A List Apart

Menu

Illustration by Joe Alterio

Conference Proposals that Don’t Suck

When it comes to turning your big idea into a proposal that you want to submit to a conference, there are no real rules or patterns to follow beyond “just do your best” and perhaps “keep it to 500 words,” which makes the whole process pretty daunting.

Article Continues Below

I’ve worked with a number of people submitting proposals to events over the past few years. I’ve been racking my brain trying to identify a strong pattern that helps people pull together proposals that provide what conference chairs and program planners are looking for, while at the same time making the process a bit more clear to people who really want to find their way to the stage.

I’ve found that it’s best to treat the proposal-writing process as just that—a process, not just something you do in a half-hour during a slow afternoon. One of the worst things you can do is to write your proposal in the submission form. I’ve done it. You probably know someone else who has done it. Most of our proposals probably sucked because of it. Hemingway advises us that “the first draft of anything is shit,” and this is as true for conference proposals as it is for just about anything.

When you write a proposal in the submission form, you don’t give yourself the time that a proposal needs to mature. I’ve found six solid steps that can help you turn that idea into a lucid and concise conference proposal that paints a clear picture of what your presentation will be about.

As I walk through these steps, I’m going to share my most recently created conference proposal. I’ve recently submitted this to some conferences, and I don’t yet know if it will be accepted or if I’ll have any opportunities to give this presentation—but following these steps made writing the proposal itself much easier.

Let’s get to it.

Step 1: Write down the general, high-level ideas that you want to talk about

This is a very informal step, and it should be written just for you. I use this step to take any notes I’ve stored away on post-its or in Evernote, and turn them into something resembling a couple of paragraphs. It’s an exercise in getting everything out of your head.

You don’t need to worry about being factually accurate in what you’re writing. This is the opportunity to go with what you know or remember, or assume you know or remember, and get it all into some other medium. You can fix anything that is inaccurate later; no one is going to read this but you.

For example, I’m writing a proposal for a presentation about creating “skunk works” projects (essentially, where small teams work on secret/necessary endeavors) to get things done when you’re busily leading a team and don’t really have time to get all the things accomplished that should be in place.

Here’s what I started with:

Something About Skunk Works Projects

The overall premise is that teams are really busy and if you’ve recently grown one (in-house or otherwise), you know that all the bodies go to the work, and little goes to the stuff that helps make a team purr along nice and smoothly, such as efficient on-boarding processes, sharing of thinking, processes, definitions, etc. Skunk Works projects can help you continue to increase the value to your team (and others) and also provide the team with an outlet for growth.

Is there a formula? There sure is, and I can trace a lot back to Boeing, and other places like Atari & Chuck E. Cheese, and my own current “stuff.” It dovetails nicely into the guerrilla stuff that I’ve done in the past, and the leadership I’ve been doing recently.

That’s the idea—how to get stuff done for your team when you’ve got so much stuff to do that you don’t have time.

This is an extremely rough draft, and should be for your eyes only—despite the fact that I’m sharing mine with you here, in its poorly written and somewhat inaccurate state.

At this point, you’ve earned a break. You’ll want to be fresh for the next step, where we start to build a supporting backbone for your free-flowing words.

Step 2: Break your content into topic points

Review what you’ve written and begin to break that content into topics. I create bullet points for “Pain,” “Solution,” and two rounds of “Support.” I also add a bullet point I call “Personable,” so that I have a place to add how the idea is relatable to my own experience (though this sometimes ends up being covered by one of the Support points).

This isn’t final content; go ahead and lift sentences from your previous paragraphs if you feel like they’re relevant. Grammar still takes a backseat here, but do make sure that you’re addressing the topic point with some clarity. Also, spend a little time doing some fact-checking; tighten your points up a bit with real and concrete information.

As I was working through this step, I did a little more homework. I cracked open a few books and hunted down articles in order to refresh myself and feel like I was on more solid ground as I pulled the points together.

Pain

When you think about your presentation’s topic, what is the common point of pain that you believe you share with other people? What prompted you to feel that this is a strong idea for a presentation and worthy of sharing? Pain is something we all share, and when you can help someone else feel like their pain might be alleviated, they start to nod their heads, mentally say “yes!” to themselves, and begin to relate to you and your message.

Pain point: Work has to get done; organizational good “stuff” often comes last, which means it never gets done because the bills have to get paid and people get booked on project work first.

