Tips on How to Select a Session Topic, Submit a Session Proposal and Prepare to Deliver

Have you ever submitted what you thought was a slam-dunk session proposal, only to find out months later that it wasn’t accepted? Don’t worry it happens to most of us. Sometimes it is simply that the competitiveness of submissions to the conference reached a new level. In some cases, there may be something missing from your proposal that would have brought it to the next level. Follow this guide to help make your session proposal the most competitive it can be.

1. Identify the Conference and Its Attendees

These are the questions I ask myself before getting ready to submit a session proposal:

  1. Who is the conference targeted to serve?
  2. Is there a theme for this year’s conference?
  3. How can you help the audience at the conference?
  4. How well do you know the audience and are you a part of the community?

Having the answers to these questions will be critical as we proceed through getting your session submitted.

 

2. Identify Ideas and Subjects to Base Your Session on

Image of light bulbs: Banner for selecting an idea or topic for a conference session proposal

Building on the last section, remember the conference you are submitting to. Who will be the main attendees at this conference and what is this conference designed for. Additionally, is there a theme for the conference to consider? Once you’ve taken these questions into account, now you can start to consider what you might want to present on. Consider these as a checklist– where at least one should be checked and the more that are checked, the better:

Is it a new or trending topic that people are hungry to learn more about?

Industry disrupter sessions can be a hit. However, they can also come in waves and be quite competitive. When there is a year where a new disrupter has been introduced to your industry, people will be hungry for more information on that subject.

The key here is to think critically about how this affects your specific industry and how you are adapting to that disruption. Think about any learning lessons, or unintended consequences. By being an early adopter, you can help to share what worked, what didn’t and what you would have done different if you were just starting now. Think about how your session will stand apart from the crowd and value will you be adding. How did you capitalize on this disrupter and how will your session help others, as this will help you stand apart from others who are simply talking about the topic in a generic way.

How applicable is your session to others and will you and others use your approach again?

Think about how your session will impact others and what problem will you be addressing. Is this something that others can put to use, and not simply once but many times. Is this a session that will add something new to the audiences toolbox? If you won’t use this again, chances are others won’t find it helpful. This makes solutions to common or reoccurring problems a high valued session.

Will it fundamentally change how others will work or how they will approach problems?

This is much more rare, and that is why this is such a high value target for sessions. If you have a session that fundamentally changes how others will work or approach problems, then you have a unicorn presentation. Make sure that you elevate or emphasize in an authentic way in your session proposal that you will be radically altering the common approach, where people will not want to go back to old methods. Also note, many people don’t like change, so you may have to ease into the change you are presenting if it is likely to be a resistive change. If it is likely to be resisted, simply focus on the pain points and ensure them, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Is it inspirational?

Is your session inspirational, either professionally, technically or creatively? Many attendees of conferences come to sessions looking for that one nugget they can take home from a conference and even more, are looking for moments of inspiration. I’ve been to many conferences where I left without any solid nuggets of new knowledge. Though, it is rare for me to leave a conference without some inspiration. Inspiration can come from many places.

Let’s put yourself into the audiences’ shoes for a moment… Often times, simply immersing yourself deep into an issue, even if it is something you are well trained in, will make you think critically about a project you are working on in a new way. Ultimately, you end up leaving with inspiration or a new approach to consider. Weaving inspiration into every session when possible will help make your presentation a hit. Even subject matter experts will leave with something beyond knowledge, as inspiration is powerful and well worth the conference fees for attendees.

Does it help to professionally develop an individual in a way that enhances their value to their employer or future employer?

Ask yourself if the session you are proposing will grow the attendees in ways beyond standard trainings. Does it go above the standard supervision/management training that many companies offer? Are you contributing to core/fundamental skillsets in new or creative ways? Will the attendees leave your session with growth that will impact the rest of their career? These are the things you need to think about as you approach your session. There are two key areas…

Fundamental skills that are applicable to most jobs: communications, public speaking, leadership skills, project management, etc.

Specialized skills: consider trending specializations that would help make you stand out. An example of a trending specialization is Search Engine Optimization (or SEO), a recent study showed that over 60% of all digital writing positions requires some knowledge and proficiency with SEO. Does it future proof you, evolve your skills or is it helping someone plot a path from one career to another?

Go beyond the blog post…

Does your session go beyond what you can get from a blog post? I have attended many sessions that could have easily been summarized into a short blog post. These are the sessions that increasingly are weeded out from session reviewers. If a session feels like a blog post in presentation form, without any truly added value, it will get pushed to the tier 2 presentations to be considered only if there are no other sessions to choose from to fill the slots available at the conference.

