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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!

Foo session: Event organizer self help group

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First thing Saturday morning I ran an intimate little meta-session, the not-so-serious Event Organizer Self Help Group. We were a small, but wow, what a group: Maker Faire producer Louise Glasgow, O’Reilly’s own Julie Steele and Sharon Cordesse, William Etundi Jr of Artists Wanted as well XOXO organizer Andy Baio. Combined, there was a tremendously deep knowledge of the ins and outs of putting together kick-ass events.

Instead of re-hashing the session, let me try to jut down just a few of the key take-aways that might be useful for any person organizing events.

  • Let the doc do the thinking! At the very beginning of the project, make sure to set up a spreadsheet (gDoc is recommended) and cluster all tasks by “department”, ie “tech team”, “speaker handling”, etc. List absolutely every task including the time frame (4 weeks out, 2 days out, 1 day after, and so on). Color code if possible. Then sort the spreadsheet by that time, so you get a time line of everything that has to happen. Make sure everyone has access to that. It’s important to do this at the beginning, when you can still think clearly. Later on, when stress and sleep deprivation clog your brain, rely on the doc to do the thinking for you.
  • Related note: Plan for some down time right before the event, even if it’s only for a long walk, to clear your mind and keep you as sane as possible.
  • Wifi is notoriously tough for larger crowds. Make sure to get someone good involved if it’s not provided by the location. (If it is, make sure it’s free for the participants – negotiate if necessary.) If you run a non-profit event, see if there’s a local activist group that can help, in many cities there is.
  • Volunteers can be great, but make sure to coordinate them well. If working with volunteers works out or not depends on the kind of event you run, and on how good a raport you can establish upfront. Also, pick the tasks you give to volunteers with care. If you run a commercial event you might want to not go with volunteers and instead actually pay everyone on the team.
  • Mailchimp or similar newsletter tools can be very valuable leading up to the event to coordinate and communicate with speakers, your team and the audience. Use lists smartly. Make sure to communicate all the truly relevant stuff, and absolutely nothing else so it’s not too much to process.
  • Think in domino effects. As the lead organizer, you’re the only one who has the absolute overview of what’s going on at which time, and how things are connected. Think in these connections, collaterals, dependencies – domino effects, basically. (“If this thing doesn’t happen as planned, how does that change everything else?”)
  • Use sign-up forms for speakers. In these forms, speakers can input their correct links, bios etc. This reduces friction and makes sure you always have the correct data.
  • Build teams & delegate. Everyone should clearly know their roles, and know who to report to whom. It should also be clear who can make autonomous decisions about what, and who they have to include in the communications if they do. As the lead organizer you won’t be able to handle the main coordination leading up to and throughout the event (again, sleep dep, and other things will need your attention). There should be a point of contact for all the teams who coordinates and can decide what to delegate to another team lead and what needs to be decided by you, then communicate your decision back to the relevant teams.
  • If possible, even in a smaller event, get an event manager to help. Early on, so they have a chance to get acquainted with what’s going on. They don’t necessarily have to be involved full time from the very beginning, but do take their advise serious.
  • Before the event, make sure to do a mental walk through of location and program from the point of view of an attendee: What would you see when you arrived, how would you find the things you needed, are there enough signs etc? Put yourself in the participants’ shoes, and in the speakers’ shoes.
  • Work carefully with sponsors: Both sides want this to be good and create value. Work with them to make it good.
  • Bonus: If you expect a large crowd, and the location doesn’t have enough bathrooms, talk to your porta potty provider of choice – turns out they really know how to calculate the exact amount of mobile toilets you need. (I had no idea!)

In the end, though, it’s all about trusting your instincts and staying true to the soul of the event you’re running. So pick the elements that work for you!

Update: You can find a growing list of session notes from Foo Camp here.