Storytelling On Stage: The Basics
Crafting a GopherCon Proposal
The Call for Proposals for GopherCon 2021 opens April 5th, and if you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re thinking about submitting a talk for GopherCon 2021, however you may be struggling with how to start. I’ve previously attended, spoken at, and been part of the Review Committee for GopherCon, so I truly understand the stresses and difficulties associated with generating an idea, writing the proposal, prepping, and giving a talk. I hope through this series of guides, which will be published over the next few weeks, to provide advice on how to craft a great proposal that will impress the reviewers, and wow your audience!
In this first guide, I’ll start with the basics: how your proposal should be structured, what components are required, as well as insight into the selection criteria the review committee uses to evaluate your proposal. In the next guide, I’ll talk through some key storytelling elements to be used both in your proposal and talk, as well as how they should differ in terms of their tone and target audience. I’ll also touch on how to make yours stand out in the sea of proposals the review committee wades through.
Part 1: The Basics
What is required in your proposal?
A title, an abstract, a description, and an outline. These are the key requirements for any proposal submitted to GopherCon. Let’s go over them in turn.
This is your first impression on the reviewers, so it’s essential to get right. It’s the first thing the reviewers will notice, as well as being the first thing GopherCon attendees will see when deciding what talks they want to attend. Get creative, make it catchy, funny, you can even throw a pun in there, however steer clear of the temptation to make it seatbait (clickbait, but for conference seats). As Dave Cheney put it, “avoid 8 shocking things that make your proposal read like a Buzzfeed headline”.
You can change your title after submitting your proposal so don’t worry too much about it, however in my experience a good title can start your creative journey off in the right direction.
This is your hook and it’s only 300 characters, so every letter counts. Think of it like an elevator pitch, you only have a few lines to excite the reviewer. It’s also used on the conference website and agenda, so the abstract needs to attract your fellow Gophers to attend your talk. My advice is to make your topic and target audience clear.
Here you have space to elaborate and go into detail about your topic. The more detail, the better! You should include information about the core topic, your target audience, the talk’s relevance to the Go Community, as well as the impact you hope to have on your audience. Making the case for your talk’s relevance to the Go Community holds varying importance. Depending on how core the topic is to the Go Community, it may only take a line, or a whole paragraph. Correctness and achievability are important factors in the selection process, so make sure to include a line or two illustrating why you should be the one speaking about the proposed topic.
Dave Cheney advises that you start with introductory paragraphs to set the scene, then give a high level overview of the talk structure and who your target audience is.
Many just leave this out, however I want to emphasize your outline should go hand in hand with your description, and is useful both for you and the review committee. It provides a roadmap of your talk, demonstrating how well you know the area you plan to explore, as well as its achieveability.
The outline helps the reviewers understand the flow of your talk, so I advise also including timing information. If you’re unsure of the timing, try a few practice runs. This is especially important for your introduction as it typically either takes far longer, or far less time that you expect. The rest of your talk will fly by, 25 or 45 minutes may seem like a long time, but 25 minutes will go by in a heartbeat, and 45, a couple beats more.
I’ll go into more detail on the subjects of timing and content of your talk in one of my following guides, but here’s a little teaser: one of my tips is to only cover one main idea in a 25-minute proposal and cover 2-3 ideas in a 45-minute proposal, otherwise you’ll lose your audience.
The GopherCon CFP committee tries to make the selection criteria as transparent as possible so both proposers and reviewers have clarity in the evaluation process. There are five areas evaluated when reviewing a proposal: relevance, clarity, correctness, achievability, and impact.
Your proposal is for GopherCon, therefore your talk should focus on the Go programming language and its community. If you’re planning to talk about something that’s not specific to Go, be sure to make a strong argument for its relevance to GopherCon. If it isn’t clear to the reviewers, they are unlikely to select your proposal. Also clarify the “why now?”: why is this something the community needs to hear about now.
The reviewers want to know both what you’re going to cover, as well as how you plan to cover it. The more detail, the better, as it will give the reviewers an improved understanding of your talk. However, ensure you communicate clearly: too much information, presented in an unorganized manner, will cause confusion. As I advised previously, adding timing information to your outline can help give structure to your proposal while also aiding in clarity.
Everything you say in your talk must be accurate, which should go without saying, however, this criterion also includes the idea of sharing knowledge. Make it clear why you are the right person to be communicating the concepts presented in your talk. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert, but instead that you can speak to this topic from experience. This bears repeating: reviewers are looking for experience, not necessarily an expert.
Discussing a topic from the perspective of a beginner or intermediate level can be hugely valuable, and relevant to the majority of attendees, so don’t let your level of knowledge stop you from submitting. As long as you put in the time and research to ensure your talk is correct and clear, you’re good to go! If validating why you’re the right person doesn’t fit well in your description or outline, add it to the notes section of your proposal.
25 minutes may feel like a long time and 45 minutes an eternity, but time tends to pass faster than you expect. As you formulate your talk try to find the “sweet spot” between too much and too little content. This helps to keep your audience engaged, while not overwhelming them. The review committee wants your assurance that you’ll adhere to the time constraint and fill the time allotted, without going over or coming in under.
My advice is to cover a single topic, with one subtopic in a 25-minute talk. In a 45-minute talk, stick to 2-3 topics, with only 1 or 2 subtopics. This structure may not be applicable to all types of talks, but it’s a good rule of thumb for most. If you try to cover too much, you risk your audience becoming disengaged and overwhelmed. It is better to cover a smaller number of items, in detail, ensuring your audience can process your ideas, and leave your presentation with clear takeaways.
This is yet another reason adding time estimates to your outline is vital. It helps you organize your time, as well as reassure the review committee you’ve thought your proposal through and will stick to your time.
People attend GopherCon to learn, grow, and expand their networks; taking that knowledge, and those connections, back into their day-to-day work and lives. Audiences will typically only walk away from a talk having grasped one, or maybe two key takeaways, hence my advice is to keep the focus tight. If you cover too much, you risk your audience leaving with one takeaway they know little about, and perhaps feeling a little overwhelmed, as opposed to leaving with one fully understood subject. If you feel strongly you need to include more than two topics in a 25-minute talk, make sure to validate the reason in your proposal’s notes section.
Finally, let the reviewers know the impact you want your talk to have. What valuable concept do you want your audience to take with them? Reviewers want every talk to be impactful; don’t miss the opportunity to validate why yours will make an impression.
In this guide I laid out the four structural requirements for your proposal: title, abstract, description, and outline. The “whats” of your proposal. Then we went through the five areas used to review your proposal: relevance, clarity, correctness, achievability, and impact. The “whys” of your proposal. You are now ready to draft your proposal, however you may be asking for the “hows”. How do you set your proposal and talk apart from all the rest? How do your proposal and talk work together, and compliment each other? These “hows” and more will be covered in my next guide: Part 2: Storytelling.
Putting together a series of guides of this nature is not a small task, taking far more than a lone writer, therefore before closing I want to acknowledge a few 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.