NOV. 3 – 8, 2019
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Call for Papers Submission Pitfalls & How to Do it Better! Tales from a Conference Organizer


In 2018 my colleague Sabine wrote the blog post “It always starts with an idea…”. In this blog post, she gave some great hints on how to write better proposals for conference sessions. Now in 2019, I want to bring out a 2nd and adapted version of this blog post, because over the past few weeks and months I was reading and reviewing a lot of conference session submissions and again and again I stumbled over the same mistakes. The Agile Testing Days reviewing process is anonym, so even as an organizer I cannot see who submitted the proposal. Of course, I know ways how to find out, but I won’t in order to give unbiased feedback. Reviewing papers is a great way to learn what you shouldn’t do and what you should do when you submit for a talk or workshop. With this blog post, I want to show you my Top 10 learnings (not a ranking, all hints are equally important) from the point of view of a paper reviewing conference organizer.

 

Here is my Top 10 list and below you can find a more detailed explanation to each point:

#10 - You don’t submit for the conference reviewers/organizers; you submit for the attendees!

#9 - “Meatless” abstracts vs. too detailed abstracts

#8 - The perfect arc of suspense

#7 - Keep your abstracts bugfree like your code or software

#6 - Applying for a conference is like applying for a job

#5 - Fill out all fields of the form correctly

#4 - Quality over quantity

#3 - Love is all you need

#2 - Stop buzzing

#1 - Make sure your topic fits the conference

Bonus - Basic or “old” topics are always important, but …


 

#10 - You don’t submit for the conference reviewers/organizers; you submit for the attendees!

Many conferences collect ideas for sessions directly via a call for papers online form. Submitted details will usually go directly live as session description on the webpage right after the selection process. This means, the end users of your provided session and speaker details are the paying attendees. With the help of your session details, they decide if they will join your session or not. Furthermore, it is used to convince their bosses to pay the entrance fee to the conference. The speakers and their sessions are the two key factors for ticket sales. Quite logical that conference organizers usually look for the most attractive and best written proposals.

When your session gets listed on a multi-track event, it would be a shame to risk a low number of attendees, simply because your session does not compete well to other parallel running sessions. Every speaker want as many people as possible to listen to their sessions, so make sure that your abstract is written in a more convincing way than compared to others to avoid presenting in front of just a handful of people. All in all, when your abstract convinces a target group of the event to come to your session, then your session will surely convince the reviewers as well, and receive good rates.

 

#9 - “Meatless” abstracts vs. too detailed abstracts

Either too short or too detailed, both ways are not ideal. You might have ideas which do not need a very long explanation. And in general, short is great, because it attracts more people who actually will read what you have written. Here is a bad example of a short abstract I saw very often: “In my session, I will talk about …, please join me to learn about … and ...!” Here is simply the “meat” missing and it lacks of valuable details as well as some good teasing.

If you are too concise or too detailed with your papers you steal yourself the show. I was reading a lot of great ultra concise or detailed abstracts, but after reading those I was like: “Great! But all the important messages of your session have been already mentioned in your abstract, I don’t feel the need to go to this session anymore.” So be careful on what kind of details you share. Share enough details to make the audience eager to come to your session, but share not too much, because this can make a physical attendance of your session redundant.

So, keep it short, but try to write more than two sentences and please do incorporate valuable details, but make sure the reader is intrigued by your description.

 

#8 - The perfect arc of suspense

This hint is connected to my prior suggestions. It’s good to build in your abstract an arc of suspense - like in telling a story. Tell us your motivation for this session, let us know the problems you dealt with, relate those problems back to a broader audience, give other examples so that as many people as possible can identify with your problems. Make them also curious about your idea and solution for the problems. Just give some first small hints in which direction it will go, but stop at the point when it becomes interesting and leave them curious. Do not go over the climax and always make sure to have at least a small arc of suspense in your written abstracts - what works in poetry and prose, also works for proposals!

 

#7 - Keep your abstracts bugfree like your code or software

For me, I am not a very accurate grammar, spelling or case sensitivity person when I comment things or when I write short messages or emails, but anything that is important or official, or where I expect a respectful feedback from the recipient, I try my best to keep any of those writings bugless. Actually, I find it a bit sad that I really need to list this hint, but it is necessary! I don’t have a problem with one or two typos in an abstract, we are all just humans and mistakes can simply happen, but trust me here: I have been reading so many papers with so many mistakes in it, that I finally find it disrespectful to the organizers, reviewers, and attendees to submit such a paper. Believing to have a chance to get selected with this poor work is beyond me. In case you are not the best when it comes to grammar or spelling, do it like I did with this post and get your proposal reviewed from somebody else before submitting.

 

#6 - Applying for a conference is like applying for a job

Yes, it is true! All in all, it is almost the same! We as organizers have an x amount of available free spots of sessions we need to fill with a speaker, like a company which has an x amount of vacancies that they want to fill with professionals. In both cases, only the best will get selected!

The competition is very strong and I saw too many sloppy submissions in the past. Think about how much effort and accuracy you put in your last job application and try to transform that to your paper submissions. Believe me this will give your submission a boost and will raise your chance to get selected. The research you did on the company is the research you should do on the conference and the target group. Your CV is like your short bio, the application letter is like your abstract and standing out among all the other applicants is your key to success!

 

#5 - Fill out all fields of the form correctly

This is depending on where you submit, but many organizers offer a CFP online form with mandatory or required fields which you need to fill out. I saw many submissions with great abstracts, but then the submitters didn’t fill out the other fields correctly or they filled them out with a way less care. Reviewers and organizers are using the required fields as further parameters to evaluate your submission. Sometimes you sit in front of 3 equal abstracts on a similar topic and then you need to decide because you have only space for one of these abstracts. In that case, any further details or well filled out details will make the decision process easier, especially when only one of the 3 submitters paid attention to fill out the other fields carefully, then it is obvious for whom to decide.

