4 Pointers for Getting Your Conference Proposals Accepted

A mentor of mine once told me about an important distinction when deciding how to spend one’s finite work time. A focus on the day-to-day fixing of issues, meeting with clients, and delivering the deliverables was spending time “in the business.” Getting your head up out of the weeds to see where you were headed, working conscientiously on what you wanted to become – that was spending time “on the business.” Today, I’d like to spend a little time “on the business” of Performance Support. NOTE: You can easily adapt these pointers to your specialty. The content is not as important as the technique. So even if you don’t work in the Performance Support space, I’ll bet you can get something out of this!

When you consider how you learned your craft, how important was learning from others who did similar projects before you? Whether you talked with a project manager, read a book, researched lessons learned archives, or searched blog posts, you were looking for practitioners with real lessons and stories to share. One of the best places to find a concentrated dosage of examples of real-world PS projects, prototypes to show, and more discussion of how to deliver solutions is at a professional conference. Three to four days of immersion in best practices, conversations with people who are doing what you are doing — people who “get” your enthusiasm, your pain, your joy. I always get an amazing shot of energy and momentum coming home from one of these events. You are attending professional conferences for your own development, right?

Well, these events are powered by us. In the end there is only one way to get more examples and see more prototypes: we have to hear from more of you during professional conferences or through webinars hosted here or by other professional organizations (eLearning Guild, ATD, Learning.com, etc.). We need you to be the presenters at our conferences and webinars. In addition to being a great professional development opportunity, sharing your perspective on Performance Support will enrich and strengthen our community. Nothing beats finding someone to whom you can relate, or discovering that little tweak that gets you past your current PS project hurdle. And the exercise of pulling together a presentation on your project is perfect for focusing on the after-action analysis and internalizing the lessons you learned.

I got my start creating brown bag lunch presentations for my internal colleagues to share technology and design trends and strategy concepts. That led to an invitation to speak at the User Conference for Pathlore LMS (anyone remember those guys?). I’ve been regularly speaking at conferences for several years now, from small industry-focused events like the Society for Insurance Trainers and Educators (SITE) Annual Conference and the Training Officers’ Consortium Annual Institute all the way up to the eLearning Guild’s flagship DevLearn conference and ATD’s International Conference and Expo. I don’t always get accepted (Online Learning 2014, I’ll get over the rejection) but I’m batting over .500 right now. All of that to say: I can write a conference proposal that gets noticed, and I hope that you can take some of this advice and get your stories out to the rest of us.

Thus, for your winter reading pleasure: four pointers for getting your conference proposals accepted.

1. Pick the right conference. Pick the right conference for your topic to increase the odds that your proposal will be accepted. But in order to pick the right conference, you actually have to know the conferences! I keep a spreadsheet with the conference name/website, dates, location, registration costs, proposal due dates, and potential topics. There are both large, flagship affairs and small, focused conferences on this list. The large conferences (800+ attendees) have a corresponding large scope of topics they consider, but they also tend to select well-known speakers or speakers from marquee brands. The smaller events offer an aspiring but untested presenter a better chance at proposal acceptance. The lower per-session attendance at the small meetings are also a little less nerve-wracking if you are debuting your presentation.

Here are some of the conferences I’m tracking:

Conference Dates
ATD TechKnowledge 2015 January 2015
eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions 2015 March 2015
THE Performance Improvement Conference 2015 from the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) April 2015
Training Officers Consortium Annual Institute 2015 April 2015
ATD’s International Conference and Expo 2015 May 2015
eLearning Guild’s Performance Support Symposium 2015 (co-located with mLearnCon) June 2015
GovLoop’s NextGen Gov 2015 July 2015
Enterprise Learning! Conference & Expo August 2015
ATD’s Government Workforce: Learning Innovations Conference September 2015
Online Learning Conference 2015 September 2015
eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2015 September 2015
Elliot Masie’s Learning 2015 October 2015

Once you know the conference you want to attend, you can do some research into the attendees. Since I’ve been focused on the U.S. Federal government contracting space for the last five years, I have some industry-specific conferences on my list. You will too, and that’s a good thing. Your list will vary, depending on your industry or your discipline. Before I hung out my own shingle as a free agent (and therefore reduced my approval process to one step), I had to select conferences that included a significant percentage of government attendees, which limited my selection (example: roughly 10% of DevLearn’s attendees are government employees, but that’s the highest I’ve seen at the big events). Now that I have the freedom to work outside of the Federal government space, I’m looking forward to attending more and different conferences!

This all leads to this important point: propose a presentation that fits with the conference topic/theme and audience. Consider the theme of the conference (if known). Often, the proposal packet will tell you what topics the conference is promoting. From your research on the attendees, you’ll have a good idea about the kinds of topics that resonate with them. Make sure the attendees would be interested in attending your talk. I wouldn’t propose a presentation on running a Job Task Analysis at the CLO Symposium. The executives there aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts of PS. They need more awareness of what PS can do to move the needle in their organization. A better proposal for that event would be an information session on strategy, marketing, and metrics.

