Write Better Conference Proposals

Write Better Conference Proposals by Karine JolyIf you really want to learn, teach. If you present at a conference, you won’t stop learning—from the time you start to write your speaking proposal to the moment you answer the last question from your audience at the conference.

So, how do you get your proposal accepted?

After presenting at many professional events, chairing a couple of conference tracks and organizing several online conferences, I’ve realized it’s more art than science. While I can’t (unfortunately?) give you 10 incredible steps to guarantee amazing success for your conference presentation, I can share useful insights to help you write better conference proposals.

Define your conference proposal strategy

First, start with your strategic goals for presenting. Why do you want to speak at conferences? What are your personal and professional goals? Once you know what you want to achieve, think about the best presentation topics to meet these goals.

With clear and specific goals in mind, it’s now time to focus on your audience. You have two different types of audiences at the proposal stage: the individual or the team in charge of reviewing all the submissions and the conference attendees. What will work for the former will usually for the latter, but don’t forget both audiences have different goals, agendas and constraints. A professional conference is not a science fair targeted at loving parents. Conference attendees will only be interested in what you do at your institution if they can easily transfer and use it at theirs. When you accept to present, you sign up to help your peers do their job better, faster, easier and shine on their campus. (Tweet this!) Do share your experience and your expertise, but don’t forget your audience will be the ultimate hero of a successful presentation.

Do your homework before selecting your session topic

Review the instructions and guidelines accompanying the call for proposals (CFP) of the conference. If you can go a step further, review the program from a prior conference.  You’ll get a better feel for the right type of topics. However, try to do this review only after you have a few possible speaking topics. It’s easy to go from inspiration to imitation without even noticing it. Don’t submit anything off-topic. Your fantastic idea on social media marketing will probably be a flop if you submit it to an academic conference on distance learning.

Got a couple of ideas? Run them by your colleagues at work. You can also write a (guest) blog or LinkedIn post. I often reach out to insightful authors to invite them to submit proposals to conferences I organize. It’s  my blogging that got me invited to present at my first conference and several others. Starting to publish online about your presentation topic will have several positive outcomes: you will raise your profile, publically claim the idea and get useful feedback about your topic.

Craft an easy-to-review conference proposal

Smart session titles are always tricky. If you want use a pun or something clever in your presentation title, include a second part that states more clearly your topic. Also, take the time to make your session description as short as it should be. Embrace your inner editor or borrow a friend’s. Keep in mind that people—often your peers as volunteers—will spend a lot of time reviewing dozens, sometimes hundreds, of proposals. They will appreciate it if you make it easier for them to evaluate your session. For the same reasons, try to state the outcomes of your presentation for attendees as learning objectives. What will they learn? What kind of takeaways will you deliver?

Prepare your speaker bio

The goal of your speaker bio is to introduce you to both audiences. It should be not too long, not too short, but just right. Refer to conference guidelines and review the bios of past speakers to help you. When I review speaking proposals, I look at the title and description of each proposal first. Then, I’ll read the bio if I’ve never heard of the speaker. If you are a young(er) professional, don’t think this will play against your proposal. More and more conference organizers pride themselves in reserving some speaking slots for first time speakers. In your bio, state where your work, include some specifics about what you do, mention any recent projects related to your session topic and include your most advanced degree. It is higher education after all 🙂 A conference proposal is a lot like a job application. Your speaker bio acts as your resume. Your presentation will be your job interview.

Do you have an online portfolio or a blog? Include their links. Oh, and if you presented in the past, don’t forget to add the name of the conference(s) as well. Some conference organizers prefer to play it safe and this will give them an indication of your speaking experience. In some cases, proposals go through a blind review process. Then, your speaker bio becomes a moot point. However, it always plays a role if your submission is selected, so spend time on it. It’s a good investment as you’ll reuse your speaker bio next time you submit a proposal.

Find out if you can attend the conference before submitting a proposal

In some cases, you will be asked to confirm you can attend in the call for proposals submission form. Please don’t fall for “conference proposal ego boosting” by submitting proposals “just to see.” I had my first encounter with this practice a couple of years ago as I was working on an online conference program. A prospective speaker submitted not 1, but 4 different proposals only a few hours before the CFP closed. The very next business day after being offered a speaking slot, this person declined it explaining a change of heart. THIS wastes everybody’s time – including yours. We are all special as we are, so no need to submit a proposal just to see if we would be the first kids picked when we don’t even intend to play. 🙂

Don’t wait for the last day to submit your proposal

I know how tempting it is. And, we all do it, don’t we? But, is it really the best strategy to get a proposal accepted? Probably not. Why do you think most on-site conferences post their calls for proposals earlier and earlier – often 9 to 12 months before the event? They know that 80% of the proposals will be submitted on the very last day. That’s why you should submit as early as you can—and ask questions. Like many organizers, I always welcome questions from prospective presenters. If you want to run your proposal by me, I will always give you an indication about the fit. This won’t be a firm speaking offer, but if your topic is not a good fit, I’ll let you know and encourage you to try again with something else.

Be ready for the rejection, but don’t take a “no” as the end

Rejection happens to everybody and depends on many factors. I once got invited to present a keynote at an international conference—with full expenses covered by the conference organizers—for a session that did not make the cut at a regional conference. Take the rejection of your speaking proposal (it’s never a rejection of the speaker) graciously and try again somewhere else or next time. For the online conferences I organize, I will always keep a waitlist with the best proposals that didn’t make the cut – just in case.

If your proposal was rejected, but you still plan to attend the conference, let the conference committee know you will be happy to step in if there is a cancellation as long as you are notified before a certain date (or up until the last moment if you have already presented your session at another conference and you’re ready for prime time). You might make friends for life if you can fill a speaking slot on the spot the day of the conference. (Tweet this!)

Get ready to put your “acceptance high” to good use

Having your speaking proposal accepted is exhilarating. You feel validated. You want to tweet your heart out to make sure the world knows it as soon as possible. Check if/when it’s ok to share the news from the conference organizers, because most prefer to notify everybody before anything gets out. Once you’ve received the good news, tell your boss ASAP to confirm official permission and budget. Then, take advantage of this “acceptance high” to outline your session. I’m not saying you should complete your entire presentation now, but it’s a good idea to create a plan, set deadlines and milestones to be ready sooner than later. Don’t forget to plan for practice time. Unless you are a seasoned presenter and have already given this presentation a few times, you will need to practice to give your A-game.

Thinking about submitting your first (or next) conference proposal in 2015?

Have a look at my list of top 2015 conferences and events for digital professionals working in higher education. I constantly update it and tag events with open calls for proposals throughout the year.

About the Author

Karine Joly PhotoKarine Joly is the Executive Director of Higher Ed Experts, an online school for digital professionals working in universities and colleges. She oversees the professional development curriculum at Higher Ed Experts – including a series of online conferences. Karine has also given different types of conference presentations (poster sessions, breakout sessions, workshops and even a couple of conference keynotes) since her very first time in September 2006. She’s been blogging at http://collegewebeditor.com for almost a decade and has written more than 50 columns on “Internet Technologies” for the monthly magazine University Business.

Like this post? Learn more about the Resolve 2015 series.

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