how to get me to want you as a concurrent session speaker

Earlier I blogged on how to get me to want you as a keynoter. Now that LITA Forum acceptances & rejections are out, I think I can safely blog on how to get me to want to accept your concurrent session proposals.[ref]I hope this is useful to people drafting proposals in future. No, I will not comment on any specific Forum proposals.[/ref]

I clearly gravitate toward some different things than many of my fellow committee members, so I’m going to state my preferences, and then tell you which grains of salt you should apply.

I also want to thank everyone who submitted proposals for Forum. I hoped that you all would make our jobs difficult, and you did; we had more than twice as many proposals as slots. We turned down plenty of talks that I am confident would have been good fits, or will be good fits for some other conference. We turned down talks that had strong advocates on the committee. So if we turned down yours, please revise and resubmit somewhere — there’s probably a good home for it. And I hope to see you in Louisville anyway. I hear it’s got great restaurants and pretty much all the bourbon

Stuff you should do

  • Proofread (better yet: ask someone else to). For heaven’s sake, you’re submitting a proposal to librarians. Some of whom may be catalogers. Don’t misspell stuff. We have issues with that.
  • Read the CFP. If we say “X is required” and you do not do X, we have issues with that, too.
  • Then read it some more… The CFP tells you what topic(s) and audience(s) the conference is aimed at. Your proposal needs to clearly fall under that umbrella. It should be obvious how your topic relates to ours and why your take on it is relevant to our audience. That doesn’t mean it has to be relevant to 100% of the audience — in fact there’s some benefit to having talks that appeal to new audiences — but we have to feel like people would actually attend.
  • ….but zag when others zig. Talks should be relevant, yet distinctive.[ref]Yes, you have to be different just like everyone else.[/ref] If you’re talking about a very new idea, your topic will be distinctive, so show us how it relates to libraries. If you’re talking about something that’s been around for a while, show us why your take on it is unusual. Same thing if you’re pitching a talk on something very trendy or heavily emphasized in the CFP — we’ll get a lot of those, so you have to have a special perspective to stand out. Concrete details are your friend here. So is personality. And it helps to know what people have said at similar conferences recently, so you can say something else.
  • Think about how you’ll present the material. You don’t have to prep the talk before writing the pitch (please don’t! who has that kind of time?!), but do think about concrete details. Are you doing a high-level ideas talk or an in-the-trenches how-to? Both can be great and both have fans, but you should know where you are between zero and fifty thousand feet, and so should we. How will you relate to the audience? What sorts of examples will you use? Will there be anything distinctive about your format: you’ll facilitate a discussion, have a hands-on activity, lead the audience to walk away with a deliverable or plan? You’re not just imparting information but delivering an experience; what is that experience?
  • Think about level. For a technology conference, you really need to be pitched at the level of attendees — nothing too basic, but nothing so obscure that it won’t have an audience. Your talk doesn’t have to be accessible to everyone, but it should be accessible enough to justify accepting it. If it has prerequisites that aren’t common in your audience, note them.[ref]What this means varies a lot by conference, of course. Also there’s nothing wrong with having a talk that is too technical for some attendees, as long as it still has enough attendees; it’s fun for conference organizers to be able to present talks pitched to a range of audiences![/ref] Similarly, don’t propose anything dated (but if you’re a stimulus-seeking Twittermonkey, your sense of what is so-last-year may not be the same as everyone else’s…).
  • Take advantage of the space you’re given. Don’t snow the committee under with a ton of stuff they won’t have time to read, but if you’re given some optional fields, use them! The CFP doesn’t give you a whole lot of room to make your case, so don’t waste opportunities. This is doubly true if you’re planning to do something a little outside-the-box that may not be addressed by the required questions. Similarly, if your proposal description only takes up a third of the allotted space, that’s probably a bug. Think about the distinctive elements of your format or perspective and add some concrete details or provocative questions.
  • Write well. If the reviews are blind, or if no one on the committee has seen you speak, this is probably your only chance to show that you can communicate.[ref]Which is why it’s so easy to do non-blind reviews and go with familiar speakers; at least you know they can give a good talk. But this is also totally unfair to new voices. It undermines diversity, it’s cliquish and unwelcoming. I don’t have a good solution to this.[/ref] Yes, it’s writing, not speaking, and maybe you’re an awesome speaker and a not-awesome writer, and that’s not fair, but it’s what you’ve got. At minimum you should have impeccable writing mechanics (see also: have someone else proofread), and you should be specific yet concise. Bonus points if your writing crackles with personality. I want to see that personality on stage.
  • Don’t forget to tell us what makes your talk special. Maybe everyone in your community knows how awesome you are. Maybe you’re working with high-profile partners. Maybe your work has a huge impact somewhere. But maybe the committee members are not in your community, don’t know about your partnerships, are not familiar with your impact.

Some reasons why ignoring my opinion might be the right call

I used to teach middle school. This means I think about pedagogy. I read a proposal and I gravitate toward anything I see about the experiential aspects of the talk. If there isn’t anything, I start guessing, based on the writing style or whatever other thin evidence I’ve got. I visualize what this looks like on a stage, how presenter and audience interact.

And it’s frustrating, because our CFP didn’t do much to elicit this evidence, and frankly I’m not sure how we could have. We can use presenters’ names, but that works against diversity and new voices, and makes things cliquish and predictable. We could have asked people to submit video, slides, etc., and maybe that’s a good idea, but it runs similar risks. We could say “tell us how you won’t be just a talking head on a stage”, but actually talking-head-on-a-stage can be quite good.

That said? I seem to be not normal in this regard. The rest of the committee was much more interested than I in topic choice and focus — the relevant-yet-distinctive questions above. So it’s possible that you can totally ignore everything I just said about style, voice, etc.; make sure you’ve got a solid topic and good proofreading, and you’ll write strong conference proposals.

But seriously? I would like everyone to take the rest of my advice anyway, because I don’t want a world full of strong proposals; I want a world full of strong talks. And the fact is, essentially any topic can be a great talk or a terrible one.

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