Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Putting Your Proposal Pieces Together

Each year offers us new opportunities to submit proposals for storytelling, business and educational conferences. I have been fortunate to serve on numerous proposal review committees for a variety of organizations. Those experiences helped me appreciate the process, and also taught me about the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to writing a proposal.

Whenever I attend conferences I often hear, “I wonder why my proposal wasn’t accepted.” I don’t claim to be an expert, but I thought I would offer some insights based on my committee experience. Please consider the following suggestions, offered with a gentle hand, the next time you submit a proposal.

Ask Yourself

  • Is it well written? If a reviewer knows nothing about your work or the subject, would they understand your process?
  • Have you submitted the same proposal for many years without offering anything new?
  • If the conference has a theme does your proposal complement it?
  • Did you check your spelling and grammar?
  • Did you avoid profession specific terminology that might confuse a reviewer? Example: A non-storyteller might not understand the definition of OLIO.
  • If you presented at the same conference in the past, were you flexible to work with, both before and during the conference? 
  • Did you follow through? Examples:
  1. Sending your signed contract back on time.
  2. Registering for the conference on time.
  3. Did you respond to queries from the conference coordinator in a timely fashion? 
  4. If it was a requirement of your contract did you promote the conference, and your workshop? (Organizers do notice.)

Submission Guidelines

  1. Did you provide a workshop outline?
  2. Did you provide a timeline breakdown for your presentation? For example: % of lecture,
  3.  % for Q & A, % of participation. (Note: One and two are not the same.)
  4. Is your math correct for the above? Do your percentages equal 100%?
  5. Did you adhere to the word limit for your bio/outline/workshop description/resume?
  6. Did you offer complete references, including their contact information?
  7. Did you indicate where you have presented before if requested? Don’t state, "I have
  8.  presented at conferences around the country” and assume that is sufficient.
  9. Did you request equipment the organizers stated it could not provide?

  • Don't send a resume if it is not requested. Reviewers do not have the time to read more.
  • Don't add quotes from other workshop participants unless requested. Again, reviewers don't have the time to read more.
  • Don’t submit a four-hour proposal and state, “I can also do this as a 90-minute presentation if necessary.” Instead, send in a second, full proposal for the 90-minute time slot. Reviewers want to know what will be different in a shorter and/or longer time slot.
  • Don't ask for a deadline extension.  The conference organizers are usually on a very tight timetable and the deadline is there for a reason.
  • Don’t use a variety of ink colors, fonts, and font sizes on your proposal; it makes it difficult for the reviewers to read.
  • Don’t offer a link to your website in place of requested information; answer the questions.

Additional words of advice from two experienced conference coordinators:

  • Send your proposal in at least a week before the deadline when possible. Organizers dread receiving a flood of applications on the last day. (Shared by Karen Wollscheid)
  • Send your entire proposal attached to one email. Do not send each page separately. (Shared by Linda Gorham)

Before You Submit 
  • Review it again.
  • Make sure all of the questions are answered.
  • Check the spelling, word count, and grammar.
  • Ask someone who doesn't know your work to read over your proposal. A second set of eyes is always helpful to catch spelling errors and ambiguities. 
  • If you have time, let it sit for a day and then review it again before you hit the 'send' button.
Examples from Actual Proposals

  • ran out of room on the first page, which was handwritten. Instead of attaching a second page they wrote around the edge of the first page, in circular fashion, numerous times.
  • attached a letter indicating their displeasure at not being selected the previous year.
  • offered only names in the reference section stating, “You know how to reach them.”
  • stated “If you don’t like this proposal, I have others” and offered only the titles of the other workshops.
  • stated they deserved to be selected because “I am a long-standing member of the professional community.”
  • chastised the conference organizers, on their proposal form, for not offering expensive equipment they needed for their presentation.
  • submitted a poorly written, very incomplete proposal assuming their previous work and reputation would suffice. This was submitted after the deadline.

Your proposal tells reviewers a lot about you as a presenter, your professionalism, and the way your workshop might flow. If you are not paying attention to the proposal guidelines, deadlines, and other requirements, what else might fall by the wayside? Remember, there are always a number of reviewers on the committee, and they may have no knowledge of you or your work. Always assume you are making a first impression and make it a good one.

You may do everything right and still not be selected to present your work. Don’t take it personally. Some years your proposal may not be a good fit with the overall arc of the conference. Other times you may need to ask yourself, what can I do differently next year?


Remember, when you do receive that coveted acceptance letter your work has just begun. These articles will help you prepare and polish your presentation!

5 Surefire Ways To Ruin Your Presentation

18 Tips for Killer Presentations

Developing a Presentation: Design & Delivery

Presentation Tips: 20 Tips from 20 People

Top Tips for Effective Presentations

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Karen Chace 2016 © Updated 2023

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