Episode 41: Tenessa Gemelke, Brain Traffic - Tips for delivering a stellar talk proposal

September 14, 2021

As Program Manager at Brain Traffic, Tenessa Gemelke has reviewed thousands of conference talk proposals. In this episode of the Content Strategy Podcast, Tenessa offers her top tips for what to talk about and how to pitch it. There’s also a potted history of Confab: The Content Strategy Conference and musings about the caring content community.

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About this week’s guest

Tenessa Gemelke

Tenessa Gemelke is the Program Manager at Brain Traffic. She’s always looking for ways for folks to share knowledge and support each other’s work in content strategy and user experience. When she is not hosting educational events, she is probably eating cheese.

Episode transcript

Kristina Halvorson:

Hello and welcome to the Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson, and every episode of this podcast I chat to established leaders and exciting new voices exploring our ever-evolving field of content strategy. We cover all the topics that inform how we shape digital content. From user experience design to customer experience, accessibility to content design and everything in between.

Hello, friends and neighbors. Welcome back to the podcast. In my heart, I have missed you. I have been anxious to have you back because this week we have a very dear friend of mine who is here on the podcast.

Tenessa Gemelke is the program manager here at Brain Traffic. She is always looking for ways for folks to share knowledge, and support each other's work in content strategy and user experience. When she's not hosting educational events, she is probably eating cheese. Tenessa, what are you doing?

Tenessa Gemelke:

Hi, Kristina. I know you.

Kristina Halvorson:

Are you eating cheese?

Tenessa Gemelke:

I'm not eating cheese. I'm here at Brain Traffic.

Kristina Halvorson:

I am also here at Brain Traffic.

Tenessa Gemelke:

I feel like you're two rooms away.

Kristina Halvorson:

You know why? I am.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Great.

Kristina Halvorson:

We came back to the office pretty much the minute everybody was fully vaccinated. We've got a small office here in Minneapolis with very tall ceilings, and very warehouse-y drafts, and we felt like it was probably okay to be back together because we had missed each other's faces. I wanted to be here today so much that I decided I would try to record here in the office. Our apologies in advance for the echos and any sirens that may go by, or beagles that you may hear howling in the background.

But again, Tenessa is just a few doors over. I have asked her as a very special guest here on the podcast because we have something going on right now at Brain Traffic. It is our call for speakers for Confab, our content strategy conference that has been around for, my gosh, 10 years, 11 years. Tenessa is our program manager, and responsible for our call for speakers and managing program curation. Tenessa is going to be giving tips on how to deliver a super awesome talk proposal, which actually you have probably reviewed almost 3,000 if not 4,000 proposals over the last many years.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Yeah. We get about 300 for every Confab, and we've had many, many, Confabs sometimes up to four a year. We have Button. We have so many notches in our conference belts. That's what they say.

Kristina Halvorson:

I know it's just so fun and we can't stop. Okay. But before we get to those tips, Tenessa, I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about you. We did say before the interview is a little weird because I know the answer to all these questions, but there are a lot of people listening that don't. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your journey to becoming a program manager here at Brain Traffic?

Tenessa Gemelke:

Well, I'm going to start at the very beginning because I love telling this story, and somebody hasn't heard it. I worked in the bank's building here in Minneapolis for another company. This woman named Kristina Halvorson approached us and said, "Hey, I need to borrow your Wi-Fi, can I do that?" I'll just come and like give your staff a talk. And we were a scrappy nonprofit, and that sounded ... We would have done it for free, but the fates decided that Kristina Halvorson would show up and give us a lunchtime talk.

I was practically giving a standing ovation because she described content strategy, and it was all the problems we had. I was like, that is what I want to do. So that's how I started. And then I followed the Brain Traffic blog and loved all the articles there. I heard that there was this new conference that Kristina was hosting called Confab. That sounded amazing. I applied for a job at Brain Traffic. So I started out as a baby content strategist. One month after I started doing content strategy, I had to fly to Madrid and act like I knew what I was doing. That was exciting, but I just dove in. Brain Traffic is a really great place to learn while you're doing, and I did that.

But I've always had a penchant for events. I have events in my background. So the first Confab, although I was technically a content strategist, I weaseled in and said, "I'm going to help with this, will you let me help with this?" You and Eric Westra let me. So that's where I started. I staged a coup and overthrew Eric Westra. That didn't happen, that didn't happen. No, I've worked my way up to being the program manager. I have lovely colleagues named Amy Pletch and Sean Tubridy who also help make Confab go. We are small and scrappy, and it's just the best.

