Create a Conference Proposal the Conference Wants and Accepts, Part 5: Write Your Bio

Your bio establishes your expertise, authority, and credibility in your field. If your conference proposal has a speaking experience field, use that field to explain your expertise, authority, and credibility.

I like to think of the bio and speaking experience fields as ways to connect with and invite the right people to your session:

  • These fields help the program committee realize you know what you're talking about.
  • These fields help the program committee say yes to you, based on your work and speaking experience.
  • These fields help the potential audience realize your session is the one they must attend, out of the entire conference.

I want to be the reason people come to a conference. Am I always? Oh, no! But sometimes? Yes. Why do I want that? Because I know my sessions offer value to the right people. I want the right people to see my bio and say “Yes” to my session.

I am not talking about inflating your experience. Never do that. Be honest about your experience. I have some example bios below for people with a couple of years of experience.

Your bio and speaking experience fields help people realize how good you are at this aspect of your role and in your speaking.

Consider This Template for Your Bio

I iterate on my bio just like I iterate on everything else in a conference proposal.

Many conferences ask for a 100-word bio. I have a “template” I use for my bio:

  • Line 1: Introduces you to the reader. Use verbs.
  • Line 2: Help people see your expertise.
  • Line 3: Add your credibility.
  • Line 4: Other details that might help people see how your expertise relates to the potential audience.
  • Line 5: Wow them with something, if you can. At a minimum, direct people to your site.

Here's my speaking bio, in specific lines, so you can see how I use that template:

  1. Johanna, known as the Pragmatic Manager, offers frank advice for your product development challenges.
  2. She works with individuals, teams, and leaders across the organization to resolve risks and see alternatives for their product development.
  3. As a consultant, she’s led hundreds of workshops, delivered talks and keynotes around the world, and dipped her toes into Pecha Kuchas.
  4. She's the author of 17 books and counting.
  5. She blogs on and and writes columns around the web.

Here's how to dissect that bio:

In Line 1, I use my first name because I want people to connect with me, as a human being. That's why I don't talk about my degrees, certifications, or other external institutional recognition.

Even if I held a PhD, I wouldn't use it in my bio. As for certifications, as I write this in 2019, the agile community has too many framework battles. I want to encourage people from the various framework camps to participate in my session, not push them away. I use my bio to connect with other people, not give them a reason to reject me.

Line 2 explains what I do. I use the word “works” because it's active and vague about what I do. I lead workshops; coach people and teams; consult with various people; speak; and create my own intellectual property.

I don't use the “is” word anywhere in the bio. That's too passive for what I want the bio to do. You might lead, manage, create, facilitate, build, and more. Use verbs that convey action in your bio.

Line 3 conveys the breadth and depth of my speaking experience. If you work inside an organization, you may not have a similar level of speaking experience. In the examples below, I'll suggest how you might showcase your speaking skill.

Line 4 build authority and expertise. I supposed I could have said “An award-winning author, Johanna has published 17 books and counting.” However, this is a speaking bio, not a writing bio. The program committee needs to see I know my material. They don't need to know about everything I've written. Yet.

Line 5 directs people to my web site. That's where they can discover more about me.

Here are some example bios, specifically for non-consultants who don't have a ton of experience:

Jill Jones, currently a technical lead for BigCloudServiceProvider, experiments with agile approaches in teams and across the organization. She's led several teams through their experiments with TDD, ATDD, and domain driven design. Along the way, she's learned about vanity metrics and metrics that work. She's a frequent organizer and participant in Chicago Lean Coffee and has spoken at a dozen meetups over the past two years.

Here's what's compelling to me about Jill's bio:

  • The idea of “several teams through their experiments” with ideas and practices that are not common enough in our industry.
  • I love the line about vanity metrics and metrics that work.
  • Jill has built her speaking experience in several ways. Sure, Lean Coffee isn't precisely a talk or a workshop. However, it is facilitation. And the mention of the “organization?” That's code for “helping people accomplish a specific goal.”

