Crafting the Perfect Conference Proposal
Several years ago, I watched a now-dear friend give a brilliant talk that left me motivated, inspired, and excited about my job. When I left that session, I told myself that, one day, I’d be on stage teaching others like me to thrive in their personal and professional endeavors.
Today, I’m averaging one talk every two months. I’ve spoken on email, marketing psychology, data management, visual art, and even outdoorsmanship, and friends regularly ask how I got into it.
The answer is simple: I fell in love with building communities around ideas… and I tried. I submitted a lot of speaking proposals, and the overwhelming majority have been accepted. I have heaps to learn still, but I can’t wait to keep trying at it.
I frequently find myself nudging talented, capable, thoughtful friends to share their expertise at conferences because I know how rewarding it can be for both the speaker and the audience. I also know how overwhelming it feels to start down this path without a roadmap for success.
If you’ve considered submitting a proposal to speak at a conference, I hope this framework gives you confidence to take the leap.
Decide on a Topic
Good news and bad news: zeroing in on a topic for your speaking proposal is likely the hardest part of this process, but once it’s over, everything else is a breeze by comparison. So how do you identify your big idea?
Write down the ideas that excite you. What projects energize you? Which hypotheses do you want to test? What interesting parallels can you draw from seemingly unrelated topics? What challenges have you overcome with unique solutions?
Those are the things you should consider speaking on.
Don’t waste your time speaking on things you know but don’t love. The ideas that excite you are the ideas you’re equipped to share with others, and the ideas that will resonate with an audience. You don’t have to be the expert, but you do have to have firsthand experience, and you have to be invested. If you care, your audience will too.
Once you’ve landed on an idea, start framing a proposal. Don’t worry about giving your talk a title yet. Stick with just the idea for now.
Frame Your Proposal
When you have an idea you want to share with others, ask yourself this question: “why?”. Why does this matter? Why will the audience care? Why does your experience make your unique perspective valuable here? Answer these questions. Talk through your idea out loud and with friends. Have conversations about it, poking holes and looking for alternative methods and perspectives.
Where I see so many competent, smart, engaging individuals give up is here: the point at which they realize others know some of the same things they know. Here’s the interesting bit, though. You can arrive at the same point as one thousand other speakers and still tell a compelling story as long as you say it a different way.
Hundreds of thousands of people travel to New York City daily, and likely for similar reasons: the food, the shows, the Statue of Liberty, and Central Park. They all know where they’re going to end up, and many of them do very similar things. And yet, they take the trip anyway. Why?
Because they know the journey is what makes for a spectacular destination.
If you have a unique perspective, share it. You’ll say things some people have heard before, and that’s okay. What your audience will remember are the things that invite them to look at a familiar idea in a new way.
Organize Your Thoughts
Because I suffer from chronic “too many new ideas” problems, I write everything down so I don’t lose track of it all. Three tools in particular have helped me immensely:
The iPhone Notes app. Safely 90% of my best speaking ideas have come as a result of an interesting conversation with a friend or colleague. Any time I get all wild-eyed and find myself shouting, “Oh! This is interesting! Did you know…”, that’s usually a pretty good cue that I should write that idea down so I can revisit it later.
Google Docs. Many conferences ask for proposals to include a title, description, intended audience, and key takeaways. I prefer to start with the description and key takeaways, then work backwards from there to identify a title and flesh out other details. Store this information in searchable documents so you can come back to your notes when you’re working on your slides later.
Google Sheets. It only took me receiving one “your proposal has been accepted” email when I couldn’t remember what topic I submitted to learn this lesson the hard way. If you’re applying to speak on multiple topics or at multiple conferences, track your proposals in a dedicated spreadsheet. Include conference name, location, dates, a link to the document with your notes and proposal details.
Write a Good Story
Most conferences provide clear guidelines on what they want in a proposal. Do follow those guidelines. Remember those kids who forgot to write their names at the top of the exam in school and were given zeros for their work? Don’t let an inability to follow the rules to keep you from sharing an otherwise brilliant story.
Submit the pieces requested. Spell check your work. This one gets missed all the time: ensure any bulleted lists are complete thoughts. You don’t want organizers scratching their heads to figure out what you were trying to say with a poorly-written list. Commit to one core idea and make sure each piece of your proposal lends itself to that idea.
As you write, remember to be clear and kind. Brevity is a gift to busy conference organizers who are reading hundreds of proposals. Steer clear of buzzwords and jargon, and use plain language that makes sense to everyone. Positivity goes a long way towards building connections, too. Instead of using titles like, “Why Your Email Workflow Sucks,” reframe an idea in a positive light to say, “How to Master Your Ideal Email Workflow”.
When organizers are reading hundreds of proposals, it can be tough to stand out. Seize each opportunity to make your proposal memorable, even when that means taking extra time to shoot an optional video or hunt down links to articles you’ve written. Commit to letting your expertise and your enthusiasm shine through.
When I started speaking publicly, my parents were understandably very excited to see me on stage. They asked repeatedly when I’d have a video to share. Then, when I finally did, my dad called me (bursting with pride) and with one pressing question about my talk: “Sweetie, you were fantastic, but do you think you might want to say ‘shit’ less?”. We’ve been laughing about that since.
I don’t think colorful language adds value to a talk in its own right, but authenticity does. I’m not business formal, and I never will be. I make weird faces and dad jokes on stage, and because I’m not trying to stifle my personality, my enthusiasm and excitement shines. (With the occasional swear word. Sorry, Dad.)
With that, write the way you speak. Don’t be afraid to be weird in your proposal (and on stage); most importantly, be genuine.
Try, Try Again
In the two years after I decided I wanted to speak at a conference, I submitted one proposal a year. Both were rejected, and I wondered if I’d ever get to share my ideas on stage.
Then, the next year, I wrote down a bunch of ideas and submitted them to three different conferences. I was accepted to speak at three conferences within one month. I told anyone who would listen about my goals, and asked for opportunities to practice wherever I could find them.
You can stack the odds in your favor. Ask for the things you want, and look for ways to serve those around you. Be clear and kind, and you may be surprised how quickly you’re invited to the conversation.