11 Best Practices for CFP Responses

As we ramp up for All Things Open 2020 later this year in October, we’ll be hosting three (3) Call for Papers (CFP) Q&A sessions on Thursday, April 9 for anyone interested in submitting a talk.

In preparation for those virtual/panel sessions, we thought we’d offer a few best practices to use as a starting point. We’ve been hosting conferences and speakers for more than a decade, and nearly all of them have involved a Call for Papers (CFP) of some type. As a result, we’d like to think we’ve learned a few things over that time. 

The best practices below are not intended to be viewed as a comprehensive list. Rather, they include items we feel people can benefit from knowing before submitting a talk to All Things Open, or other conferences for that matter.   

In addition, we’re entirely open to expanding and revising this list moving forward based on input and feedback from the community. There are lots of people “out there” much smarter than us and with more experience, and we happily recognize and are grateful for it. If you have a suggestion, let us know at info@allthingsopen.org!


1. Know the event you’re submitting a talk to

This seems like the proverbial “no-brainer”, but we find many people don’t take the time to investigate and research the conference/event they’re submitting a talk to. Look at the event’s website from past years (if available) and peruse talks, speakers, topics, etc. You can also find a lot of information simply by Googling. It takes a little time for sure, but it will help avoid a talk submission that is completely out of context. 


2. Understand what the event is looking for

Does the event you’re considering submitting a talk to clearly explain what they’re looking for?  Or, what types of topics/talks will be a “good fit”? If so, take advantage of this availability and read the information and guidance provided. At All Things Open, we do our best to provide as much information as possible about the event itself, why someone would want to speak, what we’re looking for (topics in general and topics of special interest) and we try to make the submission process as easy as possible. No doubt there is room for improvement on our end, but we make an honest effort to provide as much information and guidance as possible. It’s in our best interest to do so. 


3. Reach out to the organizer/organizing team and ask questions

We receive a good number of questions and inquiries about the CFP process, but only a fraction of what we believe truly exists. If you’re considering submitting a talk don’t hesitate to reach out and ask the reviewer(s) and organizer(s) questions and for guidance specific to that particular event.  If there is no response, or little response, it should be a red flag. Anyone with questions about All Things Open can reach out directly at info@allthingsopen.org


4. Clearly state what attendees will gain from attending – the take-aways 

This is one of the most common mistakes we see, hands down.  We would estimate only about 25% of the talks we receive clearly explain what the attendee will walk away knowing or what they will learn during the proposed session. At the same time, most attendees at every event is asking themselves the question “What will I learn/Why should I attend” when they’re looking at a list of session options and deciding which one(s) to attend. For organizers and talk reviewers, this information clearly stated is pure gold. It speeds up the assessment process, and makes it much, much easier, and gets you one step closer to being accepted as a speaker. A paragraph titled “Attendee Take-Aways” with bullet points is the holy grail for everyone involved.  


5. Keep in mind recommended word count parameters for abstracts

This is another mistake we see a lot. Many talks are submitted with a single sentence abstract (description), or volumes of text that exceed that of lengthy articles. Neither are generally a good idea. The only exception we can think of is the extremely short, concise abstract accompanying a topic that is extremely popular at the moment. In this case, the topic makes it attractive and wins the day. This does happen, but it is rare. We have found most abstracts should be between 75 and 250 words, or perhaps more for a longer extended workshop-type session that includes prerequisites (knowledge/downloads required before attendees show up). Even then, try to keep it as sharp, concise, and on-point as possible. Disregard this advice at your own risk. Otherwise, you’ll risk the initial responses we hear all too often – “They didn’t take the time to write any more than this? or “Geesh, no way I have the time to read/wade through all that. I’m going to give it a 1 and move on.” In this case a “1” is the lowest score a talk can receive. 


6. Choose the talk title carefully

We see this all the time, and honestly, we debate it ourselves. Should a talk title describe what the talk is about, or should it include words/phrases not directly related to the topic and instead be crafted/chosen based on its ability to get attention and stand out (evoking emotion, anchoring to a popular pop culture topic, and asking a question are three common tactics). While there is no “correct” answer on this one that we’re aware of, we definitely know when the title “works”and when it doesn’t. We’ve seen some very creative titles do well, generate interest and “work”, and we’ve seen very straightforward titles work well also. Here is our “rule of thumb”… if the talk covers a topic that has been around a while and is not new or “hot”, try getting creative and spicing it up a bit. If the topic is new(er) and not one that has been presented on for years, a more straightforward title stating what the talk is about in “plain terms” might work. We also encourage you to run talk titles by colleagues and friends and seek opinions. Ask “If you were attending an event and saw this title on the schedule, would it pique your interest?”. Remember, the title on a printed/digital schedule is often all attendees will see and make decisions on. 


7. Keep in mind the basic criteria on which reviewers and organizers make decisions

First off, we’re not saying the items that follow are comprehensive in the least.  However, we feel comfortable saying most reviewers and organizers probably take one or more into consideration when making decisions. So from our perspective, it would pay to at least consider the list when creating a talk and the components that go with it.


