The Anatomy of a Perfect Conference Proposal Pitch that Gets Accepted

As part of my job at the intersection of events and education, I get to read and review lots of abstracts and pitches up for presentations at our events. What are abstracts and pitches you ask? You might know them better as conference or workshop proposals.

Whether your speaker is handpicked or chosen from a call for proposals, someone will have to read that proposed speaker session’s title, description, and learning takeaways that will hopefully be compelling enough for the gatekeeper (meeting planner) to bless it on the leadership, marketing, and communications department for public acceptance and consumption.

Essentially, this is usually me during review and pitch time (read on to really understand before you judge my judginess)

The Devil Wears Prada blah blah blah

gif via The Devil Wears Prada

Because you see, when we accept you as a speaker, we’re basically endorsing you as a spokesperson for our brand. So, if you get on the platform and shame us, the participants won’t just blame you, they’ll blame us too. But I think that’s another post on platform skills and craft. In THIS blog post, we’re here because I’ve just recently read nearly 400 of those bad boys for an upcoming convention and I’d love to examine the anatomy of what makes up a perfect proposal pitch that will get accepted.

1) Your pitch must have the following elements for success
A session title, preferably no more than 12 words, that is eye-catching, informative, and won’t make me roll my eyes. Great examples include Never Pick the Hot Girl: A Guide to Audience Management, Play it again, Sam: Monthly Giving Programs For Sustaining Donations ‘As Time Goes By’, Hire an Assistant, Get a Life, or Software and Service Contracts – How to Negotiate Reasonable Terms in the Cloud Era. Not so great examples includes: Star Wars and Software: Creating Consistency through the Force or Sacred Cows Eat Brains: How Not to Let the Zombies Get Yours (ok, that one might have me reading on, but I’m of that age range with a Walking Dead obsession, so remember to know thy review audience and choose your words wisely)

a session description, preferably no more than 150 words, that tells me what I’m going to get, what value your session will offer, and why I should come listen to you talk to me for 60-90 minutes. Realistically, it’d be great if you told me all of those things in the first two sentences, and then value added more meat so I can’t help but want to stay for the full course. Also, don’t just use buzzwords (hey there, innovative and cutting-edge). Be authentic and tell me exactly what I, as a participant can expect and you can guarantee delivery on. Finally, I love sessions that physically and mentally engage me. Tell me how much I’m going to be interacting with your presentation. Will I be sitting there for the full 90 minutes? You’ll lose me, but you might keep someone who loves lectures. And, always spell check. Trust me, it’ll change your life AND likely help your acceptance rate.

Great description examples include this guy right here, this gal right here, and this panel right here. Not so great examples include this guy and this guy.

Actionable takeaways or learning objectives that mean something, compel your reader to action and change, or offer concrete tools, tactics, fundamentals, and strategies your learner will leave the session with. Chris Clarke-Epstein, CSP, has an AMAZING list of learner-focused objectives that tie into Bloom’s Taxonomy that I use all the time when I write or review learning objectives.

2) Your pitch must be specific, pithy, but not necessarily pop culture-y
See above for title reference to eye-rolling. Maybe you want to be Aaron Sorkin or Amy Sherman-Palladino, but alas, you’re likely not. Be yourself and try not to force something pop-culture like that only makes sense to you or the niche that watches/reads the same stuff you do.

When I was at ASCD, we read thousands of proposals and the first ones to hit the non-accept pile were ones that were “too” loose because the presenter tried to make it too fun or relevant to what was happening right then in society. Yes, you want it to stand out but if you can’t tie the pop culture into your central premise, let it go.

A good example of making it work is 50 Shades of Learners: Understanding and Leveraging the Diversity of Adult Learners in a School Ecosystem by Jason Flom. While the title is a touch long, his description hits the right spots of pop-culture and keeping it tied into his central theme of differentiated learning approaches are necessarily for diverse learning audiences. Use caution though and make sure your references are widely understood without you having to explain it.

3)  Tell It To Me Straight

img via

Abbreviations, ambiguity, and awesome mean nothing to me. Tell it to me straight. Don’t forget that just because I work for the NSA, it’s the one that speaks, not listens.

Did that last sentence make sense? That’s what it feels like when you refer to something alphabet-soup like in your proposal, or an obscure theory that doesn’t have a concrete takeaway, or even better, a sentence that is there to self-serve but not propel your proposal premise forward. Edit so that it flows tightly and even better, makes perfect sense to any lay person reading it.

Want more resources? Check out these great options:

Jeff Hurt with Velvet Chainsaw talks about how to avoid delusions of grandeur in your conference proposal
–Association’s Now Ernie Smith talks about how short participant attention spans are and why your session needs to cater
–Chaos can sometimes fit. How your conference proposal might encourage new ideas with less structure via PCMA

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