Kristina Halvorson:

It is the best. We sometimes do say, I'll go ahead and say it, that we make magic around here. But I will say another thing that we usually follow that up with is that we are only able to make magic with our events because our community is also magic. Why-

Tenessa Gemelke:

The best people?

Kristina Halvorson:

... why are content people the best people? What are your thoughts around that? I don't just say this to pander to our listening audience, but I honestly regularly just look around at the people I work with, not just here, but our speakers, and the people who attend the events, and our clients, and it's just like people who care about content problems, and challenges, and opportunities to make content more useful and usable and inclusive, are just good people. Why do you think that is?

Tenessa Gemelke:

I think it's a combination of things. I think there is inherent in content strategy, a desire to help. When we talk about making things useful and usable, that's trying to help. It's trying to help people find the answers to their questions. It's trying to help them find solutions to their problems, find long, lost friends, whatever the case. Making it easier for people to get done what they want to get done is just helpful. I think that's a really kind characteristic in a human being. I also think they're just smart, so smart, super duper smart. The combination of being smart and being helpful somehow often seems to come along with being hilarious. I don't know why.

Kristina Halvorson:

I don't know why that is, but it's really true.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Yeah. There's something about caring this much about arguing over Oxford commas, I guess that makes us hilarious in our own way.

Kristina Halvorson:

Well, the other thing that I find too, is that there are fields in which people can be relatively self serious. I mean, it's not that we don't take our work seriously, it's just that we don't take ourselves so seriously, I don't think so.

Tenessa Gemelke:

For sure.

Kristina Halvorson:

This is just an entire interview to talk about how much we love people who love content. Is that what we're here to talk about today?

Tenessa Gemelke:

It's not even pandering, it's just the truth.

Kristina Halvorson:

It's just the truth. Tenessa I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the history of Confab. When did it start? Why did it start? What changes have you seen? Just go to town on Confab.

Tenessa Gemelke:

I will go to town on Confab every day. The first Confab was in 2011. My recollection is that, Kristina, you posted something on Twitter to the effect of, if everybody comes to my conference, I'll give you cake. That was, I think, the marketing plan initially.

Kristina Halvorson:

It was actually asking people to retweet, who people retweeted-

Tenessa Gemelke:

I see.

Kristina Halvorson:

I have a conference, will you please retweet this so other people know about it? We will give you a cake if you do that, we'll give you free cake. 800 people retweeted it, and this was early in Twitter. So 800 retweets was a gazillion. Anyway, that happened.

Tenessa Gemelke:

That was not false advertising. I believe we've given people cake at every Confab since.

Kristina Halvorson:

Every Confab.

Tenessa Gemelke:

We started it. There were all these plucky content strategy people, many of whom did not have content strategy anywhere in their job title or description. But they knew it was a thing, and they cared about it. They all got together, and then there was this vibe of just like, we found each other, we all found each other. It was very exciting. We were making it up as we went. It was the beginning of things like Facebook and Twitter. I mean, it wasn't the very beginning, but it was early enough in those days where somebody would come and say, "This is how we write our UX copy," which I don't even think we called it UX writing then.

But we got this group together, and everybody was so excited about it. We kept it at one conference a couple of times, but then we started trying to go around different places. We did create some conferences for specific groups. So we did Confab for higher ed. We started doing Confab intensives, which were workshop-based conferences where people could do more deep dives on topics. 

Just as we looked at who the audience was and what they were looking for, we ended up going back to the one big Confab to rule them all. What's been great about that, what seems to work about that is that we have this combination of the family reunion for people who have been to every Confab, every single one. They can't wait to see their friends and go sing karaoke, and that's great. But there is also this wonderful community where we just don't do cliques, we don't.

We have new people come every year, and our speakers, and our attendees are so welcoming. To have everybody go to the same event, I think has become a really important thing. So the one big Confab party has been just a really great celebration every year, even when it's been virtual.

Kristina Halvorson:

You have had a front row seat to topics that were introduced at the first event in 2011, all the way through topics that were presented now in 2021. What has changed? What has stayed the same? Talk to me a little bit about what you've seen in terms of trends around what people are excited about, and what they care about.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Yeah. I think in the beginning, we were still really working out terminology, and even making the case for content strategy at all. So we saw a lot of how to get buy in and that's for sure still a relevant topic. But it was everybody's biggest pain point, I think in the beginning was, how do I get people to care about content strategy, or let me say that's what I do and take that lens to our work? I think there was also a lot of grappling with content management systems. It was just this nitty gritty, what is this that we're doing, and how do we do it?

