Ben Ramsey

Writing an Effective Talk Proposal

Earlier today, I was asked “Any tips on how to write a proposal for a major conf?” I’ve never shared tips on this, and since the calls for proposals for Sunshine PHP and Midwest PHP both end tomorrow, I thought it would be a good idea to share my approach to writing conference proposals.

Remember those standard, five-paragraph essays you used to write in high school? Remember how you thought they sucked and wouldn’t provide any practical benefit to your life? Well, it turns out they do have some redeeming qualities.

In case you’ve forgotten, a standard, five-paragraph essay comprises three main parts:

  1. The first paragraph is the introduction, where you introduce your topic and state the thesis or central argument.
  2. The next three paragraphs provide support and development of the argument.
  3. The final paragraph concludes the argument by summarizing the points and linking the individual points to the overall thesis.

When I write talk proposals, I typically follow the pattern of the introductory paragraph of this essay structure. Usually, the introduction begins with a narrative hook, something to grab the reader’s attention. This is usually a single, punchy sentence. Sometimes it’s a shocking but true statement. On the other hand, it may be hyperbolic. This is often the most difficult part of the proposal to write, but it’s also the most important, so you may want to write the rest of the proposal first and come back to this.

Following the hook, you need to introduce the topic and identify the problem you want to discuss. This usually involves several sentences, starting out broadly and narrowing the focus. Finally, end the proposal by making a claim or expressing an opinion that will form the basis of your talk. This is your thesis. You may also include an organizational sentence linked to this thesis, which provides a general outline of your topic.

Here’s a contrived example I’ve written that uses this structure with the ubiquitous concept of widgets:

Last year alone, over 498,000 servers were deployed with broken widgets. Widgets, long a staple of secure server deployments for the past decade, have recently come under fire for not being as secure as once thought. Running secure servers is crucial, so finding a better alternative for these faulty widgets is critical. Gadgets provide a stable, more secure alternative to widgets, and in this talk, Ben Ramsey introduces gadgets, shows where to find trustworthy gadget repositories, and explains how to set up and maintain server gadgets.

A final word of advice: don’t talk down to your audience. Steer clear of negative language. Statements that demean or vilify members of the audience or products/practices they use are not well-received and can hurt your chances of being accepted. I also like to stay away from absolutes or groupings that I can’t back up with real data. After writing my proposals, if I have phrases that begin with “most people” or similar inclusive statements, I try to reword them.

So, that’s my general approach to writing talk proposals for conferences. I hope this helps, but keep in mind that this isn’t the only way to write an effective talk proposal. It’s just one way. What are some of your tips for writing effective talk proposals?