 

#4 - Quality over quantity

In any CFP I was involved with we had speakers, who submitted multiple proposals. With multiple submissions I don’t mean one submission for a talk and one extended submission of the talk as workshop. I am talking about speakers who submit 5+ or 10+ papers. You will think this will raise your chance to get selected, theoretically yes, but in reality, it has the exact opposite effect.

In nearly all cases of multi-submitters (I had to deal with), their single submissions didn’t stand out in comparison to the submissions from other speakers. My theory is, that the submitters of multiple sessions are having a wide range of knowledge and experience, but mostly they don’t have the deep hands-on insight knowledge of what’s needed and so they just touch the surface of a topic. They don’t dive deep enough, but this is what conferences want: a dive deep into a topic!

So my suggestions are:

  • Submit not more than 3 sessions

  • Submit not more than 2 different topics

  • Submit only your very most favorite topics

  • or the ones you are the most passionate about

  • or the ones you believe is your hobbyhorse topic

 

#3 - Love is all you need

When reading submissions I want to feel the love and passion and the willingness of the submitter to get selected. This can be the icing on the cake to get selected. There are multiple ways to achieve that feeling for a reviewer. If you pay attention to some of my hints listed above, you will come close to create such feelings for the reviewer/s. Another way is just try to be unique with your submission – that’s easy said, but if you think of what kind of session you are missing at a conference and if you create a great concept for that, organizers and reviewers usually will become a fan of and will fall in love with it.

Before you submit, ask yourself:

  • Do you love what you are doing?

  • Do you live what you are doing?

  • Are you agile 24/7?

  • Is your submission a groundbreaking or game-changing new idea?

  • Is your profession more than just a job; is it rather your hobby or your passion?

  • Did you develop a very creative way to teach a certain topic?

If you can answer one of these questions with yes, what are you waiting for? Submit and please make sure that everyone can feel the love and passion!

 

#2 - Stop buzzing

Another kind of submission style which I witnessed very too often are submissions which are full of hot topic buzzwords all of them listed in a row without any smart connections. Stop doing this! Concentrate on only one or two buzzwords and make sure they are linked  and connected to each other. Once I was reading a paper and it was connected to AI, Design Thinking, Test Automation, UX, Agile & many more. This 30-minute talk submission promised to talk about all those topics. But with the topic Design Thinking alone and its subtopics you could fill a three-day course. So, please be careful with the selection and amount of buzzwords in your submission, sometimes less is more!

 

#1 - Make sure your topic fits the conference

Conferences are places to learn new things, and where you can think outside the box. So in case your idea for a session will just slightly match with the conference’s main theme, make sure to explain reasons why your session is still a good fit for the conference and how the audience can benefit from it. Here in this blog post I do not share any rare or single mistakes I spotted, what I share are always things I saw too often and which I am getting tired of seeing. I want to give you some internal details for a DON’T DO example: if you submit for a testing conference and your main message is that we still need testers more than ever, please go with this session and message to a management, developer or any other conference and spread this very important message there!

 

Bonus - Basic or “old” topics are always important, but …

Older or basic topics are also usually interesting for any kind of conferences and learning communities because not every attendee has the same skill level or experience. The main topics of a conference are usually new to many of the visitors. They are new to the business and they need to know some basics first before they can understand the up-to-date or advanced topics. But the recent generation usually does not want to listen to the old stories, and therefore you need to refresh or spice these stories up, like movie or song remakes. The audience is getting younger, but the topics are getting older. There are many great movies and songs out there from the 60s, 70s or 80s and so on, but the younger generation does not want to listen to or watch the old stuff. In remakes, the lyrics, the content, or the story usually stay the same, but the sound or the special effects are adjusted to modern times. So brush up your “old”, but still relevant topics, modernize them and make them fit into the future context to make them competitive against the modern submissions. Duo to topic diversity these sessions are still relevant and wanted at conferences as long as you try to reinvent them!  

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I hope you enjoyed these little insights! But please note, even if you follow all the hints this is no guarantee that your session gets selected for a conference. This is because a conference program or schedule is like a very complex biological organism. All the elements need to be in harmony. Otherwise, the organism, can get sick. I mentioned above the secondary parameters of a proposal and from case to case the importance of those parameters varies. As conference organizer, you need to take care that the program is diverse. Diversity in topics, gender, background and nationality is very important and help us to make the selection process easier. If we would just select blindly all the best rated or reviewed papers, we probably would lose this diversity. A good example from my own experience is the Call for Papers for Agile Testing Days USA 2019. We had many high rated papers on Test Automation coming from speakers from the Netherlands. But by just picking those, we would have been able to fill half of the program with this great and high rated submissions – which in the end wouldn’t be the Agile Testing Days USA anymore. We would have been forced to rename it into the Dutch Agile Automation Days instead. This is just another one of many other examples on what can go wrong or what can bring your organism out of balance. You need to be careful with the selection process, even if this and this sometimes means you need to reject great papers.   

I hope that all the tips and peaks behind the scenes are helpful for any of your upcoming submissions for a conference. I wish you good luck and I would be happy to hear if these tips helped you to get selected!

About Uwe Gelfert

Born as a rebel fighting against authorities I always wanted to go my way, but somehow I ended up on the conservative road, so since my bio isn’t very extraordinary I’ll keep it short:

born → kindergarden → school → university → work life → marriage → kids → house ... to be continued.

In my spare time I like to do sports (body pump, basketball & cycling). I prefer real life inspired or true story based movies & books, I love signing & rapping loud to my favorite music while driving in my car to work, I enjoy gaming (NBA2K & PES), and I am fan of cooking sous vide & tasting craft beer.

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