The topics to me at that time seemed very practical. Not that they aren't still practical, but I think we have some more ambitious topics that are, I think more important, but also more in demand. How do we make things as accessible as possible? How do we create inclusive experiences? How do we take on racial injustice at company? When we had all that happening last year, where companies are like, we have to say something about this. I'm really proud of our community because they were talking about that long before last year. But the demand for those loftier topics of like, how do we make ... I think we have a quote from Anne Lamott when she spoke at Confab, she said, "I came in and I didn't know what content strategy was, but I know that there are a lot of people trying to make the internet suck less."

At the beginning, we were trying to make the internet suck less by fixing broken systems in terms of like how to publish. Now, I think we're seeing a lot more of fixing broken systems in terms of like, what's wrong with the world? We have people talking about how content influences the climate crisis. What's the footprint or whatever of the way we publish? We weren't talking about that 10 years ago. I think the topics have gotten bigger and more ambitious in a way that's really good. I will say, we've always balanced that. We still have the really straightforward how to do a thing talks as well.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah. That is always when people ask, I know either one of us, what should I pitch? What's a good thing to talk about? An underlying thing that I often hear is, nobody really cares about what I have to say or what I do. Everybody else already knows about it. So it's not going to be interesting or special, or I don't really have the purview at my organization, or even on my team to be able to tackle and address some of those loftier more ambitious topics. What do you say to those people?

Tenessa Gemelke:

First and foremost, everybody has to talk in them. The other question I sometimes get along those same lines is, and nobody means this in a bad way, but like, "Which topic can I submit that nobody else will submit so I get picked?" I'm like, "I don't know," because some years, we'll get a pile of 20 pitches about AI and some years we'll get one. We're always surprised when we see the pile of what bubbles up as the big topic that year. I mean, one thing that I have seen in content strategists is their ability to go after those loftier things, regardless of their job title, or where they sit in the organization.

We're very persuasive people. We're good at documenting our case. So, I think anybody anywhere in an organization can speak to the desire for big changes, or improvements. But in terms of the advice about whether or not they should pitch, or what they should pitch, I also really encourage people to think about the thing that they are often helping others do, or explaining to people because that's where you're really comfortable. That's where you know what you're doing. There are still plenty of people who are struggling with the same kinds of structured content, things that we were talking about 10 years ago.

There are always new people coming into the field. We get a lot of people at Confab who are pretty new to content strategy, and their companies send them to get trained. So I think there are a lot of topics that are really pretty evergreen. I think whatever you are passionate about, or whatever you are really drawn to in your daily work, I think you can speak about it. I think there will be people who need to learn from you.

Kristina Halvorson:

Let's get back to what I promised at the top of our conversation, which is tips of pitching a talk because our Confab call for speakers is open right now for 2022. Our intention is to have that event here in Minneapolis. We've already gotten so many requests for ticket pricing information because people are already requesting, budget for it. So, we hope it's going to be a real big, fun party to welcome all of our first timers to Confab, and also welcome back folks who've been there before.

Again, because of your thousands of proposals that you've reviewed, you've got a list of tips and tricks for people who are considering submitting a proposal, not only to Confab, but maybe to Button, or maybe another UX, or marketing, or a CMS, or a technical writing or any other conference. Can you tell us some of those, can you share some of those tips?

Tenessa Gemelke:

Absolutely. I have a few different things, but I think the number one thing that I like to let people know is that it's very similar to reading resumes. If you have 200 people apply for a job in which resumes are going to stand out to you. I once had somebody put dog paw prints on a resume, I'm like, okay, yeah, it stood out, but I didn't pick them. So it's not like I don't want to encourage people to be too cute or too precious, but to consider that you're pitching to someone who's reading 300 proposals. So, having any kind of confusing title ...

We're scanning for topics, we're scanning for what the takeaways are, so really making that pitch as clean and easy to digest as possible. If the title is something based on pop culture and I don't get the reference, it's really hard for me as a reviewer to get into what it even is.

Kristina Halvorson:

Thankfully you are very up on pop culture. You get all the references.

Tenessa Gemelke:

What I tell people is, you can make the talk, fill it with Game of Thrones references, that's great. So the talk can go in that direction, but the pitch doesn't have that luxury. The pitch needs to be like, here's what you're going to get. Why is somebody's boss going to pay us money to put you on stage? We need to pick talks that will really help people get better at their jobs. So making it as clear to the reviewer as possible how your talk does that, who it's helping, how it's helping them, what they'll take away. So just really making it as straightforward as possible is helpful.

