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Your Conference Session is an Intervention—Pitch it Like One by Joshua Joseph

Hi all, I’m Josh Joseph, Senior Officer in Planning and Evaluation at The Pew Charitable Trusts.  This blog is about applying what we do naturally as evaluators—examining how change happens—to help us write better conference session proposals and increase the chances they will be accepted.

After serving on several (non-AEA) conference committees in recent years, I learned some things about how session proposals are written and reviewed.  There were a few surprises, but first the good news.

In line with submission guidelines, most proposals identify a compelling problem they want to address and state what attendees can expect to take away from the session.  Many proposal writers also do a fine job describing their session content and how it will be organized.

But here’s where it gets dicey.

Few proposals actually connect the dots to explain how their content will lead to promised takeaways. Instead, they often imply something more like this: “I’ll share thoughtful info about the problem, participants will absorb the insights, and they’ll naturally integrate them into their work after the conference.”

If this sounds like a mini-intervention, it is.

But as a reviewer, I’d describe most of the proposals I’ve seen as “undertheorized” and some as pure “magical thinking.” After all, we can imagine lots of reasons why information delivered in a conference setting—no matter how thoughtfully—might not be fully understood or absorbed by an audience, let alone remembered or effectively applied afterwards. Yet, most submitters don’t address this at all.

I’m not blaming the victims here.  In fact, most conference guidelines don’t ask submitters to make these connections explicit.  But this can still have unfortunate consequences, making it harder for reviewers to compare and judge sessions on their objective merits.  Instead, other things may factor into their decisions including: knowledge of a submitter’s past presentations, stature in the field, work affiliations, and so on.  As a result, reviewers and conference organizers may feel that it’s riskier to green-light submissions from those who are newer to a field, aren’t yet as accomplished, or whose work is less well known.

A good way to avoid this possibility and also make your submissions stand out is to consider the following tips, even if the proposal guidelines don’t require them:

Hot Tip: Treat your session like an intervention and strengthen your proposal by making clearer connections between what you will do and what your audience will take away.

Hot Tip: Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Before submitting your proposal, ask yourself, “What might prevent folks from understanding my content or using it?” Flagging and addressing one or two key barriers in your session design is likely to impress reviewers and also increase the chances that your material will stick with your audience.

Rad Resource: For additional suggestions and tips on submitting conference proposals, check out this blog: From Submission to Applause: Conference Proposals that Get Accepted

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