I’ve written a few times before about how to write a good conference proposal.
I’ve been on the committee of various conferences many times. It’s surprising
how few people actually can write good proposals. Somehow it’s also suprisingly
hard to explain what makes a good one, so I’m going to give this another try.
I think the key thing to remember, and the reason it’s so hard to write a good
proposal, is that you’re writing to several audiences simultaneously. By the
way, I don’t claim to be good at this myself. Like I said, it’s hard. When I
look at my own proposals I often cringe and think, “why wasn’t I able to do a
better job on this one?”
Your primary audiences are
- The reviewers or conference committee. An excellent talk that’s not accepted
is an excellent talk that never happens.
- The audience who’s trying to figure out what talks to attend. An excellent
talk that doesn’t draw a crowd is a failure, frankly.
You also have to think about the medium and context where the audiences see the
session proposal. Let’s dig into each audience and see what’s going through
their minds. If you don’t do this you’re not going to succeed.
Reviewers and Conference Committees
The reviewers are scanning through several hundred proposals. It’s a lot of
work. If you’ve ever tried to go through a stack of resumes, it’s similar to
that. Picture yourself reviewing 20 or 50 conference proposals in a row. Would
your brain turn off? I can assure you that after 100, 200, 300 proposals it’s
difficult to stay sharp and objective.
As a reviewer, I’m trying to keep a lot of things in mind, and make decisions
quickly. Frankly I have to. I don’t have days to spend on this. You have to
help me with this. Here’s what I’m looking for.
- A good title. It should be short, punchy, accurate, and clear. It should
avoid buzzwords. There’s an unfortunate tendency for a lot of proposals to
have titles like “The something, the something, and the something: some words
after the colon that really matter.” I do not think this is a successful
pattern. Everything before the colon is wasted. I would advise reading
Copyblogger’s Magnetic Headlines series. There are a hundred ways to write a
great title. Titles matter more than anything else. Don’t waste your
- The presenter. Who is it? Where do they work?
- The submitter. Is it a PR-submitted presentation? If you have someone submit
your proposal on your behalf, it’s instant skepticism. Lots of people just
shotgun-submit canned proposals to tons of conferences. They have speaking
quotas to fill. They’re professional mouthpieces. They rarely are good for
the conference and I’m on guard against them. My advice is to submit your own
- The body of the proposal. This varies by conference; some have just one piece
of content, some have a short abstract and a longer description, for use in
specific media (I’ll get to this later). The main thing here is that you
need to be clear and honest in these. You cannot make me work to understand
you. I’ll repeat that for emphasis. You cannot make me work to understand
you. I have to be able to immediately grasp what you’re going to talk about
and what the audience will take away from it. I also need to know what your
assertions are. You can’t just ask questions and leave me wondering if you
have answers and what they are. An example is in today’s hyper-networked
world, is a meal with your boss still relevant? You need to make your
position clear. Eliminate ambiguity. You’re not giving away your secrets, and
mystery isn’t a winning tactic for getting people to your talk.
- Any sign of vendor pitches. I love when vendors clearly go out of their way
to provide valuable content. For example, right now I’ve just reviewed some
proposals from a CDN provider about image optimization. The CDN’s customer
base is clearly going to care greatly about this and it’s a great service to
them. Win. If it were a talk about why you need CDNs and how CDNs save money
and improve performance, that’s a vendor pitch. I don’t believe you’ll give a
good talk on this. If it’s “learn how Big Company X and Big Company Y
migrated to a HybridCDN and saved…” pitch. This is not the place for case
studies and vendor ads. If you can’t tell if it passes the sniff test, a) get
someone else to check, and b) don’t submit it. Think of a different topic.
- (Related) End runs. Don’t try to propose Topic A while planning to present on
something more pitchy. I’ll smell you out, I promise. It’s amazing the sixth
sense you develop reading a few hundred proposals.
- Buzzword bingo. Be yourself and present what you have to offer. Don’t try to
ride hype waves. Everyone else is doing that, trust me.
The key guidelines I’d give here are to make your proposal absolutely clear and
as brief as you can. Take a lot of time and make it possible to scan and
instantly figure out what the talk is about. That’s what a committee member is
doing: trying to figure out what you’re about and what the talk is about.
Remember the old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain?
I wanted to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have time, so I wrote you a
long one instead.
Take the time to make your proposal short.
Now, the other thing I’m doing as a committee member is trying to judge whether
the session proposal is good or not. To decide that, I have to put myself
into the shoes of the second audience.
The attendees are the second audience, and as a committee member/reviewer it’s
my job to decide whether the talk is good for them. A successful proposal will
be a good experience during the conference, but more importantly, the proposal
has to lure the audience in. A talk that’s given to an empty room is a
failure, no matter how good it is.
Do you know how the audience decides what they’re going to attend?
They look at the printed grid of the schedule, in most cases. It looks like
So what can we conclude from this? Spend a lot of effort on your headline.
I’m not going to throw stones at glass houses, but most headlines/titles are
terrible. You have an opportunity to really stand out here. Your title
will be read in isolation, most of the time. Embrace that.
In some cases, if you’re lucky, audiences will read a little more deeply. It
might look like this.
That is still not a lot of content to work with. You have to make every word
punch above its weight!
If you don’t, you will not get people in the room. It’s as simple as that.
Your actual talk/presentation is not what matters. It doesn’t matter how high
quality it is. What you’re “selling,” both to the audience and to the committee,
is the proposal. Not the talk itself. Don’t forget that. The talk is just
follow-through on your promise of a great session.
How I Rate Proposals
Now that I’ve read through your proposal and thought about these fundamentals
(what talk do you plan to give, and how will the audience perceive your
proposal) I need to judge and rate you. How do I do this?
I try to rate talks based on these things:
- Is this the right talk for the conference? Is it on-topic?
- Is the talk, itself, likely to be high quality?
- Are there any disqualifiers, such as vendor pitchiness?
- Does this speaker really believe in the subject and talk?
- Is the proposal clear? Don’t make me second-guess you. It’s a red flag.
- Is the title magnetic?
- Is the summary/abstract to-the-point?
In other words, I’m trying to decide: when an audience member scans the
program, are they going to understand clearly what this person wants to present,
and will they want to go to this talk? and if they do go, am I confident they
will have a good experience?
There are also things I try not to do, as a reviewer.
- I do not judge you, personally. Oh, okay, I’m biased – everyone is biased.
It’s true. But I try not to think about “John is a good speaker and he’s
really smart and knows a lot about this.” Not usually, anyway. Some speakers
are engaging and I know that. Their audience is going to have a great time
and come away talking about that session. I keep that in mind, sometimes.
- I do not try to agree or disagree with you. I am not going to “legislate from
the bench.” If that were my job, the conference’s content would be much less
diverse. I will try to rate your proposal based on how strong it is, not on
whether I think you’re wrong. It bothers me a little when I see other
reviewers rating talks like “I’ve used technology X and it was not good, so
I’m going to vote down this proposal about how great it is.” I don’t do that.
Here are my take-aways:
- Make your proposal speak to the committee. Understand that they are reading
hundreds of proposals as fast as they can.
- Make your title speak to the audience. Get them in the room. You have
approximately seven words to do that. Don’t waste any of them.
I wanted to write a short, pithy blog post about this, but I didn’t have enough
time, so I wrote a long rambling one instead.
Sorry about that.
Photo by William Iven