And then later you can get creative. Later you can do the funky slides, or the metaphors, or whatever else gets you going, I think that's fantastic. That's some of the best talks. But initially getting through the review is, I think it's important to be really clear. We talked how there are topics that are evergreen, and then there are topics that get popular. It's so unpredictable. I remember this one year, and I don't know if you'll remember this, Kristina, this is a long time ago, but you were just like, "Why is every pitch about empathy? Was there no empathy last year? What happened?"

We don't know what's in the water that causes certain topics to bubble up and become the thing. Sometimes there's a societal event, or like I said, with climate change, it's just a looming concern, but sometimes it's just maybe somebody wrote a really amazing blog post that just got everybody really fired up about templates, or ... Who knows? But there'll be some kind of a swell in popularity. When that happens, we will sometimes pick two or maybe three. It's also really likely that if you're competing with 30 versus three people, your talk won't get picked. I don't want to just say like, just talk about what you love, or what you're really passionate about, because I know that's not helpful.

But I think if you can come up with a new angle or a new way to talk about it, or you have a real snazzy way of auditing ... I just said snazzy way of auditing, I've been doing this job for too long, Kristina.

Kristina Halvorson:

You know what? When you love content strategy, auditing can be snazzy.

Tenessa Gemelke:

It can be, it's the snazziest. But I think bringing something fresh is great if you can. I don't know how to say this in a way that sounds helpful, but don't have any ulterior motives. If you're trying to pitch your agency, or if you're trying to sell a product, you've got a tool that content strategists would use. Our audience is so savvy and they can see through a sales pitch in a heartbeat, and we can in our review too.

When we're reviewing proposals, if there's anything in it that sounds like you are just trying to get leads, or you're trying to court customers in general, that's not a good experience for the audience. They aren't there to be sold to, at least not during the talks. I mean, I always encourage people, if you have needs as ea ... have great sponsorship opportunities. There are lots of sponsors who are looking to recruit. They're looking to grow their mailing lists. We can help with sponsorships, but the talk isn't the place for it. That's a place where it can be a turnoff.

We have had a few talks that people actually got dinged on because it wasn't what the audience wanted. So really thinking about what's in it for the audience, what will they take away? So not focusing on just the story you have to tell about your work, or the case study of how you did it, but the gift that you'll give. What will you leave them with? What will they take away? What's going to make their job easier the next Monday? That's the stuff that makes for a really good talk.

Kristina Halvorson:

What you just said is always one of the number one pieces of feedback that I give to people that changes the nature of their talk, which is, people in the audience have got to walk out of there fired up to do a thing the Monday they get back into the office. They have to, not only have light bulbs go off and new context is provided or a new way to talk about things, or a new way to tackle a problem, or new problem identification in the first place, and being able to get at it from that angle, that that is so key for a talk pitch to be able to say, after this presentation, audience members will be able to do what. That really helps proposals stick out, I think.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Absolutely. Like I said, some of those problems never go away. Sometimes you are getting buy in for a project, and sometimes you are ... People might need to hear it again, even if it's something they know. They might need new ways to try. 

Kristina Halvorson:

I do want to come back around to something that you just said because although I do think it is important and exciting for people to come to the proposal process with a new lens on an old problem, or a new way to talk about something that's been discussed before. As a speaker myself, I've been giving talks for 12 years. For a long time after my initial breakthrough of content strategy 101, here's why this is important, and here's how we can talk about it, and here's how you can make the case to whatever, and here are the basics and fundamentals of a content strategy. I started to get really antsy about, okay, I have to help move this conversation forward. I have to dig in deeper. I have to come up with new ways to do content strategy, or new ways to think about content strategy.

One of my mentors is Jared Spool. I took the problem to him, and I was just like, "Jared, I'm so busy, and I don't get to do as much client work. I'm on the road. I'm so worried. I don't have any new insights." He said, "Kristina, you can teach content strategy 101 for the rest of your life, and still be busy every single day of the year because the problems that people wrangle with when it comes to content ideation, creation, publication, measurement, evaluation, retirement, a lot of those problems just never go away."

I tell people who are worried about having something new to say that story all the time because that is something that is both, I don't know, it's interesting, it's exciting to me that just, even though it can also be exhausting, but that we are constantly helping organizations mature. When it comes to not only how they are doing content, but more of how they're thinking about content, and how they're continually connecting and reconnecting it to their end user needs. So I think any topic around content, and content in UX, and content design that can bring back into view the end user, and what their needs are, and how we can understand them, and how we can best serve them, is going to be something that really catches our eye.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Absolutely. I just encourage people just say where it's at. One of the questions we ask on our proposal form is, who is this for? Who's the ideal audience for this? No, you don't get to say everyone. But I think if it's like, this is great for somebody who is brand new to content strategy, or this is great for people who want a refresher on it. It's okay to say, this is basic. Those talks are still important. We still have an audience for those talks every year.

