For the majority of my career, I've had the opportunity to speak at conferences and other events somewhat regularly. I thought some of my talks were pretty good, and some were not so good (based on ratings, my audiences didn't always agree with either—but that's a topic for another post). But I would guess that well over 90% of the time, my proposals were accepted to be presented at the conference, so even though I may not have always delivered a home run on stage, I at least submitted an abstract that was appealing to the organizers.
When I served as chair of the Lean and Six Sigma World Conference, I reviewed every abstract submitted and was able to experience things from the other side of the process. Now, with the Minitab Insights Conference coming up, I thought I'd share some insights on submitting an A+ speaking abstract.
Tell A Story
People are emotional beings, and a mere list of the technical content you plan to present doesn't engage the reviewers any more than it will an audience. Connecting the topic to some story sparks an emotional interest and desire to know more. Several years ago, I presented on the multinomial test at a conference, a topic that probably would have elicited yawns if I'd pitched it as the technical details of how to perform this hypothesis test. Instead I submitted an abstract asking if Virgos were worse drivers, as stated by a well-known auto insurer, and explaining that by answering the question we can also learn how to determine if defect rates were different among multiple suppliers or error rates were different for various claims filers. Want to know if they are, I asked. Accept my talk! They did.
Nail the Title
This can be the most difficult step, but it helps to remember that organizers use the program to promote the conference and draw attendees. A catchy title that elicits interest from prospective attendees can go a long way. So, what makes for a good title? I like to reference the story I will tell and not directly state the topic. For the talk I describe above, the title was "Are Virgos Unsafe Drivers?" Note that from the title, someone considering attending has no idea yet that the talk will be about a statistical test. But they are curious and will read the description. More important, the talk seems interesting and the speaker seems engaging, and those are the criteria attendees use to decide what talks to attend. An alternate title that is more descriptive but not catchy,"The Proper Application of the Multinomial Test of Proportions," sounds like a good place to take a nap.
Reference Prior Experience
If the submission process allows it (the Minitab Insights Conference does), reference prior speaking engagements and even better, provide links to any recordings that may exist of you speaking. Even if it is not a formal presentation, anything that enables organizers to get a feel for your personality when speaking is a huge plus. It is somewhat straightforward to assess whether a submitted talk would be of interest to attendees, but assessing whether speakers are engaging is difficult or impossible, even though ultimately it will make a huge impact on what attendees think of the conference. Even better, you don't actually have to be an excellent presenter—the organizer's fear is that you might be a terrible speaker! Simply demonstrating that you can present clearly and engage an audience goes a long way.
Don't Make Mistakes
It is best to assume that whoever is evaluating you is a complete stranger. Imagine you ask for something from a stranger and what they send you is incomplete or contains grammatical error or typos: what is your impression of that person? If they are submitting to speak, my suspicion is that they will likely have unprofessional slides and possibly even be unprofessional when they speak. Further, the fact that they would not take the time to review and correct the submission tells me that they are not serious about participating in the event.
Write the Presentation First
Based on experience, I believe this is not done often—but that is a mistake. True, no one wants to put hours into a presentation only to have it get rejected, but that presentation could still be used elsewhere, so the time is not necessarily wasted. Inevitably, when you prepare a presentation new insights and ways of presenting the information come to light that greatly improve what will be presented and the story that will be told. So to tell the best story in the submission, it is immensely valuable to have already made the presentation slides! In fact, if I sorted every presentation I ever gave into buckets labeled "good" and "not so good," they would correspond almost perfectly to whether I had already made the presentation when I submitted the abstract.
Ask a Friend
Finally, approach someone you trust (and who is knowledgeable in the relevant subject area) to give you an honest opinion. Ask them what they think. Is the topic of interest to the expected attendees? Is it too simple? Too complicated? Will the example(s) resonate? After all, you don't want the earliest feedback you receive on your proposal to be from the person(s) deciding whether to accept the talk.
So that's my advice. It may seem like a big effort simply to submit an abstract, but everything here goes to good use as you prepare to actually give the presentation. It's better to put in more work at the start and get to put that work to good use later, than to put in a little work that goes to waste. Do these things and you'll be in a great position to be accepted and deliver a fantastic presentation!