the paragraph. Each of them describes something that will happen in your session that directly addresses the problem you have posed. In Leslie’s case, they each start with a call to action saying what the session attendee will “do” in the session (in fact, the attendee will be listening to the speaker, but describing a series of actions makes the session sound more impactful). Here are Leslie’s sentences:
Discover the eight elements of marketing copy that every company’s website should include.
Learn how to tailor your message for different audiences, including business line managers, developers, and IT pros.
Then uncover basic best practices for email, social media, and search engine optimization.
3) Summarize the benefit
Finally, the last sentence summarizes the benefit the attendee will get from the session, giving a concrete takeaway that the attendee can make use of immediately. Leslie actually uses that word:
Even if you have never written marketing copy before, you’ll come away with concrete tactics you can start using right away to better promote your business.
Here’s My Story
Now that I’ve picked apart Leslie’s session description, it’s only fair that I go ahead and do the same with mine. As it turns out, it still could use some work.
1) My Introduction
My first sentence also asks a question. It implies the problem by comparison rather than stating it directly:
Are your interfaces easy to interpret and intuitive to use, or are they so complex that they require explanation and special training?
2) My Body
In Leslie’s description, the next statements are a series of calls to action (discover, learn, uncover). This takes the focus off yourself as the speaker and puts it on the attendee, ideally helping them envision their experience. However, I find this approach limiting in terms of available verbs and also a little forced. Unless I’m giving a workshop where the attendee is an active participant, I prefer to describe what I myself will talk about rather than pretending that the attendee is doing things. It allows me to tell the story more vibrantly:
In this session, I’ll take a series of cluttered real-world legacy layouts and show in time-lapse fashion how I would redesign them for an improved user experience.
I’ll discuss design principles and patterns.
I’ll also demonstrate FileMaker-specific skills such as working with styles and themes.
I’ll also show the same layouts as re-envisioned by several other designers within the FileMaker Community.
But lo and behold! I had four bullet points when the magic number is three. I also repeated keywords like “show” and “also.” How painful… If I could rewrite this now, I’d say the following:
In this session, I’ll take a series of cluttered real-world legacy layouts and show in time-lapse fashion how I would redesign them for an improved user experience.
Along the way, I’ll discuss design principles and patterns.
For added insight, I’ll share the same layouts as re-envisioned by several other designers within the FileMaker Community.
3) My Summary
Even worse, I completely forgot to include a sentence that communicates a concrete takeaway. I’ll bet that at the time, I didn’t feel confident about making a strong claim about the value of my session and unconsciously let it slide. I should have written something like this:
You’ll take away actionable redesign strategies clearly illustrated both by my mistakes and successes: a practical and amusing “do this, not that” confessional.
Review Your Work
And what do you know? Here I am, doing the same thing as I did in that session, confessing and atoning for my sins. It seems that whenever I slow down enough to re-examine my work, there’s always something to learn. I hope this demonstrates that your session proposal doesn’t have to be brilliant right out of the gate – that’s what drafts are for.
It’s also what reviewers are for. When I’m writing for a friendly audience, it focuses my attention and motivates me to iterate, writing draft after draft until I run out of time or energy. Any flaws in this blog article are entirely due to those constraints, and much of what’s good about it comes from the advice of helpful friends. In the end, I promise that it has been a labor of love.
My goal in writing this piece has been to encourage more people to apply as speakers this year. I hope that it has encouraged you. I’d love to see a diverse group of people with lots of new faces when the conference website goes live in the spring. Here is the submission link one more time.
If you need to talk to someone one-on-one or would like a reviewer for your session proposals, please feel free to get in touch. As long as time permits, I would love to help you out.