Storytelling On Stage: Storytelling
Crafting a GopherCon Proposal
The Call for Proposals for GopherCon 2021 is now open! If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re thinking about submitting a proposal. This is Part 2 in a series of guides intended to help you with just that. If you haven’t read the first guide you can read it here.
I’ve previously attended, spoken at, and been part of the Review Committee for GopherCon, so I understand the difficulties of the process: generating an idea, writing a proposal, and practicing, then giving, a talk. Through this series of guides I’ll provide advice on how to craft a great proposal that will impress the reviewers and wow your audience.
In this guide, I’ll talk through key storytelling elements used both in your proposal and your talk, as well as how they differ in their tone and target audience. I’ll finally touch on how to make yours stand out in the sea of proposals the review committee wades through. In the next guide, I’ll provide advice on how to move your proposal to completion, with finishing touches that’ll make it shine.
Part 2: Storytelling
When you step on stage you become a storyteller. Just because you’re not acting doesn’t mean you can’t employ the same techniques that have been used for centuries to captivate your audience and tell great stories. Before the stage though, you’re storytelling on the page, weaving the narrative of your talk through a proposal. But how do we achieve this?
First, note that your proposal’s audience differs from that of your talk. The former consists of a group of Go community veterans, who read hundreds of proposals to organize an exciting and intellectually stimulating program. The latter is a group of Gophers looking to learn and grow. The story you tell in your proposal to captivate your first audience differs from the story you’ll tell on stage for your second.
When I started crafting my first proposal I searched for articles and blog posts to aid in the process. I easily found resources that guided structure, but few on how to tell an engaging story. Through this series generally and this article specifically I aim to fill that gap, helping you to tell your stories in a captivating way for both the review committee and the attendees at GopherCon.
Before I dive in, I want to emphasize that while this advice may help increase the odds of selection, it does not guarantee acceptance of your proposal.
How To Think About Your Proposal
When starting something new I use analogies to make connections between what I’m doing and what I’ve done. As an author, I connected that the storytelling techniques I use in my prose translate to the writing done for a proposal and a talk.
Listening to one person talk for 25 minutes can be difficult if the speaker is not telling an interesting story, this is even more true when it’s 45 minutes. Similarly when reviewing hundreds of proposals on a tight deadline, it’s difficult to engage with each proposal individually, unless the material pulls the reader in and excites them. The key component in both situations is time: an abundance in your talk and a scarcity in your proposal. Techniques like suspense and foreshadowing are handy in your talk, but not so much in your proposal, where you need to get straight to the point. In the latter, opt for concise but exciting language, where each word can serve a purpose.
Another element to consider is competition. At the maximum there are four options for attendees at the conference: the three session tracks and a hallway track. That gives you an odds of 25%. Contrast this with the proposal review process, where your odds are closer to 10% and your opportunity to hold the audience’s attention is far shorter. Holding that attention requires not just writing in a concise manner but also adding elements to your proposal that set it apart from the rest, and this is where storytelling elements are helpful.
Combining these two elements we arrive at an important piece of advice: don’t bury the lede. The structure of your proposal does not need to match that of your talk. Let’s use an analogy. Your talk is like a book; you want to pull the audience through all the pages, even those treacherous middle ones, through to the end. You make that task more difficult if you front load all of the interesting information. Your proposal though? That’s more like a newspaper article; you want to put all the interesting information upfront and then extrapolate over the remainder of the space. In your proposal, that end space is where you discuss elements like foreshadowing and suspense, which can be conveyed either directly in prose or indirectly through an outline. This is also where you can discuss elements like timing, context, and why you’re the best person to give this talk.
Finally, while there are a variety of formats that conference talks come in, the structure of your proposal is static. You want to address the same requirements and criteria I laid out in my first post, while ensuring that you include as much context (including storytelling elements) as you can compactly fit. At the end of the day, storytelling is about the way you use words and less about the structure used to contain them. Whenever you’re storytelling, think about your audience and cater your story to them. Craft it based on the time you have, the structure the audience is expecting, and the other things competing for your audience’s attention.
Now you know the structure of your proposal, what information is required, and how to think about it. With this key knowledge, you’re ready to craft a great proposal that will wow the reviewers and captivate your audience at GopherCon.
The insight I’ve provided so far addresses the final state of your proposal. You might be wondering how to build from a blank page to that final state? That blinking cursor can be intimidating. I’ll cover this and refine some of the other knowledge I’ve shared in the next guide, Part 3: Advice.
Putting together a series of guides of this nature is not a small task, taking far more than a lone writer, so before closing I want to acknowledge a couple people who have helped me. I’d like to thank the wonderful Heather Sullivan and Angelica Hill for graciously editing this guide, they not only helped put paint on the walls, but they also helped tear down unnecessary ones and construct some new ones.