Conference Submissions – a Personal View
First published 09/05/2014
I’ve been meaning to write an article on writing conference abstracts and submissions for a while. I’m prompted to do this now because I’ve had to provide feedback to some of the many EuroSTAR submitters who asked for feedback. I can’t provide an individual response to the nearly 400 people who were unsuccessful. But I can provide some generalised feedback on my experience as Programme Chair for EuroSTAR, Host of the Test Management Forum, Co-Programme Chair for Testing in Finance, several Unicom and many BCS SIGiST events and others that I can’t recall. I've also given a few talks in my time.
In particular, I want to address this to the people who are trying to get their talks accepted and who might not yet have succeeded. Personally, I like to go to conference talks by a small number of speakers I know well and respect. But I also like to go to talks from ‘first-timers’. They often have much more energy and new insights that make conference talks so very interesting.
(By the way, if you want to pitch a session at the TMF, do let me know. I’m always on the lookout. Let me know your idea first.)
So, with no further ceremony. Here are my Do’s and Don’ts of conference submissions. Mostly, they are Don’ts. I hope you find them useful.
Read the Submission Guidelines
If you ignore the advice that has been put together by the programme team, then you are simply asking for trouble. But you will make it easy for the reviewer – they will discount your submission very quickly. These are the mistakes that I would say are really basic. Perhaps they are dumb too. See later.
- The guidelines ask for 1500-2000 characters and you write 4500 words because you think your submission is so fantastic it can’t be described in less.
- The guidelines ask for 1500-2000 characters and you write 500 because the content simply isn’t there.
- The guideline describes a theme and you ignore it (you know better of course)
- The guideline asks for experience reports and you provide a polemic or it asks for evidence and you offer only speculative theories.
- The guideline says, ‘no sales pitches’ and you give them ... a sales pitch.
- The guideline asks for three key points or takeaways and you haven’t got any.
- You don’t fill in the personal details form properly.
You Only Have One Chance to Make a First Impression
Whether you are writing a CV, presenting yourself for an interview, or pitching an abstract for a conference talk, if you make a bad impression in your title or first paragraph, the reviewer will do you the courtesy of reading your abstract, for sure. But in their mind, they will be looking for further evidence to confirm their first impression and score the submission low.
If your title and opening words trigger a reaction (curiosity, excitement, horror even) they will read to the end with interest but the reviewer will be looking for evidence to score your abstract highly.
Aim to get a good reaction in the first few sentences of your submission.
Be Credible – You are Selling Your Story, Not Soap
Do not promise 250x faster regression testing, a tool/process/service that will transform the industry or the lives of the audience. If you have actually made $1 million out of your idea, then perhaps people would like to hear your story. Otherwise, choose a different tack.
If you are offering a story of how you transformed something in your own company, reviewers will check your profile that a) you worked for the company b) for a reasonable length of time and c) your experience fits the story you tell. Match your story to your experience. Do not under any circumstances lie. Unless misrepresentation and being fooled is a key aspect of your talk.
If you work for a tool vendor, I’m afraid it is really hard to get your story of how wonderful your tool is into a conference. It’s much better to talk about tool classification, or implementation of tools or true experiences of using a type of tool. Unfortunately, there is also some prejudice against speakers from tool vendors, particularly the larger ones. Better that you get a client to talk about how wonderful you are perhaps. Or you talk about something else entirely.
All conferences want sessions that people will think are topical, important, the future. Topicality sells conference tickets.
At some point, object-orientation, client/server, Year 2000, the Internet, web services, Agile, Mobile were on the horizon. If you can pitch a session on something that people have heard of, that sounds important, but about which they know very little, you have an excellent chance of being chosen. The topics above have faded somewhat. Agile and Mobile may have peaked. So what’s next? Continuous Delivery? DevOps? Internet of Everything? Shift-Left? MicroServices? Try and spot the wave and get on it before it becomes mainstream – if you can.
Don’t Trot Out the theme, Use it as a Guide or Challenge it
Do not write a title that includes the words of the theme, unless the theme is just one or two words. But if the theme allows it, embrace it. This year’s EuroSTAR theme is ‘Diversity, Innovation, Leadership’. A title like ‘Innovative Leadership in a Diverse Project’ might get some attention, but you had better back it up with some facts and a good story. Otherwise – it’s a sure-fire loser.
When I read an abstract, I imagine removing all the words that appear in the theme. If the abstract still makes sense, then the theme words were added as an afterthought. As tennis umpires might call – Out!
