Writing Conference Proposals

I have had some success with speaking at conferences (Nordic Testing Days 2013, Copenhagen Context 2014, TestBash NY 2015). That being said, I’m in no way on the plus side when you deduct the rejected proposals from the accepted ones (and then there are those I was on the brink of submitting but never did). I do have some experience with reading a couple of hundred proposals being part of different program committees. So here are some thoughts on writing conference proposals that I have developed based on the experience I’ve described. I’ve also critically looked back at my own earlier proposals and winced a lot. I hope I can offer some useful pointers to aspiring conference speakers to make something good come out of my wincing wrinkles. I assume you bring good content because I’m mostly going to cover the form.

I feel like I’ve developed some sort of a way of writing conference proposals that I’m comfortable with. It has taken me about 3 years, rejections, self-doubt, and reading a lot of proposals. As far as the latter is concerned, I’ve been lucky to have been on 2 different program committees and I’ve been the program chair for Nordic Testing Days 2015 which has helped me develop some insights that I’ve found useful when writing conference proposals.

Read Fiction

One of the basic premises of learning to write well is to read a lot. Preferably, you should read a lot of fiction, even if you’re primarily writing non-fiction texts such as blog posts, articles on testing, or conference proposals. There are several articles available about the benefits of reading fiction if you look around the internet. In my experience, fiction gives you access to different kinds of worlds which is good for your imagination.

Reading fiction also gives you access to different textual worlds where to pick up subtle cues about

  • style,
  • syntax, and
  • vocabulary.

Of course, it also makes sense to read non-fiction texts. If you read a good article on testing and  an article you don’t fancy so much, try to describe to yourself what you liked or didn’t like, which one flowed better, what kind of weaknesses you noticed.

Read Other Proposals. Many of them.

I feel like reading a large number of proposals has given me a fairly good list of things that make a good proposal and has helped me learn which proposals aren’t convincing. If you’re not on a program committee, you still have access to conference pages where you can read the selected proposals. It’s a filtered pool, of course, but you will still find some proposals to your liking, and also ones that don’t touch you in any way.

  • Can you notice patterns in the proposals you like? What kind of patterns are they? What about patterns in proposals you don’t like?
  • What kind of structure do the “good proposals” have as opposed to the “bad” ones?
  • Can you spot differences in language, idiom and style between proposals you like and dislike?

The questions above are the ones I’ve used when I’ve done close reading of fiction or philosophical texts.

Study the Genre

If you study a set of proposals closely, you will also learn about the genre of conference proposals. I argue that conference proposals could be looked at as a genre within non-fiction texts. Typically, genres (such as science fiction, romance, fantasy, etc) have certain traits that help you differentiate between texts and categorize them.

Some characteristics for conference proposals (according to my unscientific impressions):

  • appellative function – a conference proposal is meant to convince the reader (that this proposal is worth being selected and presented at the conference) and also the participants (to attend the session once the proposal has been selected). I’ve seen proposals where the author must have forgotten about this function and has focused on explaining their idea to themselves not to others.
  • characteristics of content – conference proposals typically attempt to answer the why, what, and how about the talk or workshop and also reference expecred outcomes for the participants
  • structure – a conference proposal tends to have some sort of introductory paragraph, and another paragraph that contains key takeaways (inline list or bulleted/numbered list) or other information

Brevity and Clarity are Your Best Friends. How to befriend them?

Thou shalt not shackle your tidings in the seductive fumes of adulating idioms and menacing metaphors that shan’t betray the apple of your eye for the epochs to come.

Even if you don’t use excessive metaphors, don’t try to sound like one of those LinkedIn titles (“The FIVE THINGS You Are Doing Wrong”, “The Seven LIFE-CHANGING Ideas to CHANGE YOUR LIFE Today”) that give you all the thrills but none of the content. If you’re too secretive about the content of your talk and cannot concisely summarize your key points in terms of content, then all you leave me the reviewer with is the decision between trusting or not trusting the sensationalist claims. Why would the participants trust you and come listen to the talk? People want to know what they can get (for their money). I will write about reliability at another time…

Read your proposal to yourself out loud. If you stumble or stop, that’s a heuristic for a potential problem. Thinking and speaking are related in our brain and actually activating the muscles to form words with your mouth can change how you think and feel about the words and the ideas behind them.

Pitch your talk in a minute. Now pitch it in 30 seconds. A mirror will do and your countenance shall be your partner. That’s how I test the conciseness of my message and the clarity of my thinking.

Getting your proposal reviewed is a good tactics to employ (and a good exercise in getting over yourself). I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ve written the draft in one way but when I show it someone and they ask some simple questions, and I start explaining the content again, I end up with better focus and a better nutshell.

You can use rhetorical questions as a device but don’t go crazy with them and develop a whole paragraph with wandering thoughts peppered with questions. It’s normal to have such a version in the draft form. I typically try to write more at first to clarify my own thinking. However, later it’s time to cut the fat and make it lean. Simplify, refine, and clarify.

