While the submission process can be a bit daunting, creating a proposal for a conference presentation is a relatively straightforward endeavor.
1. First, choose a conference that aligns well with the topic you would like to submit a proposal for.
Some conferences are inundated with proposals on a particular topic, making the acceptance rate much more competitive. Some conferences actively solicit proposals on certain topics because very few are submitted, but the topic is of great interest to the conference goers. You want to find a conference where your contribution will be both appreciated and meet the audience's needs (and of course, where you yourself will learn a great deal).
2. Read the Call for Proposals carefully, noting the conference theme, and identify the best conference thread for your presentation as well as the most appropriate format or time slot, if applicable.
Many larger conferences ask the proposal submitters to categorize their proposals according to the special interest groups (SIGs) the professional organization sponsoring the conference has, or according to topics of interest in the field. As you put your submission together, consider ways you might make it appealing to the various groups the conference caters to. Smaller interest groups might have fewer submissions, and therefore less competition for your proposal. Popular or trendy topics in a field might get more consideration during the acceptance process since the conference committee wants to provide the attendees with presentations that interest them.
You also want to be sure to choose a format that best fits the material you have to present. Common types include demonstrations, posters, workshops, panels, roundtables, and paper presentations. Look at the time and requirements (and sometimes number of persons) for each before choosing the one that best fits what you intend to do at your presentation. Your proposal should reflect these elements.
Actively think about how you can tie your presentation to the conference's theme as well. Sometimes a proposal's clear relationship to the conference theme can be what tips the scale in your submission's favor.
Be sure to print up the Call for Proposals and mark everything that must be included in your proposal, especially criteria by which the proposal will be assessed. There are often length restrictions, especially for the titles and abstracts to be included in the conference program. If you are working with others, determine who will be the main contact for the submission and double check that their contact information is correct before submitting the proposal.
3. Write your proposal and abstract for submission, and gather any other information needed before you begin the submission process.
Take the time to write a strong proposal, but give yourself plenty of time to meet the submission deadline. Most conferences do not make exceptions for late submissions due to technical difficulties or unforeseen circumstances.
Again, be sure you read all the information in the Call for Proposals (some proposals are very long! It is important to read every section), and that you use the conference theme in your proposal. And cite! Include any references necessary, and check the submission guidelines to see if references are included in the word count limit for the proposal.
Sometimes conference submissions require a proposal and a separate abstract (which will be displayed in the conference schedule). Most proposals are longer versions of your abstract, so writing your abstract first could help you make the proposal writing process faster.
In general, you want to include an overview of who your intended audience is, the context your topic comes from or will be presented for, any theories or frameworks used, and then the information itself. Some questions to ask yourself as you write your proposal are, "How does my work connect to the theme of the conference?" and "How is my work different or unique within the general scholarship in my field?" Your proposal should also make clear what type of information or presentation you plan on giving, such as discussing research or a new theory or giving a demonstration of a technique.
Your abstract should reflect the best standards of your field. Look at peer-reviewed journal articles for examples of abstracts if you need some ideas.
If you are hoping to present on a research project not yet completed, give as much information as possible so that the conference committee knows the work will be ready and worthy by the time of the conference. Vague or thin proposals are generally not going to be accepted.
Keep copies of all the work you upload to the conference site and keep the Call for Proposals too. If you do not get a "receipt" email, contact the person listed on the submission website or on the Call for Proposals immediately. Follow up a month after the closing date if you still have no news (or a few weeks after they say you should hear from them).
4. If your proposal is accepted, but sure to stick to it!
The proposal and the abstract you wrote originally were accepted for the information you included in them. The conference committee accepted the proposal because it fit the conference's needs, and conference attendees will be coming to your presentation based on the abstract's information. If you change your presentation, you run the risk of bad evaluations from your session participants and possibly not being seen as a viable speaker in other situations (conference presentations are a good place to begin getting invited to speak elsewhere!).
5. If your proposal is not accepted, Use the feedback to improve your proposal for another conference, or for next year.
Most conferences provide submitters with feedback if the proposal has not been accepted. Keep this feedback; it can help you revise your proposal for submission elsewhere or the following year, or to use in your portfolio (sometimes the reviewers will love your work, but the conference does not have space available that particular year).
See the box to the right for eBooks to help you write and present at conferences. For another book and more resources, visit the Conference Write-Ups page.
Before the presentation:
The resources available for presenters at the conference center are usually described either in the Call for Proposals or in the acceptance letter. It is important to assess your equipment needs and be sure you are set up before your presentation begins. While most rooms at a conference will have projectors and screens, not all conferences have Internet in every room. It is also not uncommon for presenters to need to bring their own laptops, connector cables, or the like, especially Mac users.
If you do not see the equipment information anywhere--the conference website, the acceptance letter, the Call for Proposals, etc.--or your presentation has unique space or technology requirements, contact the conference organizers immediately.
Rehearse well and feel comfortable with your material before you leave for the conference. For ideas on practicing your public speaking, see Presentations and Presentation Skills.
One strategy for being sure your presentation is clear and well-organized is to use the information from your abstract as the basis. A good rule of thumb is to think in threes: the three major elements, parts, or foci your presentation will explore; three examples of each; three sets of data; three bullet points per page, etc. You will most likely choose to pare these down, for timing reasons if nothing else, but "threes" help your brain sort the ideas by what deserves "equal weight" (or should get equal emphasis during the presentation), and will help you decide whether more or less should be discussed to ensure the audience understands the material.
And of course, remember that your presentation is the embodiment of your original proposal submission. The abstract for your presentation in the conference guide, based on your proposal, is what attracted conference participants to your presentation. Deviating from your original proposal will not only result in negative feedback, but might also result in your losing potential contacts.
During the presentation:
You are a peer among peers. They have come to learn something new from you and you are one of their own. You deserve their respect, and you will do great!
Have your contact information prominently displayed on your visual, and if possible have handouts and/or cards that also provide this information.
You do not want your audience to miss any of the information you have worked so hard to share with them.
By rephrasing a question for the questioner, you increase the likelihood that you are answering the question asked, and not the question you think was asked.
If someone asks you a question you do not know the answer to or are not sure about, admit it. You can offer to find out the answer if it is something directly related to your work or presentation, and then follow up with the person who asked the question. If you choose to follow up, be sure to do so in a timely manner and of course, get their contact information.
After the presentation:
Conferences are a great way to make new friends in the field. Bring lots of business cards and mingle with your audience after the presentation if possible. If your presentation is more interactive, feel free to take advantage of your audience’s knowledge and elicit information when interacting.