Jill doesn't have a web site. If she did or if she blogged or wrote articles somewhere, she would mention that last.

Jack Jones, a tester-turned-product-owner at BigRegulatedCompany, works to bring the customers and feature teams together. He's learned how to coach the technical people and the customers to work together effectively. He's also coached his managers into using flow metrics, not resource metrics. He's spoken internally at BigRegulatedCompany internal conferences and to internal teams across the country for the past three years, spreading what real agile approaches look like. In addition, he's spoken at several agile meetups in Chicago.

Here's what's compelling to me about Jack's bio:

  • He has experience as a tester and a product owner.
  • He has regulated industry experience.
  • Working together? Oh my, I want to hear about that.
  • The flow metrics? You had me at flow.
  • His speaking experience is mostly internal, but “across the country” is quite promising.

You don't need a ton of speaking experience to create a compelling bio so the program committee can say yes.

Your Speaking Experience Helps the Committee Say Yes

As you iterate through your bio, be honest with yourself about your speaking experience.

If you have never delivered a session before now, start with a local conference or a meetup. And, don't tell the program committee you've never spoken before.

Everyone starts somewhere.

Could you start with a large international conference? You can. I recommend any of these formats:

  • An experience report
  • A lighting talk
  • A Pecha Kucha

In all three of these formats, you get to tell a story. The time for each session tends to be short—not more than 30 minutes.

Shorter sessions that include a story means the program committee isn't taking a huge risk when they accept you. You need to have a compelling story—and that's why you started with the people and their problems back in Frame the Proposal.

If you're new to speaking, I suggest you start with smaller audiences. You might start with local meetups or groups. Then, maybe regional conferences. You don't have to take years to build your speaking “resume” if you're willing to speak a lot.

As an example, when I started to speak, I spoke at several local meetups and also sent in proposals to smaller conferences. By the time the conferences accepted my proposals, I had spoken at a minimum of six or seven local meetups.

And, if you're sure that the program committee for a larger conference will take your compelling proposal for a talk or a workshop even if you don't have any speaking experience, go for it. I could be totally wrong.

Iterate on the Proposal and Where to Submit

I iterate on all pieces of the proposal all the time. I make the abstract and outcomes as compelling as I can make them for the people with the problems.

When I realize there's a whole other class of people with similar problems, I have a choice: create another abstract or use this one? I tend to narrow my focus, rather than broaden it, which means two proposals. I recommend you do the same.

And, I iterate on where to submit my proposals.

If I want to experiment with a new talk, I'll ask a local meetup if I can speak at a monthly meeting. You might also look for local conferences to practice your topic.

The more local the conference or the meetup, the more likely the program committee will accept you, assuming your proposal meets their needs. Once a larger conference accepts your proposal, you can use local meetups to practice. You'll gain feedback on your proposal (did it meet the promise of your abstract?), your bio, and your session.

Write This Down

As I iterate on my bio, I add it to the proposal document. I also add it as a separate file in my “Speaking” folder. I keep that folder on my hard drive and backed up in the cloud. You might decide to iterate over your bio the more you choose to speak.

If you also decide to write articles you might need a slightly different bio that emphasizes your writing accomplishments. I have found that the more I write, the more people seek out my presentations. And, the more I speak, the more people want to read my work.

  1. Write out the four or five lines of your bio. I encourage you to try my template, but you can use any approach as long as you highlight your expertise, authority, and credibility.
  2. Write out your speaking experience.
  3. Based on your expertise, authority, and credibility, what three conferences will you propose this session to? If you want to make a larger list, that's great. You need a minimum of three conferences or meetups.

You've got everything except the title now. It's time to explore titles.

The entire series:

(Update: I wrote a book, Write a Conference Proposal the Conference Wants and Accepts that incorporates this and all the other conference proposal posts.)

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