Don’t overdo brevity so that your proposal is just three short sentences and I’m left wondering…

“Why” is your “Bestest” friend

Whichever way you start out writing your proposal, at some point you have to address the “why” behind your message. I’ve seen plenty of proposals lacking the clear answer to “why this talk matters to some people” (or even to the author). You can address the “why” in different forms, such as key takeaways.

Copycats?!

This is something you’ve heard before: practice makes (you) perfect great enough. If you study others’ proposals, you may feel like emulating someone’s style when writing your own proposal. Actually, this can be a good idea. Don’t get frightened that you’d be plagiarizing their work – you’ll just be practicing by copying their work. One of my favourite authors Hunter S. Thompson copied “The Great Gatsby” to get the feeling for how it must be to write like Fitzgerald. He also copied Hemingway. There are other writers who’ve done that, too. This is a different kind of practice when you’re developing your own voice and style for writing proposals.

Some Well-worn Advice

Related to copycats, there’s another piece of forlorn well-worn advice: be yourself. Whatever is truly unique about you will shine through the short piece of writing that a conference proposal really is. So you may end up writing proposals that aren’t quite like you because you’re still learning from others or you get affected by your reviewers. But… over time the conference proposals will emerge that look like you, feel right, and, potentially, get accepted (I haven’t talked about the content but have assumed your content is also relevant and interesting). The only way to get there is to keep writing the proposals. Look back on the ones you’ve written, ask for feedback after they were rejected, and see if you can come up with something else.

***

I’m nowhere near scoring a speaking engagement every time I submit but I personally feel like I’m finally getting a grip on how it feels TO ME if I write a proposal that gets accepted. I’ve taken note of how the accepted proposals are different from the rejected ones (both in terms of content and form) and I’ve done it in the ways I’ve described above.

Let me know in the comments if you have some great tips that you’ve found useful. I’m sure I’ve left stuff out as I wrote about things that came to mind right now.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Conference Proposals

  1. Really good stuff, Helena. I don’t have a ton to add, but a few things:

    – I’m not a fan of salesy proposals that promise to save the world but have no hint of how. For example “You’ll learn how to take projects that are years behind schedule and bring them back on track – in minutes!” or “Learn the 5 secrets of good requirements, 10 magic tips for test design, and the 3 things you should do at the beginning of every project!”

    You probably want a little sizzle, but if you do that, be sure to include a separate section for the reviewers where you explain exactly what those things are – an outline of the talk.

    I really like the idea of compressing your talk, being able to explain the key of it in a minute, five minutes, ten minutes, or the whole talk. I think that is important. In the past, when I have asked people to explain their talk, and they say “oh, no, that would take a whole hour!” – I have … not been impressed. I mean, either they haven’t thought about the recurring themes in the talk deeply, or they are not capable of that kind of work, or else the talk is just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t have a deep theme. Or perhaps something else … but I suspect it isn’t good. 🙂

    Again, thank you for the ideas. Nice contribution to the community there.

    • Thank you, Matt!
      I agree that the sales-y proposals aren’t realling selling themselves. In fact, they do quite the opposite at least for me (I typically go for the deep content in abstracts when I read them).
      I sometimes say that “oh, this could take a long time…” but then summarize in 5 minutes or less 🙂 It’s something I learned when I had to deal with a CEO directly. I didn’t have an hour to explain my stuff. So I transfered this skill to proposal writing 🙂

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  3. Excellent read Helena, thank you! This is a subject that isn’t shared/talked about enough. And, for most, it certainly has a hint of ambiguity to it. I especially like your notes that remind to talk about the “why”. When creating a proposition, I think it is easy to forget about the “Why”.

    At that, do you think it is important for hopeful speakers to already have blogging or video blogging experience? Or do reviewers look that closely at your experience and previous offerings? Maybe it depends on the conference/event?

    • Thank you, Jason!

      In my limited experience, it does matter that you have some sort of “track record” somewhere. Be it a few blog posts, a twitter account, a podcast, some code on github (especially if you want to give a talk/workshop on technical stuff, for instance), or even video blogging, it helps to make you less anonymous, more relatable and… most importantly, this information makes you a person as opposed to some name who submitted the proposal. Only a LinkedIn profile (unless you post most of your stuff there) wouldn’t really do it for me.
      It’s kind of a similar challenge as it is with applying for a job by sending a resume and a cover letter: if you’re just a name among many and there’s no catch (or you don’t have any connections), why would anybody want to even interview you?

      Of course it depends on the conference, too. I’m the one who’s more likely to look at what kind of contribution you’ve made to the community or what you try to bring with you (interesting background, domain, project…). Some other reviewers may care more about seniority, cerifications, certain type of experiences, or associating with certain crowd (I guess the latter plays a part for me, a fallible and biased person that I am).

      And if you’re someone who hasn’t spoken before (or has spoken to a small audience at a meetup), then it might be great to record your abstract in a video form and give a small talk like that. Because the one thing reviewers will also be puzzling over is “how do we know this person can actually deliver the talk?”. A video could help clear this point.

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