  • Timeliness Of The Topic/Estimated Interest Level In The Topic – Is it applicable to the audience likely to attend the session? Will the topic/abstract deliver value? Is it timely? 
  • Educational Value Will attendees learn something from attending the talk, based on the abstract and speaker?  Including an “Attendee Take-Aways” section here is really helpful to establish educational value.
  • Technical Value – If a technical talk, is the technology showcased applicable, unique or being used in a new and creative way? Are there live demos included and/or a hands-on component? Most people are visual learners, and while some topics might not lend themselves to a demo, most likely will – and attendees will be better off for it.  We place a lot of value on demos and more hands-on content.
  • Diversity – While there are exceptions, the majority of events, reviewers and organizers agree a diverse speaker lineup is optimal and results in a better overall event in multiple ways.  A topic delivered from a different perspective can often lead to creative breakthroughs for attendees, which is a huge value-add. We at All Things Open have placed great value on this from the beginning, and we feel our events have grown and consistently deliver value because of it. 
  • Talk Difficulty Level (more on this in #9 below) – All talks featured at All Things Open are identified as Introductory, Intermediate or Advanced, and this has been very well received by attendees and speakers alike.  Featuring a good mix of talks at events ensures everyone in attendance can access applicable content, which again, is a huge value-add. Please indicate this if at all possible when submitting a talk, whether the organizer requests it or not.    


8. Stay current on the industry/sector in which the event is taking place

So, how do you know what topics are relevant and possibly of interest, thereby increasing the probability of acceptance?  As we stated before, some events will tell you and spell it out in simple terms. Others, not so much. However, the best way to increase the probability of acceptance is to submit well written submissions on timely, interesting topics.  And the only way to know what’s timely and of-interest is to understand the sector/space the event focuses on.  Yes, this means time and effort will be required, and it implies you actually enjoy the sector enough to read about it and stay current, but doing so is guaranteed to pay off.  Reading and staying current will result in a higher sector “IQ”, and the resulting elevated IQ will be reflected in your topic/title/abstract. It will be recognized by reviewers, and will immediately set you apart from others. At All Things Open we spend the majority of our time reading about and staying current on the “open” space so we can feature relevant, substantive and informed content (we know what to look for). Submitting talks that are relevant, substantive and informed greatly enhances the probability of being accepted, but it does require an understanding of the space.  


9. Offer whether the talk is introductory, intermediate, advanced

As stated above, we try to feature a nice mix of introductory, intermediate, and advanced talks. As a result, we recommend you offer this information even though some events don’t ask for it. It will make the reviewer/organizer very happy. Why? For multiple reasons, two of which we’ll mention here:

  1. Unless the event targets an attendee with a certain skill/experience level, and most do not, organizers must feature content that is appealing to a wide audience, including people of all skill, experience, and expertise levels. Even if an event does focus on a specific type of attendee (one with a higher level of experience and/or skill perhaps), most want to at least offer something a little different. Listing talk “level” makes this much easier. 
  2. Contrary to popular belief, reviewers and organizers don’t know everything and are not experts in every possible topic area. As a result, reviewers will sometimes look for a few key words or other criteria, and in this case, adding talk level can “seal the deal” and get your talk confirmed. We don’t mean to discredit the talk review/assessment process in any way by stating this, but it’s the truth. We’ve been around a while and know this absolutely does happen.


10. If you are comfortable sharing this information, let organizers know if you’re a historically underrepresented individual.

A growing number are getting better at recognizing the value of diversity and ensuring their speaker lineup reflects it. Look to see if there is a place to indicate this on the submission form, and if there is not, mention it in a conspicuous place somewhere in the abstract. It is not a guaranteed approval in any way, and we don’t mean to imply it will be, but it does give reviewers/organizers information they may very well value and take into consideration. At All Things Open, this is absolutely a criteria we consider, and having this information available is helpful.  


11. Don’t be ashamed or feel minimized if your credentials/speaking experience are “light”

We talk to many people who would love to deliver a presentation and have lots to offer, but never submit a talk because they feel they have little to offer or aren’t qualified to speak. Not true. Some of the best talks we’ve seen over the years were from first-time speakers or speakers very early in their speaking career. Move forward and submit the talk, and be honest when discussing your background. While some reviewers and organizers might view it negatively, most will focus on the substance of the submission and will keep in mind new ways of approaching and using technology and other topics often come from newbies and those that aren’t industry veterans.   

*A caveat here: While the above is absolutely true, it still pays to know yourself and maintain a minimum level of self awareness. By that, we mean if you absolutely hate public speaking and have no desire to do it, and are only considering submitting a talk due to pressure from an employer or for some other related reason, the talk will likely not go well. Better to be honest on the front end than forcing something you have no desire to do.    


Finally, let us end with this…

We greatly admire and respect anyone that submits a talk for consideration. It takes time, a lot of thought, consideration, and courage (you can always get rejected, which never feels good). Because of this, we go to great lengths to thank everyone that goes through the process, we always give them a free pass to the event regardless of approval or rejection, and we make every effort to schedule and host Q&A sessions providing as much guidance and direction as possible on the front end. Again, the more time, thought, and consideration speakers at all levels put into the submission process, the easier the lives of reviewers and organizers will be. We need to make that as easy as possible.