The Building Blocks of Infosec CFPs
Between gearing up to co-chair CircleCityCon’s CFP, and working on a panel submission with a couple of first-time CFP submitters, this month’s program has been brought to you by the letters C, F, and P. (CFP = call for papers or call for proposals, depending on who you ask. Applications for speaking at a con.)
In the two-ish years that I’ve been volunteering for infosec cons (in various capacities), I’ve come across many would-be presenters who feel intimidated by the process of developing a talk and submitting to a CFP. Often times, anxiety is fueled by uncertainty. So I want to do my part to try and demystify the CFP process. More posts will follow, but for now, let’s start with the absolute basics: defining the main components of a CFP submission.
(By the way, if you’re not yet convinced to speak, I recommend reading Snipe’s post “Why you should stop stalling and start presenting”. For a good panel talk that covers a broad range of CFP prep topics, watch “CFPs 101” from BSidesLV 2016.)
When I was developing my first talk ever for the BSidesLV Proving Ground track in 2013, my presentation mentor Javvad gave me advice that’s stuck with me in every subsequent CFP: “Create an engaging story.” The way you structure and deliver your content matters, whether your medium is comedy, thriller, sci-fi, or musical theatre. Your talk’s title, abstract, and outline are the building blocks of your story. (As are your slides, but that’s another show.) Your bio adds context for your perspective as the storyteller. Each conference may have slightly different expectations (follow their directions!), so tailor accordingly.
This isn’t academia -- keep it short and to-the-point. If the title isn’t descriptive, make damn sure your abstract is. Tying in humor or a pop culture reference is fine, but know that certain references have been done to death in presentation titles. Expect some reviewers to side-eye a talk titled “_____ for Fun and Profit” or “_____: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love _____”.
Of the four main components of a CFP, THIS IS THE ONLY PLACE WHERE YOUR NAME GOES. There’s usually a word limit of around 100 to 250 words. This can be a good place to include “cred” for why you’re qualified to speak on your topic; it’s how you introduce yourself to attendees who are unfamiliar with your work. However, because many CFP committees do blind reviews, don’t expect your bio to be the deciding factor in your acceptance -- your outline and abstract should demonstrate your credibility without referring to you by name.
This comes from academic papers; it’s the TL;DR of your talk. An abstract is a paragraph or two (usually less than 250 words) that sums up the main points of your talk and, more importantly, draws your audience in. I’d recommend doing at least a draft of your outline before tackling the abstract -- that way, you know what you’re summarizing. You’ll probably be word-limited, so find ways to be concise. “We are planning to have a discussion about” easily becomes “we discuss”. Remember that an abstract is supposed to be just that: abstract. Don’t go into specifics.
The skeleton of your talk, in the form of a bulleted or numbered list with sub-sections. Four or five lines is not sufficient -- make it granular. While complete sentences aren’t usually necessary, one or two words per line doesn’t say much. Reviewers aren’t mind-readers; we should be able to look at an outline and get a good feel for how your talk will flow. Furthermore, since you probably have knowledge in an area that not all of your reviewers will be familiar with, someone who’s not a subject matter expert should still be able to understand what you’re saying.
Even if a CFP doesn’t ask for an outline, it’s good to have one drafted by the time you submit. Strategizing how you want to structure your talk is time-consuming, so do the hard work early on… your future self will thank you. Bonus points if you include a time estimate for each section.
Based on the CFP submissions I’ve reviewed in past years, people perennially struggle the most with the concept of the outline. It occurred to me that many people lack a frame of reference -- unlike the abstract and bio, which are published on conference websites, most people never see anyone else’s outlines. So as an appendix, below I’ve written up a sample outline of a very familiar story.
Being able to construct the basic components of a CFP doesn’t guarantee you acceptance (particularly in very established, competitive cons), but it will take you a great deal of the way there, and like anything else, it gets easier with practice.
Stay tuned for a sequel.
Soul Asset Management in Nihilistic Rock Suites
1) Introduction: Real life vs fantasy (1 minute)
-Overview of the problem
-There is a landslide
-Reality cannot be escaped
-Actions prior researchers have taken
-Looked toward skies
-No sympathy needed
-Easy come, easy go
-Little high, little low
-Main points of this talk
-Previous research assumed that wind direction was statistically significant
-(Side note: See, for example, "Blowin' in the Wind" (R. Zimmerman, 1962), which posits that answers correlate with wind direction)
-My findings reveal that nothing matters, regardless of wind direction
2) What happened in my research (2 minutes)
-Killed a man via cranial gunshot wound
-Additional detail: discarded a life that had just begun
-Unintended consequence: caused Mama to cry
-Call to action restating main point: nothing matters; continue course of action
-Medical side effects of time coming
-Constant body aches
-Leaving the audience behind
-Facing the truth
-Disclaimer: while I don't want to die, I occasionally wish to not have been born
-Live demo: Guitar solo (will provide a backup demo recording)
3) Dealing with the aftermath (1 minute)
-Key stakeholders bidding for soul
-Scaramouche: a little sihouetto of a man
-Fandango: thunderstorm conditions causing fright
-As stated in the intro, I am merely a poor boy
-Additional information: nobody loves me, and my family is poor
-Rules of monstrosity state that life should be spared
-Introducing new stakeholders and their challenges
-Bismillah: refuses to let go, despite soulholder requests
-Beelzebub: handling allocation of devils
4) Limitations (1 minute)
-What you can't do
-Loving and then leaving for dead
-Steps to overcome the limitations
-Just get out
-Get right out of here
5) Conclusion (1 minute)
-Reiteration of main takeaways
-Nothing matters - by this point, audience should be able to see this
-Wind direction also does not matter