Solution

After you’ve identified that common point of pain, what’s the general, high-level solution? If you are the person who found the solution, you should say so; if not, you should identify who did, and explain what you learned from it. Give enough information to assure people there is a solution. Don’t get hung up on feeling like you’ll give away the ending; people will show up to your presentation to hear more about the journey you’ve taken from that common point of pain, not just to hear you recite the solution itself.

Solution: Don’t worry, others have used skunk works to have some great successes. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Ford, and Atari have done amazing work with skunk works. So have I, and I’ll show you how I’ve done it so you can put it into practice for yourself based upon my loose framework.

Supporting points

Once you’ve worked through the pain and solution, it’s time to provide a little more information to the reviewers and readers of your proposal. Merely telling people that there is pain and a solution is great to lead with; however, it’s not enough. You’ll still need to convince people that this idea applies to a broad range of other contexts, and that this is a presentation that they need to see so that they can benefit from your wisdom. What are a couple of key points that you can use to support the validity of your proposal and the claims that you may have made?

Support 1: Origin in the 40s with Lockheed. They used it to create a jet fighter to help fend off the German jet fighter threat in 1943. Kelly Johnson and his team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required.

Support 2: Kelly had 14 Rules & Practices for skunk works projects—we don’t need them all; however, we can learn a lot from them.

Something personal and/or humorous (optional)

If you’re able to pull something personal into your proposal, you can help reviewers and audiences members further relate to you and what you’ve been through. It can shift a proposal from appearing to be “book report-ish” to one that speaks from your experience and perspective. I like to leave this as optional content because you may already be adding something similar in the Pain, Solution, or Supporting points sections.

It’s important not to overlook the value—and the risk—of humor. Humor is tough to do in a conference proposal. You may have a line that you find hilarious; however, great comedy relies heavily on nuances of delivery that are difficult to transmit in a written proposal (and sometimes even harder for the readers to pick up on). Take caution, and when in doubt, skip anything that could be misperceived when creating your proposal.

Personal: I’ve pulled together skunk works teams and busted out some skunk works projects myself!

Humor: The results smell pretty damn good. (Wah wah wah.)

Together, these provide the foundation for the next step, which is where we start to get more serious.

Step 3: Turn your topics into a draft proposal

This is where we take the organization and grouping of your thoughts and turn them into a few short paragraphs. It’s time to turn on the spell checker and call the grammar police; this is a serious activity and the midway point to having a proposal that’s ready for submission.

You’ll be writing the best, most coherent sentences that you know how to craft based on your topic points. You should use your topic points as the outline for your proposal, hitting the ideas in the same order. As a refresher, here are my topic points, in the order they were created.

Pain: Work has to get done; organizational good “stuff” often comes last, which means it never gets done because the bills have to get paid and people get booked on project work first.

Solution: Don’t worry, others have used skunk works to have some great successes. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Ford, and Atari have done amazing work with skunk works. So have I, and I’ll show you how I’ve done it so you can put it into practice for yourself based upon my loose framework.

Support 1: Origin in the 40s with Lockheed. They used it to create a jet fighter to help fend off the German jet fighter threat in 1943. Kelly Johnson and his team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required.

Support 2: Kelly had 14 Rules & Practices for skunk works projects—we don’t need them all; however, we can learn a lot from them.

Personal: I’ve pulled together Skunk Works teams and busted out some Skunk Works projects myself!

Humor: The results smell pretty damn good. (Wah wah wah.)

Once you’ve reviewed your topic points, put your writing skills to work. I did more gut-checking and fact-checking to make sure I wasn’t completely full of crap and to generally tighten up my thinking.

The Science of Skunk Works — Making Sure the Cobbler’s Kids Get Shoes

We’ve all worked at places where there’s never enough time to make sure that things are operationally done the “right way”—bills need to get paid, client or product work needs to get done and takes priority, and hey, everyone deserves to have a little bit of a life, right? There is a bit of a light at the end of this tunnel! Several companies, including Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, Ford, Microsoft, and Google, have pulled of some pretty great things by taking advantage of skunk works teams and projects. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a little bit of success with those teams and projects, as well, and will share how you can apply them to your own practice.

Way back in the 1940s, Kelly Johnson and his team of mighty skunks used their skunk works process to design—and build—the XP-80 prototype jet fighter to compete with the Germans. In 143 days—seven days less than was needed. Kelly created 14 Rules & Practices for skunk works projects in order to help articulate the most effective way for his team to successful in the projects that they worked on. We can learn from Kelly’s rules, adapt them to our current times and perhaps more digitally dependent needs, and find some ways to put some shoes on the cobbler’s kids. And the results might just smell pretty good, if you’re patient enough.

