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As you grow your LIS career, one of the most effective ways to build your professional reputation and visibility is to present at conferences.

You’ll have a chance to share your expertise with colleagues interesting in learning more about your topic, and create credibility for your professional knowledge.

If you’ve never gone through the proposal process, however, it can be a bit daunting at first. Rest assured, it’s actually a pretty simple process.

What Conference?
Your first decision is at which of the many LIS conferences you’d like to present. You might want to start with a smaller venue, such as a state or regional event, or just jump into the spotlight with a national conference.

For example, the annual American Library Association (ALA) summer conference is a huge gathering of all types of librarians – school, public, academic, special, and a range of other information professionals. Similarly, the range of topics covered is highly diverse. Smaller conferences focus more tightly on a specific type of library, for example, the biannual Public Library Association (PLA) or American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conferences.

Or you might want to target a conference focused on a specific aspect of information work, such as the Taxonomy Boot Camp or Code4Lib events.

If you’re not sure which conference might be right for your area and level of expertise, check out the offerings from the current or most recent conference programs (usually available online). This should give you a good sense of how your potential presentation might fit in, as well as an idea of the target audience’s assumed level of knowledge.

What Topic?
Your first consideration here is whether or not your target conference wants proposals to align with specified tracks or an overall event theme. If so, you’ll need to make sure that the topic you have in mind has a clear and easily described relationship to a particular track or the general event’s theme.

As you think about your topic, keep in mind that the purpose of most conference presentations is knowledge transfer: what information can you share that conference attendees can learn from? How is it important to their jobs? Will it expand their skills, increase their productivity, introduce them to an important new technology, document a best practice, provide new insights about a familiar tool, or provide some other compelling benefit?

What Format?
Every conference has a unique set of format options, but generally they fall into the categories of 45- or 90-minute individual or team presentations, panel discussions, interactive workshops, poster sessions (presenting research findings in an informal setting), and variations thereof.

You won’t know the specific options until you’ve read through the conference’s proposal submission requirements, but at this stage you’re just thinking about how your topic might be most effectively shared with your audience.

One “format” decision you can make at this point is whether you want to have a co-presenter(s). If so, assume (since it was your idea) that you’ll be the one to gather all of the relevant proposal requirements and complete the submission for the team.

As a preliminary step you’ll want to reach out to your potential co-presenters to confirm their interest, their financial ability and willingness to attend the conference, and their availability for the conference dates. (If you are approved to present, you’ll be given a presentation day and time rather than being able to choose when you speak.)

When Should You Submit Your Proposal?
Most conference organizers post a “call for proposals” on their website approximately nine to twelve months before the event. There will usually be an “open” and “close” date for proposal submissions, and you’ll be expected to submit your proposal within those dates via their online form. The process after that is generally a review of all submitted proposals by a program review or advisory committee (sometimes distributed among subject specialists depending on the topic).

An important thing to keep in mind is that some of the online submission forms are reasonable intuitive and easy to complete, whereas others will cause you serious brain damage and potentially take several evenings or your entire weekend to figure out and submit.

Because this is so inconsistent from conference to conference, it’s smart to give yourself at least three weeks before the deadline to submit your proposal. That way if for some reason the system just refuses to accept or save your submission, you can get on the phone for assistance from the event organizer. If you leave it until the last minute and then run into problems, it will probably be too late to make the deadline.

How Should You Submit Your Proposal?
Once the Call for Proposals opens up (in other words, you have hit the date when they’re willing to accept proposal submissions), go to the website and see if you can do a preliminary “walk-through” of the submission form so you’ll be able to round up all the information you need before starting the data entry process.

(Nothing is more frustrating than getting half-way through the submission form and then finding that in order to keep moving forward you need a piece of information that will take you a day or two to track down.)

If you can’t take a look at the entire submission form/process before entering your material, assume that you’ll most likely be asked to provide the following information by most conference organizers:

  • Proposal title and keywords
  • Abstract (assume 75-200 words)
  • Track (if applicable to the specific conference, to what thematic track does this presentation topic belong)
  • Format (e.g., presentation, interactive workshop, group discussion, etc.)
  • Learning objectives (assume you’ll need to list three: “After attending this session, participants will be able to…”)
  • Intended audience (to what level of expertise is your presentation targeted, for example, introductory, mid-level, or expert)
  • Additional objectives or information describing your proposal (this is usually no more than 250 words, and provides an opportunity to further “sell” the benefits of your presentation to participants
  • Distinguishing aspects (what will your presentation cover that’s different than what’s been done before)
  • Presenter bio (if you’re going to be submitting to a number of conferences, you’ll want to craft bios that fit 50- , 100- , and 250-word parameters since these are the standard “asks”)
  • Tech requirements (will you need anything beyond a screen and computer connection?)
  • Optional: level of interactivity and types of interaction planned

Not every submission form will ask for each one of these information elements, but assume they might, so have the material written in case needed. Also, if you’ll be presenting with others, their bios and contact information will usually be required as well.

Dealing with subgroup submissions.  Some of the larger LIS associations have their subgroups (divisions, special interest groups, councils, etc.) manage their own conference programs; so, for example, the Special Library Association (SLA)’s Leadership and Management Division would be responsible for lining up presenters on themes related to leadership and management.

In this case, the subgroup would identify topics that interested them and then reach out to potential presenters. The likelihood is that unless you’re very well-known for your expertise in an area, you wouldn’t be recruited to speak if you’re still early in your career. But if you were approached to speak, you’d probably still need to provide some sort of documentation that included most of the information noted above.

Make It as Easy as Possible
You want to make the process of submitting a proposal as easy as possible so you can concentrate you efforts on creating a dynamite presentation. Think templates and cut-and-paste.

Create a reusable template.  The easiest way to do this is to create a proposal template doc (for example, a two-column Word table) with the data elements (listed above) in one column, and then your content or “answers” in the other column.

This lets you work on word count if needed, check for typos and grammar, and create a draft that you can send to co-presenters for review and feedback if it’s a group project. Also, it provides you with an electronic record of exactly what you submitted, which you sometimes don’t have when you submit online.

Cut-and-paste.  When you’re happy with your proposal, do a cut-and-paste from the template into the appropriate boxes in the online submission form. (If it’s an option, print out a copy of the final submission for your records.)

Hit the submit button, and then in your calendar (or tracking log, if you’re submitting to several conferences), note what you submitted, to whom, when, and when the submission process closes. You can expect to receive an acceptance or rejection within several weeks of that date – some conference organizers stipulate a date by which you’ll hear from them.

Lastly, make sure you receive some sort of electronic confirmation that your submission has been accepted. If you don’t receive a confirmation, assume something has gone haywire and reach out to the conference organizer to check your submission’s status (another good reason to submit well in advance of the deadline).

Once you’ve done this a couple of times and you’ve identified the conferences in which you’d like to participate, you can then start thinking in advance of the presentations you’d like to propose and be gathering and adding ideas along the way. Also, knowing in advance what the likely submission open and close dates are for specific conferences means you won’t get blindsided by a last minute panic about not realizing something was due.

Ready to submit a conference presentation proposal? Great; we’re eager for you to share your expertise!