How to create your proposal for TCUK

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Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Andrew Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Putting together a talk is hard. We get it.

You don’t do this every day, certainly not at major conferences. No one properly teaches you in detail how to do a modern presentation. You have to just kind of piece it together from books and presentations you’ve seen and other people’s slides.

Thing is, there is actually no mystery to standing up and being interesting.

So over the next few months, I’m going to work with the TCUK speakers (if you want) to put together a talk you can be proud of.

So, if you propose a talk or workshop and get accepted, you get some development as a speaker thrown in too. Cool, eh?

You know the advantages of doing a talk at TCUK, right?

TCUK is your industry conference. Doing a talk at an industry conference raises your profile, so people recognise you. You might not need that now, but if you’re ever looking for work in the future, that can be a very good thing.

If you do your talk well, you can help your community.

If you have a boss, it’s an impressive thing to have done, and shows that the investment in your ticket was worth it.

Oh, and hold on, as a speaker your ticket would be free, wouldn’t it? So not only are you raising your profile, and helping out your professional network, but you’re getting a free ticket to a darn good three-day conference.

But.

Ah yes, the but.

Okay, not but.

And…

And… it’s difficult to choose. Maybe you have lots of half-ideas. Maybe you just have one, but you’re not sure if it’s good enough. Maybe you just know that this is your year, but the whole process seems a bit overwhelming.

Right now, I’m going to help you move through the thinking process rapidly, come up with a ‘good enough’ idea, and even give you a bit of guidance as to how to propose it, so you can make sure you’re going to be considered.

*****

This is the first part of a series of articles you’ll get access to if you’re accepted as a speaker for TCUK. I’m going to advise you via articles like this with pretty much all aspects of planning and delivering your talk.

There’ll be support for:

  • planning the scope of your topic so you know how to filter what’s in and what’s out
  • sequencing the information in a way that’s logical and interesting
  • getting the response you want to your talk
  • giving evidence to make your topic engaging (including how to tell stories without being cheesy)
  • handling the Dreaded Q&A in a confident way
  • dealing with The Nerves
  • even how to write the title, blurb and your speaker bio.

I’m going to share with you some of the secrets of putting together verbal information so you get and keep people’s attention (it’s different to written info, you know)… And, yes, we’ll maybe talk a bit on PowerPoint.

All because TCUK11 was the most fun and friendly conference I’d ever attended.

*****

So.

Taking the terror out of the terrifying ‘Call For Papers’.

When Chris Atherton first suggested I put my hat in the ring for TCUK back in 2011, I went to the requisite page and found something I found, frankly, intimidating.

The ‘Call For Papers’. Dunh dunh dunh.

First of two confessions: I don’t have a degree. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. So Call For Papers was a totally alien phrase to me, which just made me think: But I don’t have a ‘paper’.

Second confession: my method of putting a talk together is – what’s a nice word? – fluid. My talk doesn’t really crystalise until the night before the date or the morning of. Those of you who remember my talk from TCUK11 might remember I showed you the literal envelope on the back of which I had my notes.

(Don’t worry – if you’re going to be following this series of articles to help you put together your talk, we’ll be finalising details well in advance of the night before your talk. Unless last-minute is your preference, in which case, knock yourself out.)

So the idea of having a ‘paper’ with which to answer the call was more than a little intimidating.

So, let’s dismantle that myth straight away.

Actually, I just checked the website and this year it says ‘Call For Proposals’, so a bit less scary, but still.

The purpose of that form on the website is for you to suggest a topic and the kind of ‘story’ your approach to that topic will follow. It doesn’t even have to be your final title, or even very detailed. And thank goodness, because as we start working in depth on your talk, it’s going to morph and probably morph again before you arrive at something definite.

I’ll give you a format for what to type into the Call For Proposals box in a minute.

So, for ‘Call For Proposals’ read: Call For Half-formed But Promising Suggestions.

(At first I typed ‘Call For Sketchy Suggestions’, but that is more for the gala dinner. Ditto: Suggestive Sketches.)

Also, the website says that your bio and your abstract will be used in the printed programme. I’m reliably informed we have until the end of May to finalise the title, blurb and bio, so don’t let that intimidate you. At this stage, it’s all flexible. The important thing is to get something in.

Avoiding the worst presentation planning mistake.

Here’s a scenario.

The phone rings. I answer it. I pass it to you and say, ‘Update them on your week.’

What’s your first question?

‘Er… who’s there?’

Right?

If it’s your boss or best customer, that’s one conversation. If it’s your grandmother, that’s another. If it’s your personal trainer, or that strict dietician you’ve been seeing, yet another.

We can’t begin to plan a conversation without thinking who’s going to be part of it.

But all the time people are planning a presentation and the first thing they think is ‘What will I say?”

Or even worse, they double-click PowerPoint and think ‘What will I put on my slides?’

No no no.

Your first question is:

Who will I be talking to, and what do I know about them?

I mean, of course you know this. It’s common sense.

But if you’re finding it difficult to decide on a topic, it’s because deciding on a topic in a theoretical vacuum is a total nightmare.

‘Cook some food for some people.’ Er… Okay, who’s coming? How many?

See what I mean?

So, please stop planning your talk (for a moment) and think about who’s going to be there.

