Staircase perspective.
Staircase perspective. (source: Luciano Testoni on Wikimedia Commons)

The CFP for the O’Reilly Design Conference is open. Last year, we reviewed hundreds of proposals for about 40 spots. I know submitting a proposal to speak can feel like a bit of a blackbox, even with instructions, so I thought I’d share a bit of our thinking behind the decisions we make. Below are five elements we consider when we review submissions. I’ve also included some examples of proposals we accepted for last year’s conference and their accompanying talks.

1. Write to your audience.

When writing your proposal, tell me what the attendees will learn from your talk and how that will make them better designers. What pain points are you addressing? You also want to keep the themes in mind. In some ways, you have two audiences—the attendees and the program committee. The program committee expects you to select a great topic and tie it to the themes of the event. You’ll see on our CFP page what topics we’re interested in and what the vision of the conference is—preparing designers to create the future. How does your talk address this? Be explicit.

A great example of a proposal and talk that hit on both audience needs and the goals of last year’s event is Patti Dobrowolski’s submission. Her proposal clearly outlines the benefits of her talk—learning to communicate visually can improve your effectiveness. She ties it to the audience—designers who want to make a bigger impact within their organizations:

Drawing Solutions: How to Visually Communicate for Better Results

Walk into almost any business today and you’ll see people furiously scribbling their ideas on whiteboards, frosted glass walls, and—the latest trend—erasable table tops. According to The Wall Street Journal, innovators are notoriously whiteboard virtuosi. Why not you? In this hands-on breakout, see how easy it is to become the wizard at the whiteboard. Learn to confidently storyboard your ideas using your own unique doodling style to wow teams, clients, and you. Using her signature goal setting process, Snapshot of the Big Picture, Dobrowolski will show you how to draw your future to help you accelerate making change in your world and you don’t even need to know how to draw.

Find her talk here.

2. It’s not about you, and it’s about you.

The conference is for attendees, and your talk should focus on their needs, but we also want to know about you. What makes you uniquely qualified to speak? You have a great story—how do you plan to share your story in a meaningful way? One common misstep I have seen in proposals is when an otherwise great proposal neglects to connect the talk to the larger conversation, to make connections to the bigger picture. Your talk doesn't need to be about the tech space. In fact, many of the talks at our first conference were from outside the tech space. The proposals that were accepted were the ones that spoke to the lessons they learned in their industry sector, and then bridged how these lessons could be applied in other scenarios. Ben Terrett’s session on design thinking is a great example of an effective talk where he shares his personal experience and relates the lessons learned in his area (government agencies) to a much larger audience:

Ben Terrett tells the design story of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), an organization that has been copied around the world, including in the US and Australia, and explains how user-centered design focused on user needs and delivery can bring about real change and still be respected in the boardroom.

Design has never been more important. We know that design can help transform digital services and deliver real value, but too often designers don’t get heard in the boardroom. Ben Terrett tells the design story of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), an organization that has been copied around the world, including in the US and Australia, and explains how user-centered design focused on user needs and delivery can bring about real change and still be respected in the boardroom.

Find his talk here.

3. Simplicity trumps clever

Say what you mean, and avoid clever or cute. The title of your talk should be compelling and clear—evocative is good, but stay away from cute, and if you’re not sure where to draw the line between the two, stick with straightforward. The body of your proposal should be written like you speak.

4. Your perspective adds value; share your viewpoint.

Whether the topic you choose is an established topic or an emerging subject, it’s important that you communicate your unique angle and perspective. Take a stand. How do you plan to guide the audience in thinking about the subject matter differently? What is the goal of your talk: a call to action, sharing lessons learned, challenging your audience to see through a new lens? The proposal below from Tristan Harris is clear a call to action:

The attention economy reduces design to a race to the bottom of the brain stem to seduce our psychological instincts. What if we created an "organic movement" for design whose goal was to support humanity? Tristan Harris explores how this movement is possible by emphasizing "time well spent" instead of "time spent," in turn maximizing design's net positive contributions to people's lives.

Abstract

What if technology could distract us less and respect our time and attention more? What would that world look like, and how could it be built? What if we could design to make our Darwinian instincts work for us instead of against us? Inspired by the human potential movement of the 1960s, Tristan Harris opens a conversation about a new kind of design ethics that puts meaningful choices and human potential first.

Tristan will cover:

  • How the attention economy reduces design to a seduction of powerful psychological instincts beyond the capabilities of “willpower”
  • Metaphors from urban planning and “liveable” cities that can be used to support better marriages between the commercial interests of tech companies and the interests of human society
  • The history of the organic and LEED certification movements and why we need an organic movement for design
  • Design principles and examples for designing for “time well spent”
  • New metrics to support a “time well spent” attention economy”

Find his talk here.

5. Be original.

We want fresh voices and messages. If you’ve given the talk you are proposing before, and/or it’s on the Internet, tell me what you plan to present that is different from these previous talks. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but in general we want new material. I know it’s hard to come up with new ideas. If you have a talk that you’ve given elsewhere, how might you approach it from a different angle? If you’re submitting a talk like this, explain in your proposal what is different from the last time you presented the topic.

Abi Jones wrote this fantastic proposal—clear, aligned with themes of the event—noting that the proposed talk was 90% new material, though she had spoken on this topic at other events. She also noted the takeaways:

Abi Jones compares human-to-human and human-computer conversation and interaction to explain how their differences impact system design. Learn what makes for great human-computer speech interaction from the first turn to the last, how computers interpret speech, and why it’s more enjoyable and addictive to talk to a 1960s chatbot than any intelligent assistant available today.

Abstract

The English word “run” has over 100 meanings. It can be a noun, verb, or adjective. You can run with a bad crowd, run a river, run to the store, or ride a train that runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but each of those meanings is easy to understand and interpret based on your years of experience listening to and speaking with other people. You are an expert at combining semantic information, syntax, and context into an understanding of speech, and you can do so in milliseconds.

Computers can analyze speech even more quickly than you can but do not have the deep contextual understanding that comes with years of being human. Instead, human-computer conversation takes place in an alternate reality where people and machines make entirely different sets of assumptions about their respective capabilities and intentions. Abi Jones compares human-to-human and human-computer conversation and interaction to explain how their differences impact system design.

Abi dives into semantic understanding, syntax, and context to demonstrate how machines interpret and act on speech, explore why human speech is vague and frustrating for machines, hear and see how spoken dialogue really sounds, and explain how spontaneous speech has wrought havoc on flight-scheduling systems. Abi covers the spectrum of natural language interaction and examines how research teams create the language sets that voice systems learn from, including overcoming elicitation bias and the challenges of crowdsourcing natural language corpora. By the end of the session, you’ll know what makes for a great human-computer speech interaction and why it’s more enjoyable and addictive to talk to a 1960s chatbot than any intelligent assistant available today.

I presented Voice & Gesture at Interaction15 (February 2015) and BayCHI (October 2014). This version of the talk is 90% new material and focuses solely on voice interactions.

Find her talk here.

One final note: we also require a video sample. For this requirement, it’s best to include a clip from a previous talk. If this is your first time speaking at an event, record yourself presenting on the topic—it doesn’t need to be long. Avoid shooting a video of why you want to speak at the conference—we want to see your presentation skills, not your pitch. In addition to strong presentation skills, we’re looking to get a sense of your personality.

September 7, 2016, is the deadline for submitting your proposal. Submit your proposal here.

Article image: Staircase perspective. (source: Luciano Testoni on Wikimedia Commons).