Proposal as Pitch: How to Get Reviewers to Buy into Your Conference Proposal
In a conventional sales pitch, your aim is to convince a customer (or investor) to part with their money. In a conference proposal, you’re asking them to give you something much more valuable—their time and their attention. Convincing people to spend money is easy. We spend it on the latest limited-edition sneaker drop from our favorite celebrity or that supposedly “live-changing” gadget we read about in a Buzzfeed listicle. Time and attention, on the other hand, are two things that are in limited supply, and it’s much more difficult to persuade people to give them up.
It’s not enough to tell people what they’ll learn from your presentation. You need to prove to them that it’s worth their time.
That’s why, when it comes to the conference proposal, you need to be an expert salesperson. And no, I’m not talking about how to use your presentation to plug a product. (In fact, I highly suggest you DON’T do that). If you’ve never worked in sales, the process of transforming your ideas into a sellable “product” may seem strange. Heck, even if you’re sales industry veteran, it can still be tough to sell yourself and your work. (Who wants to be known as a braggart, right?)
However, in order to create a winning proposal, you’ll need to not only know how to clearly articulate your ideas but also how to convince others that the information is valuable. Today, we’re going to be discussing that latter half of the equation.
The Elevator Pitch
Your proposal abstract and description should be brief and focused. It’s basically your “elevator pitch.” It’s intriguing, succinct, and leaves people wanting more. An elevator pitch should only take as long to deliver as it takes to travel between floors on an elevator—approximately 30 to 120 seconds.
Similarly, the description of your proposal should be somewhere between two and three paragraphs. Yes, I know you can talk for an hour about this topic, but the selection committee doesn’t want to hear it (at least not yet). Depending on the size of the conference, reviewers receive hundreds of proposals. Assuming that the conference committee collects 500 proposals, and each reviewer spends one minute reading each proposal and making an initial yes/no decision, the reviewers will all spend over 8 hours just reading proposals. Now imagine that our fictional reviewer is reading through proposal 206 of 500, and the description is noticeably longer than the word limit. I don’t know about you, but I’d take one look at it and throw it in the “No” pile.
Selection committees set word count limits for a reason, and ignoring those rules is a surefire way to get your proposal rejected. And, even if there is no established word count, it’s better to keep things brief so that exhausted reviewers aren’t forced to dig through three paragraphs of exposition to discover the topic of your presentation.
The Key Components of a Pitch
First of all, let’s work on the skeleton of your proposal. In other words, what are your must-have components around which you can organize your thoughts? The three parts we’ll discuss—problem, solution, and benefit—are meant to help you start organizing your proposal in a way that attracts your audience and makes them want to know more:
What is one problem that your audience is experiencing? Is it an issue of productivity? Of finances? Of bandwidth? Your goal is to address a fear, pain, or guilt that is relevant to conference attendees. It should be something that you have experienced and that you believe you can help others to overcome.
How are you going to solve the problem? You don’t need to worry about a specific step-by-step system (yet), but you should provide enough general information to convince your perspective audience that you’re the real deal. Make sure to give enough information that your audience has faith in your ability to deliver on your promise.
What will presentation attendees walk away from your presentation with that they didn’t have before? Sometimes this will be a tangible resource, like a preliminary plan for improving their business or access to a step-by-step guide. Other times, the takeaway will be more conceptual (e.g. a better understanding of a new or complicated topic). Either way, you want to take the emphasis away from what you will be doing and put it on what the audience will get from it.
In your abstract, you’ll want to touch upon each of these key components—problem, solution, and benefit. The description will be your chance to delve further in your main ideas with more of a focus on your solution and the benefits your audience will receive from attending your presentation.
So, we’ve talked about the key components, but there’s still something missing—something important. You gave us the problem, your solution, and what we, as the audience, have to gain—but we’re not quite convinced. We’re missing the excitement.
Excitement is the secret ingredient that compels people to choose your presentation over someone else’s. It’s the difference-maker.
Exciting Ways to Grab Attention in Your Proposal
Add a Hook
In this case, your title of your proposal is the hook. It’s what most attendees will use to decide which presentations they want to go to over the course of the conference. It should clearly establish who the presentation is for and what they’ll get out of it. To do this, you’ll want to consider your target audience for this presentation as well as the overall audience for the conference. Does the conference appeal to all levels of experience? Are there attendees with differing skill sets (e.g. IT and HR specialists)? If so, your title should give attendees enough information to gauge whether or not the presentation will be useful to them given their background. Then, you’ll want to include that key benefit to let people know exactly what they’ll get out of your presentation.
You will, however, want to steer clear of shocking or “click-bait” titles. Things like, “You’re Doing ______Wrong” or “5 Dumb Reasons You’re Failing at _______” work for grabbing attention on Facebook, but they’re generally considered inappropriate in a conference setting. A major goal of most professional conferences is to be inclusionary and welcoming toward attendees, so proposals that use negative or exclusionary language (like “dumb,” “crazy,” “stupid”) generally don’t make the cut.
Tell a Story:
Stories are not only helpful for framing and organizing your presentation around a central narrative, they also allow you to connect with your audience. You want to show your audience that you’ve been down in the mud. You’ve been where they are, and you want to throw them a lifeline. Bringing yourself down to the audience’s level sends the message that you have lived experience and that you can be trusted. Failing to do so may, subconsciously, come across as, “I’m the expert here, and I’m going to tell you how to do your job.”
Show Your Personality:
“In this presentation I will show you how…” Snore. Huh? What? Sorry, I must have drifted off there for a second.
You could be holding on to the foolproof secret to overnight success, but you have to find a way to sell it to people in a way that gets them through the doors. #MichaelsWilder #conference Click To Tweet
Listen, this isn’t an eighth-grade book report. It’s okay to have a little fun with it. After all, the personality you show in your proposal will reflect how people view you as a speaker. If you use boring language, people assume that you’ll be a boring speaker.
Generating excitement is key to the sales pitch. I don’t care if your platform is going to be as big as Facebook. If you can’t tell me why that matters to me as a consumer, I’m not going to listen. The same goes for your presentation proposal. You could be holding on to the foolproof secret to overnight success, but you have to find a way to sell it to people in a way that gets them through the doors (or to accept your proposal).
Overall, a conference proposal is very similar to a sales pitch. To some of you, this will be familiar territory. For others, this may complicate the way you’ve previously approached conference proposals. Either way, we hope that this piece has been helpful in helping you to formulate your proposal.
If you have any other tips for “selling” a proposal, let us know in the comments!