Conference Submissions: Lessons I’ve learned the hard way…

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Conference Submissions: Lessons I’ve learned the hard way…

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Lately, I’ve been asked by quite a few people to help them craft a proposal or abstract submission for an agile conference.

I’m lucky in that I’ve been doing this for a while, probably twenty or more years. So, I have a fair amount of experience and success. I’ve also been a program chair in local and national conferences, so I understand what folks are generally looking for in the submission process.

Given that I’ve been repeating myself a lot, I’ve decided to share some lessons in this post so that I can simply reference it when asked. I’m not sharing all of my secrets, but enough to get you going in the right direction.

But first, I want to say thank you to Lee Copeland. Lee was the program chair for the SQE / TechWell series of conferences (StarEast & West; Better Software, AgileDev, and others) that have been running since the 1990s.

Early on, I was a fledgling speaker and Lee took the time to help me craft my submissions, talks, and speaking abilities. More than that, he showed me patience and had confidence in me. For that, I will be forever grateful and I’m hopeful that he is proud of my journey.

First, there are at least three impediments you’ll have to overcome in getting the courage and energy to submit your ideas. I’m naming them here so that you can see them for what they are (traps) and overcome them.

First is the notorious Imposter Syndrome. In short, convincing yourself that you can’t give a solid talk for a wide variety of reasons.

Antidote: practice and understanding that everyone feels this way.

The second is Newbie Syndrome. In short, telling yourself that you lack the experience. That you’re not “expert” enough to share your experiences and learnings.

Antidote: just do it, and did I say…practice?

And finally, is Nothing New Syndrome. That is, convincing yourself that there is nothing new in your idea and that folks have heard it all before.

Antidote: Yes, there is probably nothing new on the planet earth. Someone somewhere had probably done it or spoken about it before. Tough! They weren’t you, so just do it!

You can probably find many other excuses for not giving talks and sharing. My advice is to work up your courage and try it. See if you like it. And if folks resonate with what you have to offer. If you and they do, then do it again…

Titles Matter

Whether you like it or agree or not, you need a (New Age/Relevant/Interesting/Sexy/Hook) sort of title. I think that’s 80% of the battle to get a submission accepted. Face that truth and put some thought into your title. Share your ideas in your network and get feedback from others too.

For example, I particularly like my Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet title in the examples because of the homage to the Elmer Fudd cartoon character. That being said, your connections need to be generationally relevant 😉


This can be hard for many of us. But nobody wants to read a book when reviewing your abstract. Keep our abstract to between 150 – 175 words. No more (ever) than 200 words.

This is personally quite challenging for me, as I’m “wordy”. But you have to work on saying more with less and staying focused.


I discovered this recipe when I began submitting abstracts to TechWell conferences in the late 1990s and Lee Copeland was the program chair. I’ve continued with the recipe for all of these years and used it for every conference I submit to. It seems to work well (at least for me) so I’m recommending it.

Break each abstract up into 3-parts:

  1. Define the (problem) or (challenge) your trying to solve/help with?

  2. Share what specific (tools, techniques, focus points, strategies) will you be sharing to meet the challenge?

  3. Close with the (big learning) or (big takeaway) from the talk? What will they immediately be able to (do)?

A rough split of the word count is recommended across the 3-parts. Part-1 might be a bit shorter so that you can “beef up” part-2. But there needs to be a balance across all three.

I sometimes color-code the words/sections when I’m writing a new abstract to check on my balance across the 3-parts. I’d encourage you to do that when you’re starting to use this technique.

Learning Objectives

A lot of conferences want learning objectives when you submit them. I recommend pulling together a list of 3 LO’s when you write your abstract. Then you have them if you need them. Example #3 has a shortlist of learning objectives.

• Rarely use (mostly don’t use) bulleted lists – even though one of my examples has a bulleted list, you’ll generally want to avoid them. Instead, convert your points into prose across sentences.

• Toss-up, mentioning yourself – you’ll see that I often mention myself and co-presenters in the example abstracts. I didn’t use to do that, but over the best 5+ years, I do it more. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. But I do like the personalization aspect.

• Avoid promising (thanks Lee!) – there were some things early on that Lee Copeland emphasized to me, as he had some pet peeves when it came to abstract writing. For example, telling folks that they’ll learn a lot about agile values in your talk is a promise. Instead, speak to what values—specifically and what they’ll learn—specifically. Don’t promise.

• Consider your central persona – don’t target your talk to EVERYONE. Take some time to consider your specific audience. Who are you trying to help? Even write a brief persona that describes them. Then, target your pitch to those folks. And keep them in mind when you are constructing your talk.

• Tell a STORY – The old flow of I’m going to tell you a story, tell them, and then tell them what you told them still works. And think of the central story to your talk. Keep it singular and focused. And there are many types of stories: Stories of success, stories of failure, stories of learning, stories of techniques in use, stories of teams, stories of your journey, stories of…

Below are some of my own examples. Please be kind in any feedback, as they are simply…examples. That being said, all of them have been accepted.

Track talk, Abstract Example #1


Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet!

In Search of the Elusive Agile Culture

Some think that culture is something that just happens. Growing as groups and teams are formed. Emerging organically from some primordial ooze. Others think it’s something you can simply train into an organization. Making selections from a menu and instantiating it very specifically via mandatory classes. Some think it has a top-down flow. Others a bottom-up flow. And still others, and inside-out nature.

