A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Propose, Prepare, Present


A year or so ago, we were discussing the submissions we’d received for O’Reilly’s Strata conference. Some were superb; many were bald-faced pitches. O’Reilly’s head of conferences, Gina Blaber, asked me to put together a list of the things that separated great proposals from awful ones.

In order to submit good proposals, you need to understand what the organizers are looking for. This, in turn, means understanding how the conference is structured, and how the event’s subject matter is evolving. So what started as a short list turned into a short book called Propose Prepare Present, which is now available to for pre-order.

The book tries to capture some of what goes on behind the scenes in event organization and content curation, based in part on my experience running conferences, and in part on interviews with organizers, speakers’ bureaus, and others.

What separates the good from the bad?

The book isn’t just opinions and checklists, however. Some of it is based on an analysis of the tens of thousands of submissions that O’Reilly has received over the last decade at the various conferences it runs. Here’s an example.

O’Reilly uses a central tool to review the many session proposals that come in for each conference. A group of 20-30 reviewers culls through every proposal by hand, and rates it. The reviewers can also add comments to their review, such as “this looks like a great talk” or “I think this subject is too niche for the audience.”

We decided to look at the best-reviewed submissions (those that received the most five-star ratings) and the worst-reviewed ones (those that received the most one-star ratings.) Then we took the text of the comments from  hundreds of reviewers, and assembled them into two tag clouds.

Here are often-occurring words taken from the comments for good proposals, which in many cases were picked to present:


And here are the words that showed up often in comments about bad proposals, which were rejected (and probably hurt the proposer’s reputation in future events.)


It’s pretty clear what works and what doesn’t from this analysis. If you’re trying to put yourself—or others—on stage, I hope this book helps.






One response to “Propose, Prepare, Present”

  1. […] I’ve been speaking at some conferences lately.  I knew I needed to get better with my submissions and hoped Alistair or Edd would write a blog post about how to improve.  Alistair did except it got out of hand and became a book. […]