2. A catchy title is the secret sauce. This point is all about getting noticed in the middle of a noisy field, about standing out from the crowd. You are competing for mindshare, and not just from the conference attendees. From the moment you submit your proposal, you will be known to the reviewers mostly by your proposed title. A dash of humor, a pinch of irreverence, or a bold statement goes a long way to calling needed attention to yourself. For instance, for DevLearn 2013 I took my topic – converting traditional ILT to the virtual classroom – and simply added a sure-fire attention-getter. My proposed session title was: “The Agony and the Ecstasy: Converting Traditional ILT to the Virtual Classroom.” Know how I know this was a good choice? Another speaker also submitted a session called “The Agony and the Ecstasy: blahblahblah.” I apparently drew the short straw, as my session title was unceremoniously abbreviated. But at least that experience validated this point to me. Know your conference and audience, and pick a title that will resonate with them to increase the chance your proposal will be accepted.

3. The proposal is not the presentation. When you start tracking proposal dates, you’ll start to get an idea about lead times. You might be as shocked as I was to find how far in advance these conferences select their speakers. The eLearning Guild and ATD have proposal deadlines nine months in advance of their conferences. I get it – these are not seat-of-your-pants kinds of events. It’s all a matter of knowing the schedule and getting ahead of it. My point here is that the proposal itself does not require a finished presentation. You will have as many as nine months to craft your presentation and hone your delivery. So don’t delay your proposal just because you haven’t started your presentation!

The proposal format is fairly standard:

  • A Session Description to succinctly describe your session and the problem it addresses. You may have anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 characters (about 250 words) for this part. Keep in mind here that you do not need to use them all. Your reviewers will be reading dozens to hundreds of proposals. Well-written, short-and-sweet descriptions that clearly lay out the problem-proposed solution will stand out. Reinforcing that point: your proposal Description is often what shows up in the Conference Guide. Make sure you communicate clearly here!
  • Learning objectives or a free-form text on how this knowledge can be applied on the job. This is pretty self explanatory, and you could have as many as 1,000 characters per objective.
  • Delivery Method, explaining how you will transfer knowledge to the attendees. How will you engage the audience? Will this be a conversation or a lecture? What additional equipment (aside from laptop, projector, and screen) will you need? You could have from 1,000 to 1,500 characters. Note this is another place where your proposal can stand out from the crowd. No one will attend a 60 minute Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-style lecture on purpose. You’re looking to add buzz words like “interactive,” “collaborative,” and “conversation.”
  • Additional categories, flags, topics or classifications help the conference organizers ensure they are covering all of their themes. This is another good reason to know the attendee audience. If you know there is a particular topic or theme is lightly represented, this is an opportunity to submit a proposal with fewer competitors.

All in all, the proposal should not require more than 1,000 to 1,500 words, depending on the additional data requested. This is not a heavy lift, though it does necessitate that you remember what you proposed if you delay developing the presentation!

4. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. It’s a lot harder for your boss to say “no” if you have been invited to speak and the cost of the conference is waived. It costs you and your company relatively little level of effort to propose a topic to a conference. And being selected has immediate upside, too: professional development for you (in terms of attending a conference and speaking); and a reduced cost for your company if the conference provides speakers with a complimentary registration. This is usually the best compensation one can expect for a conference presentation. Since you did your homework, you know which conferences offer this compensation.

Further strengthen your case with smaller, industry-specific conferences that are easier to justify attending to your boss. A small conference or monthly meeting hosted locally further reduces the cost and time commitment. If you want to start small, look at the local chapters of national professional organizations. These groups often host monthly professional development programs that are always in need of speakers. For instance, there is a fairly active Washington DC Chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association that hosts a small conference every year. The local chapters of the Project Management Institute host monthly Project Management Professional (PMP) professional development programs, too. Don’t forget about your local chapter of ATD. The Metro DC ATD chapter in Washington, DC is quite active with several subcommittees that are always looking for monthly program speakers.

When you have collected the numbers on attendees, costs, and benefits, you can then ask your boss about attending. Your mileage may vary depending on your boss’ temperament, your relationship with her, and your timing. But it’s a lot easier to sell the ATD TechKnowledge conference in Las Vegas when you put a nicely wrapped package on her desk!

Last year we all decided we wanted to hear more from each other about what’s working and what isn’t in our Performance Support field. That requires more of us to get out there and present our outcomes and lessons at professional conferences. With a little bit of planning and legwork, you too can say:

“Boss, I need to go to TK16 this coming January in Las Vegas. I’ve been accepted to deliver a concurrent session on Topic AB, which I know you are interested in promoting internally. So let’s plan to re-use my conference presentation for that road show you were thinking about. By the way, as a speaker I have a complimentary registration, so the cost of the conference is covered. I just need you to approve the travel for this professional development opportunity which I wrote into my Annual Review. Did you know that 15% of the attendees are from our customer’s industry, and four of our competitors will be there too? Do you have anything specific you want to learn about what our competitors are doing? Or should I look for resumes for that open ISD job requisition?”

How about it? Do you have any additional thoughts on how to get proposals accepted?

NOTE: This was originally posted on 12 January 2015 on the Performance Support Community of Practice online community. If you are interested in learning more about Performance Support, you can join the Performance Support Community of Practice: http://performersupport.ning.com/. This is a dynamic, vibrant and invitation-only site comprised of 4,000+ practitioners. I’m happy to send you an invitation to join the community, just drop me a line at [email protected].

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