6 simple tips for writing a winning conference proposal

I have roughly eight kajillion deadlines right now, so writing an impromptu post on a site I barely keep alive shouldn’t be on my to-do list right now. But given the fact that it’s conference season and calls for proposals are everywhere, I wanted to get this out sooner than later.

I speak at a lot of tech events, and I’ve had the honour of being asked to sit on the selection committee for a few, most recently the Velocity conferences in Santa Clara and New York. So I’ve been on both the writing and reviewing side of the proposal process. I’ve learned a lot since I submitted my very first proposal (which did not get accepted, FYI), and today I want to share a few tips with you.

Keep Calm and Submit Your Proposal

Note that I’m not guaranteeing success here. There are a number of reasons why proposals don’t get accepted. Maybe the organizers received a tonne of submissions on the same topic — this is common — or maybe they just ran out of room on the schedule. If you get rejected, try not to take it too personally. (Easier said than done, I know.)

Don’t worry if you’re not the world’s greatest expert

Nobody knows everything about a topic. While it’s obviously important to be knowledgeable, you don’t need to be a leading authority to have something useful to say. If you’ve been immersed in a topic for any period of time, you’re probably more knowledgeable than most other people. Be confident in what you know. If you find your topic is fascinating, other people will probably share your interest. Go ahead and submit your talk!

Be passionate

Passion comes through in a proposal. It really does. Abstracts don’t need to be dry. It’s okay to demonstrate that you’re super stoked about your chosen topic. It lets the event organizers know that you’ll bring that energy to the podium and excite your audience.

Err on the side of saying too much

I’ve read a lot of abstracts that were just one paragraph long. I’ve greenlighted zero of them. You may assume that the people reading your proposal already have a deep understanding of your topic and therefore don’t need a lengthy explanation. That’s a mistake. The best proposals are at least 3-5 paragraphs long, but go longer if you need to.

Be clear about what you’ll be covering

One of the most common criticisms given by review committees: “Too vague.” When I encounter a wishy-washy proposal, I interpret it to mean the proposer hasn’t really thought through exactly what he or she plans to say, but they figure they’ll do that after their talk gets accepted. Nuh-uh. That’s not how it works.

When I write a proposal, I try to visualize the narrative for my talk. I create an outline of the topics I plan to cover, more or less in the order that I intend to cover them. I include this point-form outline in my proposal, in addition to my 3-5 paragraphs of prose. It only takes a few minutes to do this, and it’s time well spent. (Bonus: Later, when I’m prepping my slides, I already have an outline to work with.)

Conclude with audience takeaways

I always, always, always end my proposal with a paragraph that lists the actions people will be able to take as a result of what they learned from my talk. The more concrete you can be with these, the better.

For example, this is the conclusion to a proposal for a talk I did at Velocity about the neurological impact of slow load times on mobile shoppers:

Your takeaway from this session will be a much deeper understanding of the impact of performance on mobile users, plus hard data that you can use to make a case for investing in mobile performance in your organization.

You can see from this example that it’s not lengthy and it doesn’t over promise (“This talk will change the way you see the world!”) — it’s just a simple statement that sets realistic expectations.

Remember this…

You need to think like a conference-goer and a conference organizer. Going to a conference is expensive and time-consuming. You’re either paying out of your own pocket or convincing your company to send you. You have to take time out of your work and personal life to go to them, and then play crazy catch-up when you get back. As a conference-goer, you want all this money, time, and effort to be worthwhile.

Understandably, conference organizers are under a lot of pressure to ensure that everyone who goes to their event leaves happy. This means making sure there are no duds up on the stage. YOU might know that you’re a total public-speaking rock star with reams of awesome insights to share, but you need to convey that to the people who are planning the event. You want whomever is reading your proposal to be able to not just visualize your talk but be excited by it. It’s your responsibility to give them the information they need to do this.


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