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

  1. The reviewers or conference committee. An excellent talk that’s not accepted is an excellent talk that never happens.
  2. 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.

  1. 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 title.
  2. The presenter. Who is it? Where do they work?
  3. 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 sessions.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. (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.
  7. 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

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 this.

session grid

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.

session hover

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:

  1. Is this the right talk for the conference? Is it on-topic?
  2. Is the talk, itself, likely to be high quality?
  3. Are there any disqualifiers, such as vendor pitchiness?
  4. Does this speaker really believe in the subject and talk?
  5. Is the proposal clear? Don’t make me second-guess you. It’s a red flag.
  6. Is the title magnetic?
  7. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Make your proposal speak to the committee. Understand that they are reading hundreds of proposals as fast as they can.
  2. 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.

Further Reading

Photo by William Iven

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