Advice from RailsConf organizers on talk proposals

February 4, 2014

Write/Speak/Code organized a Google Hangout today to hear a bit more from RailsConf organizers on what they're looking for for their different talk tracks and what makes a good talk proposal.

#1 takeaway: you probably need to move some of the information in the Details section into the abstract.
#2 takeaway: the process is more flexible than you probably think.

Here are some of the other tips they shared:

Good-to-know points about the process:
  • They're trying really hard to have a feedback loop here to help you improve your talk proposal and have it be a conversation, not a black hole--so it's worth applying just for this! 
  • However, don't take it personally if you don't get specific feedback, could also just be luck of draw of whoever's reading your proposal, that they're currently overwhelmed, etc.
  • They will consider pairing multiple shorter talks together, so if you don't feel you have enough for 30-35 minutes of talking, note this in your pitch and they may match up short talks together. Interesting topics over length.
  • They are open to making new tracks out of the submission pool that they get, so just because you have an idea that doesn't fit perfectly into a specific track, submit it anyway! (note: probably not if there's something that says they are specifically not looking for talks in that particular area, though). 
  • The live coding track is basically like a mass pairing session.

Coming up with talk ideas:
  • Write down things you come across while you're working that make you excited to tell a co-worker about and you couldn't find a blog post on, then review these periodically to remind yourself what those were and see if they can be grown into a talk.
  • If these things are codebase specific, you can generalize the topic by researching how the wider Rails community addresses the same problem, i.e. "we do it this way, but what are other Rails ways of doing ____"
  • For talk ideas that are of the "I don't know much about this yet and want to propose a talk to learn about it" type, you obviously need to do some research, but you only need to do enough research to convince yourself (and later, the organizers) that there's enough content there to fill a talk. What's the story you want to tell? What's the outline? What's the ending (and there should be an ending)?
  • Research can be along the lines of looking at what are the big players and libraries in this space.
  • Keep note of your sources so that you'll be able to cite them when drawing your conclusions, attendees will want to look at them too later.
  • It's totally ok to change your conclusion for your talk between when you propose it and when you give it, then you can talk about why you changed your mind (plus it probably also means there was something timely that made you change your mind).
  • Great blog post from one of the track conductors: Conference Prompts: Or How to Submit Proposals and Influence People

On "that should've been a blog post" vs. a talk:
  • Sometimes people say this just because there was a lot of reading out of text in the talk, so if you're doing a presentation, make sure you brush up on your public speaking skills.
  • This can also be about length and depth, blog posts tend to be shorter.
  • However this can also just be whatever's convenient, what medium you yourself prefer. You'd probably just execute it differently based on the medium rather than the topic itself.
  • If you do write blog posts, they can still be a source to inspire a talk--can point to these to help persuade organizers that you have thought about this topic and are capable of pulling ideas together in at least one format.
  • You can even link to other people's blog posts as your talk idea inspiration.

On the abstract:
  • The abstract is your pitch to conference attendees, you're doing marketing here!
  • Don't worry so much about "giving away" the content of your talk in the abstract, more details will actually make more people want to come == conference organize will want you to do this talk more.
  • A good way to think about your pitch is to explain to people what they'll be able to do after your talk that they couldn't before.
  • Read your abstract out loud and make sure to get people to proofread it for you, don't make silly mistakes here.

In conclusion, the conference organizers are nice and want you to submit talks! Thank you Leah, Noel, Ben, and Sarah for sharing your insights and Rebecca for organizing.