Nervous about Submitting Talks to Conferences? I Was Too

by Angela 28. February 2017 20:09

Note: If you’re itching to get right to the part where I offer ideas for improving your chances of being selected for conferences, skip past this right to the bottom. I promise I won’t be offended, mostly because I won’t know you did it Smile with tongue out

I say “was” like I got over it, but I really didn’t. I just found a great support system to help me muster the courage and confidence to get my thoughts together, pitch an idea, and do my best to deliver on it.  Not every talk I give is a home run, but I’m not a paid, professional speaker either. A lot of people have told me I make it look so easy, it’s not. I still get stomach flutters hitting submit on almost any talk I propose for a conference. I get excited and even MORE nervous the times I am selected. But I am also someone who is really passionate about what I do, who has had a lot of experiences both good and bad, and who truly believes that we can learn a TON from each other if only we’d all have the courage to show up and give it a go. And I rarely do it alone.

For me it is two-fold. I grew up with this core belief that to be enough, to be valued that I have to be perfect. That I have to know something expertly before having the “audacity” to speak on it at a conference. I think that is why I have gotten really comfortable speaking on Imposter Syndrome, because OH BOY do I do that well Smile

It’s a fairly common feeling, and one that seems even more pervasive among minorities in a given field. SO sure, this is not JUST about being a woman in a STEM field, but I am a woman in a STEM field and I can’t really speak with authority on what it’s like to be anything else. I also know there are never lines in my bathroom at conferences, because not many of us are attending, and even fewer of us are speaking. As a conference organizer, I can also state from experience that it’s not an issue of women not being selected to speak, women often are not submitting to begin with! Why? I don’t know for sure, I imagine it’s not only more complicated than any of us can posit from the safety of our office chairs, but it’s different for everyone. This post isn’t about deconstructing all that and solving the world, but it’s about things we CAN do to mitigate one of the factors contributing to this.

For me, personally, it’s partly a confidence problem. I’d see a call for speakers and get excited about the idea of sharing my experiences, I’d even brainstorm a few ideas, then immediately think a) “Who am *I* to tell anyone anything? I don’t know anything that anyone else doesn’t already know” and b) my abstract sucks and probably won’t get picked so why should I even bother submitting. Getting rejected is humiliating and I’d rather not submit at all.  That first thought, that’s a big one that I am not tackling in this post. so let’s focus on abstract quality and presentation experience.

First off, not being selected for a conference is not the same thing as being “rejected” (thanks to my friend Sharon, @scichelli on Twitter, for that reminder today!) For instance, I know for a fact that some conferences get as many as 10 submissions for every speaker slot. That means that even if selection was totally random, you could have as little as a 10% chance of being selected. Most conferences I have been involved in rely on “blind voting” for final topic selection, meaning personal information is stripped so that selection comes down to writing style, quality of your description, and honestly how “hot” your topic is given where the industry is at the time. I know, that’s a lot of pressure, because now not only do you need be passionate and know your stuff, you also have to make sure your topic is interesting and current, but that your abstract catches the eye of whomever is judging them over and above other abstracts on the same material! This is where you CAN get help though, you don’t have to write your abstracts in a vacuum.

You may not know this, but there are a lot of things you can do to make sure your speaker bios and abstracts are “up to snuff” as it were:

Send them to a friend that you trust, maybe even someone not in the same field as you.  They can often sanity check things for grammar, spelling, and general style since they are not caught up on technical jargon. Seriously, bad grammar and spelling can mean the different between being selected or not when looking at 2 similar talks…

  1. Send them to a coworker, so someone who can make a pass on non-technical aspects but can also make sure the technical content is something interesting and valuable
  2. Pitch them to a smaller venue first, like an internal lunch and learn, or a local user group. This adds a bonus opportunity to practice your content and pacing, and tweak your presentation based on initial audience feedback. Meetup.com is an awesome place to start if you don’t already know what groups meet in your area.
  3. Check out the conference site and see if they offer any guidance or personal assistance. For instance, I am an organizer of ThatConference and we have really detailed guidance on how abstracts are voted on as well as some tips on creating really compelling submissions. The guidance is applicable for ANY conference talk, so I highly recommend checking it out. ThatConference also setup a dedicated slack community channel for attendees and potential speakers to ask questions and collaborate, which could include asking for help/support with your abstracts. This is becoming pretty common at other conferences too. Take advantage if the conference you are submitting to offers these resources!
  4. Last but not least, reach out via social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, or even Facebook. Many of us are willing tor review a bio and abstract, offer advice or tips on public speaking, or connect you with any support that you need if we cannot provide it. I made an offer on Twitter just the other day and a bunch of my Twitter comrades offered up their assistance too! Check it out:




So next time you see a call for speakers, and you’re hesitating because you’re afraid your abstract isn’t good enough or that you don’t have anything to add to the collective pool of tech knowledge, hit up one of the resources above, including me! You have more to offer than you know, I promise!


And one quick reminder of a few call for papers that is open right now:


CFP Opened TODAY and closes on March 15th


Chicago Code Camp

CFP Opened TODAY and closes on February 28th


Chicago Coder’s Conference

CFP is open and closes on March 3rd



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