Challenge the theme but don’t undermine it. For example, Eurostar 2002 had a theme ‘The Value of Testing’. I chose as my title, ‘What is the Value of Testing and how can we increase it?’ It seemed to me that most people would stick ‘value’ in their title and give the same old talks as before. I wanted to challenge it and explore what value really meant in this context. I got a great talk out of it. In that case, the title came first, the talk came later.
Use the theme as a starting point, not as some words you can insert into an existing abstract. It can be spotted a mile away.
Make it Easy for the Reviewer; Make it Hard for the Reviewer
The reviewers will be reading and scoring tens, possibly hundreds of abstracts. They are looking to get through your abstract quickly and to score it with confidence so they can say, “this is fantastic” or “this is out”. Obviously you want the first reaction. If you write too much text, fill it with jargon, tell a vague story with a non-specific punch-line – expect reviewers to gibe you a low score.
Consider using a journalistic approach to bring the facts our quickly or use ‘Kipling’s Honest Serving Men’ - look it up if you don’t know it.
Make it hard for the reviewer? The reviewers will have in the back of their mind that 80% or 90% of the submissions will have to be rejected. So their reviews are a filtering process. Don’t make it easy for them to discard your proposal.
Say Something New or Say Something Important (or Both)
This seems obvious (like much of my advice here), but again and again, we see people proposing titles like ‘Seven habits of really effective testers’, ‘Ten Laws of Software Testing’, ‘Top Ten mistakes made...’ and so on. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these titles, and I’m sure I have seen several excellent presentations using each of these titles. But that’s the problem – it’s been done before.
- If your top tips are things like, keep learning, think critically, question everything, remember your goal – I’m afraid everyone on the programme committee has heard these things a hundred times before. Your abstract might well appear to be a trite list of platitudes. Very easy to score low.
- You might get away with ‘My top tips for using tool X’. But although it’s new and technically strong, it might be really obscure and get precisely 4 people attending. No good. Pitch it at a tools conference.
- Now, most conferences have a lot of inexperienced people and first-time conference goers. These people need some basic or introductory sessions. It might seem like a step backwards for someone as experienced as you to be talking about ‘the basics’, but perhaps you can recount your own experience learning your trade, or coaching, mentoring your own team. A proportion of all conference talks will be focused on beginners. Focus on HOW you learned or taught or coached or mentored – the WHAT is probably well known already.
Writing a Perfect Abstract that Fails
One more mistake that is often made is this. You have a good title. Your opening paragraph sets the scene. You tell your story in a concise, engaging way. Your three key points are well made. And the reviewer gives you a low score. Why is that?
Perhaps the story really could be told in 3 minutes. The reviewer got all they needed from the abstract – so why go to the talk? Don’t forget the abstract is NOT the talk. The abstract is a sales document, like a CV. It must make people think they should invest 45 minutes of their time in listening to your story. I’m not saying that ‘you should not give the game away’. You need to leave your reviewer (and conference attendee) with the feeling that they want to go and hear you tell your story in person.
Read your own abstract and ask yourself, “would I want to go to this talk?” Ask a colleague or your boss whether they would they want to hear the story.
Some Really Dumb Errors
Finally, some loose end stupid mistakes. Don’t get caught out this way.
- You tell the reviewers how to do their job
- You try and sell a tool, a service, a brilliant project rather than a conference talk
- Your abstract patronises the reader
- Your talk has been given at seven other conferences this year
- You contradict yourself in your abstract
- You criticise the theme, the chair, the program team or the conference
- You personally attack other professionals and promise to do so in your talk
- You promise to be controversial and aren’t
- You claim to be the inventor of something that already exists
- You submit ten mediocre abstracts that are doomed to fail, when one good one might have succeeded
- You promise common sense and make highly dubious claims
- You steal someone else’s abstract and pretend it is your own
- Your English isn’t that good and you don’t get someone else to review it first
- You submit a bad abstract that has been rejected by several other conferences.
A Good Abstract is Worth the Effort
Keynotes are usually chosen by the chair or program committee. But there is no magic pass for experienced speakers to get into good conference programs. Pretty much, the experienced speakers are in the same situation as every other submitter. Everyone has to write a good abstract. The old-hands do have one advantage – they have experience of writing good abstracts. They know what works and what doesn’t. They are a known quantity so they might appear to be a ‘low risk’ (although being known can also count against you if you are known to bore or offend people).
More importantly, all conferences want to select some speakers that are new faces, fresh blood and who will being new ideas to an audience. So as an inexperienced or first-time conference speaker you have an advantage too. Use the opportunity to submit to get yourself on stage and in front of your peers and tell your story. There’s no better feeling for a speaker than people telling you they enjoyed your talk. So go for it – and put the effort into writing a good proposal. After that, writing the talk is easy ;O)
I wish you the best of luck.