On making better DrupalCon session proposals

By Florian Lorétan

Imagine a conference full of people passionate about the web and open source. Some sessions always attract more visitors than others, but this one room is absolutely packed. People are sitting in the alleys and in front of the doors despite fire regulations, eagerly waiting for the session to start. On the big screen, the title slide is that topic that has kept you awake through quite a few nights, underneath the title is your name. This is DrupalCon Prague, and on stage it’s you.

How do you get there? DrupalCon is a fantastic event, an event which has motivated thousands of people over the past few years, people who really wanted to get up on stage and share their passion and their knowledge. Unfortunately, as much as DrupalCon is a motivating event, the session submission process is also the source of frustration to many people. What many people do not realize is the amount of work that goes into both the submission and the preparation for the session itself. Count on at least 40 hours – the equivalent of one week of full-time preparation. All this, in addition to being actively involved in the "Drupal Community".

Having been involved in that session selection process from the perspective of a speaker, of a track chair (the people who among others pick the sessions) and of a DrupalCon organizer, I’ve been through it all and sometimes I have felt responsible for part of the frustration. My goal with this series of posts is to improve the quality of DrupalCon session proposals by giving you some insight into what can make your proposal better.

However, rather than telling you everything I know about session proposals, I thought it would be more interesting to hear it from a wide variety of speakers.

How did you pick your topic? When and why?

Nathan Haug
After doing so much work on Drupal 8 and in WYSIWYG, of course I want to talk about it and get people excited about it, and I want to generate feedback, I want to hear what people want.

Amitai Burstein
I prepare my sessions a really long time before I give them. When I bought my early bird ticket I already knew what I wanted to talk about. I knew because it's what keeps me excited.

Chris Shattuck
Well, this particular topic (Powering a Lean Startup With Drupal) is something that I was very passionate about that I wanted to share with people, and what's important is that there's a lot of people that I talk to at Drupal events that want to do startups and so I get a lot of questions about that because I run one.

Frank Febbraro
Internally we'd have battles with each other about layout and we were having meetings every week to talk about it, what do we want to investigate in, we should try this we should try that, and all the sudden we realised we should just open this up to everybody, I'm sure there's a lot of other people having the same problems.

Greg Dunlap
I always have ideas baking in my head about sessions and a lot of times I don't decide to submit a session until I have it completely planned out in my brain, and a lot of times it will happen over the course of a year. A lot of time it will happen without me even realising it, there will be a lot of themes that I'm thinking about or talking about, and all the sudden they come together and I think "yes, that's it" and I will submit a session. By that point, the slides take something like two days, because I've been thinking about it for so long.

Karyn Cassio
In a way, meetups are more important than DrupalCon, and nobody was talking about that.

Jeffrey A. "jam" McGuire
I don’t want to talk unless I know people are going to get something out of it, you want to feel like you’ve made a contribution. We’re contributing to the community as much as someone who is writing code – if we do a good job. 

Kristof De Jaeger
I'm one of the core maintainers for the Field API and there have been a lot of changes coming up with Drupal 8, especially regarding configurable fields for site builders and also a lot of API changes. Field API is the core of your site, without the Field API you cannot create content, so it was kind of normal to suggest it.

Larry Garfield (talking about composer)
It's something I've been pushing as Drupalers, and really the entire PHP world, needs to know and appreciate and use. So it was a "Hey professionals, here's something you need to know in order to be more professional".  

Moshe Weitzman
Drush is a project that six or seven of us maintain, it's a labor of love, we really enjoy drush and I think a lot of people in Drupal enjoy it, and there's a lot of demand to hear about what's new. So yeah, we've been doing this talk for the past four or five DrupalCons. Everyone keeps coming so we keep doing it.

Any tips for effective session proposals?

Nathan Haug
Do a presentation, and see how popular it is at a local meetup or at a camp, and based on the popularity of people actually attending your presentation decide if it’s going to be a good fit for a DrupalCon. A presentation that is popular at a meetup or at a camp will also be popular at DrupalCon.

Amitai Burstein
If it's the first time you are doing a session before a crowd like this, find someone who has more experience doing sessions and do the session for them and ask them for reviews. The same way we do reviews for patches, reviews are good.

Chris Shattuck
I formulated the title to use the words that people would be looking for when they're looking for that particular topic. 

One of the criteria is experience, recorded experience, so build a track record so that the people who are making the decision about what sessions get accepted get to know you a little bit.

Deane Barker
Know the audience and ask yourself "what do they want to get out of this? what questions do they want to ask?" and really start your session description answering the questions you think that they're going to ask.

Frank Febbraro
Put your session together, have a good description and have a good plan for what you want to talk about even if you haven't developed it yet. Do things like tweet it, talk about it on IRC, get people interested in it.

Greg Dunlap
My general advice would be that you speak about something you know very well, because speaking is a lot easier when you're talking about something that you know very well.

Karyn Cassio
Be very clear about what you want to present, in your head but definitely in your description. A line like "I want to talk about XYZ" doesn't mean much, everybody does. Why are you the expert on this or why do you think like you have more to bring to the table than everybody else?

Jeffrey A. "jam" McGuire
The first thing I want to do is to make sure there’s a story I can tell. I want to connect with the people I talk to, and I want to take them to a place that I’m defining and find how I can get them there. [...] If you’re not to the point where you have a story outline that you’re really confident about, and that you know you can back up with appropriate facts for the topic, you shouldn’t be submitting.

Kristof De Jaeger
Don't give a session on a topic if you don't know fully everything about it, cause you have to feel confident when you're talking about it. Also, if you cannot answer questions afterwards, that's going to be really awkward.

Larry Garfield
If you're bored with the topic, so will everyone else be. So, present on something you care about, something you're passionate about, and that will make your delivery a lot easier.

Mark Sonnabaum
My approach is always to pick a topic that's about solving a problem. Look at problems in the Drupal community that need to be addressed, and think of a proposal. Not necessarily a solution, but maybe a call to action that probably we should start addressing it and get people to start talking.

Moshe Weitzman
In order to get selected I think it's important to establish your experience and your expertise in those things you're talking about. It starts a year ahead of time by blogging about the topic you're going to cover, writing documentation and going to a DrupalCamp and giving a quick talk about it.


  • Talk about what you really know
  • Talk about what you are passionate about
  • Gauge interest in the topic before submitting by presenting at other events
  • Make the topic clear in your session title and description
  • Be ready to dedicate the time it takes to make a fantastic session
  • Submit your session early to collect feedback.