Thursday, February 28, 2013

Successful Speaking Proposals

Writing conference speaking proposals is an art.  You get one chance to put your name and your topic in front of the conference program selection committee, so you have to make it count.  I can only imagine how difficult it is for the committee to sift through hundreds of proposals and put together an interesting, diverse, and smart set of programs.  As conference-goers, we want to have plenty of topics to choose from - a mix of cutting edge and traditional, fun and serious, practical and theoretical.  I've had proposals both accepted and rejected (thankfully weighted on accepted!), and I have some tips for writing them.

Let's start with the title.  A clever title is a winning title.  Which sounds like a program you'd rather attend: "Why Reference Staff Need Technology Skills" or "Thingamabobs and Doodads: Tech Support IS Reference"?  Mary Kelly and I have presented "Thingamabobs" several times at state and national conferences.  We've also been complimented repeatedly on the title.  The other title sounds boring to me.  Here's another great one from the 2012 Michigan Library Association, presented by our friend Kathryn: "Going Bananas for Appeal Factors." Get it? Bananas/peels/readers advisory? That's clever!

Once you have a fun title, you'll be asked to write some learning outcomes.  These are usually in the form of "Participants will be able to..." The selection committee wants to know what attendees will gain from your program.  You may be asked to write two or three of them.  These are crucial.  CRUCIAL!  You need to get these right.  The teacher in me (I did undergrad in elementary ed.) loves this part.  It makes you focus on what you want to deliver, what you want to teach.  Here is where we distinguish between programs that are practical vs. theoretical (that discussion to follow).  The best learning outcomes are measurable.  Here is a great list of verbs for learning outcomes.  The learning outcomes for our 'Thingamabobs" program are as follows:
  1. Participants will be able to list three ways that technology support is essential to the library and its core mission.
  2. Participants will be able to list five core technology competencies needed by the reference desk staff.
  3. Participants will be able to implement a new strategy for providing technology training to their staff.
You'll need to decide if your program is to be theoretical or practical.  In other words, are you going to tell the audience about something or how to do something?  Will they be able to go back to their jobs and implement something immediately?  Or is the point to make them think about something differently?  There are merits to both theoretical and practical presentations.  Personally, my favorite programs to attend are those with a mix of the two.  I want to be forced to think differently about something, but I also want to bring back something useful to my daily work.

Now for the program summary.  I recently submitted a program proposal for the 2014 PLA conference, and they limited the summary to 75 words.  You have to be very concise to let people know what your program is about, and make them want to choose it, from just 75 words.  Again, a strong title can help with that. Remember: you probably get about an hour of the audience's time *if* they choose your program - not a lifetime.  You will need to get to the point when you present the material, so make your summary reflect exactly what you're going to be talking about.  Be specific!  You'll want to start with a question, like "Do you get a lot of tech support questions at the reference desk?" That's ok, but teases the content.  That's great when you have unlimited words, but with only 75 words, forget the teaser. Start with something like "Prove your library's relevancy with truly helpful tech support at the reference desk."  Also, be careful with the exclamation points. We know you're excited, but tone it down and choose one well-placed exclamation point.  A program summary is like a thesis statement.  If you can make it fun and clever, that's...but get to the point and lure the audience in.

Finally, my last piece of advice is to actually talk about what your summary says you're going to talk about.  It's so disappointing to choose a program based on its summary, and then realize about ten minutes in that the speaker isn't talking about that at all.  Ask a few people to read your summary and then tell you what kind of content they expect.

Good luck everyone!

1 comment:

  1. Great tips! I have co-wrote some proposals but that first draft is always blinking at a blank page. Your last piece of advice is key to remember, and I will this spring when I do mine!