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Writing (And Reading) Conference Session Descriptions

By Clark Quinn / October 2011

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Have you ever been to a conference session, and realized that there was a mismatch between what you read, and what you experienced? On the other hand, how often have you written a conference submission that has been rejected? In the middle is a lesson about what a good conference submission is.

First, conferences are valuable. That old cliché about how listening to a presentation of content can't be learning isn't apt in the case of attending a practitioner event. Just listening doesn't work for education; when the audience doesn't have a frame of reference, a content dump won't make a difference in behavior. On the other hand, if the audience is deeply engaged in practice in their workplace, a chance to hear others on similar journeys becomes a reflective opportunity. Of course, most sessions shouldn't be a content dump, but typically they're also not designed to be a full learning experience. Regardless, finding the right sessions for you, which aren't necessarily the best for all, is an important component of getting the best value from the investment in conference attendance.

Second, you probably should be planning on presenting at a conference some day. Even if you're dependent on a host, you should want to share your knowledge, and more importantly your accomplishments, to make yourself more valuable to your existing or a new host. External validation is a powerful indicator of true contribution. Moreover, there are indications that overall, society is moving to a "free agent nation" model, and you probably build your credibility to go solo as well.

So, we need to analyze the characteristics of a good conference description, largely for the purposes of communicating clearly what your offer is.

The first requirement is that it be accurate. What the audience reads and what the audience experiences should have a very strong relationship. A bait and switch might work for one or a few sessions, but it will quickly establish a lack of trust and it's consequently not a go. Take some care, by the way, of vendor sessions at conferences. Many vendors are aware of the dangers, but some still seem to be willing to give a sales pitch instead of a presentation. So make sure to fairly accurately convey what the conference will be about.

Now, that doesn't mean a dull dry recitation of the outline. This is a marketing effort to make sure audiences comprehend the proposition on offer. Keep in mind there are two separate audiences: the program committee determining whether to accept the proposal, and the attendees deciding whether to stop by the session.

The information for both is largely the same, though many conferences want additional information for the program committee, including your previous experience in presenting, perhaps even a testimonial. Yes, it sounds like a Catch-22, but you want to scale it so that you use presentations internal to your company to secure local chapter presentations, and so on, until your success at national events generates invitations to present internationally. Okay, that may be a bit much, but the principle holds. So start with a coworker who has seen you present well (and keep practicing until you can). Then start working your way up.

You want to offer something that a reasonable proportion of the audience is (or should be) looking for. What this means is a new way of looking at something familiar (that adds new insight), or some familiar way of looking at something new. A new way of looking at something new is likely only going to be of interest to an elite few, and a familiar way of looking at something familiar is likely to interest no one. It also means knowing your audience.

It's safe to say that you should properly put in the effort to design the audience experience before you write the description. This may seem like a lot of work for something that you may or may not be able to do, but there are benefits. First, it will help when you do end up writing the description, and it will help convince you of the quality of your thinking. Also, if it doesn't work to one group, you've still got the effort to apply to another. Further, it will be valuable to your own understanding of experience design.

Once the audience is there, how will you convey the real issue at hand? How will you work them through the story that will help them understand the problem, the approaches considered, the decision, the outcomes, and the lesson? You want a combination of compelling narrative with meaningful audience interaction. Realize that there are many different types of presentations, each with its own path to success. Is it a case study? A how to? A comparison or evaluation? A workshop? Each of these has different goals, and consequently different approaches. It's beyond the scope here, but think about the following: What makes a compelling audience experience? What will make them leave in a state of gratitude for the time spent with you?

Further, as Linda David, manager of conference programming for ASTD told me: "Focus on the learner and what they need to be able to take back and apply on the job. I can't emphasize this enough." That is, not only make sure you're accurately communicating, but focus on having a "take home" for the audience, something that will improve what they do.

OK, so hopefully you've got a contribution to make and a compelling experience design as well. Now, to sell it to the audiences. It's fair to suggest that you consider how to market your session; how do you present it? Here's a hint: Why should the audience(s) care? You need to address the WIIFM (what's in it for me). Just as you would for learning design, you should hook the audience in emotionally before filling in the dots. (Marketing doesn't have to be a bad thing; good marketing is good customer education).

The eLearning Guild has a submission form that asks you for four components about the proposed session, and it's a valuable guide. Of course, you need a "grip 'em" title. Something catchy but communicative. A play on words can be fun, but it should be clever, not clichéd. So can a pop culture reference in the title (e.g. playing with a song title). And, as Brent Schlenker, program manager for the eLearning Guild, says: "If your clever title still makes someone ask 'what is this session about' then you've missed the mark." Tact is recommended here; it might be tacky to use a recent real catastrophe as a reference point (e.g. talking about coping with the "nuclear fallout of a tsunami of information").

Next, the Guild has three sections for the description. The first asks what the problem or issue is. The second is how the session addresses the issue. The third is why the audience would care. Whether you use this literal structure or not, you do need to address these issues.

You need to be answering three questions: Why should I care, how will this accomplish my goal, and why this speaker? In business, what's the pain point I'm feeling, how will this session address it. The last is typically done in another section, but it's really a package. Your description should convey why you're the one to answer this problem. Either it's your role, or you've done lots of it, or...?

And, just for the record, most conferences have guidelines (if not actual Web-based forms) to submit. Read the guidelines, and follow them. You're highly likely to be rejected if you don't even show you can follow instructions. Linda David also emphasized that hitting deadlines and following instructions " the first step to ensuring your proposal gets a fair review."

Note that if you're accepted, you'll need a bio and a photo, and you'll need a bio just to submit. Brent Schlenker suggests "Have a short form and a long form bio ready at all times." Another pragmatic issue he suggests is to start the approval process for traveling to the conference, because it's not fair to the event coordinators if you are accepted and then have to back out.

It's not rocket science, but it does take some work. Speaking as a past program committee member for conferences, I can tell you that a well-written description stands out from the rest. And, having graduated from small talks to keynotes, I can also tell you it's worth it. There's a buzz from a good session that is very rewarding, and there's little better than hearing how you've really helped someone out, given them something to think about, and they're really excited. You too, can have that impact.

About the Author

Clark Quinn leads learning system design through Quinnovation, providing strategic solutions to Fortune 500, education, government, and not-for-profit organizations. He earned his Ph.D. in applied cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and has led the design of mobile, performance support, serious games, online learning, and adaptive learning systems. He's an internationally known speaker and author, with a book and numerous articles and chapters. He has held management positions at Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio, Open Net, and Access CMC, and academic positions at the University of New South Wales, the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, and San Diego State University's Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education.


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