Flesh Out Your Conference Talk Idea Using a Rubric

You have a cool idea for a talk you’d like to submit to a conference, but when faced with the blank text box on the submission form you hit writers block and struggle to turn your idea into a meaningful proposal. A rubric of questions about your idea can help flesh out your idea and generate content you can use in your submission.

Here’s one that we’ve been using internally at thoughtbot when putting together proposals. It includes questions that help refine your talk idea, as well as getting at details that are valuable to help the comittee to get better insight into what your talk will be like.

Curious what submissions look like? Have a look at some of my past proposals. You can also see more examples from the community at large on speakerline.io.

woman biting pencil while looking at computer

What is the main topic you want to talk about?

A short phrase or sentence. If this requires a paragraph, you need to focus your idea more. Put another way, if I asked a member of the audience what your talk was about, what would you want them to say?

What are 3-5 main points you want to make?

Having a sense of your main points will help you focus the talk. Later you can use this to create a high-level outline to include in your proposal.

Who is your audience?

Try to be specific. “Everyone” tends to make for a weaker talk. Think about the motivations of the people you are targetting. What are they hoping to get out of your talk? You can make your talk accessible to a broader cross-section of people but if you focus on speaking to a particular group you will have a more cohesive pitch.

Knowing this can help your refine your idea. The conference comittee often likes to know this info as it can be really helpful for them to better understand how your talk might slot into their program.

What are the prerequisites for this talk?

What are the concepts that you expect the audience to come in knowing? What are the concepts that you will explain from scratch? Is there some subset of your audience that will be unable to understand your topic?

What style of presentation is this going to be?

For example, a show-and-tell, a how-to, or teaching a concept. Starting from the same topic, these could all result in very different talks!

What kind of impact do you want to have?

Are you trying to inspire? Educate? Raise awareness? Having a sense of what your goal is here helps you refine the talk. It also helps you write up some takeaways you can include in your abstract or pitch to the comittee.

What sort of pedagogy will you be going to use?

Now that you know the what of your talk, think a bit about how you will communicate your ideas. Is this going to be narrative-driven? Is it going to be very visual and based on diagrams? Perhaps you will be walking through building a sample project?

Are there any elements that will be useful to listeners when they go back to work on Monday?

Is there anything practical that will make people better developers or just make their lives easier when they go back to work? It’s OK if you talk is more theoretical, but if you have anything that will be useful in the short-term make sure to highlight that!

Do you plan to have a theme? If so, what is it?

Themes are optional but they can help your talk stand out. Two approaches I have found work well are:

  1. Make a direct comparison between your theme and the topic you’re trying to teach
  2. Use your theme to add some styling and examples to your technical topic

For example, let’s say you want to theme your talk around the Roman Empire. Using the first approach, you might discuss the defense policies of Emperors Dicletian versus Constantine, and then use this to talk about different approaches to network security. The Roman Empire example is core to how you will explain your idea.

Alternatively if you’re using the second approach, you might do something like explain randomness in pure functional languages by building a historically accurate Roman name generator. In this case the theme is just window dressing. You could re-theme the talk to something else without too much difficulty.