Notice that I didn’t just take the topic points and copy and paste them into paragraphs. Instead, I put on my editing hat and tried to establish the flow of what I was writing, keeping the paragraphs limited to 2–3 sentences for the sake of concision.

Step 4: Phone a friend

You know that friend you can always count on to tell you when you’ve got a booger on your noise or spinach in your teeth, or who will tell you when you were just a completely out-of-line jerk and you need to get your head on straight?

That’s the friend you want to send your proposal to. If you’re fortunate enough to have more than one of these friends, send it to all of them. Explain to them—clearly—what they’re about to read and what the purpose is. Give them enough background so that they can provide you with actionable feedback. Tell them about the conference, the expected audience, your topic, why you’ll be good presenting on this topic, and what your proposal is about. Finally, give them a deadline of a day or two so they can review it with the focus that it deserves.

I sent my proposal off to my friend Gabby Hon, because she’s that friend who will tell me all those things I listed above and because she’s a words-and-grammar nerd who kicks my work as hard as it needs.

She sent me feedback, and, for once, my confidence was a bit higher than it should have been. I really like my topic and really felt strongly that I’d pulled together a solid proposal. Gabby’s feedback was essentially:

  • You’re using “a bit” and “a little bit” too much. I’ve counted 3 so far within a paragraph
  • Okay, so, there’s too much “this is what skunk works is”—which I can find on Wikipedia—and not enough “why this matters to design/tech/UX”
  • You say you can adapt the rules, but can you give a little hint?
  • I mean obviously it was all about design and working around restrictions and limitations—thus skunk works
  • If design is best when faced with limitations, then skunk works programs are our best historical example of how to do great work under something something

Not only did Gabby provide some great things for me to think about and improve on, she was also gracious enough to let me know that I didn’t entirely stink up the page when I’d written my proposal:

  • It’s very good
  • Just the second paragraph needs some polishing

Step 5: Revise your proposal

Once you’ve had time to process the feedback, sit back down with your proposal and make adjustments. Don’t be shy about killing your darlings; the feedback you’ve received is meant to help you focus on the important parts and make them better. If something doesn’t fit, move it to a parking lot or remove it entirely.

Here is my final revision that I’ll be submitting to conferences:

DesignOps Skunk Works: Shoes for the Cobbler’s Children

We’ve all worked at places where there’s never enough time to make sure that things are operationally done the “right way”—bills need to get paid, client or product/project work needs to get done and takes priority, and hey, everyone deserves to have a life, too. There is light at the end of this tunnel! Several companies, including Atari, Ford, Microsoft, and Google, have pulled off some great things by taking advantage of skunk works teams and projects. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some successes with those teams and projects, as well, and will share them so you can see how to apply the approach(es) to your own practice.

Way back in the 1940s, Kelly Johnson and his team of mighty skunks used their skunk works process to design—and build—a prototype jet fighter in 143 days. Kelly established 14 Rules & Practices for skunk works projects in order to help articulate the most effective way for his team to be successful in the projects that they worked on. Not only can we learn from Kelly’s rules and adapt them to our current methods of working, we can also create our own skunk works teams and projects to ensure that the cobbler’s kids—the operational areas of our design practices—get some shoes put on their feet. And the results might just smell pretty good, if you’re patient enough.

There’s a bit of a method to my madness, believe it or not. Here’s a micro-version of the change log of my proposal:

  • I made a key change in the title; I’m pretty uncomfortable with using the word “science” (originally “The Science of Skunk Works”). I’m pretty sure “science” is making a promise that I’m not certain I can keep in the presentation, and I’d prefer not to be called to the mat for that.
  • I tested my title with a few friends and this title fared the best. I was leaning toward “Shoes for the Cobbler’s Kids” personally, and the feedback encouraged me to not be so precious.
  • I also tightened up the copy based on Gabby’s feedback, placing extra focus on the second paragraph.

Step 6: Submit the proposal to a conference

You likely had a conference in mind when you started trying to pull together your proposal. Each year, I start contemplating my primary presentation for the next year as soon as I can. Generally, starting around March through April or May is when I really start to try and think about what I’ve learned and what is worth sharing with others, and then I start collecting information—notes, articles, books, and so on—so that I can support my thinking as best as I can.

When I go through this process, then I know that I’m ready with a pretty solid proposal. I copy and paste the final, vetted version into the form and hit submit, confident that I’m not just winging it.

And sure enough, that’s when I find that last typo.

About the Author

8 Reader Comments

Load Comments