On conference CFPs and reviewing

As a member of the organizing group for this year’s BSides Atlanta conference, I’ve been reviewing CFP proposals submitted by the community.

As I read through the various submissions, I started noticing a few themes. This post is intended to help people interested in submitting a CFP in the future, to understand what reviewers (well, maybe just me) are looking for.

If you submitted to BSides Atlanta, or are thinking about submitting in the future – thank you. I appreciate the effort that you made, or are considering making. I appreciate your willingness to talk about topics. Your desire to help the community by sharing your knowledge is one of the most noble things that anyone can do, and I thank you for that.

As a reviewer, I’m an unpaid volunteer. I do this because I want to help, I want to contribute, I want to do everything I can to ensure that the event is something that everyone can take something away from. Part of that obligation is to provide feedback to CFP authors, so that they can get better. I hope that my comments and suggestions will be taken in that light. So, here’s my list, in no particular order…

  • Don’t be afraid to submit

Almost all of us suffer from some form of “imposter syndrome”. You know what I’m talking about – thoughts running through your head that sound like “Nobody’s interested in hearing what I have to say”, “This topic has already been talked about somewhere else” and the like.

Don’t assume that the topic has been talked about before. Don’t assume that nobody’s interested in the topic.

  • Assume the CFP review staff has no expertise in your topic area

I know a great deal of things about very few topics or areas, if I’m being honest. I know a little bit about an additional, but marginally larger group of topics. The truth is, there are a great many topics I don’t know anything about. Yet here I am, being asked to make a decision about whether or not your submission should make the cut.

Let me make this perfectly clear – it’s safe to assume that I have no bloody idea what your topic is actually about. Give me a proposal that breaks the topic down so that I can understand it, and makes it clear that you know what you’re talking about.

  • Make an effort on your CFP submission

Remember that you’re effectively writing to a group of people and saying to them “of all the submissions you receive, mine is one you want to choose”. One of the ways you can convince me to choose your submission is to show an effort through the quality, depth, and breadth of your writing in the submission.

If you give me a two or three sentence submission that basically says “I’m gonna talk about stuff and do things”, that will automatically get a hard “pass” from me. If you don’t care enough about what you’re pitching to actually put effort into writing it up, why should I give it any consideration at all?

  • Don’t recycle your material

We work in a dynamic, constantly changing industry.  There are new threats, solutions, ideas, concepts, ways of doing things, almost every day.  We have new material available to us to talk about, and we don’t have to work that hard to find it – it hits us in the face!

I will Google your pitch.  If I see that you gave this same talk at a conference a year ago, I’ll most likely recommend that your CFP be declined.

  • Show me you are an “expert”

If your CFP pitch is to do something that you claim expertise or experience in, then document how you got your expertise in your submission.  I need to get a good feel for your level of competence and understanding, as I’m reviewing your submission.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply if your talk is “here is my journey”, or you frame the the pitch as “exploratory” or “emerging” research.  However, even in these cases it’s important for me to get a feel for you and your background, so that I can frame my review appropriately.

  • Don’t assume I “know who you are”

I know this will be a notion that some will disagree with, but I don’t care.

We all have busy lives. We all do various things. I’m in academia, but try my very best to stay up with who’s doing what on the industry side. I regularly interact with a great many people via social media, especially Twitter. That being said, just because we had an exchange via some social media outlet, don’t assume I’ll recall that it was you I talked with. I may recall the convo to some degree, but that’s about it.

You’re an “infosec rockstar”?  I’m happy for you, but that doesn’t mean you get to bypass the review process merely because you may have a high name recognition factor.

Also, you should strongly think about whether submitting a CFP using just your “handle” is the best course of action. Personally, I would rather see the submission under your real name, with you giving us your “handle” in the writeup. I realize this won’t be a popular view with some of you, but so be it. The truth is that if you submit using only your “handle”, I may or may not know who you are.

I hope that folks who are considering submitting to conferences in the future, or are “old hands” at doing this, have found something of benefit from this post.

Did I leave something out?  You disagree with something here?  I’d love to hear from you!

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