Increasing the Odds: Improving Your Conference Presentation Proposal

Ever thought about speaking at a conference? People exchange information over lunch, linger after presentations, browse through the expos. Maybe you'd like to feed the knowledge mill in a bigger way. In this column, Lee helps you improve your chances of getting your presentation on the calendar.

Presenting at a recognized conference is a good way to increase your professional exposure (and probably get a free registration to the event). Usually the process begins by submitting a presentation proposal. As the program chair for a large, international testing conference, one of my many duties is selecting the session presentations. Having evaluated more than 160 proposals so far, I thought I might offer some tips for your next conference presentation proposal.

  • What's the Big Message?
    Program chairs and selection committees tend to look for what I call the big message-the single, most important idea that conference delegates will take from your presentation. Many of the proposals I get instead have many little messages swimming around but no single, unifying idea linking them all together. If the reviewer of your proposal can't find your main message, the audience is not likely to either. So focus on conveying a unifying theme or principle. 
  • Does this proposal have something new, interesting, or exciting to say?
    Proposals with the basic message "we should test" or "testing is good" will probably not be interesting to most attendees. We know that already. A good conference presentation will help us with what we don't know or provide a fresh perspective on an existing topic. 
  • Is it practical?
    I'm an old math major and I love a good double integral sign as much as the next person, but many conferences focus on practicality. My personal test is: "After this presentation, what can a delegate take back to the office and start doing next Monday that will help their organization?" Ask this about your own presentation before you submit it for review. 
  • Catchy titles help; cutesy ones don't.
    Titles announce the presentation. "The Wild Wild Web" is catchy. "" is a little too cutesy for me. (Am I the only one who's tired of seeing ".com" on the end of everything?) Does the title "Grapefruit Testing" give you any idea about what you might hear at this session? Probably not. The best titles are those that accurately and succinctly describe the contents of the presentation. Don't be overly concerned with "catchy"-many conferences employ professionals who will retitle your presentation for you if required. 
  • Are you targeting the right conference?
    Our industry has many conferences to offer-most targeting their own niche of the industry. There's PNSQC (Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference); STAR (Software Testing, Analysis, and Review); ASM (Applications of Software Measurement); SEPG (Software Engineering Process Group); and a whole host of others. Be sure the topic of your presentation matches the topic behind the acronym of the event. 
  • Do NOT misspell "test" or "quality."
    Yes, it's really true. I received proposals with these rather important words misspelled. Need I say more? 
  • Resumes don't matter very much.
    What matters most to me are the big message, the practical nature of your focused ideas, and your ability to present both the material and yourself well to your audience. It's good to include your background on the subject and any public speaking credentials you may have. But when it comes to resumes longer than the proposal, as the country song goes, "That don't impress me much." 
  • Don't oversubmit.
    Oversubmission can easily be interpreted as dilution or desperation. Neither is very pretty. Submitting two proposals with identical content but different titles (it happens) is not particularly impressive either. "On the other hand" (as Tevye in Fiddler On the Roof was fond of saying), if you feel you have something important to say on more than one topic, please submit multiple proposals. 
  • Don't undersubmit.
    As they say in New York about the lottery, "If you don't play, you can't win." 
  • Be available.
    A program chair or selection committee member may call you to talk about your submission. Please return the call promptly. Also, it's you they'll want to chat with, not your assistant. 
  • Submit your proposal on time.
    It's unfortunate but true that we have schedules and deadlines. The conference brochure has to be designed, proofed, and printed by a certain date; hotel meeting rooms have to be booked; et cetera, et cetera. That means conference organizers must have your proposals earlier than you might suppose. Deadlines are not arbitrary and capricious. 
  • Get your organization's support and commitment up front.
    If required by your organization, get approval for your presentation before submitting it. Also, verify that funding is available for you to attend the conference. Some conferences will cover the registration cost for speakers, but few will pick up the tab for the expense of travel, accommodations, etc. 
  • Be prepared to submit again.
    As Westley (the Man-In-Black) in The Princess Bride said to Inigo, "Get used to disappointment." I mentioned earlier that I have just reviewed more than 160 proposals. I should add that they were all vying for approximately 45 slots. Obviously, not every presentation proposal can be chosen. If your proposal is not chosen, submit it again for the next conference.

Well, that's my advice. Take it for what it's worth. Keep those submissions coming in. Encourage others with good ideas to submit also. Your knowledge, experience, wisdom, and participation are the key ingredients that make conferences useful to other professionals. I just stir the pot.

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