Workshop for conference proposals

Published on: February 21, 2016

Tags: conference proposals, ideas, how to, resources, and workshop

Last Wednesday I ran a workshop to help people come up with and refine conference talk ideas and then start working on a proposal for it. In preparation for the workshop I wrote a worksheet to help people come up with proposal ideas. This week I’ll write about the workshop and how you can run one as well.

This workshop is ideal for beginners to run. All of the hard work is in the preparation, so you can take all the time you need.


You don’t need any special knowledge about conferences to run this workshop. If you happen to have conference proposal experience, all the better! But remember that it’s optional, so go for it!

If possible, find someone to help you with the workshop. They should be someone who has a lot of experience reviewing conference proposals, ideally they were on a selection committee recently. If you are writing your proposals for a specific conference then reach out to the organisers and let them know you’re going to run this workshop. Ask them if they can recommend anyone form the selection committee last year. When I’ve done this the organisers have always had at least one person to reach out to about helping.

If you were able to find someone with reviewing experience then ask them to prepare a short (5-10 minute) talk for the workshop. Something like “Would you please give an overview of how the [Conference name here] process works, and how it's similar and different to other conferences?” For my workshop this person was sick and wasn’t able to make it. The workshop still went smoothly, but I wasn’t able to give the attendees more information about how the selection process works.

Pick a casual space with chairs that move easily. As you’ll see, most of this workshop is moving around and bouncing ideas off people. It’s important to pick a space that facilitates this. Something like a university lecture hall wouldn’t be a good pick. Instead, choose somewhere that feels relaxed and makes moving around easy. Desks are handy, otherwise remind people to bring a notebook to press on.

Having a projector is optional, but if there’s one handy I recommend it. I’ve included my presentation for you to use. There’s nothing particularly useful or mind blowing in it - mostly it’s full of timers to help people stay on track. It’s fine for you to keep track of the time on your laptop, but if you can have it up somewhere it makes it a bit easier on the participants to keep track of the time themselves.

Ask attendees to bring a filled out copy of the ideas worksheet. This worksheet is their ticket - no worksheet, no workshop. Most of the workshop is bouncing ideas around and it’s not fair to the other attendees if someone doesn’t bring anything to the table.

Print out copies of the resources, proposal worksheet, and accountability worksheet for everyone. It’s also a good idea to have some spare paper for people to write on.

The workshop (1.5 - 2 hours)

Ok, so you’ve got your space, someone with selection experience, and your attendees all have their worksheets filled out - the hard part is done! Seriously, the actual workshop isn’t very much work on your part.

Things can get loud during this workshop, so be sure you’ve got a whistle, bell, or something that can make a lot of noise. I used bongo drums - it was awesome!

The workshop is divided into two parts. The first part is on brainstorming and idea clarification. The second part is for coming up with a rough draft of the proposal. If you found them, your proposal selection expert goes in the middle.

Part 1 - speed dating (70 minutes)

For this section people will pair up and discus their ideas. It’s important that everyone keeps switching pairs. I like to get people to move around a bit and get their blood flowing, so don’t ask them to pair up with the person next to them, instead pick something random (“find someone with the same first letter of your first name”). It’s silly, which is perfect - it gets people laughing, running around, and, most importantly, makes the whole workshop less serious and stressful.

Each pairing should discuss the ideas and decide which are the best ones. They should suggest ideas that are similar, places that would be good to give the talk, audiences who would be particularly interested, etc.

If you have your proposal selection expert include them into this mix as well so they can be paired up with anyone.

Pair 1 (15 minutes)

The first time people pair up ask them to go through each of the questions on the worksheet one by one. So Person A talks about what ideas they came up with for question 1 then Person B goes through their answer, then they discuss. Ideally they should end up with around five ideas they want to keep pursing.

Pair 2 (12 minutes)

Discuss the previous ideas and choose four ideas to move forward with.

Pair 3 (9 minutes)

Discuss the previous ideas and choose three ideas to move forward with.

Pair 4 (6 minutes)

Discuss the previous ideas and choose two ideas to move forward with.

Pair 5 (3 minutes)

Discuss the previous ideas and choose one idea to move forward with.

Group 1 (10 minutes)

Ask people to get into small groups (4-6 people per group). Have them discuss their final ideas and give feedback.

Group 2 (15 minutes)

Ask people to get into large groups (about twenty people per group). Go around the room and say what each person's idea is. It’s amazing to hear what people have come up with!

Selection expert (5-15 minutes)

At this point ask your proposal selection helper to give their spiel. The move on to a (brief) time for questions, but don’t let it go on too long. Any questions like “what do you think of idea X” are banned - this is a time for big picture questions about the selection process and nothing else.

Part 2 - writing for the proposal (25 minutes)

Read the resources (5 minutes)

Ask everyone to read through the resources on writing proposals.

Fill out the proposal worksheet (5 minutes)

The proposal worksheet helps make an idea more concrete and focuses people’s thoughts on actually giving the talk.

Bullet point rough draft (10 minutes)

It’s time to come up with a rough draft! This can be as messy as they want. Bullet points are fine - just take some time to get something on the page.

Talk it through (3 minutes)

Ask people to pair up one more time. Have them talk through their proposal ideas and get some initial feedback.

Accountability (2 minutes)

In that same pair ask people to fill out the accountability worksheet. It’s very easy to come up with an idea and never submit it - this worksheet is to help people commit and follow through.


And that’s it! You’ve done a whole workshop to help people come up with ideas, refine those ideas, and get started on a rough draft of a proposal. Fantastic job :)


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