Kristina Halvorson:

One of the pieces of feedback I give our speakers constantly when we're doing coaching is to get nerdier. Don't worry about oversimplifying things, these are smart, curious people who are looking to solve problems and need tools and methodology to do it. So even if the problem is a problem that a organization who does not have mature content practices, people aren't communicating across silos about the content that's required.

Okay, well, we don't need an outline of how to hold more meetings, do brown bag lunches, exposure work. What are the specifics? What are case studies? Tell us a story about how that worked for you at your organization. So, although we can talk about problems being 101, the nerdier and more specific you can get about how to solve that problem and tackle it, the more excited we're going to be.

Tenessa Gemelke:

For sure. Asking you to get nerdier doesn't mean everybody's going to judge you if it's not nerdy, it's not that at all. It's like a hunger, people are hungry for just the really-

Kristina Halvorson:

The nitty gritty. When you get on the stage, everybody in the room is rooting for you to succeed. They're not sitting back going, okay, show me what you've got. They're like, yeah, you're one of us, go. What are some of the things that just make you toss something to the side without even bothering to consider it or read it all the way through it?

Tenessa Gemelke:

I will say we don't get as many of these as I'm sure other events do because we're very lucky, we mostly get very high quality pitches. There are a certain number of inspirational speaker types that pitch keynotes to every conference on planet earth. So there are some that it's like, it's not about content strategy, it doesn't make any sense to me just as a human with the ability to watch a talk. It's just so off. And then I think the other category that is adjacent, but is different is when people get really jargon-y.

I'm not talking jargon like inside baseball about how content design works. I'm talking jargon like synergistic ways to maximize your content marketing engine. That's just not how we talk. We don't take ourselves that seriously. We just don't pick speakers who do. We don't pick talks where the speaker is invested in this alternative language that doesn't make sense to our audience. There may be buried in the talk something that could be useful, but we aren't picking that up because it's buried in jargon.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah, I would agree. That is oftentimes the thing that will cause me to want to just toss something to the side. If I see jargon and something that is just wildly overwritten, where obviously they're trying to either be somebody that they're not, or they are writing for a marketing conference that has got a lot of, I don't know, strobe lights and $1 million sets, and I don't ... anyway. Okay. Tenessa, we're just about out of time. My final question for you is this, what is really getting you out of bed in the morning these days? We are all so tired. We are tired of this pandemic. We are tired of the news. We are tired of our kids being at home. Everyone is so tired. What is getting you up out of bed in the morning?

Tenessa Gemelke:

I have to say it actually, is my kids, which is such a cheesy answer. But I have these three amazing teenage boys who live in my house. Yes, it used to be four. One of them graduated and moved away, for those of you who follow me on Twitter, and hear me complain constantly about my grocery bill. The kids are, they're so resilient in the face of all of this. They're funny. They work so hard, and I'm like, well, if they can do it, I can do it. I got to show up. So I think that really helps me keep perspective on days when I have to reinvent an in-person conference as a virtual conference-

Kristina Halvorson:

For example.

Tenessa Gemelke:

... for example. That just keep your perspective about these humans in my life who need me to function. It's very compelling.

Kristina Halvorson:

I don't think that's cheesy at all. I think that's awesome. I think you're awesome-

Tenessa Gemelke:

I think you're awesome.

Kristina Halvorson:

... with you.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Same to you, but more of it.

Kristina Halvorson:

Hey, Tenessa, thank you so much. We're so busy around here and you're carrying so many plates and juggling so many balls, and I really appreciate your taking the time to chat. If people are interested in submitting a talk proposal for Confab, where should they go?

Tenessa Gemelke:

If you go to Confabevents.com and look at the nav and click speaking at Confab, you will get right to the spot where you can submit a talk. Talks are, the submissions are due on September 17th.

Kristina Halvorson:

It's coming up.

Tenessa Gemelke:

By midnight Pacific Time. We would love to read 10 to 20 talks by each of you.

Kristina Halvorson:

Exactly, so hurry up and start thinking. All right. Tenessa, thank you so much for joining me here on the Content Strategy Podcast.

Tenessa Gemelke:

Thanks, Kristina.

Kristina Halvorson:

Thanks so much for joining me for this week’s episode of the Content Strategy Podcast. Our podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy services and events company. It’s produced by Robert Mills with editing from Bare Value. Our transcripts are from REV.com. You can find all kinds of episodes at contentstrategy.com and you can learn more about Brain Traffic at braintraffic.com. See you soon.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.