Peer review it

Ask your peers to give you feedback on what they would like to learn most from your session and share their perspective. In addition to your in-person interactions, consider crowdsourcing by posting to a Facebook group, forum, slack channel or a tweet and ask what topics they would like to see covered. I did this recently and got well above average engagement with my posts, getting many comments and discussion on topics that people are hungry to learn more about.

 

3. Preparing to Submit

Image of hands giving a light bulb: banner for submitting your conference session proposal

Remember you are submitting this to a panel, but you are also submitting for attendees to choose from and ultimately come to your session.

Creating a good session title is half the battle 

Your title should be balanced between: creative, interesting, obviously useful, and it should clearly lead the attendee to understand the purpose or subject of the session

Developing a session pitch

For some conferences, you are given an opportunity to make your case “Why should we pick your session”. So it is good to create one, as it can help you to better craft your title, abstract and description.

The elevator pitch

In order to create the perfect elevator pitch, you want to avoid the humblebrag or “sales-y” pitch, instead it needs to be sincere and delivered with authenticity. You will need to establish the problem and what’s at stake if not addressed. Ask yourself, what happens if people continue on doing things the way they have been, and what would happen if they used your methods you present in your session. Establish that contrast and deliver it with passion. The work you’ve done will not be wasted. This will be directly translated into your presentation.

If you have given this presentation before, consider adding testimonial or even ratings if you received survey results for your session. Add this information to your pitch to show that the presentation has been validated by a similar audience.

Abstract

Channel creativity and passion into your abstract. You’ve got the attendee past the title, now you need to get them past the abstract. Think of this as the introduction to your presentation. Touch on or pinpoint the subject and let them know you will be there to help them through the process. Deliver it with passion and excitement and include what they will be gaining by attending or what they will be leaving with. This is where you ultimately edify your session and how it will be useful or a must go-to session.

Description

For your description, use this not as a place to teach attendees, but to give enough information to summarize what the attendees will get out of the presentation. Many will default to a bullet point summary of their session. However, you are better off hinting at what myths or barriers you will be breaking with the session. If you would prefer to keep it straight forward, keep it high-level and if you can fit in a teaser, that’s ideal.

Bio

What makes you stand out? What makes you an expert or how do you offer a unique perspective on the subject you are proposing. Do you have an online presence to show your thought leadership (blog, social media etc.) Express your persona here so they get an idea of your personality. Does your bio make you sound like someone you would want to get coffee with?

Peer review it

Again, ask your peers to give you feedback, check for errors and edit it thoroughly.

Submit your session proposal

Give yourself plenty of time and submit early when possible. This gives you time to make sure you’ve got everything submitted properly and well-edited.

Consider submitting another session proposal

Increase the odds and submit another presentation proposal. However, you want to put the same amount of thought and passion into the second proposal as you did in the first.

 

4. Prepare to Deliver

UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May Delivering a Presentation

Study hard: Think about what questions attendees may ask and make sure you are prepped for them.

Outline: Outline your presentation and build it into a narrative leading to a strong call to action that inspires your audience to take action.

Create a visual presentation: your slides are meant to be a visual representation of what you are talking about. Avoid using the presentation as a bullet pointed document. 

Prepare any support materials: in another effort to reduce the chances of your presentation becoming a long-form document. Create the relevant resources that will help your audience take the action you want them to take.

Rehearse and iterate: run through your program, record yourself, listen to the delivery and if possible get some third party feedback. Come back to it, make your changes and do it again until you feel confident in your delivery. 

Plan to engage digitally: If you’ve rehearsed enough… you should be able to schedule tweets or posts using conference hashtags and map them to what you are talking about in your session. Sharing key takeaways etc. on a schedule, sharing the posts at the time when you will cover that tip etc. during your presentation.

Consider a coach: Get some coaching or attend a seminar engineered to help you make that “best of conference” presentation.

Network: Engage with your audience after your presentation and network! If someone has a deep question that you couldn’t fully address during Q/A, offer to meet for coffee or sit together through a conference lunch etc. 

Do it again: Come back again if it was a hit and shop around in other related conferences.

Closing Thoughts

I hope my approach to getting a session proposal accepted is helpful to you. If you have recommendations or tips you found helpful in submitting session proposals that get selected, please comment on this post.

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