Setting yourself up for success when submitting to “a” conference

Around this time last year, I started off a lunchtime thread on Twitter (read: rant) on how to set yourself up for success when submitting to “a” conference, with a vague promise to someday turn it into a blog post. I’ve been asked for advice many a times before, so I figured it would be useful to make this easier to find (even if only for myself). I’ve got a significant bias based on my experiences with dataMinds Connect, but I’m convinced there are things that apply to other conferences and events out there. This list is based on my own opinions from reading a ton of session abstracts, watching sessions, .. throughout the years, and not necessarily those of the other people in our #dataMindsConnect crew.

If you’re looking for an event to submit to, I can highly recommend the Call for Speakers for dataMinds Connect 2023 (October 9th & 10th 2023 in Mechelen, Belgium). #ShamelessPlug

  1. Identifying opportunities to submit your sessions has become significantly easier as a lot of work is done to centralize Call for Speakers by various people in the community. Some examples are Call for Data Speakers, Call for Speakers (Facebook), Data Platform Speakers (LinkedIn), and the Discover Events feature on Sessionize. I’m sure there others that apply better to specific communities, but these are the ones I’m aware of for our Data Platform centered events.
    1. You are still responsible for assessing if the event is a good fit for you! For example, I’ve submitted to M365 related events before with Power BI content, knowing very well it was a long shot.
    2. If you’re looking for ways to get started as a presenter, consider your local user group, online user groups, or community-driven events. There are plenty of events like New Stars of Data, DataGrillen, DATA:Scotland, dataMinds Connect, .. that have reserved slots for new speakers, and offer guidance and mentoring to new speakers to help them take the leap.
  2. Session abstracts matter to an organizer, attendee and yourself. I see plenty of submissions come in with a (very) limited description of the content that will be covered, or even with just a copy of the title. I “ranted” about this before, blog post for context. Personally, I struggle selecting sessions with a limited abstract as I cannot assess if that session will match our target audience.
  3. It’s hard to assess session compatibility when the core concepts are not outlined in the abstract and submission. For example, if you talk about “a number of techniques”, “some common pitfalls”, or “the most recurring challenges” instead of the actual things you’ll cover, I have to take a guess, which may not be correct. An attendee will have to make those same guesses. Assumptions suck, and leave room for interpretation on the receiving end. The clearer you are about your intentions, the less room for confusion you’ll leave, which benefits everyone involved.
  4. Use the optional fields! A lot of events deliberately make a lot of fields in the Call for Speakers page optional, as required fields don’t guarantee qualitative input. Provide context in the notes section, define the target audience and learning objectives. It really helps the organizer, and it makes your submission stand out from the rest!
  5. The “Notes” section in Sessionize is a hidden gem to most! Less than 5% of the sessions that were submitted to dataMinds Connect 2022 had additional notes. This is the excellent place to provide additional context for whoever is voting on your sessions or crafting the schedule. You can add additional context, links to recordings of the session, slide deck, .. or even indicate your willingness to make changes to better meet the target audience.
  6. Curate out any previous event specific customizations in your submissions. For events using Sessionize, it’s incredibly easy to duplicate submissions across events. But if there are 60 minute sessions, and you specify “ these next 75 minutes at event xyz..”, it doesn’t look good..
  7. Diversify the session topics you submit. I get that everyone wants to talk about the latest and greatest buzzwords, and that many speakers use session preparations as a way to learn about it. But when 12 ‘Intro to Synapse Serverless’, or 17 ‘This is why Data Mesh is the next big thing’ sessions get submitted, we can still only pick 1 of those for the event schedule.
    1. I’ll explicitly note the same about Power BI related sessions. dataMinds Connect 2022 had 412 sessions submitted, and 139 of them were tagged with Power BI as a topic. For reference, we can only select ~8 Power BI sessions for our conference schedule.
  8. dataMinds Connect makes the submitted sessions public for a reason (and personally I don’t understand why more events don’t do this too). We want transparency on which sessions get submitted, and that other people get to see what has already been submitted. For sessions about confidential topics it can a deal breaker, but there’s nothing a quick message to the organising team can’t solve. Use this information for your own benefit and adjust where it makes sense.
  9. A variety in topics is 1 thing, but sessions levels are important too. The majority of sessions gets submitted as Level 100-200 which stay at a high level, but most events get explicit requests from attendees to plan 300, 400+ content. In the example of dataMinds Connect, sessions with a level 400-500 are mostly about SQL Server core topics.
    The split for session levels in the submissions for dataMinds Connect 2022

    Context: The split for session levels in the submissions for dataMinds Connect 2022

  10. Just because a well known name submitted a similar session to yours, it doesn’t mean your odds of getting selected are slim to non-existent. A lot of events primarily select sessions for content over names/people, and are very keen on giving fresh faces all the chances they deserve. But just keep in mind the earlier points I made about quality abstract content, diversifying topics, ..
  11. Read through the covering texts in the Call for Speakers page or the event website, as they contain a ton of useful information. At dataMinds Connect, we deliberately define our target audience, definitions of what a ‘new speaker’ is, the topics we expect to see covered, so you can be clear about our understanding of these subjects.
  12. Reach out to people, to ask about their prior experiences with the event. If you’re not sure about where you’re submitting to, ask around. Now you can easily get in touch with organizers, prior speakers, volunteers, attendees, .. and ask for their honest opinions. Most people will actually care to respond!
  13. Ask someone to review your submission, to get extra eyes and opinions on it. “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”, which is exactly the same for our data community. To quote the Norwegian legend Cathrine W., “We’re aggressively friendly”.
    Grant Fritchey offers his help to those that want it

    Context: Grant Fritchey offers his help to those that want it

  14. Heck, why not even reach out to the organising committee. I know many organisers (including myself) have a mock agenda of topics they want to see covered. Ask around for any gaps they want to see covered. They may just reply with a session topic you thought was irrelevant.
  15. If you’re not comfortable going at it alone, ask to pair up with someone to mentor you, or even co-present. Plenty of people will gladly share the stage to get someone else launched into our weird family we call the Data Community. You’d be surprised who’s open to help, if you’d only ask.
  16. Don’t wait until the very last moment to submit your sessions. Most organizers choose to read all submissions that come in, before starting the actual voting process. The influx in the last 2 days can make it harder for your session to ‘stand out’ in the attention span of those reading submissions.

    The submissions for dataMinds Connect 2022, by when they were submitted.

  17. Understand that this is a learning journey, which will never end. Not a single presenter out there has all of their submissions accepted, and they also have to deal with rejection. Some choose to improve based on feedback, to keep improving their chances. Not every submission you make will get accepted, and you’ll have to take that gracefully as well. As an organiser I’ve had some shitty experiences with salty comments and messages after a rejecting a session for dataMinds Connect. It’s never fun, despite having the best intentions ..
  18. You’ll grow, no matter what the outcome is, as long as you choose to learn from your experiences. Everyone started out in the beginning, everyone makes mistakes. I was a shambling mess with my first session at SQL Server Days 2016 following after some bloke called Chris Webb with an Analysis Services (MultiDim) + Power BI session. Today I still am, I just got a lot better at hiding it from the audience.
  19. I’d like to know if there’s anything stopping you from submitting to dataMinds Connect or any other event, or if you have any related questions.

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