Hello everyone! How are you doing today?

Did you answer me? Did you look around awkwardly, unsure of whether to speak aloud? Did you roll your eyes at the computer because I even asked?

Any response or no response is fine because it’s challenging to take a verbal or visual moment, like a conversation, and try to convey it in print. Awkwardness may ensue. Yet that’s exactly what you have to do when you write a conference proposal for a workshop or a special event. You’re taking an occasion that is temporally and methodologically different from print and describing it in print. So, let’s get our terms clear, and then I’ll tell you what I recommend.  

Workshops are generally smaller subsets of a larger conference (anywhere from five to several hundred people) designed to enhance interaction and dialogue around a particular topic within the conference theme. Special events, for our purposes, are performances or exhibits of some kind: theatrical performances, musical performances, dance, photography exhibits, displays of artifacts, and so on. When you begin to propose one of these types of presentations, consider the key points that all good proposals share as well as what makes this type of proposal distinctly different. Craft both elements into your pitch.

►Do What All Proposals Do

Margaret Steffler has written a fantastic piece on writing a traditional conference proposal, and I agree with nearly every word of it. Read and believe!

For me, the essential elements of any proposal are these:

  • a catchy opener
  • your thesis, theme, or point of exploration
  • how it fits with the conference theme and the larger academic field
  • your original contribution to this school of thought
  • how you intend to prove, investigate, or explore all this

One or two lines for each element are usually sufficient. Just give the conference organizers enough to know that you won’t get on stage and start talking about your recent trip to zoo (unless you’re a zoologist) and to generate enthusiasm about your work.  

►Now, Explain What Only You Can Do
For workshops, performances, and exhibits, what makes your presentation unique isn’t only your ideas. It’s also your format (or genre or aesthetic) and your method for engaging the audience. Be sure to address these elements in your proposal. Now’s your chance to shine!

►For workshops: Since the typical point of a workshop is increased engagement and dialogue, how will you achieve that? Large group exercises? Small group exercises? Freewriting? Whatever you’re going to do to make the workshop participatory, make sure to describe that briefly in the proposal. And if you haven’t thought about that, think before you write.

That's a good practice in general.

►For exhibits, performances, and other special events: Consider what your presentation brings to the table formally and aesthetically that others can’t. Consider this both in general (what does your art form do that others don’t?) and specifically (what perspective do you, as an individual creator in this form, bring?). Remember that the conference organizers may represent different fields of study, so spell it out for them: what does your presentation bring that words alone cannot?

For example, photography may let us visualize in a shared communal space, outside our minds; let us see in colour that which is only black and white on the page; create relationships between objects and shapes that we did not previously see. Dance, theatre, and storytelling bring text into the physical and corporeal world, as well as introducing inflected sound. That’s all very different than words on a page … or even words read aloud from an essay. That uniqueness is your contribution, as much or more as the ideas you present.

So, whatever it is that you do, convey what makes it special: thematically, formatically, aesthetically. And yes, I just made up the word “formatically” because it fits a gap in that sentence semantically, syntactically, and phonetically that no other word could fill in quite the same way. Just as your presentation will for the conference. And it will!

Believe in what you do and then explain it as best you can. Because that’s what gets you in the door to the place where your work can speak for itself.

Submitted by Trinna S. Frever, Ph.D.
Next (March 15, 22): “Crafting a Biographical Statement,” by Laura Robinson

Banner image of PEI waves. Anne Victoria Photography, 2018