What do you know (or suspect or guess) about the TCUK population? Think about ten technical communicators you know. (We’re going to do this in much more detail in a couple of months when we get around to properly planning your talk.)

  • What are those people like?
  • What is their working environment like? (Yes, I know it’s varied, so have more than one answer.)
  • Think about their working day – what’s involved in their job?
  • What’s hard about being a technical communicator? Technical aspects of the job itself, but also general issues (things like having to influence people without official ‘influence’).
  • What’s important to technical communicators? What do they like? Want? Need? Dream of?

Do this however you like – take a walk and ponder these questions, get a big old piece of paper and some postits, open a spreadsheet, talk into your voice recorder app… Whatever works.

Spread your net wide.

Sometimes it’s hard to choose a topic because we forget what we know.

Let’s start with the obvious things.

List the work topics (software, methods, processes) you’re familar with.

Now slightly harder.

What do you know about outside your job? The obvious things. Hobbies, parenting, sports… Add them to the list. (Trust me.)

Okay. Now we get down to it.

Go through your past week. Check your What’s App, your emails, your diary, your photos, whatever it takes to recreate your week.

  • What else do you deal with confidently?
  • Or what have you learned to manage, even if you don’t love it?
  • Notice not just ‘technical’ aspects, but also communication and management skills, writing, organisation, time management skills. Doesn’t matter if it seems ordinary to you at the moment, we’re making a long list, not a filtered list.
  • What do you love about your job? What do you seem to deal with well, maybe better than some other people?

Get at least 20 things on this list. If you’re finding that hard, you’re setting your bar too high. Stop being such a self-sabotaging perfectionist and list more things. Quantity not quality, for now.

Create a mental Venn diagram.

So on one side, you’ve got a list of technical communicators and their needs, wants, challenges.

On the other side, you’ve got a massive list of things you know something about.

Where do they cross over?

Are there topics where you have an unusual or non-standard take on a topic?

Is there a new development in the field that your tech comm colleagues are uncertain of? Could you give an overview/framework?

What have you learned the hard way?

Don’t think ‘lecture’ think ‘recommendation’.

A great way of getting your thoughts together is to think: What would I recommend on this topic? Recommendations tend to come from our own experience, are tailored to the people we’re talking to, and have the other person’s best interests at heart.

You don’t have to be an expert to recommend something. There’s a dumpling restaurant that I consistently recommend to people. Am I an expert in Taiwanese dumplings? No. Doesn’t stop me recommending it and giving reasons for my recommendations (the stuffed chillies, oy). So don’t let that ‘But who am I…’ thought stop you from putting a proposal forward. (We’ll talk in a couple of months about how you make your level of knowledge sufficient, even desirable, to your listeners.)

You don’t need to have a clear plan to propose a talk.

All you need to propose a topic for a talk or a workshop is a perspective on an idea. You don’t even need to know exactly what your title is going to be, nor even have come down on even the exact sequence. I’m going to give you systematic ways to work out all the details of your content, including the title, the blurb and your speaker bio, as we go through the next few months.

What to write on the proposal form

Here’s a simple format for making a proposal.

1. Life without your recommendation. Start off describing the need that your talk relates to. Describe your listeners’ lives without your recommendation. A couple of sentences saying why this topic and why now.

2. Life after your recommendation. Then describe how people’s lives will be different after listening to your talk and putting your recommendations into practice. What will be better? What will be smoother, faster, cheaper, less stressful?

3. Your recommendation. Outline what your recommendation is. At this stage, phrases like ‘Something around…’ or ‘Some ways to…’ are absolutely fine. Book proposals are written before the book is complete, not after.

4. Evidence. This fits into two categories.

Firstly, what kind of evidence are you able to supply about your recommendation? If it’s from your experience in a recent project, give us a sentence or two outlining the scope and relevance of that project. If you’ve got studies or surveys or ‘hard’ data, mention that here. If it’s just something you’ve been noodling around about for a while, that’s fine too, just let us know what led you to be thinking so deeply about this topic.

The second category of evidence is: Why you? You are not expected to be the world’s expert in this topic. What you need to show here is some indication of your experience as related to this topic. What have you gone through that means you have focused particularly on this topic? We don’t need your CV here, but a bit of background relevant to the theme of your recommendation is helpful when reviewing your proposal. (Maybe put this info in the Speaker Biography section of the form. I’ll help you edit it for public consumption later.)

And that’s it.

What happens next…

You’ve got until 3rd April to submit your proposal. If it were me, I would change that in my head to 27th March or something just so I didn’t have to do it in a mad rush when life throws a spanner in my mechanism as it were, but that’s just me.

If you’ve got questions about this article, feel free to drop me a line. I can’t really give detailed advice on each idea, and I’m not on the committee deciding who goes through, but, you know, fire away:
andrew@andrewlightheart.com

Then, sometime in May, I’ll start you off on your planning journey. We need to get the title, topic and bio sorted by end of May-ish, so that’s where we’ll begin.

Then we’ll gently get going on gathering and clarifying your ideas so that by, say, August things will be crystallised, and September you’ll be ready.

Sound good?

Good.

So go and propose something!

*****

Andrew Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Andrew wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where he gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out andrewlightheart.com. Andrew is also an unrepentant overtweeter: he’s @alightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

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