One thing for sure, in agile transformation and scaling efforts, culture is the soil in which your agility grows and thrives. And Bob Galen posits that it’s crucial for agile success however it is defined.

In this session, we’ll explore the culture and try to answer the questions of:

  • What is it?

  • Where does it come from?

  • How does it change and evolve?

  • And, what is the best culture for agile transformations?

You’ll leave the session with a renewed understanding of, a respect for, and a focus on culture within your own organizations. Hopefully nurturing your cultural ecosystems so that it can fully support your agile transformations.

Track talk, Abstract Example #2

Essential Patterns of Mature Agile Leadership

Currently, so much of agile adoption—coaching, advice, techniques, training and even the empathy revolve around the agile teams. Leaders are typically either ignored or marginalized at best, and in the worst cases often vilified. But Bob Galen contends that there is a central and important role for managers and effective leadership within agile environments.

In this workshop, we’ll explore the patterns of mature agile managers and leaders. Those that understand Servant Leadership and how to effectively support, grow, coach, and empower their agile teams in ways that increase the teams’ performance, accountability, and engagement.

We’ll explore training and standards for agile adoption, and situations and guidelines for when to trust the team and when to step in and provide guidance and direction. We’ll examine the leader’s role in agile at-scale and with distributed agile teams.

Good leadership is a central ingredient to sustaining your agile adoption. Bad leadership can render it irrelevant or failure. Here we’ll walk the path of the good, but also examine the bad patterns in an effort to inspire you and your teams.

Track talk, Abstract Example #3

Surprise: Coaching leaders is DIFFERENT than coaching teams

Years ago, I used to spend all of my coaching time team-ward thinking that it would have the biggest impact in agile transformations. It was also arguably an easier gig. But I’ve learned that the real direction to focus is upward in your coaching. That being said, I think most coaches are uncomfortable or under-skilled in effectively coaching upward.

I see four common anti-patterns:

  • We’re presumptuous and like to “tell” leaders what to do;

  • We marginalize their roles and lack empathy for the challenges surrounding their role change;

  • We lack credibility or experience in organizational leadership;

  • We either lack a backbone or we’re too purist in our approaches.

This session will open by gathering attendee feedback on leadership coaching patterns that they’ve felt were successful. We’ll also gather your perspective on anti-patterns. Then we’ll compare these against my own experience gained from effectively coaching leaders over the past 10 years.

Then we’ll all get a chance to PRACTICE our upward coaching given a set of common scenarios. We’ll use a coaching dojo format to practice, as we break into triads. Come prepared to engage, practice, and learn.

I hope we all exit the session empowered with new tools and insights into how to engage, partner with, and coach organizational managers and leaders.

Learning Outcomes

  1. We will jointly create a set of anti-patterns to avoid in coaching managers and leaders;

  2. Conversely, we will also create a useful set of patterns and tools to assist in our coaching;

  3. You will leave with a renewed focus on the “balance” and skills required for effective leadership coaching.

Keynote talk, Abstract Example #1

You might be an Agile Leader, if…

Leaders. Have you heard? The leadership landscape has been changing. Heck, it’s continuously changing. And one of the big disruptors has been “Agile”. It’s introduced or fostered concepts like servant leadership, self-directed teams, empowerment, emotional intelligence, employee engagement, trust, self-selection, open spaces, and even something called a Lean Coffee. Not to mention all of the hoopla surrounding agile at-Scale and all of the associated frameworks.

Channeling his best Jeff Foxworthy, Bob Galen shares some patterns and anti-patterns that surround the leadership shift to more agile tactics and mindset that many leaders are facing and struggling to adopt. Having gone through this massive change himself, Bob explores his personal journey towards becoming agile as a leader. Topics will include how to tackle your new role: the tactics you’ll need to change, the stance you’ll need to assume, and the role models you’ll need to leave behind.

Beyond that, Bob shares the new lean, value-based delivery mindset that seems to be the right focus for delighting your internal and external customers. You might leave this session with your mind blown a bit. But you will never think of leading the same way again.

First of all, I don’t want to come off like a “know it all” when it comes to submitting to conferences. I’m not.

I get rejected all of the time… (for conference submissions 😉

One of the things I didn’t emphasize in the body of this post is the need for:

  • Developing a thick skin;

  • Faith in yourself and perseverance;

  • Mindfulness of reviewer feedback;

  • Continuously learning & adjusting;

  • And finding your personal style…

When it comes to your own experience. That’s how I’ve learned.

Another encouragement is that there is only one YOU. And you are unique as are your experiences. Don’t forget that!

And realize there is a great value to others in sharing what you have learned. So, don’t be selfish.

Stay agile my friends!

Bob. this is #4, of a 4-part mini-video series. It contains links to the first three videos. And here’s a related article:

I just discovered a new book that Johanna has written by listening to a new podcast by Shahin entitled Lean on Agile. While I haven’t read Johanna’s book, I know her and I know her experience. With that said, I’d recommend it as a resource on this topic. Actually, highly recommend it.

Here’s a link to the specific podcast.

I discovered a wonderful Speaking-Presentation canvas by Marcus John Henry Brown that I want to share with everyone. It aligns incredibly well with my own approaches to constructing talks. 

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